his is one of the few North Carolina state roads that still has an unpaved section. The highway runs roughly south to north from US-19/US-23 in Buncombe County up to the Tennessee state line where it meets with Tennesee Hwy 395. Most riders will not want to travel the entire route because of the unpaved section, about five miles, which can be treacherous for anything but a dual sport motorcycle. (Ed note: Watch the third video in the catalog - it shows the dirt portion)
The five miles immediately north of the unpaved North Fork Road is a North Carolina secret. It's essentially a five mile long hill climb up the side of the mountain. Going up or down, it's always fun. While not a very technical section, it is a place you can build skills with reasonable assurance that oncoming traffic won't be a problem if you misjudge and cross the centerline. (Practice! Practice! Practice!)
Flat Creek to Poplar (TN border)
Est 65 miles - 1.7 hours (click here for route map)
The first section begins at Flat Creek and is fairly straight by Blue Ridge standards. NC-197 begins to twist as it gains elevation toward Mount Mitchell, the highest spot of the United States east of the Mississippi River. At the west side of Mount Mitchell the highway turns to hard packed dirt and gravel and is known locally as North Fork Road. It is inadvisable not to ride North Fork Road alone. It is not heavily traveled, any fall and subsequent injury may go without notice for hours. Cell phone coverage isn't complete.
The first five paved miles beyond the North Fork Road section is all downhill and contains over 75 significant turns, including a long switchback section in which it is possible to look down the highway nearly a mile as it tracks back and forth across the hillside. This area is very lightly populated and the potential for really exploring the ability of the bike and rider is very high - BUT, please remember the aforementioned warning about falls going unnoticed. There is no cell phone signal in this area, be careful. North Carolina State Police patrol the area every day, on an irregular schedule.
From the little town of Pensacola, north through Burnsville, and up to Tennessee the road is a very pleasant mix of hills, sharp turns and a few wide sweepers. It's possible to really rip through the corners, but be aware that the area does sometimes have a number of trucks on the road. They not only slow riders down, they make WIDE turns that can block the roadway.
The intersection at Red Hill can be a little confusing. The natural inclination is to go straight ... but turn left to remain on NC-197. Fuel and food are available at both Red Hill and Burnsville. Pensacola and Murchison on the south end are little more than wide spots in the road. There is an elementary school in Pensacola, so it's advisable to be alert in that area. State Police and Sheriff patrols in the area are common - I have been stopped twice by the State Police for a license check just north of Pensacola and I get the impression they keep a good eye on the road.