From the oceanside community of Fort Fisher, North Carolina to the southern tip of Lake Michigan at Michigan City, Indiana, US-421 is 941 miles. The route can be pretty unimaginative at either end, but for a couple of hundred miles in the middle it's a twisty roller coaster that offers every rider a lot of fun.
Fort Fisher, NC to Trade, TN
Est 315 miles - 5.0 hours (see map)
A History of Wars and Battle
For history buffs there are a few must stop locations in the first 100 miles of this leg. Of course, you spent some time at Fort Fisher before leaving, right? LOT'S of Civil War history is to be found there, and the State Park should get at least an hour or two of your attention before departing the area.
Just a bit north is Moore's Creek National Battlefield Park, where our Colonial ancestors outfoxed British regulars during the American Revolution, and two of the last gasps of the Confederate Army were given at Averasboro Battleground and Bentoville Battleground in the Dunn area. Each location has a visitor center at which you may take a break, have a picnic, and spend some time in museum areas before walking the historic battlefields.
The annual "Hollerin Contest" at Spivey's Corner has moved to a new date, it's now in September and for such a small town it gathers a big crowd. But, I guess when you have the loudest throats and voices in the nation calling out you should expect a big crowd. The rest of the year the corner is just that, a small town populated by a few friendly people.
Sanford offers a large selection of fuel and food options. There is a small park and rail depot downtown where you may take a break and enjoy the atmosphere of a fair sized town. Beware of the local police, they seem eager to make new friends from out of town.
Pop culture geeks seeking something unique to discuss should visit the grave of "Aunt Bee" in Siler City. Actress Frances Bavier is buried at Oakwood Cemetery. She portrayed Andy Taylor's spinster aunt for eight seasons and before that was in film and on Broadway. During WW II she spent a lot of time on tour with the USO and for that alone she deserves to be remembered and have a flower or two left at her grave.
Greensboro & Winston-Salem to Tennessee Border
There isn't any good way around the mess that shows on the map as I-85 and I-40. The possibility of encountering heavy traffic from Greensboro through Winston-Salem is very high. Much of this 26 mile stretch is three and four lanes wide in each direction. Travel speeds on the two outer lanes are usually 10 - 15 MPH over the posted limit, while the ramp side lanes are 5 or 10 under. It's a dangerous mix and accidents are frequent. The best advice is to stay in the outermost lane, next to the median (concrete wall), and stay aware of everything.
Once US-421 breaks away from the co-location with I-40 and I-85 it remains busy, but the pace is much less frantic. At the west side of the metro area, beyond Lewisville, the rural nature becomes immediately evident. Although the roadway continues as four lane divided highway, the roadside actually becomes scenic. Once you have crossed the Yadkin River there really isn't anything you could call a metropolitan area until you reach Bristol, Tennessee.
US-601, US-21, and I-77 all cross the route in this area, but they really don't contribute much to the traffic count. Expect to cruise along at the posted speeds of 65 MPH, or a little above.
If you want a couple of alternate routes toward East Tennessee and southwest Virgina, consider both NC-18 and NC-16. Each are in great condition, offer good travel speeds, and are just fun roads to ride.
If you want to sneak down to US-64 on a really twisty back road that few know about, take Brushy Mountain Road southbound from Wilkesboro toward Hiddenite. It's a perfect example of the old "Moonshine" roads that guys like Junior Johnson used to escape Revenue Agents in the 40's, 50's, and even into the 60's. The road is paved, but that's all - no centerline, not much of anything but you and the Revenuers chasing your imagination around the curves and over the hills.
Limited access ceases at Wilkesboro, just beyond a really nice rest area (clean, clean, CLEAN!) and the route continues to Boone as a four lane road with that special mountain flavor, climbing the Eastern Continental Divide near the Blue Ridge Parkway. Elevations here run to about 4,000 feet and some of the curves will surprise you. If you've not ridden much in the mountains the best advice is to slow down a bit and just enjoy the scenery.
Boone is a growing college town with many opportunities for food, lodging, and restful diversions. Consider visiting some of the nightspots if you overnight here - they offer some pretty good entertainment not normally found in these mountain villages.
Beyond Boone the route changes to a typical two lane mountain road as it works through heavy forest rife with small creeks, rivers, and hollows. Traffic is rarely heavy, but if you get caught behind a log truck you might be following it for several miles before an opportunity to pass comes to you.
Crossing the border into Tennessee near Zionville is a non-event. A small sign welcomes the traveler, but that's it; no welcome station, no brass bands, not even a roadside tourist trap. When the Interstate systems bypassed this area it left something akin to a virgin roadway, unmolested by the normal hoopla. Enjoy the quiet and the spectacular scenery all around you!
Trade is just a bit north. Ask the locals about the capture of Tom Dula and his unfortunate demise. "Poor boy was bound to die" because he wouldn't rat out one of his married girlfriends for being jealous and a might eager to use a rock to bash in the head of her rival. Make the connection between Trade, Grayson, Dula and the love triangle, and a white oak tree and you'll be humming Kingston Trio songs for the next several miles. The tree never existed, that was a poetic fabrication. He was ceremoniously pushed from the back of a wagon and swung from a tall post near the railroad depot in Statesville, May 1, 1868.
Trade, TN to Bristol, VA
Est 44 miles - 1.0 hours (see map)
When the route begins to drop down and opens from a two lane to four lanes and then four with a turning lane, you have reached Mountain City. Be careful! The surface of the roadway here always seems to have divots in the pavement, especially around manhole covers which always seem to have exposed metal edges - they can wreck a front wheel rim in an instant and leave you as a bloody lump on the road.
Plan to refuel and eat here, you really won't have another good opportunity until you reach Bristol. There are several fast food shops and gas stations with convenience stores that are not outrageously priced. Really, consider taking a good rest here before you press on through the next section of US-421 - you are going to need every bit of concentration possible in the next 30 miles!
Just beyond Mountain City the route seems to devolve to the nature of an old county road as it moves out of town, past small farms, collections of mobile homes, and groups of houses. The forest is far back from the roadway and it's easy to see hilltops in the distance. Then the road makes a short climbing turn to the right ... and without much fanfare you are on 'The Snake', a 30 mile long asphalt path that crosses two treacherous mountain ridges, with a two mile long valley between them.
If you are an experienced mountain rider you will grab the tank with your knees, put the balls of your feet firmly on the pegs and prepare to slide you but left and right as you happily grin your way through hairpin turns and switchbacks. YEEHAA!!! THIS IS FUN!!!! BUT, if you are a flatlander just touring from one part of the country to another - well, be patient, be careful, and be aware that you are on a very tricky road.
You will be sharing the road with motor homes and RV's of all types, semi-trailers, bicycles, tourists incapable of driving their cages at speeds over 15 MPH, and experienced motorcycle riders that want to test themselves by riding each turn as if it was their last. Each one represents a level of risk that you must constantly assess to ensure that YOU don't become part of their problem.
Look closely at this photo of a rider making one of the curves on The Snake. Notice two things: the bicycle rider and that the left peg of the motorcycle is well over the centerline. BOTH can get you killed!
The bicycle riders, especially those going downhill, are riding their own ride - and they may not even be aware the you are splitting their lane. EXPECT them to move anywhere within the lane. They are just as eager to avoid gravel and potholes, and to find the best line through the turn as your are. Forget that and you are going to run over a bicycle for sure.
Avoid any real estate within a foot or two of the centerline. If you are prone to going wide in a curve then this bit of advice should scare you; always suspect that cars, trucks, RV's and other motorcycle riders coming toward you are not as good in the mountains as you are. Keep that in mind and you might avoid a painful lesson.
This is a mountain pass. Weather can change quickly, gravel washouts can flow dangerously across any curve, there are no guardrails to catch you as you fall off the edge of the road. Potential fog, and even snow, are hazards to be aware of before starting through this area. I came through this pass at night during an autumn snow storm and halfway through wished that I had been smart enough to go the long way around. The pucker factor here can be invigorating.
The Snake uncoils as quickly as it starts, but gives a few miles of cool down before a long four lane vista greets you and drops down toward Bristol. There are two or three busy convenience stores on the outskirts and it's a good idea to use them if you are looking for fuel. The locations in town are often difficult to get in and out of due to traffic. Bristol Motor Speedway is a left turn off US-421 just past these stores.
Bristol is a unique place, the state line runs down the center of the main drag and it's a hoot to ride along and see how the merchants tout that fact and try to lure you into their shops.
Bristol, TN to Harlan, KY
Est 85 miles - 2.0 hours (see map)
For much of the next leg the route co-locates with US-58, one of the best US routes in Virginia, at least the two lane section. And the first 26 miles to Weber City is two lane, a foothills run with lots of wide sweepers and long vistas over pasture lands and meadows full of flowers and little creeks wandering through the hills. It puts you in a great mood to either stop for ice cream and pie in Weber City or to press on to Pennington Gap and into Kentucky.
All but five miles of the next segment into Pennington Gap is four lane and it's usually busy with truck traffic. The good news is that it's really pretty and the road is in great condition. Riders can clip along at a good rate and still enjoy the trip. Remember, this is Virginia - where radar detectors are illegal and the performance awards are very expensive.
At the Kentucky state line the roadway turns back to two lane and the next 18 miles are an awakening to switchback turns, very steep grades, and lots of people that are not familiar with modulating headlights! I run this section often and am always amazed at how quickly folks will dive for a turn out as soon as I come up behind them. Yes, I feel guilty that they might assume I'm an emergency vehicle and they are graciously giving up the roadway so I may swoop past them in a flash of high viz helmet, big grin, and camping gear strapped to the back end of my Honda. But the ability to continue a thrilling set of lines into the next switchbacks assuages my guilt and I can bear the burden.
Don't go looking for side road diversions along here. They may exist, but it's difficult to know that a road might end up in a creek bed or in a patch of sand that won't allow an easy u-turn to solid ground. Add to that the real possibility of encountering some merchants of illegal spirits or agricultural produce and it becomes much easier just to stay on the highway.
Harlan, KY to Madison, IN
Est 245 miles - 4.5 hours (see map)
The next 30 miles north of Harlan is yet another run of curves, hills, and occasional broad vistas. You are in the middle of the Daniel Boone National Forest and the isn't much to take your attention from the highway and the forest is close to the road and dense. A couple of the videos in the catalog (KY section) show it much better than I can write.
Depending upon your available time, you have two options for reaching Manchester from Hyden; continue on US-421 or take a short four mile run on KY-118 to the Hal Rogers Parkway. The parkway is a four lane divided, but isn't heavily traveled and is really a good option for riders than need to make up a little time. At the Manchester exit there are plenty of options for food, fuel and lodging as you make your way back onto US-421 northbound.
The two lane path continues through McKee into Bighill where the nature of the route turns to a more locally oriented, industrial access, route all the way into Richmond. US-25 Co-locates through this area and traffic can get heavy. If you want to avoid some of the confusion just jump onto I-75 and then I-64 through the Lexington mess, going back to US-421 at either Exit 65 or Exit 58. From that point at Frankfort you are only about 60 miles to the Indiana border. This is the last hurrah for anything resembling a twisty road - enjoy it...
Madison, IN to Michigan City, IN
Est 245 miles - 4.5 hours (see map)