Motorcycle Adventures in Southwest Virginia


Sturgis, South Dakota, is what pops into most people’s minds when they think of motorcycle adventures. While this rip roaring party of a motorcycle rally is perhaps the most iconic, it hardly speaks for the lot of ‘em—there are a variety of places and ways to embark on a motorcycle adventure across our grand country.

If you’re on the hunt for a spot steeped in natural beauty with options from serene rides to blood-pumping dirt road adventures, look no further than Southwest Virginia. Housing key sections of the increasingly well-known Dragon Motorcycle Series and offering some of the most customizable motorcycle touring you can get, zooming through Southwest Virginia on two wheels is a trip to remember.

Two Slices of the Dragon Motorcycle Series

A taste of what you can see along the Back of the Dragon.
A taste of what you can see along the Back of the Dragon.

Virginia State Parks

Occupying central Southwest Virginia including Smyth, Tazewell, and Wythe counties is a twisty and turny motorcycle ride that’s unlike any other. The Back of the Dragon begins in Marion and terminates in Tazewell. This middle section is part of the larger Dragon Series that includes the Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina and Tennessee, the Head of the Dragon in West Virginia, and the Claw of the Dragon also in Virginia.

The Back of the Dragon is located smack in the middle of the five loops that compose the Claw of the Dragon which means an almost unthinkable amount of ride options couched in the secluded, tree-filled scenery of Southwest Virginia. Ranging from 62 to 224 miles in length, there’s plenty to explore, but the Back of the Dragon is particularly beautiful. The route meanders along a cliff through its entirety, offering stunning and far-reaching views of the land below between eyefuls of luscious trees dotting a barely trafficked road. For the best experience, tackle it at sunrise or sunset—the area really lights up and it feels almost other-worldly.

Once you tackle this part of the Dragon, it’s going to be almost impossible to stop you from wanting to see the rest. You’ve been warned.

Custom Tours for Any Traveler

GearHead will provide visitors guided motorcycle tours of the area.
    Renee Sklarew
GearHead will provide visitors guided motorcycle tours of the area.
Renee Sklarew

Whether it’s the Dragon that’s got you hooked or something else, GearHead Moto Tours in Pearisburg (which spun out of motorcycle repair shop of the same name) offers all-inclusive motorcycle tours to enthusiasts of all stripes. In talking to Terry Rafferty, the owner of the whole shebang, about his business, his passion for what he does is practically palpable. He explains that when it comes to the kinds of tours people can book, "Nothing is impossible. That’s kind of the motto here. I’m here for the people, to give them the best time possible and show them Giles county. There are so many beautiful areas."

Rafferty went on to explain that the team, which includes his other guide Derek Snider, is really energetic about what they do because it’s their passion. "I’m so fortunate to be able to do what I do every day," he adds.

When it comes to what he does, the sky's the limit. GearHead serves everyone from solo travelers to corporate staff members looking for a fun team building experience. While their tours work best in pods of four or so, soloists can take advantage of the events GearHead advertises on its Facebook page and snag a single spot. The best is that Rafferty totally gets solo travel, explaining that they’ll pair people in a party of one with others on a trip, but that you’ll still get your own room and bathroom accommodations to stay in. "None of that awkward dual occupancy stuff," he notes.

GearHead can outfit you with a motorcycle as well.
    Renee Sklarew
GearHead can outfit you with a motorcycle as well.
Renee Sklarew

GearHead tours can be hard to define because they’re so customizable. The company recently took a couple on a romantic retreat tour, putting them up in a nice cabin and bringing in chefs to cook for them. On the other end of the spectrum, another recent tour included camping and the GearHead team cooked for the guests. On other outings, Rafferty will take guests to sample local restaurants. "What we’re trying to do is give the flavor of the place to our customers," he says. “There’s everything from nice dining spots to mom and pop places. When people come here they’re trying to get away from having Starbucks every morning.”

The terrain you cover and how you cover it is just as much up to you as where you stay and what you eat. They’ve got dirt roads for riders looking for technical challenges, two-lane paved routes for those trying to relax a bit, and access to trails on private property to ensure that you have an experience unlike any other. The key to offering such a variety of adventures are the dual sport motorcycles they use—essentially street-legal dirt bikes that can traverse diverse terrain.

One of Rafferty’s favorite spots to take his guests is Butt Mountain Fire Tower Overlook where visitors can see three states at once. "It’s also where Dirty Dancing was filmed," Rafferty adds as an aside.

All you need to participate is a motorcycle endorsement on your license and proof of motorcycle insurance if you plan to drive. They provide you with everything else—all the riding and safety gear you could possibly need to have a great time in Southwest Virginia.

Written by Cinnamon Janzer for RootsRated in partnership with Southwest Virginia.

Featured image provided by Virginia State Parks

How to Beat the Crowds at America’s Most Visited National Park

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According to National Park Service stats, Great Smoky Mountains National Park hosted over 11 million visitors last year. But that doesn’t mean you should give up on that backcountry trek or fly fishing expedition and turn on Survivor reruns—we’ve got a few tips and tricks that experienced outdoor trekkers use to find solitude on the trail.

According to Appalachian Trail thru-hiker and Tennessee-based Rock/Creek Outfitters Founder Dawson Wheeler, visitors equate the Smokies almost exclusively with a couple of well-known landmarks. "When people think of the Smoky Mountains, they think of going to Gatlinburg and going to Cades Cove," says Wheeler. “Both spectacular, but that’s all people know of the park.”

NPS statistics back this up: last year, traffic counts at the Gatlinburg entrance to the park were anywhere from two to nine times higher than all other park entry points. Cades Cove Campground visitation exceeded stays at all other campgrounds combined. While there are ways to experience these tourism hot spots—and we’ll get to that later—over 500,000 acres of pristine park land and 850 miles of lesser-used trails await the savvy outdoor adventurer in the Smokies.

Take the Road Less Traveled

Get away from the main drags and you’ll have the Smokies all to yourself.


Literally. Though they may not top your Google search, the lesser-known sections of the park are often just as scenic and more pristine. The Greenbrier area, off Hwy 321 east of Gatlinburg, is a top destination for wildflower viewing in the spring. Visit year round for a 4-mile hike to the tallest waterfall in the park, Ramsey Cascades. You’ll gain 2,000 feet of elevation on the way, so pack in food to enjoy a picnic by the falls.

Continue west past Gatlinburg to another hidden gem on the northern side of the park. Hike the Tremont area’s lush, streamside trails to waterfalls, ridgeline vistas, and fly fishing that rivals anything else in the Smokies. Trek through history on the Middle Prong Trail, an 8-mile former railroad bed for the Little River Lumber Company. Catch a glimpse of reminders of industry and pioneer life that prospered when this area was known as Walker Valley.

The Great Smoky Mountains Institute offers educational hikes and workshops out of Tremont and the extensive trail network leads to Panther Creek and Elkmont, the Appalachian Trail, or back to the trailhead via numerous multi-day backpacking loops.

The Smokemont Loop in the southern part of the park is less-traveled than some of the other trails.


Make the Cosby or Big Creek Campgrounds your base camp for exploring the stunning views, misty creeks, and gushing waterfalls in the northeast corner of the park. Access the Appalachian Trail, day hike to some of the park’s highest peaks, and backpack epic loops along the AT to Mt. Cammerer, Cosby Knob, Mt. Guyot, and Mt. Sterling. Another alternative out of Cosby is the low elevation, non-technical Old Settlers Trail, one of the original footpaths through the region. The remains of homesteads, along with numerous creek crossings and biologically diverse habitat, make this quiet trail a stand out for valley treks. Spend a week hiking from Davenport Gap to Newfound Gap (crossing Mt. LeConte toward the finish) for solitude, bragging rights, and an unforgettable Smokies experience.

Enter the park through Cherokee to explore the trails out of Smokemont. This southern entry offers endless moderate hiking options, and is the best spot to learn about the region’s first inhabitants: the Cherokee Indians. Farther west, the Twentymile Ranger Station is your back door access to Gregory Bald, a high-altitude grassy meadow with 360-degree views over the often-congested Cades Cove area.

Right Place, Right Time

Seventy-two miles of the Appalachian Trail run through GSMNP.


According to Wheeler, peak congestion in the park is just like rush hour in any major city. "If you’re driving in Atlanta at 5 p.m. on a weekday afternoon, it’s crowded," he says. “You’ve got to be willing to go middle of the week, early morning, and you’ve got to be willing to stay in the park late.” To avoid congested roads and have the best chance to see wildlife, drive in at dawn and stay until dusk. In the summer, make sure to take in ridgeline vistas by noon before afternoon thunderstorms roll in. Time your visit around the peak months of mid-June through mid-August and October to spend your time on the trail, not in a traffic jam.

An overwhelming percentage of visitors are motor touring, so simply hiking a mile or two up most trails will put the crowds behind you. And it goes without saying: the worse the weather, the fewer the crowds. "Bad" weather is all in your perspective—rain, fog, ice, and snow can lend a magic to the Smokies. Precipitation casts a dewy, muffled quiet to valley trails, a frosty shimmer of ice to the mountainsides, and the bright warmth of sunshine to the peaks that rise above the cloud cover.

Back to Those Landmarks…

Cades Cove is beautiful and worth a visit if you have time.

Kevin Stewart Photography

Mt. LeConte, Clingmans Dome, and Cades Cove are crowded for a reason. It can be worth braving the crowds to witness their iconic beauty, even in peak season. Just go in prepared, armed with food and drink and an excess of patience. Be aware that the Cades Cove Loop Road is closed on Wednesday and Saturday mornings from May through September for biking, walking, and running. Book a campsite ahead to savor this time in the valley, because traffic stacks up for miles by the time the road reopens at 10 a.m.

The climb to hike-in only LeConte Lodge is strenuous, but the soft bed, warm cabins, and trail-savvy camaraderie is a bucket list experience. Booking a cabin through the lottery reservation system is challenging, but flexibility to jump on a cancellation on short notice usually gets you in. Hike lesser-used Rainbow Falls or Trillium Gap, or go ahead and take the spectacular—and therefore crowded—Alum Cave Trail to the lodge. You may be surprised how much you enjoy the company.

Written by RootsRated for BCBS of Tennessee.

Featured image provided by Kevin Stewart

A Look at Chattanooga’s Newest Hot Spots for Food and Drink

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Chattanooga has seen significant growth in the past decade. The Scenic City attracts a steady crowd of visitors and recent transplants, and with them come fresh new spots to grab food and drinks. Try a burger, local brew, or a cappuccino at one of Chattanooga’s newest establishments that have opened since the beginning of 2017.

Frothy Monkey

Oh, yeah. 📷: @westchesternewyork

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Frothy Monkey has become a cornerstone of Southside’s historic Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel. From breakfast to brunch, lunch, and dinner, Frothy Monkey can satisfy your culinary cravings every day of the week. The 4,500-square-foot, full-service restaurant has been carefully designed to accommodate any type of diner: at the bar, at a booth or table, or at a community table. Try the farm breakfast, an assortment of sandwiches from the Royale to the Crab Cake Sandwich, or stop by for dinner: tortellini, trout, or the quesadilla. Late-night food options are available from 9 p.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. Pair your food with coffeehouse standards or craft beer, wine, and cocktails. Frothy Monkey not only offers delicious cuisine in an impeccably designed environment, but it has also become a Southside staple within the first year of business. ## Moe’s Original Bar B Que

Wing-a-ding! Thursdays are 50-cent wing days at Moe's Original BBQ! 🍗

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Another recent establishment offers authentic southern cuisine just steps from the Tennessee Aquarium. Moe’s Original Bar B Que was the brainchild of three Alabama boys with a love of all things southern: BBQ, blues, college football, and whiskey. Moe’s pairs mouth-watering smoked barbecue with authentic southern-style side dishes and desserts from recipes passed down for generations. Choose irresistible options like the pulled pork sandwich meal, the smoked chicken platter, southern fried catfish, or smoked chicken wings.

Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint

Thanks for the recommendation @r_snagy 🔥🔥🔥#jackbrowns #jackonpiggyback

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If you need to wash down the barbecue with a beer, stop by Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint in the revitalized Tomorrow Building. Recently named the 11th best burger joint in America by Business Insider, Jack Brown’s pairs more than 100 craft beers from around the world with an award-winning selection of burgers. The Virginia-based restaurant chain specializes in burgers prepared with Wagyu beef and embraces creative variations of classic flavors. Try The Elvis, topped with peanut butter, mayo, Applewood smoked bacon, and cheese, or The Greg Brady, topped with house made mac n’ cheese and Martin’s barbecue potato chips. Sample the vast variety of burger and beer combinations any time you choose, as Jack Brown’s features a burger special every day of the week.

The Tap House

Located at the base of Lookout Mountain, The Tap House** **brought 30 new beer taps to the St. Elmo neighborhood when it opened its doors. Located just down the street from 1885 Grill, The Tap House features a rotating selection of local and international beers as well as light food options such as paninis, sandwiches, hummus, and meat and cheese plates. Meet up with friends and family and bring the kids. The Tap House has a selection of board games and offers trivia on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Bingo on Thursdays at 7 p.m.

Chatter Box Cafe

The Chatter Box Cafe is the fruit of Brandon Ellis’ labor. A transplant from Kentucky, Brandon created Chatter Box Cafe out of a passion for food and community. The menu is constantly evolving in order to always include fresh, in-season ingredients, but rest assured that Brandon’s meals always feature meats smoked for hours on his hardwood smoker. Come to Chatter Box to enjoy brisket, ribs, chicken wings, and more—all cooked tender and seasoned to perfection. The cafe is open on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the corner of 19th and Market Street. You can also find its pop-up food truck around town by following them on Facebook and Instagram. As the folks at Chatter Box Cafe say, you just need to "follow the smoke."


Follow your tastebuds on Chattanooga’s brand new TAPTOUR. As the name implies, this is a self-guided tour through Chattanooga’s craft beer culture. Navigate Chattanooga’s best breweries and beer drinking communities with the help of a little yellow book. This free Brew Guide is a place to record which establishments you’ve enjoyed and which are still on your list. Enjoy a local brew to receive a stamp at each participating location. Once you have 4 stamps, pick up a free pint glass at Imbibe. Collect 13 stamps and pick up a free growler and a discount on a local brewery fill. You can pick up a Brew Guide at any participating locations listed on the TAPTOUR website.

It is easy to see why Chattanooga continues to attract new residents and visitors. The variety of food and drink options evolves as the city grows. Step out next weekend and enjoy one of Chattanooga’s newest hot spots for food and drink. Whether you favor burgers, barbecue, or local craft beer, you’ll find plenty of options to satisfy your cravings.

Written by Alexandra Marie Pitzer for RootsRated Media in partnership with Chattanooga CVB.

Featured image provided by Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint

An Insider’s Guide to Olive Hill, KY: A Place for Music, Community, and the Great Outdoors

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Olive Hill, Kentucky calls itself "a nice place to call home," but music lovers and outdoor enthusiasts call it a nice place to visit. Because of its small-town Americana charm and proximity to some extraordinary trailways, Olive Hill was recognized as the fourth official "Kentucky Trail Town," a program by which Kentucky communities build identity upon hiking, water, or railway trails.

Olive Hill has all three.

Tygarts Creek flows through downtown, carving a natural gorge upriver and downriver from Olive Hill. Carter Caves State Resort Park, one of Kentucky’s oldest parks spanning 1,800 acres and with 30 miles of hiking trails, is just seven miles north of town. And in its infancy, Olive Hill was a bustling railroad town that was the largest producer of fire bricks in the world during a boom in the 40s and 50s.

Today, Olive Hill is claiming its identity and finding renewed pride as a destination for music, community fun, and outdoor adventures, with the historic Depot Trailhead in downtown Olive Hill standing as a welcoming link between the past and present. The town recently restored the 1885 Depot into the "Trailhead" facility which now regularly hosts community events, live music, market days, and other activities. The mostly paved 8.5-mile Green Trail connects the Depot Trailhead to Carter Cave State Park, or paddlers can float 12.5 miles from the Depot to Carter Caves State Resort Park on Tygarts Creek.

The nearby Olive Hill Center for Arts and Education, a former school building restored and now programmed by the Olive Hill Historical Society, houses musicals, dinner theaters, and meetings.

Music in the Air

carter caves, kentucky

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As the welcome signs will tell you on the way into town, Olive Hill is the birthplace of country music icon Tom T. Hall, and music seems to be in the air. Solo performances and old-fashioned bluegrass jam sessions are regular occurrences at the Depot Trailhead, whether planned or spontaneously arising at the community firepit.

Carter Caves State Park once hosted the International Strange Music Festival, who was an idea dreamed up by Park Naturalist John Tierney. The festival boasted music made by things that are not intended to be instruments, like jugs, toilet seats, an upside-down table, a calliope of car horns, etc. It wasn’t as popular as Tierney had hoped, but the musical tradition continues at the park with the Fraley Festival of Traditional Music. Started in the 70s and is still going strong the each year on the first weekend after Labor Day, the festival pays tribute to the musical heritage of Eastern Kentucky with banjos, fiddles, and dulcimers.

Carter Caves State Resort Park

As the name suggests, the caves are the biggest draw to Carter Caves State Resort Park. Some of the most impressive caves in the state are found here, and four are open to the public. There are several guided tours offered, ranging from kid-friendly to strenuous crawling through small cave passages.

In addition to the cave tours offered at the park, there are plenty of opportunities for exploring the outdoors. Go paddling on the beautiful 46-acre Smoky Valley Lake or climb the sandstone cliff line. Climbing and rappelling permits can be picked up at the front desk of the lodge.

There are also 26 miles of wooded nature trails winding around the caves, featuring several arches and rock houses, caves, bluffs, the view of Smoky Valley Lake, swinging bridges, and terrain similar to Red River Gorge or Big South Fork. In fact, Blue Ridge Magazine recently named Carter Caves Trail System among its "Best of" 2017.

The Carter Caves Cross Country Trail, known as 4Cs, is a 7.8-mile loop that partly overlaps into Tygart State Forest. 4Cs, combined with the small Raven Rock Side Trail, gives hikers a view of three sandstone arches and Smoky Valley Lake. Its length makes it a long day hike or an easy overnight hike if you stay overnight at the Johnson Homeplace Backcountry Campsite.

Caves aren’t the only attraction around here – the area also has several arches worth visiting. The Shangri La Arch is shaped like a long, natural funnel, and even though it’s only six feet tall and eight feet wide, it spans roughly 50 feet in length. There is another stone arch along the blue-blazed Raven Bridge Trail, which can be accessed from the 4Cs just across the Smoky Valley Lake Dam. Fern Bridge is the largest arch along the 4Cs, stretching nearly 150 feet and rising 84 feet tall. You’ll find it in between the entrance/exit of Raven Bridge loop and the 4Cs trailhead.

Carter Caves State Park also shares the 10-mile Kiser Hollow Multi-use Trail with Tygarts State Forest. The trail begins at the riding stables within Carter Caves Resort State Park.

Where to Eat

Olive Hill has several familiar chain restaurants like McDonald’s, Subway, and Dairy Queen. But if you want to eat local, stop in at Walker’s Family Restaurant. With options ranging from crispy chicken fingers to tasty burgers, it’s a great spot to get a good meal. They have other sandwiches and daily plate specials as well. If you’re in a hurry or want something to take back to your campsite, just order to go.

If you’ve worked up an appetite for barbecue from hiking or paddling all day, the 10-mile drive to Pure Pit Barbecue in neighboring Morehead is worth your trip. They’re known for pulled pork, smoked turkey, melt-in-your-mouth brisket, and ribs. Go ahead and order a side of "ugly cheesy taters" just for fun.

If you’re in the mood for pizza, Tyler’s Pizza is the spot for pizza, wings, salads, subs appetizers, and breadsticks as well as daily diner-style lunch specials. Top it off with a scoop of ice cream at Katie’s Corner inside Med-Save Carter Pharmacy.

Got a sweet tooth? Head to Sweet Sensations bakery for donuts, cakes, pies, and more.

For convenience sake, if you’re spending the day at Carter Caves Resort State Park, try Tierney’s Cavern Restaurant for American cuisine and buffet service. (Be sure to try the buffalo meatloaf and bison brisket!)

Olive Hill might be a small town, but it has a lot to offer. But don’t take our word for it – come see for yourself!

Written by Danny May for RootsRated in partnership with Kentucky Tourism.

Featured image provided by John S. Perkins