Smokey Mountains, Tennessee (and the Carolinas)
Sitting up in the Smokey Mountains, looking out at a blanket of trees covering every mountain top, the air is as clean as it gets, it’s easy to see why this is America’s most visited national park.
Having driven these roads in a range of cars from Chevy Camaros to a 4.6 litre V8 Ford Explorer, even riding them on Harleys, the returning thought has always been how much better it would be in my own car. I’ve owned a few different Porsches during the time we’ve been coming to these hills – any of them would be perfect. The 993 just happened to be the one when it finally happened.
For a whole week, this was our home-from-home. Somewhere we know well, where family live, where we blur the line between visitors and locals. It felt good to be here after what was, at times, a gruelling schedule driving across 20 States. We no longer had to check in and out of hotels or feel the need to push ourselves to go out and see things when our bodies just wanted to rest in the sunshine.
So, with no itinerary, we took this very last part of our adventure as we pleased, criss-crossing the state lines between Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia as, and when, we wanted. And if all we wanted on any given day was to sit out on the deck watching the humming birds and deer while drinking coffee, craft beer and eating food off the grill, we did exactly that.
With so much time, and so many previous trips here it would be all too easy to turn this part of the blog into a guide on East Tennessee, or even the fun little city of Knoxville just half-an-hour along the road. Given it was always intended as driving blog covering an 8,000-mile American road trip, and there have already been posts where there has been little driving to report, the last one will be about driving.
America’s greatest roads
Maybe they are, maybe they’re not? How would I know, this country is beyond big and I’ve only seen a fraction of it. I suspect most of the mountain or canyon regions could rightfully claim the title. For me it has been the roads of the Smokey Mountains. The air-con was still struggling with the US heatwave but it was bearable to leave it off at times, especially at higher altitudes – it could be this added to the appeal. As does the lack of itinerary and the pressure that can create. Find decent stretch of tarmac here and you can go back to drive it over and over, the only constraint being home in time for dinner.
Driving in the Smokeys fits into two categories; take it slow scenic, and sweaty palms scenic. Looking at a map gives endless combinations – if I were to list all of them, this blog post would not be published for another few months so I have cherry picked some favourites.
Take it slow scenic example:
Cades Cove Loop Road
There is zero chance of pushing a car hard through here. It is a one-way loop road with wildlife everywhere, which along with the scenery is why it is worth driving. Look closely and you will see black bears. It takes a couple of hours to complete, double that if it is busy and bears are spotted as these cuddly looking but deadly creatures bring the narrow road to a standstill. You’ll need to look closely at the photograph to spot them as we were using a fixed 28mm F1.7 Summilux lens. Great for landscapes, but with no zoom we were at a disadvantage capturing momma bear and her cubs eating berries in the bushes.
The drive to and from Cades Cove is excellent, but it is not a quiet drive as many visitors come this way. It doesn’t detract from the enjoyment, especially with the windows down and roof open. Bringing the 993 has made every trip interesting, there’s no way we’d have had so much pleasure from a rental. This old school Porsche has turned every bit of this road trip adventure into something special.
Sweaty palms scenic example:
The Devil’s Triangle (US 116, 62 and 330)
In the opposite direction to the Smokeys is a 44-mile drive known locally as the Devil’s Triangle. Deep in the woods, this is where the US Government’s Oak Ridge Laboratory is located, previously the Secret City during World War II where the atomic bomb with Japan’s name on it was built. Hardly anyone working in the City at the time knew what was being produced. Everyone was aware it was top secret, and everyone knew not to talk. You can still find pieces of the past like old railway bridges straight out of a Walking Dead film set.
The US 116 road is the stand out part of the Triangle. Nearby the now closed Brushy Mountain Penitentiary is a section of note, probably around five miles of turns and switchbacks, followed by 10 miles that are more sedate before it goes bonkers again. The Tail of the Dragon will always take the danger headlines but this one part of the US 116 commands full concentration. A bandit landscape, the camber falls heavily in places, steep drop offs with and without guard rails, one bend in-particular has a concrete wall painted like something on a Tour de France stage. If you were to make a mistake along the Petros Road and River Highway making up much of the US 116 you’d be lucky to pay the price against a barrier because a tree or decent off a rocky hillside are the other options. It is not uncommon to see a clipping point on the tarmac drop immediately into the abyss – one wheel six inches out of place could be disaster.
It was free of traffic when we visited, at no point did any other car slow our path. The Devil’s Triangle is just the sort of place fast car drivers dream of having a few minutes from home.
Too many roads, so little time
Linking combinations of these roads together with the Tail of the Dragon as a centrepiece took up a couple of separate days, each one between five and seven hours of driving.
The Tail of the Dragon (US 129)
The most famous road in the Smokeys. 11 miles and 318 turns. It attracts both tourists, and car and bike enthusiasts and has a reputation for biting – over 30 road users have been killed on this road in the last 10 years. You take its reputation very seriously.
Newfound Gap (US 441)
31 miles hugging the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. The overlooks halt progress as it’s impossible not to stop and look around. The road to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Tennessee, is reached via the 441. There is an overpass/underpass that resembles something like a Scalextric track where it creates a 360º turn over and then under the same bridge
Cherohala Skyway (US 165) and Foothills Parkway (US 321)
43 miles of fast road from the Telico Plains in Tennessee to Robinsville, North Carolina. I was amazed when looking up this road to discover planning began for it in 1958 yet it wasn’t completed until late 1996 at a cost of a billion dollars. Worth mentioning the Foothills Parkway (US 321) which remains unfinished as they offer a similar driving experience
Porsche 993 Tail of the Dragon day one
The first run was on a Friday and I was surprised how popular the road is. It’s a mecca for Harley riders, a good sight to see but slow on challenging roads. One nice thing I noticed is everyone seemed to have respect for one another and many of these steel horse icons kindly moved out of the way of the funny little car with the steering wheel on the wrong side. At odds with their bad ass uniform they are a friendly bunch – just like regular Tennesseans. The experience is the closest I have come to a Formula 1 qualifying session, slowing down and pulling over waiting for a clear run.
Away from the Dragon itself traffic is not an issue. A chance meeting with three guys from Canada who’d driven a long way to sample these roads led to some group hooning. My co-driver opted out of today, the vacated space quickly filled with her dad. The 993 was at the front of the pack with a fancy looking 5.0 V8 Mustang GT closely following us, the question being regularly asked from the passenger seat was: “Is he still behind us?” Those Mustangs have more than 400bhp and over 500 lbs of torque, far more powerful than a 3.8 993, but no doubt the size of the 993 and its traction pulling out of corners levels any advantage. The great thing about roads like this is they make you feel you are going faster than you really are, the joy coming from threading together a series of turns, picking the correct position, braking in the right place, looking through the turn and getting ready to accelerate out again. A milk float would be fun (just not as much fun).
Porsche 993 Tail of the Dragon day two
A Sunday was maybe not the ideal day for getting a clear run at the Dragon. Weekends are the busy time with everyone from the North Carolina Chapter of the Hell’s Angels to picnicking families in SUVs passing through the area. But with a trailer due to pick up the 993 and deliver it to the Port of Charleston 48 hours later it was now or never.
I knew what I wanted from the day and was familiar with the area by now. I took a map with me to Honeybee, a coffee shop based inside an old garage, and set about building a route over a couple of first class cortados. 200-ish miles starting with the Foothills Parkway and the Fighting Gap Creek Road, Newfound Gap, down to Cherokee and onto the Tail of the Dragon.
It was a solo mission, and everything surplus to requirements was left behind (not Renée, she just wanted to go shopping with her mom). Given it was the weekend, some of the route was bound to have traffic but others bits were clear enough to enjoy to the full. To be fair even the busy areas were entertaining, stopping off at old Americana buildings or slowing down to avoid elks in the road (a first for me). As I got closer to the Dragon I was hopeful my caffeinated plan would fall into place.
Tennessee is Bible country where family values are alive and well. My idea was to hit the US 129 at around 5:30pm suspecting everyone would be home by then enjoying dinner. It was a good call.
All the photographers that sit on the vantage points had gone, just the hardcore and singletons remained. The Harleys had disappeared leaving some very fast sports bikes and a handful of well driven sports cars. There were very few people out. Perfect.
During my ownership of this Porsche 993S I’ve rebuilt its engine to 3.8 litres with hotter cams, had the entire suspension refreshed and modified the gear change. Putting aside the air-con issues experienced on this trip it’s beyond a well sorted car. Covering 8,000 miles in it since arriving in the United States less than two months ago it now fits like a glove.
It wears a few battle scars from its time on US soil; a thumbnail sized stone chip after chasing two Porsches through the Palomar Mountains, a scratch on the rear wheel arch from where I’ve no idea, a drooping side sill cover that was accidentally damaged while trying to fix the air-con, the remains of many insects, and all the dirt and brake dust since it was last washed in California. It also has a sticker collection on the rear quarter window documenting many of the great places it’s taken us to. All but two of them are from America, the exceptions being the North Coast 500, Scotland and the JamJar café in Newquay – although you do need to look hard to see them as they are half covered.
318 turns both up and down hill, aggressive cambers, side of a cliff drops, trees everywhere, the Dragon was an ideal match for my old 911. People are often weary of Porsche 911s because the engine and weight is at the rear, the fear being they will become a pendulum and spit you off the road into a ditch, or coffin. It is simply not true. Those that spout this nonsense really have no idea, or have driven one like a front wheel drive hatchback. Once you understand weight transfer and adjust to take advantage of it, you begin to understand why the 911 has remained one of the most accomplished and engaging sports cars since the 1960s to present day.
911s understeer as they are light at the front, and they have phenomenal grip at the rear thanks to the weight sitting over big rear tyres. Trail braking plays to the 911s advantage. CAT Driver Training based at Millbrook Proving Ground teaches an adaption of this specifically for 911 owners, braking late into corners and getting fast onto the power once the anchor pedal is lifted. Putting together a series of turns, sometimes going back to do it again, this technique was a joy to execute on my lonesome early Sunday evening drive across America’s most challenging of roads. The Porsche 993 has no traction control or stability management electronics, it all comes down to the driver to plan-ahead, make the right decisions and take the rewards from getting it right (or close to right).
Windows down, the noise of the air-cooled engine was as intoxicating as it was when I first drove it in Ireland back in 2016. The soundtrack to this road was a mildly angry flat 6 with an exhaust that pops and bangs a lot. You could hear the tyres finding the limits of grip at times. Piloting through here is without question one of the best drives I’ve had in any car anywhere. A high point to the trip and a worthy end to a great adventure.
And just like that it was over
The car made one more trip the next day into Downtown Knoxville and by the afternoon was on a trailer being delivered to Charleston where it would be loaded into a container and shipped back to the UK. I was doing my best not to shed tears watching it drive off without us.
Our first stop from the airport when we arrived was Mas Tacos Por Favor in Nashville, and it was our last stop as we left. We ended just as we’d begun, eating a cheap meal with the cool kids in Music City.
Thank you Tennessee, and thank you America. There really isn’t a superlative big enough to describe how good it’s been.
Snow Goose Cone, we’re coming for you.