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  • Sarah Merrell

Fall-ing In Love with The Dragon (A Guide to Fall Riding)

October is my favorite time of year to ride. Although we've had an unseasonably warm October at The Dragon and the surrounding Smoky Mountains, cooler weather is around the corner. Already, the mornings and evenings offer perfect riding weather. The weather isn't my favorite part of fall though--it's the colorful foliage. With the crisp weather comes beautiful colors of orange, yellow and red throughout the mountains. Although it's a spectacular time of year to ride, it does require some planning.

Peak Fall Foliage Timing

I've noticed that higher elevations, like the Cherohala Skyway, are already seeing some good color. It's the beginning of October, and The Dragon, Moonshiner and Foothills Parkway have a little color but are still mostly green. According to the Smoky Mountains tourism development authority, the colors at these lower elevations around The Dragon will peak in late October through mid-November. In previous years, I've found that to be pretty accurate. During that time frame, the trees on fire with color and it's so brilliant that it almost looks surreal.

Where to See It

Obviously The Dragon is my favorite road, and The Overlook and a couple pull-offs have nice views. The Cherohala Skyway provides beautiful, panoramic views at many of the overlooks. Be sure to stop by Bald River Falls for not just the foliage, but the huge, cascading waterfall. And of course my favorite stop along the Skyway--Indian Boundary. During the fall, the placid lake is surrounded by colorful mountains. Foothills Parkway is also a must-see. Now that the "missing link" has been completed, the new section of the Parkway offers truly stunning views that will take your breath away. This will be my first season riding the new section during the fall, so I'm looking forward to the colorful views. Highway 28 into Franklin and then on into Highlands is not only a super fun ride with the twisty curves, but you'll get to see numerous waterfalls including beautiful Bridal Veil Falls.

What To Wear

I'm an "all the gear all the time" girl, so you'll always find my in my leather suit, full face helmet, boots and gloves. However, during the latter part of October and November, it gets chilly on the bike. It's challenging because the mornings will be cold, but then the afternoons can warm up quite a bit. Dressing in layers is the way to go. I typically start out wearing a Merino wool base layer under my leather suit with a thinner base layer underneath it. That way, I can take off the warmer base layer and throw it in my tank bag. I also wear a neck gator to keep my neck warm, and sometimes that's enough by itself to stay warm. On the colder days, I also switch out my leather riding gloves for an insulated pair. For your feet, Merino wool ski socks work great. I highly recommend the Merino wool because it's thin and doesn't feel heavy, and it keeps you warm while also being breathable and it wicks sweat so you stay comfortable and dry. If it's particularly cold, I also wear a thin down vest under my leathers. Even though I prefer riding without it, I always bring a tank bag if I'm wearing layers so I have somewhere to put them if I get hot.

What To Beware Of

One challenge that riders need to keep in mind with fall riding--especially on the curvy mountain roads--is traction. Your tires are going to be cold starting out, and the road temperature will be cold. There are also going to be fallen leaves and twigs. In the mornings, sometimes the fallen leaves will be wet, making them an even bigger slide hazard. At Yamaha Champions Riding School, they taught us to think about the road, track, weather or bike conditions before a ride. Think about what variables are in play that can impact traction and then have a plan for how you'll handle it. If you start out too throttle happy, you'll risk a cold tire crash. It's helpful, especially on The Dragon, to start out at an easy pace and do a sighting lap. Figure out where there may be leaves on the road and get your tires warmed up.

Finally, keep in mind that during the fall, especially on colder days, there tends to be less traffic. But because of this, drivers and riders get complacent. They haven’t seen another vehicle in a while so they start to get too close to the double yellow or stop paying attention. I’ve had some close calls with people crossing the double yellow into my lane and they’re surprised to see another vehicle. So even though there’s less traffic, it doesn’t necessarily make it less dangerous. So stay focused and look ahead in case someone gets too close to your lane.

In closing, fall really is an amazing time to ride and you won’t be disappointed. I have one last point of advice though—if you want to cruise around and take your time enjoying the scenery, use the 100+ paved pull offs to let faster traffic go by. They’ll appreciate it and you can take all the time you need to enjoy the stunning foliage. It’s a win-win!

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