by Trip Hilliard
Video of Deal's Gap/Natchez Trace Ride.

Over the years, it seemed that we had traveled on our motorcycles just about everywhere. Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico and Arkansas. Even in Texas, we felt we had ridden just about every road that the Texas Department of Transportation could lay down.

So, when I met with Dale McCorkle and Rodney Lee in August of 2005 over dinner, the question of where we were going this year for a Fall trip came up for discussion very quickly and Dale had the answer. All he said was five words..."318 curves in 11 miles". No man alive could smile as wide as I was smiling. So, the plan was put into motion and a trip was formed to ride Deal's Gap, or what many riders affectionately call, "The Dragon" and The Natchez Trace, all in an 8-day trip.

On October 7, 2005, four of us embarked on a trip that would not only stay locked in our memories forever, but would also boost our confidence in our abilities as motorcycle riders.

Let me introduce you to the participants of the Deal's Gap/Natchez Trace trip:

From Left to Right: Rodney Lee, Dale McCorkle, Gary Brooks and Robert Hilliard

Click here for a route listing in text form.
Click on map below for today's route.
Friday, October 7, 2005
I left the house at precisely 2:00pm. I was to meet Rodney, Dale and Gary on Highway 37 in Clarksville, Texas at 3:30pm. The three of them left the Dallas area around 1:00pm and it would take them about 2.5 hours to get to Clarksville. As planned, I arrived in Clarksville at 3:30pm and not 5 minutes after I arrived the Big D trio rode in.

After greeting and talking for about 20 minutes, we took off heading North up Highway 37 toward Idabel, Oklahoma. Tonight, our plans were to camp at Queen Wilhelmina near Mena, Arkansas, then head up Highway 23 (The Pig Trail) tomorrow. We arrived at Queen Wilhelmina at about 6:30pm after turning off Highway 259 and Highway 1, pitched camp and then enjoyed a nice dinner at the lodge. That night a cold front passed through that not only dropped temperatures, but caused the wind to blow at the top of Rich Mountain at a sustained 40 miles per hour all night long.

What is it they say? A night shivering in your sleeping bag is better than spending a day at work? OK, if you say so.

Click here for a route listing in text form.
Click on map below for today's route.
Saturday, October 8, 2005
The temperature when we awoke at 6:30am was a balmy 42 degrees. But, at least the skies were clear and the forecast for the day called for clear skies and 75 degrees...perfect riding weather! After breaking camp and packing our gear, we rode up to the lodge for breakfast. Let me take a moment to praise the food at Queen Wilhelmina Lodge. For the money, you can't get a better meal. The buffet is excellent and priced right. I've eaten at the lodge many times and have always enjoyed a good meal. If you haven't eaten there, make plans to do so. You won't regret it.

After stuffing down breakfast, we left Queen Wilhelmina around 9:30am headed for Mena, Arkansas for fuel. Once fueled, we left Mena headed for Highway 23 North to Eureka Springs. We've ridden Highway 23 many times and each time we ride it it's just as exciting as it was before. Highway 23, better known as the Pig Trail, has a long and rich history in the Arkansas area. Its winding road with challenging switchbacks has long been a favorite of motorcyclists. While riding Highway 23 we stopped at Turner's Bend which has always been a favorite stop for coffee, cold drink and candy bar. We arrived in Eureka Springs around 1:45pm where we ate lunch. Then we headed out Highway 62 heading East with plans to pass through Branson, Missouri.

Once through Branson, we took the back roads to Mark Twain National Forest located in South Central Missouri. After arriving at Mark Twain, we had plans to camp at a good place in the forest, but couldn't find anyplace to camp. Just by luck, we ran across a small lake near Highway 181 and Highway 76 called Noblett Lake that was perfect for camping. Nestled in a small valley within the hills of Mark Twain National Forest, Noblett Lake is a result of a creek that was dammed by the US Corps of Engineers back in the 1930's. It's a beautiful lake and if you like camping alone, this is the place for you. Except for the occasional local arriving to fish the lake or kayak the creek, hardly anyone comes to Noblett Lake. We pitched camp right at dark and even though the temperature dropped considerably after the sun went down, we enjoyed a pleasant night without the winds from the night before.

Click here for a route listing in text form.
Click on map below for today's route.
Sunday, October 9, 2005
When we woke up, the skies were cloudy and threatening rain. In fact, rain would threaten all day long. We all got up around 7:00am, packed our gear and left Noblett Lake searching for a place to eat breakfast. We arrived in West Plains, Missouri around 9:30am and ate at Shoney's. After eating and fueling, we embarked on our 300+ mile trip for the day that would take us through Missouri, into Kentucky and land us in Tennessee.

As we made our way across Missouri we found that the back roads that Dale picked for our journey were absolute primo roads for motorcycle riding. In fact, we noted several times how we needed to come back to Southern Missouri and spend more time riding the roads. Highway 160 from Alton to Doniphan was exceptionally good for riding. We were impressed and hope someday to make it back to ride more of what Missouri could offer.

One of the highlights of the trip was the ferry ride across the Mississippi River. We boarded the ferry at Dorena, Missouri which took us across to Hickman, Kentucky. Once in Kentucky, we stopped to take a few pictures then proceeded Southeast into Tennessee. Our stop for the night was to be in Dickson, Tennessee. We were planning to camp for the night, but we arrived in Dickson rather late and it was cold and rainy, so no one complained when the word "hotel" was mentioned. We checked in at the Motel 6 on I-40 and quickly found a place to eat dinner.

Click here for a route listing in text form.
Click on maps below for today's route.
Monday, October 10, 2005
The next morning brought cloudy skies, but no rain and that was fine with us. Our route today actually will take us straight into Deal's Gap. We left Dickson, Tennessee at about 7:45am heading Southeast. We swung around South of Nashville and headed for Highway 129 just South of Knoxville.

As the day wore on, the clouds burnt off to give way to clear blue skies. And the temperature rose to a nice 75 degrees. After traveling across Tennessee, we finally arrived at the mouth of "The Dragon" at about 3:30pm. Deal's Gap was very inviting. Before we even hit the stretch of 11 miles with 318 curves, we stopped to take a few ceremonial pictures at the top of a hill overlooking a dam and river. The countryside was beautiful. Trees were beginning to turn to their bright and robust Fall colors. And while we were stopped, several motorcycles raced by as if to taunt us into line like a small child waiting to ride a roller coaster.

After the picture taking, we took off into the belly of the beast. And a beast it is! Try your best to imagine riding for 11 miles through nothing but switchbacks and curves. Now I know why they call it the "Motorcycle Playground" of the United States. This road has everything. It's so popular with motorcyclists that photographers frequent the Dragon just to get shots of people and their riding styles, techniques and yes, even crashes. One such photography firm is located at They come to the Dragon, get shots of riders, then post them on the web for sale. It just so happens, the two days we were riding the Dragon, the photographers took the day off.

All four of us made it just fine through the Dragon on the first pass and when we got to the bottom of the mountain, Deal's Gap Motorcycle Resort appeared. That was to be our stay for the night. We checked in, checked out our room and looked around the resort. We mutually decided that we would continue our ride of The Dragon tomorrow morning. It was beginning to get dark, so two more passes were planned for the next day. Go to

Deal's Gap Motorcycle Resort is just that...a resort for motorcycles. Everything possible has been done to cater to the motorcycle rider. The rooms feature helmet hangers and are decorated in motorcycle racing fashion. Even wooden kick stand plates are provided out in the parking lot to keep your bike from sinking into the asphalt. Even though we arrived on a Monday to quite a few bikes, weekends are the busiest time at the resort. We were told by the locals that Deal's Gap is "wall-to-wall" bikes on weekends.

While Dale, Gary and Rodney kicked back in chairs in front of our room, I decided to walk around and take some pictures. Click on any of these pics for a larger view:


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Click on maps below for today's route.
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
Tuesday morning we were all up and raring to go at 6:30am. We decided to visit the Deal's Gap Grill for some eggs, pancakes and whatever else we felt like eating. We packed our gear, but left everything in the room. Checkout wasn't until 11:00am and we felt we could ride the Dragon two more times before checkout. Less weight on our bikes meant a better time slaying the Dragon.

We rode up the mountain and clocked in a time of about 22 minutes. Not bad, but we felt we could do better. We turned around and headed back into the fire. Rodney went first, followed closely by Dale. I rode in the third spot with Gary close behind. On the Dragon it's not wise to pass anyone and your focus has to stay on the road. Any distraction can spell disaster. Once you enter the Dragon, changing position is dangerous. We made it back to Deal's Gap in about 20 minutes...not a bad time for four guys from Texas. And we slayed the Dragon three times without mishap. Something that gave all of us more confidence as riders.

Once we loaded our gear, we took off to ride several other roads in the area that turned out to be jewels. Highway 28, 129 to Robbinsville and Highway 143 hold many surprises for a motorcycle rider. The scenery is breathtaking and the roads feature the best sweepers I've ever encountered. We stopped in Robbinsville, ate lunch then headed out to ride the Cherohala Skyway. The Skyway was completed in the fall of 1996 after being under construction for some thirty-four years. It is North Carolina's most expensive highway carrying a price tag of $100,000,000. It winds up and over 5,400 foot mountains for 15 miles in North Carolina and descends another 21 miles into the deeply forested back country of Tennessee. The road crosses through the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests thus the name "Chero...hala". While riding it, we stopped several times to take in the scenery. Feel free to click for a video I made while riding the Skyway.

Video riding the Cherohala Skyway, October 11, 2005.

After riding the skyway, we pointed our bikes in a Westward direction for a rendezvous with the Natchez Trace. Our plans were to travel to Chattanooga, Tennessee and camp that night. So, after traveling close to 150 miles, we stopped in Chattanooga and ate dinner, then traveled to the "Camp On The Lake" private camping area off I-24 for the night.

Click here for a route listing in text form.
Click on map below for today's route.
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Camping next to an Interstate Highway has its advantages and disadvantages. don't have to worry about an alarm clock. Disadvantage...sleep will be a distant dream. We were all up very early and packed up for the day's ride. We stopped to eat breakfast at a place called "The Bluehouse" located near Haletown, Tennessee. Eating at places like that make the whole trip worth while. You get to meet many of the locals that can provide you with all the road information you need. Some of the people you meet are priceless. Haletown is no exception.

Once on the road, we were destined to meet up with and ride the Natchez Trace. The Natchez Trace Parkway runs 444 miles from Natchez in southern Mississippi to a point just south of Nashville, Tennessee, cutting across a corner of Alabama. The parkway commemorates Native American paths that were later used by white settlers to extend their commerce and trade. It is a scenic road built and maintained by the National Park Service with 15 major interpretive locations, historic sites, camping and picnicking facilities. The parkway has two campgrounds in Mississippi and one in Tennessee. There are nature trails, portions of the original trace, scenic overlooks, historic monuments, bridges and visitor centers. The only visitor center is located in Tupelo at Parkway milepost 266. Several remote contact stations are located along the parkway.

As we rode the Trace from near Deerfield, Tennessee to Tupelo, Mississippi, we stopped at several locations to take in the historic value of the Trace. The following are pictures I took with their explanation boards:

We arrived in Tupelo, Mississippi about 6:00pm. We decided that since it was so late, we would stay in a hotel for the night. We checked in at the local Motel 6, then ate an excellent italian dinner at a place called Vanelli's. Our discussions around the dinner table always centered around the ride and how good it was. This night was no exception. After eating dinner, Rodney sniffed out a local ice cream shop for dessert. Rodney is good at that. He knows ice cream and can find it even in the most remote places. We finished dessert and retired for the night.

Click here for a route listing in text form.
Click on map below for today's route.
Thursday, October 13, 2005
Thursday morning presented cooler temperatures than previous mornings, but we weren't complaining. The sun was shining and rain was not expected for the rest of our trip. We got up, packed, ate breakfast and jumped back on the Natchez Trace to ride the last 250 miles. Our route today will take us down the last portion of the Trace into Natchez, Mississippi, the city early settlers used to load their goods onto boats on the Mississippi.

Video riding the Natchez Trace, October 13, 2005.

Riding the Trace is very relaxing. The speed limit is a strict 50mph, no tolerance. The road is policed by park rangers which we saw very often monitoring all traffic up and down the Trace. As you ride the Trace, you realize that something is missing.

There are no billboards on the side of the road, nor is there any litter. Just 444 miles of road, trees, grass, beauty and history. In a car, the Trace might be a little boring. But on a motorcycle, the Trace is heaven!

We rode the rest of the Trace and arrived in Natchez, Mississippi at about 5:30pm. We found a hotel for the night and ate dinner at a place called Fat Mama's Tamales. Over dinner we discussed the fact that the trip was coming to a close. It always comes to a close too quick. It seems we just started a day or two ago. Tomorrow morning will come too quickly.

Click here for a route listing in text form.
Click on map below for today's route.
Friday, October 14, 2005
We got up, packed up and left headed for home. We crossed the Mississippi river and stopped in Vadalia, Louisiana for breakfast. Then we headed to Texas by way of Alexandria and Shreveport, Louisiana.

The last day of any trip is bitter sweet. You're ready to see your family again and get back to life, but on the other hand you wish you could stay out on the road, living each day on your bike. We arrived in Shreveport in time to eat lunch. Then we headed West on Highway 80. I arrived at home around 3:30pm. Dale, Rodney and Gary had to travel on to Dallas, where they arrived around 5:30pm.

My thanks go to Dale McCorkle for planning this trip. Dale did an excellent job planning the route and places to camp. Rodney and Gary, you guys made the trip a pleasure to make. The weather was great, the scenery absolutely stunning and the ride totally delightful. We put over 2,700 miles on our bikes during this trip. We "slayed" the dragon, not once or twice, but THREE times. And we got to ride the Natchez Trace...a road that teaches humility. Just when we think we've ridden it all, plans are in the works to ride to Kanab, Utah next year and see the Grand Canyon... I hope this never ends!

Leftover Pictures:

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