GET YOUR KICKS…..

…but forget Route 66. America has plenty of more rewarding driving roads to offer. Jonathan Crouch visits Georgia to try a few of them.

I’d never thought of America as a place with serious roads for serious drivers. The US, in my mind, has always been a land of highways, unchallenging asphalt and a State Trooper around every corner. Turns out I was wrong.

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I wasn’t convinced I would be when I set out for Atlanta, Georgia, the starting point for a journey planned to showcase some of America’s greatest driving routes. Many of these, I was told, could be found snaking around the Smokey Mountains, a couple of hours drive outside the State capital. Before leaving the city though, I had an important first stop to make at the region’s motorsport mecca, the Atlanta Speedway. Built in 1960, this banked oval is revered amongst American enthusiasts who flock to it every year in their hundreds of thousands for a famous NASCAR race weekend.

The main track is a 1.54 mile quad-oval banked to a steep 24-degrees and the current NASCAR lap record around it is just a shade under 200mph. On most Friday nights from May through until August, the Speedway opens up to more ordinary folk with its popular ‘Friday Night Drag’ event. For just $20, you can join the locals in a track cruise, then enjoy a subsequent evening of drag racing. Go to www.atlantamotorspeedway.com/events/friday-night-drags/ if you want to find out more.

Too soon, it was time to get on the road and fire up the car we’d chosen for the trip, a Chevrolet Camaro, ours in 3.6-litre direct injection Coupe guise. A great American sportscar seemed appropriate for tackling the great American roads of the Smokies, a mountain region that dips not only into Georgia but also into North Carolina and Tennessee. There are far more routes here than you can tackle in a single day, so you’ll need to find yourself a base in the area. We chose the newly-opened Valhalla Resort Hotel in Helen, an Alpine-style town in White County, Georgia built along the banks of the Chattahooche River.

“With 318 curves in just 11 miles, the ‘Trail of the Dragon’ is considered by many to be America’s ultimate driving road…..”

It’s the sort of place you’d go to spoil yourself a bit, but that I felt, was kind of appropriate. You don’t really want to fly all the way to this glorious sub-range of the Appalachian mountains, then compromise the whole experience with a stay in the kind of chain hotel you could have visited at home. Situated in five acres, the hotel offers every comfort and stunning views of the North Georgia forestry, but the road was calling; specifically one road.

It’s called ‘The Tail of the Dragon’ (or as the locals call it, ‘That damn road to Tennessee’) and with 318 curves in just 11 miles, it’s considered by many to be America’s ultimate driving road. It’s certainly a very special and unique highway, part of US route 129 and a totally focused driving experience (see www.tailofthedragon.com). To get to it, drive to the town of Athens, Georgia, about an hour and a half outside Atlanta, then take the road to the smaller town of Chilhowee with its awesome dam, where you can then get onto the ‘Dragon’s Tail’ route 129 towards Topoco.

Once you’ve joined this snaking stretch of tarmac, there are no intersecting roads, no houses with driveways and no businesses. Each and every curve is different. There is very little elevation change. And many of the curves are banked like a race track. Accidents are frequent, especially from bikers, and it’s easy to see why. Quite a number of the twists are off-camber and corners that suddenly tighten up on you are frequent. Ultimately, it’s best to leave quite a lot in reserve, first because you’re never quite sure what might be coming the other way and secondly because should you come a cropper and plunge down into one of the deep valleys that line the road, help will be a long time coming.

The nearby Cherohala Skyway is quickly becoming a popular driver’s destination too, with its remote 60 miles of breathtaking scenic mountain highway. The area also has other incredible roads like the ‘Moonshiner 28’, the ‘Devils Triangle’ and the ‘Diamondback 226’. The locals will fill you in on all of them if you’re up for buying a beer. I’ll share our personal favourite route with you. From Helen, you take the ‘Richard B Russell Scenic Highway’, Route 348, towards Owltown. From there, you get onto the ‘Wolf Pen Gap Road’, Route 180, an awesome tight windy road towards the little settlement of Suches. From there, you take Route 60 south, then onto Route 19 north towards Owltown again before heading back to Helen via that ‘Richard B Russell Scenic Highway Route’ 348. In the right car, this is as memorable an hour of driving as you’ll ever have.

In fact, the whole area can offer as memorable a road route driving experience as you could find anywhere in the world. It’s one of America’s hidden secrets.

Great Smoky Mountain Driving Roads – The Facts

The area: Smokey mountains – near Atlanta, Georgia

Where to stay: we tried the Valhalla Resort Hotel, Helen, Georgia – www.valhallaresorthotel.com

Key attractions: Visit the Atlanta Speedway – www.atlantamotorspeedway.com

Roads you should drive: the most famous is ‘The Tail of the Dragon’ – www.tailofthedragon.com