I’ve previously posted details and pictures covering the southern section of the proposed USBR 21 route from Knoxville to Chattanooga/Georgia state line, this post discusses the proposed northern section.
Finding a route that would travel from the Kentucky border south to Knoxville to complete the Tennessee section of USBR 21 was quite the task! Anyone that has driven the northern section of I-75 knows the long climbs that take you over the Cumberland mountains that traverse the northern tier of our state. There are few paved backroads through this area. Traveling on US 25 W to Jellico is busy while US 25 E has the Cumberland Gap Tunnel which is only open to motor-vehicles.
Not many cyclists that I know have traveled that far north and searching the Strava Heat Map seemed to verify this. As luck and synchronicity would have it, it was my good fortune to meetup with my friend Kendall Chiles, president of the Southern Appalachian Nature Photographers. While sharing tales and pictures of old barns we have photographed, I shared one of the Getty’s Mill near Athens along the southern route of USBR 21. I mentioned the difficulty that I was having in completing the route to the Kentucky border, and to my surprise, Kendell has traveled (by car) a copious array of backroads all over Tennessee — which proved to be an amazing resource for us cyclists!
From my routes in Bicycling Around Knoxville, I was able to map out the section running north from Knoxville through Powell and Norris, then with Kendall’s help, the route extended into Jellico, TN. And here is the good news — Kendall’s section parallels I-75 — but rather than climbing over the mountain, it winds alongside the railroad tracks on the valley floor. At railroad grade!
Below are a few details of the proposed route. Please note that since I live in Knoxville, I headed north to scope out the route, so my comments are geared in that direction, rather than starting in Jellico and heading south.
The proposed route leaves downtown Knoxville and rides through several quiet neighborhoods before leaving the urban setting for rural backroads. The route travels through the city of Norris which was built in 1933 as a model planned community by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to house workers building the Norris Dam on the Clinch River. Accommodations in Norris include a store and restaurant. From here, cyclists will ride over the Norris Dam. Accommodations at Norris Dam State Park include both camping and cabins.
Heading west, the next stop is Rocky Top — a town with an identity issue. Originally named Coal Creek in the early 19th century for the stream that runs through the town, it was renamed Lake City in 1936 when the completion of Norris Dam formed an artificial lake above the dam, then once again renamed in 2013 to Rocky Top when a business group proposed to establish a theme park in the city if the name was changed to “Rocky Top”, taking advantage of the song of that name. Personally, I think it should have stayed with the name Coal Creek.
Next marker is the city of Careyville, (for those wanting a campsite, Cove Lake State Park is about one mile off the main route on US 25 W). Leaving Careyville, we head northwest on Old Highway 63 toward Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. This section twists up and over the mountains affording a few spectacular views. After splitting off onto TN-297 towards Pioneer, the route winds through wooded forests to follow Elk Fork Creek. Travel here is on narrow roads that cross several one lane bridges. Running alongside the railroad tracks makes this section quite flat for Tennessee standards, a welcome relief after the earlier climbs.
Newcomb is the next populated area on the route — 746 was the recorded population in 2000! The approximately 15-mile section from outside Careyville to Newcomb is in short supply of amenities, however there are several churches along the way that might welcome cyclists for water refilling and possible lodging. Last stop in Tennessee is the town of Jellico, one of the most productive coal fields in Kentucky and Tennessee throughout the 1890s and early 1900s. Many of the building on North and South Main Street are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Jellico Commercial Historic District.
Another point of interest — just west of Jellico at the base of Indian Mountain, sits Indian Mountain State Park. The park was developed as a reclamation project in which abandoned strip mining pits were converted to recreational use. Amenities include campsites with water and electricity.
Here’s the updated link to the full route where you can download the gpx track. I’ve also updated the cue sheet and overview maps — USBR21-CueSheet-KY-GA. We hope to post some pictures soon, we weren’t able to take any on our scoping drive. We’ve cycled the route from Knoxville to Norris but now look forward to a bike tour to Kentucky! If you happen to get a chance to ride the route before we do, please email us with your comments or suggestions.
A heartfelt thank you to Kendall for these great route suggestions!