Maggie Valley will roll out the welcome mat next weekend for more than 3,500 motorcycle riders descending on the tiny Smoky Mountain town for the annual Thunder in the Smokies Motorcycle Rally held April 24 through 26.
With hundreds of scenic routes, the Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina are incredibly popular with bikers — and Thunder in the Smokies is one of the premier rendezvous of the season. Now in its seventh year, the rally has gained popularity for its diverse crowd and its family-friendly atmosphere.
“People bring their grandkids, their kids, their teenagers,” says Lori Nix, who owns the Handlebar Corral production company with her husband Chris. The company stages the annual rally.
Thunder in the Smokies takes place at the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds and features many of the components found at a traditional bike rally — beer, bands and a bike show, for instance. This year, hard-rocking bass guitarist and South Dakota native Jasmine Cain takes the stage, along with bands Warhorse and Scotty Box. But the lineup of entertainment is much more diverse than your average bike bash. Rally-goers can partake in motorcycle trivia, bike games, and even a drive-in motorcycle movie showing on Friday night at dusk — with attendees voting on their pick from titles like “Easy Rider”, “Ghost Rider”, “The World’s Fastest Indian” and “Evel Knievel: The Last of the Gladiators”.
There’s even a guided ride Saturday morning up to Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway. A pancake breakfast and Gospel church service wraps up the weekend on Sunday morning.
A weekend pass — a steal at $15 — means rally attendees can come and go as they please and allows ample opportunity to explore the many mountain rides in the area. The Blue Ridge Parkway is the closest option, but two famous excursions — the Cherohala Skyway and the twisting, turning Tail of the Dragon — are just 90 minutes away.
Maggie Valley is a convenient jumping off point to scores of mountain destinations, and is a getaway in its own right. Nix laughs as she recounts the shocked looks of patrons who discover there’s no Taco Bell and no McDonald’s — then end up never wanting to leave the mountain oasis.
“It’s a small little town,” Nix says. “It’s one road, and you can’t get lost. Plus, you have a lot of mom and pop restaurants and hotels, so it’s more personal. It’s always nice to know you’re helping pack someone’s 20-room hotel. The owner is often the one who makes your bed and cleans your room, so the service is great.”
The Nixes help to provide the rally with a personal touch. They’re a constant presence and get to know the riders on a first-name basis.
“A lot of times you go to an event, and you have no idea who puts it on,” said Nix. “Chris is the emcee, and he’s always got the mic in his hand.”
More and more bike enthusiasts flock to Thunder in the Smokies each year, most from places like S.C., Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Others come from as far as Pennsylvania, and last year, a father and daughter duo made the trek from Canada. The bikes are diverse, representing every make and model. Their riders are just as varied.
“You’ll have some of the old school bikers that own a bike shop and have built their own bike riding in, then coming in behind them are doctors, lawyers, firemen — you name it,” says Nix. “No matter what you ride or what you do, everyone is welcome.”
The 7th Annual Thunder in the Smokies Motorcycle Rally takes place Friday, April 24, to Sunday, April 26, at the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds, located in the town of Maggie Valley in Western North Carolina. Gates open at 11 a.m. on Friday and 9 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. For a lineup of events and directions, visit www.thunderinthesmokys.com.