Touring the White Lightning Trail
The days when moonshine runners roared down East Tennessee back roads just a hairpin turn ahead of the law are gone, but you can still feel their rumble while touring the White Lightning Trail.
The route weaves for 200 miles across 10 counties and takes in stretches of the old moonshine runs made legendary in songs and films like the 1958 classic “Thunder Road” starring Robert Mitchum.
The White Lightning Trail cuts through Cocke County, the long-proclaimed moonshine capital of America and once home of the infamous Popcorn Sutton. Ironically the liquor has been legalized and a distillery now produces Sutton’s brand of the booze. You can catch a whiff of the ’shine and follow the same routes through hollows as did the Prohibition-era runners, but the White Lightning Trail is not just about notorious bootleggers.
This scenic loop leads you to glorious overlooks, rolling pastureland, softly sculpted mountains, and fast-flowing rivers. It features charming small-town business districts, historic landmarks, farm stands, wineries and outdoor recreation. Five state parks and Cumberland Gap National Historic Park punctuate the route. Major attractions include the Museum of Appalachia, Norris Dam, and Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum. Colorful quilt patterns adorned barns and nearly every crossroad has a small Baptist church, a store boasting fine country cooking and a wood-frame home with blue jeans hanging on a clothesline.
Using an illustrated guide and map available through Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, we followed the road out of Knoxville and stopped at many of the landmarks. The map took us through Luttrell, once a hive of illegal whiskey making, but now better known as the hometown of Kenny Chesney. Highway 61 snakes through V-shaped valleys where timeworn houses are marked with Keep Out and No Trespassing signs. In Tazewell, you can glimpse into the past at a 1930-era Gulf Service Station featured in “Thunder Road.”
Whiskey haulers drove at lightning speeds to Cumberland Gap, better known for its historical connection to Daniel Boone and the Gateway to the West. Highway 25 holds distinction as one of the state’s five National Scenic Byways. We landed at Clinch Mountain Lookout Restaurant where the view of Cherokee Lake is first class. The restaurant’s claim to fame is vinegar pie, made from a Depression-era recipe when cupboards were bare.
The White Lightning Trail winds south to Morristown where Main Street holds a lively collection of cafes, coffee shops and fashion boutiques. A second-story walkway, called SkyMart, makes the shopping experience unique. We sampled the ambience of Newport and Dandridge before returning to Knoxville. This ride is fun and adventuresome whether you are taking it on your motorcycle, family van or bootleggin’ hot rod.
Hey, I’m wondering if anyone can reach back into family lore and come up with a tale about Thunder Road in its glory days? Send in your stories about traveling down these White Lightning Highways.