The New I-26 Virtual Tour
Tennessee and North Carolina

Eastbound I-26

The first I-26 sign is located just south of the I-81 interchange. This is the first indication that you are no longer on I-181.

This is a closeup of the sticker on the back of the I-26 sign. No installation date is indicated, but a fabrication date of July 2003 is indicated. This is also an indication that TDOT installed the sign, rather than a contractor.

Tennessee generally signs entrances to interstates with small green guide signs, with the interstate shield and direction, control city and an arrow. For I-181, US 23 signs were normally mounted above the guide sign. Between I-81 and the former southern terminus of I-181 at Johnson City, though, TDOT has taken two approaches to signing the entrances to the new I-26. For southbound traffic, the I-181 shield and the "SOUTH" directional indicator have been replaced with an I-26 shield and the "EAST" designation. However, for northbound traffic, the I-181 signage was retained and a "WEST I-26" assembly was mounted above the guide sign. These signs are located at the entrances to I-26 at the TN 75 exit at Gray.

At the Roan Street exit in Johnson City, US 19W joins the route. This is the first assembly with an I-26 shield past the old terminus of I-181, which was the US 321 exit. South of that interchange, the freeway carried only the two US highways.

At Ernestville, US 19W splits off the freeway. This was traditionally the spot where the two US routes split. Now, TN 352 occupies the old alignment of US 23 from here to a spot north of Flag Pond, where it diverts off the old US 23 alignment. There is some dispute as to what will happen with US 23. North Carolina is insistent upon keeping the US 23 designation on the old route south of the state line; Tennessee has signed US 23 concurrently with I-26 all the way to the state line. If this situation continues, US 23 will be a discontinuous route. This exit is the logical spot for US 23 to leave the I-26 freeway should Tennessee eventually follow North Carolina's lead.

The last exit in Tennessee is Exit 5. It's signed as Flag Pond Road but its actual name is Upper Higgins Creek Road. This is the last chance for US 23 to be diverted off the freeway before the North Carolina state line. However, as this photo of signage after you pass the Flag Pond exit indicates, US 23 is still fully signed on the freeway in Tennessee.

These photos show the state line at Sams Gap, where the freeway crosses from Tennessee into North Carolina. The two-lane route on the right is old US 23. The retaining wall with the reflectors mounted atop it is part of the older Tennessee construction. The North Carolina truck information station can be seen in the distance. The construction past the retaining wall separating the old route from the new one is all-new.


These two signs at the truck information station, just south of the state line, give information of interest to big-rig drivers. A 45 mph speed limit is in effect for trucks as they descend from Sams Gap, climb to Buckner Gap, then head downhill toward Mars Hill and Asheville. All trucks are required to pull over and drive through -- but not stop at -- the information area.

After topping the hill at Sams Gap and passing the truck information station, motorists get their official welcome to the Tar Heel State.

After passing the welcome sign, motorists are treated to a plethora of regulatory signs. The first one they see is the speed limit advisory, including the split speed limit for trucks. Next are motorcycle regulations, including the unusually-worded "Motorcycles Burn Headlights." ("Motorcycles Must Use Headlights" would be a better phrase). FInally, there's the obligatory seat belt law sign.

Finally, after all that, there's the first I-26 sign in North Carolina. Notice there's no US 23 designation. The way the routes currently run, US 23 disappears at the state line.

This photos shows the route as it descends from the state line crossing at Sams Gap.

There's one exit on the new route. It's located on Bear Branch Road and is signed as "To US 23."

After passing the Bear Branch Road exit, a small guide sign gives the mileage to Asheville.

There are two gaps in the center median barrier to allow emergency vehicles to cross from one lane to the other. This one is located at Buckner Gap.

After passing through Buckner Gap, eastbound traffic can make use of the new Welcome Center. Photos are on page 3 of this essay. This sign on the entrance ramp from the Welcome Center to the freeway warns motorists of runaway trucks. The third of three truck escape ramps is not too far south of the Welcome Center.

The new section of freeway ends at Exit 9, where US 19 rejoins the route for the journey south to Asheville. This is also where US 23 rejoins the route, but there is no mention of US 23 on the exit signage.

Once past Exit 9, US 23 reappears, but I-26 disappears. There is no more mention of the interstate as far south as the US 25-US 70. North Carolina highway officials say that this section of the freeway does not meet interstate standards and must be improved to carry the I-26 designation. Portions of the route in Asheville have "Future I-26" signs, but the average driver will notice no difference between the US 19-23 freeway and a typical interstate.

Page 3 (The New Welcome Center)