Interstate 26: The Highway to Frustration

Published 12:44 pm Thursday, January 26, 2023

Interstate 26 across the Saluda Gorge. Hades Highway. A stretch of road with a curse. No matter which direction you’re traveling, it’s all about making it to the other side in one piece.


Why are there so many accidents, infernal backups, vehicle fires, breakdowns and catastrophes to ruin a good day? Is it cursed? Flawed engineering? Lack of law enforcement? I have found the answer, but you might not like it.

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Bad drivers. But that shouldn’t surprise us. After all, we now live in an era of no turn signals, aggressive driving, road rage, speeding, and flatbed cowboys willing to run over your vehicle like it was nothing more than a road cone. It’s a paved ribbon loaded with everything from the gas-stingy Prius to motorhomes, people towing dilapidated landscape trailers and actual four-bedroom homes on their way to a plat of ground.


Just how bad is the stretch of I-26 known as the Saluda Grade? I asked the N.C. Department of Transportation to crunch the numbers. Their Traffic Engineering Accident Analysis System obliged with a river of data covering wrecks from where Indian Mountain Road at Howard Gap crosses up to where Skyuka Road and Highway 1135 cross. That’s about a 3-mile stretch otherwise known as the Saluda Grade. 


During the 11-year period from 2010 through 2020, there were 340 vehicle crashes on the stretch from Indian Mountain Road to Skyuka Road. Of that total, there were only two fatal crashes while 255 of the accidents were property damage only.


The fatality rate is lower on that stretch than the statewide average for its 41 miles of interstate highways, but the crash rate is slightly higher on the Saluda Grade.


But in all of this, the one factor the state highway folks don’t track is human frustration. And if you talk to local drivers, the folks who travel from Rutherford and Polk counties up the road to Saluda, Hendersonville and Asheville, they will tell you that driving Interstate 26 is like getting a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Some people even avoid the highway and use secondary roads. It’s a longer trip but easier on the nerves and blood pressure.


The common threads running through the complaints of local residents who regularly drive the stretch are these:


  • There is virtually no enforcement by highway patrol.


  • Big rig drivers have a reputation, unwarranted or not, as road hogs and bullies.


  • Speeding is commonplace.


  • Rampant illegal cell phone usage.


  • Bad drivers are everywhere.


Randy Rogers of Asheville said he drives I-26 two to six times a week. He can’t recall the last time he saw a trooper.


“Truck laws are not enforced,” he said. “At times, 12 trucks are in the left lane that says ‘no trucks.’ In two years I saw one highway patrol and one city police.”


Wendy Hamil lives in Polk and works in Hendersonville. “Speed is the number one factor,” Hamil says. “Trucks race to build up speed to pull the hills and other drivers carelessly play dodge around struggling trucks and have no patience.”


For some local drivers, driving up I-26 is just too stressful and dangerous, so they take different routes.


Mary Ann Asbill of Saluda is one of them. “I am a cancer patient with doctors in Hendersonville and Asheville. I have to drive to doctor appointments every week. Two of my sons live in Asheville. I cannot drive on I-26 any longer since it is too dangerous.”


Sandy Milne Sibley, a 14-year resident, almost always avoids the road when she drives up from Columbus, “preferring 176 because it’s safer.”


One local resident who has been driving on the grade since she was 15 years old but asked that she not be identified said this:


“Few people other than locals talk about the real issue. That grade never should have been built. It was built on sacred Cherokee land and relics were uncovered. It was quietly brushed under so that building wasn’t stopped. It’s been said it was cursed from the get-go.”


Cursed or not, it’s a stretch of road that makes people wish they had somewhere else to go.


Larry McDermott is a local retired farmer/journalist. Reach him at