The first exit south of the US 19/23 split is for NC 213 at Mars Hill. This photo is of the end of NC 213 at the US 19/23 expressway. The portion north of this exit is of recent construction, but as can be seen here, is not signed as I-26.
North Carolina maintains that it will not sign US 23 along the I-26 route. The intent is for US 23 to exit the freeway along with US 19 at Exit 9. However, exit signage in place at Exit 9 makes no mention of US 23. At this point, US 23 simply seems to disappear, to be replaced by I-26.
Just past the US 19 exit, the new route begins its ascent to Buckner Gap, then beyond that, the state line at Sams Gap.The first part of the route has an asphalt surface and a cable median barrier. The route in the distance, climbing the mountain, has concrete pavement and a Jersey barrier.
This is the first I-26 sign posted north (west) of Exit 9. There is no mention of US 23.
Eight miles from the Tennessee state line, distances to Erwin and Johnson City are posted.
As the interstate begins its climb to Buckner Gap, a warning sign with a solar panel and an antenna stands ready to alert motorists to foggy conditions at the top of the mountain.
At the time of this photo, less than a week after the highway opened, trucks had already discovered the new route. This photo shows advance signage for Exit 3 heading westbound; the truck is heading east out of Tennessee.
Climbing toward Buckner Gap.
Nearing Buckner Gap, notice the trees planted in front of the fence designed to catch falling rocks. Also notice the asphalt shoulder with the grooved warning rumble strips, next to the concrete pavement.
The rest area wasn't the only place to get a wildflower patch.
Just prior to the top of Buckner Gap, there's a sign warning of the possibility of vehicles turning around in the break in the Jersey barrier. There are only three opportunities to turn around on the new route -- the Buckner Gap median break, Exit 3 and a median break at Sams Gap at the state line.
Signage at Buckner Gap. Notice the beginning of a rockfall retaining fence in the background of this photo.
This photo shows the U-turn break in the median at Buckner Gap, along with the trees planted in front of the rockslide retaining fence -- not to mention a view of the distant mountains on a hazy August day.
Although US 23 disappears from the route at the US 19 split, there is an opportunity to access US 23 at Bear Branch Road. If North Carolina insists on keeping the US 23 designation on the new route, and if Tennessee insists on keeping US 23 on the freeway (which I feel is the proper decision) then a good compromise would be to keep US 23 on the North Carolina portion of the freeway to this point. Heading west on I-26, this is the spot where the freeway would pick up US 23 again.
Just past the Bear Branch exit, the final standalone I-26 sign in North Carolina is located just beyond another fog warning sign. What does the white plate cover, I wonder?
The new North Carolina portion of the freeway is three lanes. Here, the route approaches the Tennessee state line at Sams Gap. The two left lanes continue as the through I-26 and US 23 route; the right lane is an exit-only lane for Tennessee's truck information station and mandatory stop for the downhill grade into the Volunteer State. This is the last I-26 sign in North Carolina.
There is no state line sign here -- the old "Welcome To Tennessee" guide sign must have been a victim of the construction -- but this is the state line as seen from the bridge over old US 23 at Sams Gap. The Tennessee truck mandatory pulloff area was closed for incidental construction that remained to be finished after the highway opened.
The first I-26 sign in Tennessee, just past the state line as the road begins its downhill descent, is placed alongside a US 23 sign. This is evidence of Tennessee's decision (so far) to keep US 23 on the freeway.
This is the first assembly showing the combined I-26 and US 19W/23 routing, north of Ernestville.
This exit at Erwin is unusual because it is the intersection of all four types of signed routes in Tennessee -- Interstate, U.S. route, state primary and state secondary. Unfortunately there are no sign assemblies showing all four types of signs on the same post.
In Johnson City, US 19W splits from the route and follows US 11E to the spot where US 19E joins to re-form US 19, just south of Bristol.
This is the last I-26 sign in Tennessee. It's posted just north of the Eastern Star Road exit. A construction barrel from a summer paving project is visible.
The signage at I-81 gives no indication that I-26 ends and I-181 begins.
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