The Tail of the Dragon is an 11-mile stretch of U.S. 129 near the North Carolina-Tennessee border that draws driving enthusiasts from around the country. See what it’s like to hug the roadway’s legendary curves from the seat of a motorcycle.
DEALS GAP, N.C. – Most any day between March and November at the intersection of N.C. 28 and U.S. 129, you can expect to see several hundred parked motorcycles and sports cars, their owners comparing notes in a parking lot in the middle of nowhere. Only a souvenir shop and a “resort” — a motel/ souvenir shop/café/gas station — face each other across U.S. 129.
From this bluff above the Little Tennessee River, you can gaze north across the rugged valley at soaring peaks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
But motorists from California, Quebec and places in-between and overseas come because this is the starting point for what hardcore gearheads consider the best ride in North America.
It’s the two-lane stretch of U.S. 129 to the north. Its 318 curves in 11 miles earned it the name Tail of the Dragon.
That asphalt ribbon is visited by 1,000 to 1,200 vehicles per day, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation. And with counties in mountainous western North Carolina increasingly dependent on tourism, the state pays close attention to maintaining area byways. They were in fantastic shape this September.
Aiding the Dragon’s draw: It’s a short ride to the Blue Ridge Parkway and to a world-class motorcycle museum.
What you’ll find
Riding the Tail of the Dragon isn’t especially daunting. The experience is more high-energy Sunday driving. (Full disclosure: My marriage in 1977 came with the understanding I would never own a motorcycle, get tattooed or shave my moustache. Thanks to friends, I motorcycled the Tail of the Dragon on Sept. 12 in the sidecar of a 2007 Russian-built Ural that resembles its World War II ancestors.)
What’s the Tail of the Dragon’s appeal?
• The 318 curves are not mountain-climbing switchbacks; these turns, some close to 300-degree pivots, are on a largely flat course.
• Besides being in fine condition in both North Carolina and Tennessee, the asphalt curves are banked, making them easier to handle.
• The Dragon stretch of U.S. 129 is double-lined as No Passing. (Passing does occur, but there are pull-offs you can use to let tailgaters get in front of you.)
• The posted speed limit is 30 mph. Several bikers/drivers said citations usually go to “people who are doing something stupid” — driving at dangerous speeds, doing stunts, etc.
• Trucks are prohibited. Violators, it is said, will receive three citations, which will cost them their trucking licenses.
• The North Carolina approach to the drive (2 miles) is in the Nantahala National Forest; the 11 miles in Tennessee are in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. No public roads intersect with the Tail of the Dragon and it is free of driveways. This adds to safety as well as natural beauty.
You experience mountainside wilderness, often with a rock wall or hill on one side of the road, a sheer drop on the other. The asphalt sleeve is tightly bordered by thick hardwood forests. At high noon, you often motor in heavy shade.
I saw no litter on the Dragon’s slim shoulders, just occasional clumps of yellow-bloom wildflowers.
The thrill is handling the curves. And watching for oncoming vehicles that barrel into view.
A link has been posted to your Facebook feed.
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Word-of-mouth, online phenomenon
This wasn’t always a popular road, according to Ron Johnson. He and his wife, Nancy, operate tailofthedragon.com, a comprehensive website for Dragon information.
He said U.S. 129 in the Deals Gap pass seems to have been a river path used by the Cherokee. In colonial times, it was a route for soldiers and settlers to Fort Loudon, a British outpost in Tennessee. In the 1800s, it was known as the Tallassee Turnpike and a man who owned the land on both sides of the road operated a toll booth three miles west of Deals Gap. During the Civil War, the passage was a hotbed for bushwhackers.
It became a gravel road around 1900, Johnson said, then a paved state road in the late 1920s and a winding federal highway in the 1930s. It was featured in the 1971 movie Two-Lane Blacktop.
Johnson said bikers began discovering this stretch in the 1990s after write-ups in Rider and other motorcycle magazines. One writer in American Motorcyclist described it as the “best asphalt thrill ride in the East.” The motel/diner at the intersection of N.C. 28 and U.S. 129 began to prosper.
According to Johnson, the undulating byway was known simply as the Dragon until he came along.
Johnson retired as a fire fighter in West Palm Beach, Fla.; he and his wife moved to Robbinsville, N.C., southeast of Deals Gap, in 1991. They’d vacationed in the area since the 1970s. Taking note of the road’s growing appeal to cyclists, the couple launched tailofthedragon.com in 2000 and filled the site with maps, tips and essays.
That was the year Johnson, then 53, learned to ride a motorcycle.
The website spawned merchandise ranging from shirts and caps to stickers and decals and videos, and the Johnsons acquired the “Tail of the Dragon” trademark. Marketing drove visitors. Their original on-site souvenirs shack evolved into the substantial shop across U.S. 129 from the diner. Visitors are encouraged to write their names on the posts and beams of the large wood verandah; Johnson says he orders Sharpies by the bag.
The Coke machine by the entrance is decorated with a print of his annotated Tail of the Dragon map — which is included in Johnson’s free, 32-page fold-over brochure/guide and also appears on shirts and other merchandise.
On it, stretches and key turns of the 11-mile route are duly marked and named. Does he have a favorite place on it? “Yes,” he said. “In fact, I named it after myself.” Ron’s Run is 7.8 miles into Tennessee.
What’s changed on the roadway over the years? Johnson said the posted end-to-end speed limit dropped from 55 mph to 40 and then 30. Also, auto tourism has increased from about 20% to half of all visitors, thanks in part to caravans of sports car clubs.
Fans of two- and four-wheel classics often combine a Deals Gap visit with a stop at Wheels Through Time, 90 minutes east, near the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Eye-candy for motorcyclists
Dale Walksler, a Harley dealer from Illinois, moved his extensive collection of historic motorcycles to Maggie Valley in 2000 to open a 38,000-square-foot museum that now showcases more than 300 historic American bikes. His Wheels Through Time is in the same serious league as the Barber Vintage Motorsport Museum in Leeds, Ala., and the American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame Museum, in Pickering, Ohio. Walksler’s collection of rarities is such that he has loaned choice items for display at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee.
His displayed holdings include a 1905 Yale, the first make to drive coast-to-coast. Also here is a 1909 Pierce that belonged to movie star and cycle fan Steve McQueen.
Many vehicles have been fully restored and are operational, and the owner/curator is usually on premises. It’s not unusual to hear Walksler crank up the engine on, say, a 1916 Traub, often referred to as the rarest motorcycle in the world. And the skid marks on the floor? Sometimes this curator just gets carried away by the horsepower.
If you go
The Tail of the Dragon (U.S. 129) straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee border just south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is about 90 minutes south of Knoxville, Tenn., and about two hours west of Asheville, N.C. Peak traffic is in July/August and October (leaf peeping). Best driving season is March-early November.
Tail of the Dragon info: tailofthedragon.com
Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort: dealsgap.com
Area info: visitsmokies.org
Wheels Through Time Museum, Maggie Valley, N.C.: wheelsthroughtime.com
Five more great rides
Gary McKechnie is author of the award-winning Great American Motorcycle Tours (Avalon, $21.99) and other guides for two-wheeled travel. Here are five routes elsewhere in North America that he recommends:
• Oregon coast (U.S. 101, Cannon Beach south to Florence). “You’re right next to the ocean and since there are no buildings taller than three stories — or no buildings at all — you soak in fantastic Pacific Ocean views, mile after mile. Added bonus: miles of magical country roads with great ascents and descents.”
• Northern Kansas (mostly U.S. 24, westbound from Concordia to Oberlin). “Out here in the heartland there’s the absence of … anything. What you see are cornfields, two-lane roads and small farm towns. It’s pure Americana.”
• Western Michigan (U.S. 31). “From Ludington north, the two-lane road scribbles along the shore of Lake Michigan to the Leelanau Peninsula, drops south to Traverse City, and rambles north again to Mackinaw City. All the while the landscape is so picturesque it’s like riding through the pages of a children’s book.”
• Sedona, Ariz., to Zion National Park in Utah (combination of highways). “The grandeur of the American West is captured in three extraordinary places as you ride from the red rocks of Sedona to the multicolored and otherworldly Grand Canyon and then north to Zion National Park, where twisting roads through a surreal landscape will take your breath away.”
• Hudson River Valley, New York, from Tarrytown to Saratoga Springs (U.S. 9W and other roads). “From just north of New York City through the campus of West Point and then north to Saratoga Springs, the Hudson River is your riding partner. And you can’t do much better than that.”