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The Dragon: Super-twisty N.C. road is the ultimate fall ride

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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.
USA TODAY

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.