The 11-mile Tail of the Dragon features 318 curves along the side of a mountain
When we moved to Blount County, Tennessee and I discovered we had a road known as The Dragon, my interest was piqued. What I found was that The Tail of The Dragon – a section of U.S. 129 – more than lives up to its name. The Tail of the Dragon is officially Tapoco Road in NC and Calderwood Highway in TN. It stretches the Fugitive Bridge near Robbinsville to Tabcat Bridge in Tennessee. Mostly known as The Dragon, the road offers 318 curves in 11 miles along the border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee National Forest. It runs from Blount County in Tennessee to North Carolina.
Without houses with driveways, businesses or intersecting roads, it’s known as possibly one of the best rides in the country for motorcyclists. In fact, it is said to draw more than a quarter-million motorcycle riders each year. The Dragon is also popular with sports car enthusiasts. At least a couple of movies, such as “The Fugitive” with Harrison Ford and “Two-Lane Blacktop” had scenes filmed there. The irony of the situation is The Dragon cuts through some of the most scenic terrains in America.
The stretch of road takes about 30 minutes to cover. There are pull-offs for visitors to stop and take in the scenery. But, in my opinion, it is in no way a road to go sightseeing on. If you’re just sightseeing, you’re probably better off with other options. I recommend Cherohala Skyway about 45 minutes to the South.
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Is the Tail of the Dragon dangerous?
The speed limit on the Tail of the Dragon is set to 30 mph due to the road’s many twists and turns. Regardless, it can be quite dangerous. With dozens of blind curves and crests, a moment of distraction can be costly. Add to that the number of riders and drivers who treat The Dragon as their private race track and things can go from idyllic to bad in the blink of an eye.
Many of the notorious curves even have nicknames. Some of these are Beginner’s End, Bust Bend, Shade Tree Corner, Hog Pen Bend, Sunset Corner and Mud Corner. Make no mistake, The Dragon should be taken seriously. For that reason, the Blount County Sheriff’s Office dedicated serious manpower to patrolling the roadway. In addition, they created a website to provide safety tips for The Dragon. The site also reminds us that this is a rural area, and medical help is not necessarily nearby.
“Remember when visiting this very unique highway, you are not the only one there. There are many people who have to use this road every day commuting to and from work or are visiting family,” the site says. “Drive like you would want people to drive on the roads you and your family travel daily. If everyone would do this, there will be far fewer injuries and deaths, and when you see a deputy, you won’t be leaving with an invitation to return at a later date.”
Tips for riding The Dragon
If you want to ride along The Dragon, come prepared to respect the road. Here are a handful of tips to help you prepare:
- Gear up: Wear every piece of safety equipment you have. I don’t know that you are statistically more likely to lay your bike down on The Dragon than anywhere else. However, lots of people have lost their lives up there. Be safe.
- Pay attention: You’re up there to ride, not gawk. So save the leaf-peeping for somewhere else. Follow the speed limit, this is no place for antics. Drive or ride at your skill level. Brake lightly. Stay in your lane.
- Do not ride it at night: This one seems self-explanatory. Also, don’t ride it from November through March. Conditions at higher elevations can change quickly. Many riders have been caught in a rough spot because he/she trusted an off-season weather report.
- Get a global satellite GPS messenger: Cell service is non-existent in the mountains. Also, even in a best-case scenario, it can take an hour or more for emergency personnel to reach you in the event of an emergency. The Dragon can be a fun ride, but preparation is key.
- Check the tank: The only gas station on The Dragon is at the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort located in the North Carolina part of the tail. Of course, it’s also a good idea to check your tire pressure. Fun fact, the resort has a tree decorated with various motorcycle parts lost in crashes on The Dragon. The “Tree of Shame” was started by Harley riders in the 1980s and looks like a Transformer that blew up during a midlife crisis.
Have you ridden The Tail of the Dragon? Let us know in the comments.