As a child of the 80s, the education of my youth came with a handful of recurring staples from elementary through middle school.
Each year – seemingly at random – the teacher would wheel in a rickety cart with a television and a top-loading VCR, turn down the lights and play a video like “Rikki Tikki Tavi” or the old Rankin/Bass cartoon of “The Hobbit.”
These were rites of the school year, like spring break or the book fair, and they have stuck with me long since other school boy lessons have faded into the ether.
So, when we moved to Blount County, Tenn., and I discovered we had a road known as “The Dragon,” my interest was piqued.
What I found was that while The Tail of The Dragon – a section of U.S. 129 that runs from Blount County into North Carolina – may not be hoarding mountains of gold and a penchant for hubris, it more than lives up to its name.
What is The Dragon?
The Tail of The Dragon – though I’ve never heard anyone call it that – offers 318 curves over 11 miles along the border of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the Cherokee National Forest.
Without houses, businesses or intersections, it’s known as possibly the best motorcycle ride in the country, snaking uninterrupted through the mountains and drawing more than a quarter million motorcycle riders each year.
The Dragon is also popular with sports car enthusiasts.
The irony of the situation is The Dragon cuts through some of the most scenic terrain in the world, but is in no way a road to go sight-seeing.
With dozens of blind curves and crests, a moment of distraction can be deadly. Add to that the number of riders – and drivers – who treat The Dragon as their own private race track and things can go from idyllic to disastrous in the blink of an eye.
Make no mistake, The Dragon is a dangerous drive, killing and injuring so many motorists that the Blount County Sheriff’s Office dedicated serious manpower to patrolling the roadway and even created a website to drive home just how deadly The Dragon can be.
“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.”
There are pull-offs for visitors to stop and take in the scenery, but honestly, if you’re just sight-seeing, you’re probably better off with other options, like the Cherohala Skyway about 45 minutes to the South.
Tips on riding The Dragon
6. Remember Bilbo
As Bilbo Baggins said in The Hobbit, “Never laugh at live dragons.” This dragon is alive, and if you don’t take it seriously, it will burn your butt.
5. 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, but lots of people have lost their lives up there. Be safe.
4. Pay attention
You’re up there to ride, not gawk. Save the leaf-peeping for somewhere a little less life-or-death-y.
3. Do not ride it at night.
This one seems self-explanatory. Also don’t ride it from November through March, conditions at the higher elevations can change quickly. Many a rider has been caught in a rough spot because he/she trusted an off-season weather report.
2. Get a global satellite GPS messenger
Cell service is non-existent in the mountains and, even in a best case scenario, it can take an hour or more for emergency personnel to reach you in the event of a crash. The Dragon can be a fun ride, but preparation is key.
1. 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.
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.