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The Back of the Dragon
When an opportunity to ride the Tail of the Dragon first popped up, I did some research. I wanted to know what I was getting into. Wouldn’t you? If you Google the term, you’ll find a plethora of websites with maps, stories, reviews and pictures. A YouTube search will yield more videos than you’ll ever have time to watch, some of which might even scare you away from US 129.
A couple friends had recently ridden the infamous route, so I reached out to them for some advice. “LEAN” was capitalized in texts I received from them both. I also found out that one of them had taken his eyes off a curve for a split second and ended up putting his bike down. In addition to the uppercase recommendation, was an admonition to look all the way through the turns – don’t try to take in the scenery. This is a valuable takeaway from any motorcycle safety course: look where you want to go – the bike will follow.
My friends also suggested we try the Back of the Dragon in southwestern Virginia. I conducted the requisite internet searches and found a ride which promises 438 curves spread out over 32 miles of blacktop. Route 16 slithers across part of the Appalachian Mountains between Marion and Tazewell, VA. I was intrigued by how the technically challenging twists and turns are bundled with smooth curves, offering a fun ride with elevated scenic vistas that riders can relish safely. I added the route to my wishlist.
Your Wish is Granted
So, there we were: on the backside of a nine-day motorcycle vacation. Having rerouted for weather, we now found ourselves in this neck of the woods with time to play. A sign to the right of Park Blvd. (VA Rt. 16N) modestly welcomed us to Marion, “Gateway to the Back of the Dragon.” After a quick photo op, we jumped on the bikes and set out. It was eleven in the morning on a sunny Saturday in July and the temperature had just reached a very comfortable 80° F. We were ready to ride, so we did. Right into a traffic jam.
The southern point of the Back of the Dragon starts at Hungry Mother State Park. If you plan to do this ride, check the event schedule for the park. We spent what felt like an eternity inching along with families heading to the Hungry Mother Festival in a 4-mile back-up that left us wondering if the ride would ever happen. Eventually, we passed the entrance to the festival and the road opened up.
The first serpentine turns showed up minutes later, and the roller coaster began.
First, we weaved our way up to the top of Walker Mountain, trees to the left of us, trees to the right. Cresting the ridge, we started a winding decent down to the valley below as the canopy broke up here and there, revealing rolling hills and rugged mountains. We crossed the Holston River where the road stretched out a bit, giving us a little break. Then we were climbing again, turning left and right and back again as we traced the terrain.
The ride continued on for another fun, beautiful twenty miles, eventually settling into a nice jaunt through the countryside. We crossed three mountains on this route, which eventually dumped us out in Tazewell, VA. If you’re looking for the welcome center and store, don’t blink. I saw it as we rode by, only because I knew to look for a small building that almost looks like a construction trailer on the far side of a parking lot off of Main Street.
So Many Roads, So Little Time
The Back of the Dragon is a small part of a bigger network of roads known as The Claw of the Dragon. If you are ever in the area, set aside some time to explore. And remember to let yourself get lost once in a while.
We set out for Nashville in July 2017 with another couple. On the trip, we rode the Snake 421, the Cherohala Skyway, the Tail of the Dragon, the Black Dragon, the Back of the Dragon, a little winding road near Dahlgren, Virginia which we’ve nicknamed the Baby Dragon, and many other side roads, backroads, and even highways. We rode down Main Street through countless little towns and even got a flat tire in the middle of nowhere.