The Tail of the Dragon
Snaking across the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, is US Route 129 – the famous Tail of the Dragon. Google it and you’ll see just how famous it is, and why. The ultra-curvy road draws thousands of motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts every year. Most visitors leave with fond memories of a fun ride. Some leave behind pieces of their vehicles and their pride. And, yes, people have died there.
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The Tail of the Dragon starts at mile marker 0 at Deals Gap in North Carolina and ends at mile 11 in Tallahassee, TN – of course, you can run it both ways. We rode it from south to north in mid-July of 2017 on our way to Nashville. Here are a couple videos of that ride. The second video is sped up – just for the fun of it.
I found it to be somewhat technically challenging, due to the sheer number of turns; but we had a pretty good idea of what to expect going into it and, therefore, rode it very conservatively. By the time you roll out of a curve, it’s time to set up for the next one. In this way, it really forces you to stay on your game. There’s no time enjoy the scenery – eyes on the rode ahead. It was definitely fun. But, this story isn’t about the Tail of the Dragon, as impressive as it is.
“It’s not the destination it’s the glory of the ride.” – Giles Andreae
This story is about some of the roads we found on the way to the dragon.
We left Floyd, VA on a Sunday morning and headed westbound. The plan: to ride to Gatlinburg, spend the night there; leaving Monday open for lots of fun riding. Through Virginia and into North Carolina, Louise worked her navigation magic, finding some nice roads to travel and keeping us off the highways (because that’s how we roll). From Mountain City, NC we picked up US 421, still heading west. This incredible ribbon of blacktop meanders, twists, turns and weaves its way across a couple ridgelines, switching back on itself several times as it wriggles its way into Tennessee, crosses the Appalachian trail and continues on squiggling towards South Holston Lake. Check out this incredible 6-mile stretch.
We had no idea at the time that we were riding “The Snake 421” – it’s also known as “The Best of the Snake.” We were just trying to get a little lost. We didn’t see a great deal of motorcycle traffic on that beautiful Sunday; but, as it turns out, The Snake is gaining a reputation as a rival to its famous cousin over in Deals Gap. We will probably be back to ride it again one day, but there are so many great roads out there. Roads like the Cherohala Skyway, a National Scenic Byway connecting Tellico Plains, TN to Robbinsville, NC.
The Day of the Dragon
Monday morning, we left Gatlinburg and rode through part of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, arriving at our overnight homestead in Tellico Plains around 1 in the afternoon. We rented rooms in a cabin at the Lodge at Tellico, a cozy, comfortable, motorcycle-friendly home away from home. After we unloaded our luggage in preparation for the Tail of the Dragon, we set out for an afternoon with our knees in the wind. The temperature was a perfect 87° F and the sun would be with us for another 8 hours. First up: the Cherohala Skyway.
Some roads are fun, some roads are beautiful. The skyway is both, with amazing panoramic views from elevations in the Cherokee and Nantahala forests. This was one of those “kick back and relax, here’s your moment of zen” rides. A nice, easy precursor to the Tail of Dragon.
The build-up, hype and touristy atmosphere of the Tail of the Dragon left us expecting more from what has been called “the ride of your life.” Maybe it’s because we prefer to ride where we feel alone with the wind and the rumble of the V-twin, or maybe it’s because we planned too much and anticipated even more. But, I really think its because the roads we discovered on the way there were so surprisingly wonderful; so were the roads heading home, especially the Black Dragon – but that’s another story.
If you have been thinking about riding the Tail of the Dragon, do it. Just make sure you enjoy the journey there, too. And try avoiding highways – it always pays off.