The Tail Of The Dragon
A Mountain Of Fun And Danger
Not Your Typical Sunday Ride For Ice Cream
I wonder if St. George woulda had the balls to tackle the tail of the dragon as I know it? If he would have, I'm sure there are a few good knights on their iron steeds that would joust with him along the eleven mile stretch of U.S. 129 in Tennessee known as the Dragon's Tail.
The famous (maybe infamous would be a better fit) length of asphalt would be six miles long if it weren't for the 318 curves. Some of those curves are not mere lazy rolls, no some of those are real monsters, including 180 degree switchbacks.
Let's take a closer look at the legendary Dragon Tail and see why bikers and sports car enthusiasts come from all over the world to ride it.
How To Get To The Dragon
How I Do It
When I make trip to the Smoky Mountains, I am there to ride. I won't spend much time doing anything else (except for Hillbilly Golf), and all I need is a place to lay my road weary head and the chance at a good steak dinner.
I'll get a room at the Microtel on Airport Road in Gatlinburg. The rooms are cheap, clean, and the hotel is located near the national park, a half a block from the Pancake House, and just down the street from Roaring Forks Motor Trail.
Gatlinburg is a perfect location to start any number of beautiful rides from, and one of the coolest is what I call the Dragon Loop.
Tail Of The Dragon ~ Where And How
The Dragon's Tail hugs the southwestern edge of the Great Smoky National Park betwwen Deal's Gap, at the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, to what is known as the Tabcat Bridge where the Tabcat Creek flows into Chillhowee Lake.
At Deal's Gap, which is 2000 feet above sea level, there is a resort with a primitive hotel, campgrounds, and gift shop. This is the gathering spot for a lot of breast pounding and/or pants cleaning. The gift shop is the only place in the world where official "I Slayed The Dragon" t-shirts, sweatshirts, stickers, and other souvenirs can be purchased.
The hotel on the premises is more like camping indoors. There 14 rooms total, 12 standard and 2 apartments. The standard rooms have a double bed and a set of bunk beds and touts a private bathroom (woohoo), while the apartment comes equipped with two sets of bunk beds, a kitchenette, refrigerator, dining room table AND a private bathroom.
As can be expected, reservations should be made a year in advance, but there are plenty of rooms close to the area from Maggie Valley North Carolina and Gatlinburg Tennessee to Robbinsville N.C.
Actually, the ride from anywhere in the area to the Dragon Tail can be fun and exciting as the biker winds along rivers, lakes, and through the region's scenic mountains.
There are many pull offs along the 11 miles where you can stop and watch the fun. Just be careful getting off and back onto the road.
At one of the pull offs you can see the Topoco Dam that was used in the famous dam jump scene from the movie The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford.
Along The Dragon's Tail
A 1200 foot drop in altitude over eleven miles really doesn't sound like such a big deal, but consider the fact that road would be six miles long if it was straight. There is a 600 foot drop in the first 3 miles and then a nearly 600 foot climb over the following 2.5 miles, leaving a steady decrease of about 100 feet for the remainder of the tail of the dragon.
Toss in the 318 curves and what you get is an amusement park roller coaster made of asphalt. No safety harness or lap bars, just you, your iron steed and the Dragon Tail.
- Make sure that you fuel up before you arrive at the Dragon
- Start at Deal's Gap; stop in the resort and get your tee-shirt, a pop, and reflect on what you are about to do
- Avoid riding the Dragon on the weekends because the traffic is unbelievable
- DO NOT PUSH IT until you are comfortable with the switchbacks and the general tossing of the road
- Stay in Gatlinburg ans approach the ride by taking the route through the Smokies; the views along the way are spectacular
- Return to Gatlinburg via the Foothills Parkway (The Top Of The World) and then onto U.S. 73 through north side of the national park. You won't regret it.
- Even on warm days make sure you wear protective leather motorcycle clothes; you never know when the Dragon will bite.
- Grab the biggest steak dinner you can find when you're done, because you earned it.
The Dragon's Tail sees an the average, over 400 vehicles a day.
The Dangerous Dragon
This year, 2009, may be the year with the highest fatalities yet along the Dragon. To date there have been five motorcyclists who have lost their lives at the Dragon or because of injuries as a result from a crash along the Tail. The average has been less than two a year
Many factors contribute to the danger along that stretch of road, and all of them end up being backed by lack of focus or over confidence of rider skills.
Outside of the above mention hazards, another major danger is the occasional presence of semi trucks along the route. Although there are warning signs directed to truckers at either end of the eleven mile stretch, freight haulers end up there anyway.
The big rigs end up on the road due to a search for a quick route to U.S. Interstate I-40. Maps don't show the severity of that stretch of road and dispatchers, who have no inherent knowledge of it, will send the truckers along their merry way.
As with ANY two wheeled adventure, caution and common sense should always be adhered to. If these efforts are made than the chances of having an awesome ride turn to dismal hell will be very slim.
Poppin' My Cherry On The Darogon' Tail
My first trip along the tail was in the middle of the week a few years back. My bike weighs 800 lbs., so I couldn't just toss it around like it was a 300 lb. sport bike.
I really had no idea what I was in for, but I wasn't about to shy away from it either.
I sweat, smiled and gave a couple of big ol' "YEE HAWS" as I cranked through the floorboard scraping curves and throttled up on some of the short chutes. I think I may have actually got up to 40 mph at one point.
Before I reached the nine mile mark, I was passed by four crotch rockets and one Nissan. I was getting just a bit discouraged when I looked in my rear view mirror. The glass was filled with a new red Corvette that was trying to make a pass. When I got an eyeful of the older man driving and the young vivacious blond in the passenger seat, my bike got ten feet wide.
I wasn't going to let that so and so be the last one to pass me on the Dragon. No, I was going to do everything in my power to give that honor to the Nissan.
The 'vette didn't get to pass me until after Tabcat bridge where U.S. 129 flattens out for a few miles. The Dragon was over, so I let the frustrated old man pass.
At about three miles up the road I got to pass the red demon, only because he was pulled over by a county cop and was getting a ticket. Believe me, I honked the horn and waved as I went past.
The steak dinner I had when I got back to Gatlinburg may have been the best one I ever ate, and I was glad I didn't have dinner served up by the Tail Of The Dragon.