The Tail of the Dragon, U.S. 129 is a popular destination for seekers of the perfect motorcycle roads, and for good reason.
The Dragons Tail is by far, one of the best motorcycle roads in North America, listed as one of touringbikers.com top 100 roads.
”318 curves in 11 miles”, is the claim made by anyone associated with the Tail.
Although I never counted, I believe it.
In fact, curves are not as much an issue as the lack of straight.
You will be hard pressed to find a section of the Tail where you’re not leaning.
You had also better be on your “A” game from start to finish.
Even the most experienced motorcyclists and touring bikers alike, will find the Dragons Tail to be quite challenging.
I used to think U.S. 129 would be similar to the magnificent roads back home; as was the Devils Triangle (with the exception of a few switchbacks).
But I was not disappointed this time. The Dragons tail was more than I expected, with turn after treacherous turn.
The lack of guard rails, and sheer drop-offs will leave you feeling vulnerable as you lean deep from side to side while maneuvering through the gauntlet.
We rode the Dragon Tail in Early April, 2012. This time of year has its good and bad; the bad being the weather. You never know what to expect that early in the season.
The Nantahala National Forest in the Great Smoky Mountains can offer up some unexpected and unforgiving weather without warning.
We were lucky though. We had some cold temperatures, but the precipitation was kept at bay.
Also, it was still a little early in the season for everything to be open. Luckily Deals Gap had been open for a couple of weeks (at least that’s what they told me).
The good thing about coming so early in the season is you have the roads to yourself. The Tail of the Dragon and Deals Gap seemed busy to me in April, I can’t imagine the traffic in mid-July.
Of course I’m used to my little unpopulated, country Ohio motorcycle roads.
I did notice how clean the Tail of the Dragon was, with almost no gravel or dirt to be found. Someone told me they actually sweep the road for our riding pleasure. Not unlike grooming ski slopes.
I rode U.S. 129 three times in as many days. The first was with slight trepidation from being unfamiliar with this jewel of all motorcycle roads. I also had two friends following me, both with new touring bikes to contend with.
By the time we left Deals Gap however, we were all feeling a bit more comfortable with what the tail of the Dragon had to offer; and we rode her for all she was worth. Whipping to and fro, leaning as far as we dared while trusting our tires to grip like frog toes on a wet stone.
The whole ride I was holding the camera over my shoulder and taking pictures of my friends as they came shooting out of each turn. Yes, I know….motorcycle safety.
The second time, later that same day, there were just two of us. This time I rode behind my friend and snapped pictures from behind.
It became second nature to cruise with my right hand on the throttle, right foot prepared to brake, and left hand held up in the air trying to get the perfect picture of Kimbro leaning his Kawasaki Nomad in a Tail of the Dragon turn.
My third and final ride on the Dragons Tail was two days later, on my way home. My friends had gone off in other directions, so I was left to ride U.S. 129 on my own. I still snapped a few pictures, but was also content to let the camera hang around my neck while traversing the Tail at my most comfortable top speed.
I must say, by the third ride I was at ease with the Tail of the Dragon. It was still an eccentric and uniquely challenging road that required all of my attention, but I knew what to expect.
The Dragon spit me out at the north end, unharmed and grinning ear to ear. I had slayed the Dragon.
Each time I rode the Tail of the Dragon, I had to stop at Deals Gap.
Located near the middle of the ride at the intersection of U.S. 129 and North Carolina route 28, Deals Gap is a touring bikers haven.
They have all the amenities needed to make for an enjoyable stop, or overnight stay.
Deals Gap offers: Gas,Snacks,Restrooms,Restaurant, Motel rooms,Camping,Tail of the Dragon memorabilia, and a plethora of bikes and bikers for your viewing pleasure.
We enjoyed breakfast there on the first day. It was fun to stand outside and just watch people coming and going.
At one point we watched a girl dump her metric in the parking lot. She wasn’t hurt, but she damn near died from embarrassment as she cried in her boyfriend’s arms for a good while.
All 30 or so bikers pretended not to notice, but each of us was thinking the same thing….better to dump it in the Deals Gap parking lot than on the Dragon’s Tail.
Although you’ll probably ride U.S. 129 from Robinsville, North Carolina to Tennessee Route 72 for a grand total of 33 miles, the actual tail of the Dragon runs completely in Tennessee.
From a southern start point just north of the North Carolina Border, and about a mile north of Deals Gap, to the 11 mile stop point at Tabcat bridge just south of Chilhowee lake.
I never once saw a start and/or stop sign and was happy just riding the whole 33 mile stretch.
As a matter of fact, the stretch of U.S. 129 from Robinsville, North Carolina up to Deals Gap is a pretty amazing piece of road itself.
Immediately after passing the Cherohala Skyway turn off, you’ll ride alongside Lake Santeetlah with all its fingers and tributaries before encountering the Cheoah Dam.
After the Cheoah Dam you’ll climb out of the valley floor and assume the twisted, mountain road you’ve come to expect.
This portion of U.S. 129 is very scenic and challenging alike, with sheer drop offs and no guardrails reminding you to pay attention or suffer the consequences.
A leisurely stop at Deals Gap and then you’re off to conquer the Dragons Tail.
As you pull out of the parking lot, your adrenaline is pumping and you’ll want to get in the throttle on an uphill straight stretch.
This lasts only briefly as you encounter your first of many sharp turns alerting you to the true nature of the tail of the Dragon.
From this point forward, you will lean more than you’re upright.
You will momentarily take your eyes off the road to see spectacular views that open before you. Momentarily is the key word though. Otherwise more than your eyes will be off the road.
You’ll ride the Dragons Tail through sections of road that are like a horizontal washboard….left, right, left, right; affectionately known as the ”Rhythm Section”, followed by a series of sharp turns that keep you shifting and alternately leaning without a moment of relaxation.
This section will also have several professional photographers set up on the shoulders of sharp turns, capturing your photogenic-lean as you glide by.
There are quite a few switchbacks along the entirety of the tail of the Dragon, but around mile 9 there’s a series of switchbacks like no other I’ve encountered on any other motorcycle roads.
The last mile slowly descends the mountain and seems to straighten out a bit, before spitting you out at a peaceful and picturesque lakeside ride; similar to riding some fierce rapids and safely coming out the downstream end into a giant lake.
All at once, it’s over. You half expect to find more switchbacks, as you wrestle with letting your guard down.
Once you make it halfway around the long and winding Chilhowee Lake, you might want to take a right on the Foothills Parkway.
In fact, depending on the direction you’re coming from, a suggested route would be to ride the Cherohala Skyway, ( TN Route 165, NC Route 143) from Tellico Plains, Tennessee, east to the Tail of the Dragon, U.S. Route 129, north, to the Foothills Parkway, east.
These motorcycle roads will take you all day to ride, especially if you stop at many overlooks, and stop for lunch at Deals Gap.
The tail of the Dragon will definitely be the highlight of the day though.
Use the Touring Bikers rating system to get your road listed in the Top 100 Roads in America.
Click below to see contributions from other visitors to this page...
We did the tail coming from Gatlinburg TN. two weeks ago. As a passanger clicking 413 pictures it was GREAT! We stoped in Deals Gap where a light …
Kimbro Estes III
Ah Ha! I'm finally back on line. Joe, good telling of our ride! It was an awesome run but the fact of reconnecting with a lost friend after 20 …