Spring is the time of year when motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts get to scratch that itch that’s been nagging them all winter. After being holed up indoors for months the time has come to hit the open road. It’s time to face the Tail of the Dragon, America’s number one motorcycle and sports car road.
The United States is one of the few countries in the world I know of that actually builds roads simply for the enjoyment of driving them. There are plenty of paved options to choose from in the southeastern states. Having traveled the country extensively, I loved discovering the Great Smoky Mountains and Cherokee National Forest.
The Great Smoky Mountains
I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the scenic Smokies. The network of winding roads weaves their way along whitewater rivers, through dense forest, and between mountain tops. One such stretch of US 129, the Tail of the Dragon, runs for 11 miles from North Carolina to Tennessee. And it’s not just the name that attracts drivers from around the world to this stretch of asphalt; It’s the 318 curves that one has to negotiate along its length.
“318 curves in 11 miles”
Banked turns, switchbacks, and tunnels where you loop around and drive over the top of the same road blend into the landscape. Scenery consists of walls of trees and the double yellow line that warns you to stick to your side. During my rides on the Dragon’s Tail, I’ve seen sports bikes come around a blind corner in my lane and fresh debris on the road where someone has left the pavement and crashed into the trees.
A pitstop sits about halfway through the ride called Deal’s Gap. It’s a perfect place to wet your whistle, gas up, or work the blood back into your white knuckles and relax. In the center of the parking lot, there is a tree of shame. Here hang various motorcycle parts from crashes as a reminder of those who thought they could slay the dragon.
You can pretty well drive any type of vehicle on US 129, as it’s a state highway. Just don’t be surprised if someone on a racing bike zips by as if you’re standing still, then takes the next corner at such an angle that one knee is skimming the pavement. If you truly want to enjoy the road, my best advice is to avoid it on the weekends. Heavy traffic can make the ride less enjoyable and more treacherous.
Several crashes occur on the Tail of the Dragon every year, and some have been fatal. There are no guard rails, with steep rocky embankments on both sides of the road. On my Harley Davidson, I found the drive both fun and challenging, having to constantly shift my weight and change gears for quick adjustments in elevation or hairpin turns. Some speed demons try to see how fast they can complete the run. This makes it more dangerous for themselves and others.
River and Rafting
The Tail of the Dragon is not only for motorcycles. I’ve seen various sports cars and clubs, with drivers in Corvettes, Miatas, and Porsches. On the lower part of the Tail, the road follows the Tallassee River, offering scenic spots to pull over. Kayak rentals dot the shoreline if you’re into whitewater rafting. There are quaint little towns, hotels, and lots of cabin rentals scattered all throughout the area.
With the exception of Deal’s Gap, there are no turnouts or places to stop. It’s next to impossible to snap any pictures of your ride. But along certain parts of the road, you’ll notice roadside tents. Photographers stand ready, capturing shots of you on the way by. They post their images on a website, and if you search it the next day there are options to buy photos of yourself in action.
If you’re spending more than a couple of days in the Smokies, consider the nearby Cherohala Skyway, with 60 miles of breathtaking scenic mountain highway. The Blue Ridge Parkway isn’t too far off and is another two-lane road with no truck traffic, specifically built for the joy of driving it. Check out the Tail’s official website to learn about the history of US 129 and other scenic roads in the area.
This is only one area for great motoring in the United States. I’ve experienced and written about others, and if you’re interested in reading those stories, please explore my website or pick up a copy of my book, A Casual Traveler.