TOTD – The Dragon

In an earlier entry, and in the excitement of preparing for our trip, I wrote a brief description of the Tail of the Dragon. It was written from my memories of our trip in 2013. And nothing I described has changed. It is still one of the most technical rides, on one of the most dangerous roads in the world. And it is worth every second. This demanding road can be ridden by any skill level, if you stay within your own abilities. If you push past your limits, it will likely require the payment of dues in damaged bikes and/or injured bodies.

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Tail of the Dragon, US 129, Tennessee/North Carolina

If you are riding north on the Dragon, your journey begins at the Cheoah Dam (Fugitive Dam) on the Little Tennessee River.

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Cheoah Dam, Topoco, North Carolina

After a short climb and some warm-up turns, you will find Deal’s Gap, where US 129 intersects with NC 28 (Moonshiner 28 starting point). Here there are large parking areas on both sides of the road. Each has a shop for t-shirts and souvenirs. The one on the right also boasts a restaurant, rooms for rent, and the nearest fuel pumps. There is one large tree which shades a small portion of the parking area, and it draws riders like flies.

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Deals Gap,  Tail of the Dragon, US129, North Carolina

 

This is the infamous Tree of Shame, where parts and pieces of motorcycles, that have crashed on the Dragon, hang as a reminder to all who dare to slay the beast. If you are lucky enough to find an open space here, take it as you won’t find much else. The shop on the left has more shade, but the parking area is mostly gravel and care must be taken. This is the gathering place for everyone riding the Dragon. You will see every type, style, and make of motorcycle here. Just a walk down the rows of bikes can be entertaining. Of course, you will also find cars here, from the mundane to the exotic.

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Tree of Shame, Deals Gap, North Carolina

Then, you continue north through the 318 turns the Dragon has to offer. The length is dotted with small pull-offs (most offering some shade) where slower vehicles will allow you to pass. But not always. Sometimes you get behind a cager that has no interest in how much fun you are having and slows your roll to a crawl. But it doesn’t happen often, as most drivers are very considerate in allowing you to pass.

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Pull Off on Tail of the Dragon, US 129, Tennessee

And this is the only time to pass. There are no passing zones and crossing the double yellow line risks not only a substantial ticket from the Blount County Sheriff’s Department, but also puts your life in grave danger. I know this because I had the opportunity to meet Sgt. Postel, after just clipping the yellow line in a turn I had gotten to shallow in. How does an experienced rider get in the wrong position in a turn? It only took a second of inattention.

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Sgt. Postel, Blount County Sheriffs Department, US 129, Tennessee

You see, there are a couple companies who post photographers at key locations and turns on the Dragon. They snap multiple digital HD photos of every rider and vehicle that goes by. You can then view and purchase these photographs online. As I am familiar where the photo opportunities are, I took the opportunity to wave to the photographer (hoping for a great pic as a souvenir).

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Killboy.com photographer, Tail of the Dragon, US129, Tennessee

That split second was all it took for me to get out of position. I entered the turn too shallow and had no apex to work with. I wrestled the bike through the turn but clipped the yellow line in doing so. Sgt. Postel was sitting there watching the whole thing. His 2018 BMW caught up to me before I knew it. I found a small pull-off and dismounted. Sgt. Postel explained my transgression and then was kind enough to give me just a warning. His kindness is still greatly appreciated, as that could have been a very expensive fine. These officers are there every day, year-round. And they are focused on keeping everyone safe, not jamming up the visitors here to enjoy this legendary road. Often, they are dealing with cars and drivers who lack the respect this road demands. With less bodily injury at risk, they tend to be more aggressive and therefore, more dangerous.

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Blount County Sheriffs Dept., US 129 northern start point, Tennessee

At the northern end, you will find a large pull-off to the right. The only shade is at the far end, so take it if you can get it. It is almost a necessary respite to allow the adrenaline to ebb and catch your breath. On the day we took some new riders over for their first time, we stopped here to debrief. One of our female riders was ecstatic and wanted to turn around a run it again, over and over. One of our male compatriots, was happy to do it once and never wanted to do it again. That is how this road is. You either love it or hate it. If you end up being one of the latter, fear not. As you can see from this series, there are plenty of other less demanding roads to ride in the area.

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North end, Tail of the Dragon, US 129, Tennessee (sign reads: Motorcycles – High Crash Area Next 11 Miles)

There is one pull off that offers a scenic view. Just a short mile or so from the end of the Dragon, heading north, is a pull-off to the left. It gets crowded here, so be careful entering and exiting. It does offer a scenic, elevated view of the Cheoah Dam you passed at the start of your ride and the Cheoah Lake it creates.

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Scenic Overlook, Tail of the Dragon, US 129, Tennessee

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Cheoah Dam from Scenic Overlook, Tail of the Dragon, US 129, Tennessee

There are plenty of YouTube videos of all sorts for the Tail of the Dragon, but even those lack the real sense and feel of rubber gobbling up road, as you throw yourself and machine back and forth through its turns. You will also come across plenty of stills and videos of crashes, too. These happen. I recommend saving those for when you get home. If you are riding with your mind focused on what COULD happen, you will not be focused on what IS happening, and that is all the distraction it takes. Riding scared will kill you. On one ride, as we rounded a corner, we came across a bike and rider down in the middle of the road. Quickly, we blocked traffic, righted the bike and moved it to the shoulder, while others tended to the rider. He was not injured, but obviously shaken. His beautiful motorcycle was another story. It would take weeks to complete the repairs that would be obviously needed. I thought about snapping a picture, but then thought better of it. Nobody wants to be ‘that guy’. It served as a sobering reminder of the dangers this road holds. Or at least it did for about five turns, till the rush of tree, growl of exhaust, and pressing g-force had me back in the zone and riding hard.

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Metal Sculpture, Tail of the Dragon, US 129, North Carolina

As for accommodations, our group has always chosen a rental home or cabin for the week. There are tons of them out there. They provide a lot more privacy and comfort than a campground or inn. And the few resorts or hotels, have common areas to gather in at the end of the day, if you are ready to be overtly social with your transient neighbors. A private rental allows the group to gather and commune in the same type of amenities without having to share. They usually have more than one bathroom, a kitchen with all the appliances (coffee maker required for our group), and a washer and dryer. Every time, we have been very happy with our private rentals, and it is cost effective as we usually stay for a week and get a reasonable reduction to the daily rate. Some of these have minimum stay requirements, so read carefully. But there are a lot of other options out there. So, shop around to find what suits your needs.

Some of the things to look for:

1.       Driveway Condition – many of the private roads leading to rentals may be unimproved. These are usually well travelled and packed down, but it is something to be aware of.

2.       Wi-Fi and Cell service – these services can be spotty as you travel through the mountains and valleys. Having good service in the evening, when your day is done, can help you avoid digital withdraw.

3.       Covered Parking – We have always found a place that offered some covered parking for the motorcycles. You won’t find this at every rental, or they may have some, but not enough for all the motorcycles in the group. This is convenient but should not be a deal breaker.

4.       Outside Grill and Fire Pit – Nothing more relaxing than a good meal prepared on the grill after a day of hard riding. Likewise, the coziness of sitting around a campfire after sunset is a real treat.

5.       Number of Beds – descriptions often refer to the number of people a place can sleep. However, this assumes that any bed Queen size or larger is holding two people. You are better to look at the number of beds and bedrooms. But keep in mind, that the floor plan and space may allow for an air mattress or two to be used at night.

6.       Heat and A/C – For your own comfort, it behooves you to check that it has both.

7.       Advertised Rental Rates – Most places have cleaning fees and other things tacked on to the daily or weekly rate advertised. Make sure you know your total costs before deciding.

8.       Location – Other than the small rooms available at the Deals Gap Resort right on the Dragon, you are going to have a ride to get to the Dragon and in town. Try to find something centrally located to both. If you are within 15 to 20 miles, a late evening run out to the Dragon or into town for a meal, will not seem like a burden. Remember, the roads you travel are all scenic and enjoyable.

9.       Alcohol – Graham County, North Carolina, is a dry county. You can buy beer at a few hard to find places in the county, but your best bet is to bring what you need. The drive to Bryson City for the closest liquor store is a haul.

10.   Decks – We had a couple choices this trip. What finalized our decision as to one over another was that one had a covered deck. We had a beautiful covered deck last trip and it is where we spent all our time, if not riding. Only one of our final choices had a covered deck. After a day in the saddle and plenty of sun, a shaded place to put your feet up and unwind is just the thing.

11.   Early Starts – As stated previously, there is often morning fog and mist which give the Smoky Mountains their name. On cooler mornings, it may be as late as 10 am before it clears in the lowest points of the valley. It can also make for damp road conditions until the sun can dry the roads. But it is not a given every day, we were able to start our day as early as 7 am when the temperature stayed higher overnight.

12.   Weekend Events – The Dragon is world-renowned, and as such, it draws riders and drivers from around the world. There are often events on the weekends. Rallies and meets for all types of vehicles. Some large and organized. Some just impromptu regional clubs. But it does make for increased vehicular traffic on the weekends. There is usually an event calendar available online, and you can check it, but it is not likely you will not have an event or two or three over a weekend.

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Ford Focus Rally, North end, Tail of the Dragon, US 129, Tennessee

This trip I shared a three-bedroom cabin on 5 acres with my good friends Josh and Nate. Josh was with me last trip, and Nate was a newbie to the area. We had an old barn for covered parking, which had electricity and water. Convenient for a late-night cleaning of your machine. A large, covered deck. The only time we were inside was to go to sleep and shower. The road was packed dirt and gravel, but easily passable. It was as secluded as could be. At night you could not see another light or hear many sounds. It was a peaceful and quiet respite for the end of our long days of riding.

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Barn and Rear Lot, Private Rental Cabin, Robbinsville, North Carolina

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Private Rental Cabin, Robbinsville, North Carolina

Our cabin happened to come with a resident cat. Which is funny, only because our last cabin seemed to have a resident dog. Not sure why our choices always seem to have pets as one of the amenities, but it is not something to make a requirement. Needless to say, I found it entertaining through the course of the week, as these road-hardened, tough as nails, emotionless bikers caved into the feline charms and quickly adopted the cat. We even gave it a name, ‘Cat’. Its simplicity goes without saying. And yes, before you ask, we named our last vacation pet, ‘Dog’.

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‘Cat’, Nate, and Josh enjoying the deck, Robbinsville, North Carolina

After our incredible time at the Tail of the Dragon, the only thing bouncing around my brain on the way home was when I could get back and do it again. There are plenty of rides left in the area to be crossed off the list. Six Gaps is a beautiful run through six different mountain passes in Georgia. The Ocoee Loop, a 78-mile loop that meanders through Cherokee National Forest and snakes along the Ocoee River. Diamondback 226. The Snake 421. The Gambler. The North Georgia Ruby Run. Just to name a few. There are too many to list and the description will be reserved until I can bring you firsthand experience.

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At the peak, our contingent was seven strong, as friends joined us later in the week.

For all, you can expect a warm, inviting, and friendly welcome from the locals, stereotypical of southern hospitality. You can expect farm fresh, local foods and delicacies intrinsic to the culture and heritage of the area. You can expect Indian names for things and places, that are near impossible to pronounce. You can expect of every leisure and sport activity, from antique shopping to zip lining, to snaking down valleys on road or river. There is no lack of things to do or see.

If you can go, do go. If you can’t go, go anyway. It will be unforgettable.

After the rush and connection of being in those moments, it is the recollection of them that brings continued appreciation and great joy. I thank all my readers and followers for allowing me to take you along on this trip. I hope to be there again soon, and I hope to see you there!

Keep the shiny side up. I’m out!

Comments
8 Responses to “TOTD – The Dragon”
  1. Sharing your journey was a remarkable “ride” in itself! The photographs are incredible, the details not over-bearing, and your descriptions enlightening. Thank you for taking me along on the ride! P.S. Did you buy me a souvenir? LOL

    • Brad Osborne says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting Zed! I hope that trip is in your near future. When you go, I wish for you all the safety, great weather, and enjoyment I have had on every visit. Happy trails rider!

      • zed14 says:

        Thanks.
        It is unlikely that I’ll get back to the US for a few years. But we certainly plan to get back one day and do more motorcycle touring .

  2. motogeargirl says:

    Hey Brad, Jess here who sold you the helmet for your trip. Thought I’d drop a line from the new blog. Hope everything is well.

    • Brad Osborne says:

      Hey Jess! Thanks for joining in. Still the best helmet I own. I am well and hope you are the same. I am sure I will be in soon enough for a visit. Hope to see you then!

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  1. […] focus is really about the words. Even my posts, other than my photos posted in the series on the Tail of the Dragon trip, are usually limited to a feature picture and little else for […]



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