The Tail of the Dragon. What comes to mind when you see those words? Surely you don’t imagine a winding road with 318 curves in an 11 mile distance.
Also known as Deals Gap, The Tail of the Dragon is considered one of the world’s best motorcycling and sports car roads. Anyone looking for an exciting road to travel will enjoy this stretch of US 129 at the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. The speed limit on the road was 55 MPH up until 1992. Then it was reduced to 30 MPH, thanks to accidents while trying to negotiate the twisting curves.
In the summer months, stay aware of the fact that the presence of Tennessee State Law Enforcement has an increased presence in the area. Also, the Blount County Rescue Squad stations itself on the Dragon in the summer on weekends, to help with the frequent motorcycle accidents that occur since the nearest emergency help can be an hour or more away due to the fact they are dispatched from the Maryville area.
The Dragon has a pretty famous past. Much of the road was originally a well-worn animal track, worn down by buffalo and used by Native American Cherokee Indians for centuries. Then came the white men who were hunters and fur trappers. As time went on, the road became a bit more travelled. Some of the most treacherous curves have interesting names like Gravity Cavity, Beginner’s End, and Brake or Bust Bend.
The road has two different street names for two different states — in North Carolina it’s known as Tapoco Road and in Tennessee it’s known as Calderwood Highway but it has signs designating it as US 129 for the full length.
A good part of the road travels the southwest border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and therefore it isn’t developed and there’s not much chance of vehicles pulling out in front of drivers. It’s mostly forested with a few scenic overlooks. The Dragon is actually a mountain pass that goes along the North Carolina/Tennessee state line borders.
There used to be a small store located near the North Carolina – Tennessee state line. The Deal family owned and operated it, which is where the name Deals Gap comes from. The family later moved west.
Parson's Branch Road
Parson’s Branch Road is another way to get to the Tail of the Dragon. But be prepared. Parson’s Branch Road is an 8-mile gravel road that has 19 water fords, and be sure to note that it is one-way out of Cades Cove to the Tail of the Dragon. Though suffering some major damage in the floods of 2002 and being closed for several years due to that damage, the road is now only open seasonally.
Conflicts With the Cherokee
Historically, there were many conflicts related to The Tail of the Dragon and the area surrounding it between the native Cherokee Indians and white settlers. Both lost lives in these events and sadly these scuffles led to one of the major events involving the Cherokee — The Trail of Tears. The Trail of Tears was the government ordered relocation of the Cherokee to Oklahoma. But many Cherokee used the Dragon to escape the Army who was sent to capture them and evaded all efforts by hiding away in the forested lands surrounding it.
The Civil War
The Civil War was also a factor in the bloody history of The Tail of the Dragon. Many were killed in the mountains and surrounding area during the war and are lying in unmarked graves. One of the graves that is marked is the resting place of Bas Shaw, who was being transported to prison in Asheville when he was killed by Confederate soldiers. His grave can be seen at mile 6.5 of the Dragon.
There were also rogue gangs in the hills such as Kirkland Bushwackers who attacked anyone who came into their sight. They killed two of Bas Shaw’s sons. But law enforcement couldn’t catch them thanks to the mountain forests hiding them and officers were afraid to follow them into the backcountry to capture them.
Toll Booth Corner
More and more people began to move into the area and to make a little extra money, landowners began to charge a toll to use the road to cross their parcels. There is a place called Toll Booth Corner located at mile 3 where you had to pay the toll to cross. It is said that if you didn’t pay the toll, the landowners would hunt you down and hang you on the spot.
When the Cheoah Dam and Calderwood Dam were being built, there was a need for a place to house the workers. That’s when the town of Calderwood was established. Alcoa Aluminum had a major hand in developing the town by using it as a retreat for their executives to get away from it all. There was a golf course and even today’s Tapoco Lodge was built for their use. The dam and reservoir systems power today’s Alcoa aluminum processing plant north of Maryville, Tennessee.
The Tail of the Dragon has been known by many names over the years including TN-72 and NC-288. It’s now US-129. The first time it was actually paved was in 1934. Even then it got little traffic except for locals and lost tourists. But there was a small motel and diner established and today it still exists but now it’s known as Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort.
One of the major players in publicizing The Tail of the Dragon was Doug Snavely. He heard about the road and came to ride it himself. Falling in love with the twisting road, he promoted it to motorcycle riders and even got a job as the manager of the Crossroads of Time, a small café on US-129. He even started a newsletter about the Dragon. The locals didn’t approve of him though and he got a lot of threats even to the point of being shot at one time. He was also the creator of the Deals Gap Riding Society.
Over the years motorcycle traffic has increased, along with sports cars who want to enjoy the experience of riding the Dragon’s Tail. Drivers come from all over the US and Canada and even from foreign countries to test their driving ability. They also enjoy the shows that take place on weekends from April to October.
Since the Tail of the Dragon is laid out across the Smoky Mountains, there are only two intersections that bisect it — NC-28 to Fontana Dam and the 8 mile gravel road called Parsons Branch. There are few buildings along the way, only the Dragon Tee Shirt Shack and Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort. There’s usually little traffic on the 318 curves that make the 14 miles stretch so interesting to drive. The road is remote and is bordered by forest most of the way, most of the traffic being motorcycles and sports cars in it for the joy ride.
One of the features of The Tail of the Dragon is that Deals Gap, located at where the state lines come together, is the highest point on the Dragon at 1962 feet above sea level.
A Real Escapade
Drivers need to be aware that The Tail of the Dragon can be a real escapade in the winter months. Road conditions can border on treacherous due to snow and ice. Also, any time of the year, be prepared to deal with the local wildlife — bears, wild boars, dear and turkeys. They can pop out of the forest into the roadway at any given time so drivers need to stay aware of obstacles in the road.
Other things to keep watch for are trees down, storm debris and tractor trailers who need to take up most of the road while negotiating the tight curves. You’ll need to give way when they come around or risk an accident. This isn’t the road for you if you’re the least bit nervous about negotiating tight mountain curves.
With curves so tight at times, drivers need to be ready to scrape some metal from your pegs or squeal those tires of your sports car. Exciting to say the least, traffic is mostly light during the week but on the weekends can get heavier as people come out to enjoy the excitement on their time off from work.
You will begin the Dragon from Fugitive Bridge, where parts of the movie “The Fugitive” was filmed, if you’re accessing it from the North Carolina side. You’ll have a view of Cheoah Dam where Harrison Ford jumped in the movie.
The Fugitive wasn’t the only movie filmed along the Tail of the Dragon. The first film that was shot there was Thunder Road, starring Robert Mitchum and it was about moonshining. You can see some of the props, like old wooden safety posts, at mile 4.5. Another movie was Two Land Blacktop where they shot scenes of the state line signs and more. Tapoco Dam and Calderwood Dam were included in scenes from the film In Dreams.
With its historical past, the Tail of the Dragon has become an exciting destination for motorcycle riders and drivers — and even bicyclists — who want to try their skill at ‘taming’ the Dragon.
Tips and tricks
Helmets are required in both North Carolina and Tennessee. You will be ticketed so obey the law.
Ride at your skill level – don’t hotdog it. Go at a speed you’re comfortable with and don’t try to keep up with faster riders.
Stay in the right half of the right lane. Don’t hug the double yellow. There are blind corners. You will definitely run into trouble at some point if you don’t follow this rule.
Avoid painted lines when pavement is wet. The paint becomes very slippery.
This road is not for sightseeing, it is for driving. Pay attention to the road not the sights.
Watch the Roadway
Watch the roadway ahead. There are blind curves, bushes, other vehicles and animals…yes, animals. You may encounter bears, turkeys, deer and wild boars not to mention snakes. Be ready to hit your brakes. You don’t want to hit a large animal when you’re on a bike.
Wear protective gear. Helmet, gloves, boots, leathers. You never know what will happen and if you go down, you want to be protected.
Spare your brakes. Downshift when you can.
Pay attention to other drivers whether they’re faster or slower. Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t daydream. This is not the road for it.
Most of the tips and tricks for motorcycle riders carry over to sports car drivers also. A few are different but not much. Here are a few tips for anyone driving a car along the Dragon’s Tail.
Tips for Cars
Stay in your lane. This is a must. With the curves of the Dragon you can’t afford to drift into the other lane. You will end up with a fender bender, or worse. You don’t want to crash your car on this road.
Be aware of the big rigs that might be coming at you. They take most of the curve and a lot of times will have an escort driver who will wave you over. Be ready to pull to the side or even back up. If you see an escort driver waving at you, pay attention to them. They are there to help the truck and also to make sure you don’t get hit.
Don’t overuse your brakes. Don’t overcorrect if you see something coming at you. Be aware you can go off the side. Having a wayward motorcycle dent the side of your car is better than slamming your car sideways into a tree while trying to avoid him. Don’t get yourself in a position where avoiding a minor collision leads to a disastrous wreck on the side of the road.
Make sure your vehicle is in great running order before you begin the Tail of the Dragon. You don’t want to break down here and you also want to make sure your brakes work.
There will always be faster drivers than you. Don’t try to keep up. You’ll be safer for it.
Don’t sightsee. You need to pay attention to other drivers and whatever may be in the road ahead of you. This road is for driving, not seeing the sights.
Obey the Law
Obey the 30 MPH speed limit. You don’t want to ruin your day with a ticket. The highway patrol cracks down on speeding drivers and it also puts other drivers in danger should you be going too fast to negotiate these curves and you drift into their lane. There are a high number of deaths on this road. Don’t become a statistic. Save your family the grief of losing you because you wanted to try to see if you can take that curve at a higher speed. It isn’t worth it.
All of this being said, driving the Tail of the Dragon can be a breathtaking experience whether you’re driving a car or riding a motorcycle. The key is to stay safe and enjoy the ride.