Road Trip - Driving through the Tail of the Dragon - Deals Gap

Heather Raulerson

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Photo by Heather Raulerson

Do you like taking road trips? Well, I have a wild and crazy one for you! Deals Gap is on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. But what makes it wild and crazy? The portion of the two-lane highway called "Tail of the Dragon" has you driving one of the most technical and challenging roads in America. The Dragon consists of tackling 318 curves in 11 miles bordering the Great Smoky Mountains, which makes the Tail of the Dragon one of the most scenic stretches of road in America. And also one of the most dangerous roads.

Where is the Tail of the Dragon and Deals Gap?

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The Tail of the Dragon is a mountain pass along the North Carolina and Tennessee State line by Deals Gap. One of the top five motorcycle rides in the world, this scenic curvy road (US 129), borders the Great Smoky Mountains and is near the Little Tennessee River. To get to Deals Gap from the Tennessee side, it is only 55 miles from Pigeon Forge. If you are coming from North Carolina, Robbinsville is the closest city to Deals Gap and the Tail of the Dragon. You can start or finish the Tail of the Dragon at the intersection of US 129 & NC 28.

Helpful Tip: If you are susceptible to motion sickness, make sure to take Dramamine or wear Sea-Bands as I do. As the roads are incredibly winding and go up and down, the best spot for you is in the driver's seat. I rode the Dragon in the back seat and felt ill from all the curves. But, when I drove it, the windiness and up and down motion did not bother me.

What is the Tail of the Dragon?

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The Tail of the Dragon is America's #1 motorcycle and sports car road. The name Tail of the Dragon comes from the fact that all the curves resemble a dragon's tail. With 318 curves to wind around the Great Smoky Mountains in 11 miles, it makes this a car driving enthusiasts dream to drive. The road is also where many car companies bring their test vehicles to check their handling along the curves.

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The reason why motorcyclists favor this route is that during this stretch of 11 miles, there are no intersecting roads. Once you start in Deals Gap, you have to stay on this two-lane road until it ends at Lake Santeetlah or vice versa in the other direction. There are a couple of spots where you can pull over to admire the scenery, but for the most part, you are driving from start to finish. The average time to ride the Tail of the Dragon is 25 minutes.

Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort

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The Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort can be found at the intersection of US 129 & NC 28. Open from March to November each year; this resort is the only stop for drivers or cyclists tackling the Dragon. When I drove the Dragon, we finished here. The parking lot was packed with motorcycles, either joyously finished or getting ready to tackle the Dragon. You can get snacks or souvenirs, grab lunch, or even stay the night at the resort. This is also a great spot to meet up with other riders undertaking the Dragon and listen to their stories. The Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort is the only place near the Tail of the Dragon to get gas.

Tree of Shame

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The Tree of Shame can be found in the parking lot of the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort. The Tree of Shame was started back in the 1980s by a bunch of Harley Riders. It was to be a shrine for the riders that weren't successful and were bitten by the Dragon. Leaving parts of their broken bikes signed and dated, and attached to the tree in the yard, made the Tree of Shame a powerful symbol. The sign on the tree says it all, " No Gain & a lot of Pain." Now parts are left at the store for future placement on the tree. But, bear it in mind, the goal is NOT to be added to the Tree of Shame.

Dangers of the Dragon

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With some of the hairpin curves called Copperhead Corner, Wheelie Hell, Shade Tree Corner, Mud Corner, Gravity Cavity, Beginner's End, and Brake or Bust Bend you know that this route is going to be challenging. And with the Tree of Shame bursting of broken motorcycle parts, this road proves it is dangerous. The speed limit along the Trail of the Dragon was 55mph before 1992 and was lowered to 30mph in 2005. Unfortunately, reducing the speed limit has not reduced the number of accidents or deaths along this stretch of road. Since 2000, 37 fatalities have been recorded along this highway. With the increase of motorcycle accidents, police patrols have increased along the route.

Another reason to be careful driving or riding this route is that you might happen to come upon a bear hunt. When I was driving the Dragon, we saw several people with rifles hunting a bear that was seen in the area. There were trucks parked on the side of the road, and people crossing the road back and forth. We even saw the hunting dogs with antennas on their heads to signal the hunters when they found the bear. You never know what will be around the next bend, please be careful!

Just remember to be safe when driving or riding the Tail of the Dragon. Any emergency response takes 45 minutes to an hour to reach this remote area. And as the road is next to cliffs and ravines, if you do have an accident, it might be difficult even to spot you. Remember to follow the rules while on the Dragon or else be warned you will get bit!

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For a day trip along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina (2 hours from Gatlinburg), you can enjoy one of the most scenic and adventurous road trips in America. Come and experience the 318 curves within 11 miles of spectacular scenery, hairpin curves, and amazing Smoky Mountain cliffs. And then you can say you slew the Dragon!

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Heather is a freelance writer and photographer who loves slow travel where she can stay in one place to get to know the local scenery and culture. She is the owner of Raulersongirlstravel, a travel website sharing her solo adventures and photographs around the world.

Rochester Hills, MI
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