The Tail of the Dragon is a drive you won’t forget. It slaloms through a deep forest on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina like a spavined snake – there are 318 curves in a distance of less than 18 kilometres. The Dragon is imbued with myth and history – generations of drivers have come here to test themselves, and bootleggers once used its unpredictable curves to outrun the law. The roadside attractions are limited to ancient trees and echoing rock walls, which is just as well – the Dragon demands complete focus, and makes you realize what driving is really about. This is a sports car and motorcycle mecca.
Where it is
The Dragon’s official name is Route 129. It’s located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, south of Knoxville, Tenn. You can access the Dragon from north or south, and drive it both ways.
Why you should go
The Dragon is one of the great tests of driver and machine, with countless elevation changes, and every type of corner in the book. The landscape is stunning, with deep green forests, stone walls and rivers. Since it’s set in a national park, there’s almost no development, so the air is fresh, and the scenery unspoiled.
What you should drive
Anything will do, but the ideal machine for the Dragon is a light, quick sports car with sticky tires, instant power delivery and great brakes. With 318 curves, short straights and constant camber changes, handling is paramount.
What you should bring
Sports car or motorcycle, credit card, camera.
What you should see
Stop at the Deals Gap resort and check out the Tree of Shame, where they hang parts of crashed vehicles (there’s never a shortage). The resort also has a photo wall of car and motorcycle crashes.
The dam that Dr. Richard Kimball leapt from in The Fugitive is at the Dragon’s southern end.
Several companies take photos of the vehicles that come to drive the Tail of the Dragon. Log on to Killboy.com and 129Slayer.com to find your picture. They’re organized by date. Both companies have extensive Tail of the Dragon crash galleries.
What to avoid
Medevac helicopters and ambulances: hundreds of drivers and riders crash on the Dragon every year. To avoid a hospital visit (or worse) you should drive the Dragon carefully.
The law: Driving quickly on the Dragon can be rewarding for a skilled driver, but its reputation as a sports car mecca also attracts police. Keep that in mind.
Where to Stay
The Fryemont Inn in nearby Bryson City is loaded with Appalachian charm. It’s set in old-growth forest, and the dining room is a varnished, pole-and-beam masterpiece. After a day on the curves of the Dragon, sitting on the Fryemont’s vine-hung porches is a perfect respite.
What to think while you’re driving the Dragon
There are a number of blind, decreasing-radius curves that can suck in the over-aggressive and the unwary. The seductive, challenging curves mean that there’s always a chance that a driver coming the other way will veer into your lane. The Dragon demands your full attention.