Tail of the Dragon Details
Beginning at Deals Gap on the Tennessee/North Carolina state line is the Tail of the Dragon. It is considered by many as one of the world’s foremost motorcycling and sports car touring roads. Anyone looking for an exciting highway will enjoy this 11-mile stretch of US 129.The Dragon is desolate and can be a real adventure in the winter months. We’ve had to deal with bears, turkeys, deer, and wild boars in the road, trees down, ice/snow, and tractor-trailers taking up both lanes in the curves. It is not a road for the squeamish, but if you’re looking for a lot of excitement, don’t miss this one. NOTE: Tennessee and North Carolina have banned 18-wheelers from this highway, but that doesn’t mean you might meet one sneaking through.
We’ve been driving the Tail of the Dragon since 1975. At first it was in the family car, then in our 1976 Corvette for many years. Then we have graduated to motorcycles and now our new Mustang GT is our weapon of choice.
We have always loved this piece of asphalt, finding it a thrill in whatever we happen to be riding or driving. One of our most exciting runs was on icy roads in the Expedition with 4-wheel drive engaged. One day we crossed in a snow storm riding two-up on our FJR in freezing temperatures. That was tense. In the summers we ride/drive the Dragon several days a week. It’s better than any roller coaster we’ve ever been on. Our favorite sections are the Hump, the Esses just before Cattail Straight and the Dips. Be ready to scrape your footpegs in some of these wild curves.
Beware …. it is not a road to sight see on. The attraction is the road itself, not the scenery. No need to look at the wooded roadside when the curves are coming at you rapid fire. And the curves are what you should be concerned with.
To some the Dragon begins on the North Carolina side at Fugitive Bridge with a view of the Cheoah Dam where Harrison Ford jumped from in the movie The Fugitive. The dam and old single lane bridge were also in the 1971 movie Two Lane Blacktop that has become a cult classic.
US 129 then climbs through The Slide, a steep series of “S” curves where one would not want to meet a tractor-trailer. The road then levels and slightly straightens until a series of curves approaching the intersection of Moonshiner28, another great road in itself.
Take a break and stop at our Tail of the Dragon store. Just look for the Big Metal Dragon. We are located at the intersection of US 129 and NC 28.
Next comes Deals Gap and the Tennessee State Line where the real action begins. We’ll leave the rest for you to describe after you try it. Many just remember curve after curve after curve and surviving the run of their lives with a hoot and a big smile on their face. The Dragon ends 14 miles across the mountain in Tennessee at Tabcat Creek Bridge. The North Carolina locals who use it frequently call it “that damn road to Tennessee”.
This is a very special and unique highway. There are no intersecting roads, no houses with driveways and no businesses. Each and every curve is different. There is very little elevation change. And many of the curves are banked like a race track. Watch out for a few twists that are off-camber and several that are decreasing radius curves.
After riding many other twisty roads, we always come home to the Dragon and rate it the most fun of them all.
Many people confuse traffic deaths from as far away as 100 miles as being “on the Dragon”. The Tail of the Dragon is only 11 miles long and the following facts pertain only to those 11 miles. There are more motorcycle deaths on other roads in Blount County Tennessee than there are on the Dragon each year.
2017 – Three deaths as of June 8: Two deaths in single car accident at 1.5. One motorcycle rider at Tabcat Bridge parking area.
2016 – Four deaths: South bound trike off bank at 10.2 killing 90 year old male passenger. North bound trike at 9.1. North bound sportbike at 9.2. Southbound cruiser at 4.3 (found next day). Trike near Cheoah Dam NOT ON DRAGON.
2015 – One death: June 20 Sportbike hit tree at 1.0.
2014 – Three deaths: May 19 sportbike vs car at 10.8. May 28 trike into bank at 2.9. Sept 21 sportbike hit tree at 5.0.
2013 – Two deaths: August 3 sportbike off road at 9.2. Car off road 12/19 at 1.9.
2012 – Four deaths: June 6 cruiser off road at mm 3.5 (possible heart attack). June 16 Cruiser off road at mm 8.0. Sept 28 motard off road at 7.2. Oct 22 female cruiser rider off at 4.0.
2011 – One death: August 3 Tennessee sportbike rider run over by 18 wheeler at mm 5.
2010 – One death: August 28 South bound sportbike rider off road and hit tree. Another death at Wheelie Hell in August technically not on Dragon.
2009 – Five deaths: HD rider from Miami went off road, reason unknown (possible heart attack). Friends and LEOs searched several hour before finding body. A female HD rider died at mm 5.0 when she went off the road. Another female died a month later in the same area. A 66 year old Goldwing rider died near mm 8. A 49 year old died two months after crashing at the Hump.
2008 – Four deaths: One sportbike went off road and hit tree near Thunder Road Bend. One cruiser went off road in Ron’s Run with rider suffering heart attack. One trike went off road and struck tree. One sportbike death in head-on near Parsons Branch.
2007 – Three deaths: One low side at Guardrail Cliff. Trike versus a vehicle near the Wall claimed the lives of an older rider and his passenger. Both accidents in July.
2006 – Two deaths: One rider went off road and hit tree another low sided into an oncoming vehicle.
2005 – Three deaths: All three deaths involved failing to negociate corners – two went off the mountain and one slid into an oncoming vehicle.
2004 – Two deaths: Both deaths apparently caused by speed and then overbraking.
2003 – No deaths: There were several deaths in the surrounding area of the Dragon, but none that we know of on the 11 miles of the Dragon itself.
2002 – Two deaths: On June 16 a 29 year-old Dale Bently a Valkyrie rider from Michigan died on the Dragon. The rider was passing a car near the Horns of the Dragon when he wrecked and suffered fatal head injuries. The second death occurred on Sunday August 4 when Lendry R. Obanna Jr., 24, of Jacksonville, Florida, lost control of his 2000 Yamaha R6.
2001 – Two deaths: The entire Blount County (home of the Dragon) saw a total of four motorycle fatalities in 2001. The total includes the deaths of a 27-year-old Knoxville man who died March 10 in a collision on Old Knoxville Highway in Rockford, the May 5th death on the Dragon, the July 5th death of a 43-year-old Maryville man in an accident on Happy Valley Road, and the October 27th death on the Dragon.
2000 – One death: Blount County had four motorcycle deaths in 2000 including one fatality on the Dragon.
1999 – One death: Only one motorcycle death in 1999
1998 – No deaths: No fatal motorcycle crashes in 1998.
1997 – One death: A single motorcycle fatality is listed in 1997.
1996 – One death: A single motorcycle fatality in 1996.
1995 – Two deaths: In 1995, two men died in separate July 3 motorcycle crashes on the Dragon during the holiday weekend.
The Biker in the Bank appeared on the Dragon in 2000. it lasted about a year before disappearing.
Here he lies with pistons and crank
Buried up to his ass
In the face of this bank
He challenged the Dragon
To have some fun
As you can see, the Dragon won!!
Photo & Poem by Carl Cooper
An Engineer’s Interpretation of 318 Curves in 11 Miles
Dear Dragon Heads:
Had the opportunity to cruise “the Tail of the Dragon”. Couldn’t get my car out of second gear, so I thought … “this is pretty tight.” Having a fondness for juggling numbers I tried to put “318 corners in 11 miles” into an easily understood format, the simple average. Granted I took broad liberties in standardizing corners geometry, but I think the results are interesting. My idealized corner geometry is very simple:
- Turn Entrance is straight of x distance
- Turn Radius is constant – also of x distance
- Turn Exit is straight – again of x distance
- Using these “optimized” arbitrary proportions, an “Average Tail of the Dragon Corner” would be defined as follows:
- Turn Entrance – 61 feet
- Turn Radius – a 120 degree arc of constant 29 foot radius,
- Total radius length – 61 feet
- Turn Exit – 61 feet
- The turn Entrance and turn Exit legs would be at a 60 degree angle to each other
- Average Apex-to-Apex distance – 183 feet
- Straight line distance from Start to Finish of the 11 convoluted miles – 6.7 miles
So, if the Dragon were “standardized”, you would have 318 corners 183 feet apart, each with an Entrance/Exit angle of 60 degrees and a corner radius of 29 feet. THAT IS TIGHT.
You never know who or what will show-up at the Tail of the Dragon….
North Carolina: No plans.
2015 TN DOT banned vehicles over 30 feet in length.
2009 TN DOT made some major safety updates to the Dragon. Several earthen berms were constructed to prevent bikes from going down steep drop-offs. Many of the pull-offs were paved. Some additional warning signs were installed. Tail of the Dragon was instrumental in advising TN DOT on these safety features. Contrary to rumors there are no plans to install speed bumps. No improvements are planned for 2012.
TN repaved the Dragon in June of 2002. CLICK HERE for DOT details.
Tabcat Bridge to Deals Gap (State Line) – 11.1 miles
Tabcat Bridge to Hwy 28 – 11.8 miles
Tabcat Bridge to Fugitive Bridge – 14.0 miles
As the Crow Flies:
Tabcat Bridge to NC 28 – 5.8 miles
Tabcat Bridge to Fugitive Bridge – 6.0 miles
ANNUAL AVERAGE DAILY TRAFFIC (AADT):
2014 – 1057
2013 – 1069
2012 – 1401 or more than 511,000 a year.
2011 – 1265
2010 – 1055
2009 – 1024
2008 – 844
2007 – 953
2006 – 1022
2005 – 959
2004 – 878
2003 – 823
2002 – 1159
2001 – 717
2000 – 626
1999 – 565
1998 – 538
1997 – 852
1996 – 576
1995 – 520
1994 – 516
1993 – 553
1992 – 480
1991 – 500
1990 – 528
1989 – 582
1988 – 368
1987 – 283
1986 – 147
1985 – 365
Tennessee Department of Transportation
2012 – 660 or more than 240,000 a year
North Carolina DOT
NOTE: In the winter months traffic is extremely light, probably less than 50 vehicles a day. This means the other months have days much busier than the ADDT shown above. The Tennessee figures do not count the traffic coming into the Dragon from North Carolina that turns around and heads back into North Carolina.
Deals Gap at the State Line – 1962 feet
Tabcat Bridge – 877 feet
Tabcat Bridge to Deals Gap – plus 1085 feet
Tabcat Bridge to Fugitive Bridge – plus 321 feet
Prior to 1992 the speed limit in both Tennessee and North Carolina was 55 mph. In 1993 the speed limit on the Tennessee side was lowered to 40 mph. In 2002 the speed limit was lowered to 30 mph, which is still in effect today. The North Carolina portion of the Dragon was lowered to 30 mph in early 2005.
You will hear a lot about the fastest times on the Dragon. The original unofficial timing involved a run from the Overlook to the Crossroads of Time and then back, an 18.6-mile distance. The round trip time was then divided by two. The Deals Gap Riding Society record for an amateur rider was a 22 minute round trip run, which averaged out to 11 minutes one way (50.7 mph average). The overall record was 18 minutes, or 9 minutes one-way (62 mph average). In order to compete for a new record one had to make the run along with the current record holder.
These records were set back in the early 1990s when there was little traffic on the Dragon. Today, with the road patrolled by sheriff and highway patrol, you will risk severe penalties if you try to beat the records.
Movies or TV Shows filmed at Tail of the Dragon:
Stark Love, a silent film, was shot in Graham County and the surrounding area in 1927. Considered a classic film because of its realism, the movie portrayed the mountain people as slothful and backwards. An opening scene states “MAN IS THE ABSOLUTE RULER – WOMAN IS THE WORKING SLAVE”. The last copy of the movie was thought to have burned in a fire at Paramount Studios, but a copy was found in 1968. The story line features a mountain family whose son escapes to the big city for an education. When he returns to marry his girlfriend he finds that his widowed father has taken her hand. Then conflict between the father and son ensues.
The first feature film made on US 129 was Thunder Road. This 1958 Robert Mitchum film about backwoods moonshining actually had scenes filmed on the Dragon. One location that we can identify is at the power line easement at about mile 4.5 on the Dragon map and you can see the old wooden “safety” posts on the open corner. A number of the posts still remain. Many town scenes were filmed in Asheville.
The 1971 cult classic movie Two-Lane Blacktop was partially filmed on the Dragon. There are scenes of the state line sign, some of the curves, and the original single lane bridge at Tapoco Dam. There are also scenes along 129 on the Little Tennessee River. We were amazed to see the original Crafton’s Motel, Restaurant and Esso gas station in the film too. These scenes are near the end of the movie.
The Fugitive (1993) Harrison Ford jumps off Cheoah Dam at Tapoco. It is now commonly known as Fugitive Dam. Other scenes such as the train wreck were filmed near Bryson City.
In Dreams (1998) Starring Annette Bening and Robert Downey, Jr. had scenes at Cheoah and Calderwood Dams. There was also a chase scene filmed on Moonshiner 28 between the Dragon and Fontana. Another scene was shot at the Fontana Marina.
In 2011 the Discovery Channel filmed a segment that appeared on their Hell Roads Show. Here is the segment on YouTube. CLICK HERE to view
In 2012 Larry the Cable Guy came to the Dragon to film a show for his Only in America series on the History Channel. It was shown in September 2013.
July 5, 2013 rain caused postponement of many fireworks in the area but it didn’t stop Charley Boorman of Long Way Around and Long Way Down from making a couple of passes on the Tail. He was filming for his British show Charley Boorman’s USA Adventure.
September 25, 2013 we had a visit from Jessi Combs of Mythbusters, Overhaulin’, Xtreme 4×4 and All Girls Garage. She and Patrick McIntyre were at the Tail shooting for AOL’s 1001 Things to Do Before You Die. They brought a Porsche and played for two days. We all had a lot of fun with the entire crew. The THP even gave Jessi a driving award …. CREEPS.