“318 Curves in 11 Miles” isn’t just the Tail of the Dragon’s slogan; it is an invitation to twists, turns, bends and bows galore in a forested mountain setting on US 129, which has been called the most challenging drive east of the Mississippi. The curves in the road have some pretty colorful names to capture just how challenging they can be, including: Beginner’s End, Copperhead Corner, Shade Tree Corner, Hog Pen Bend, Brake or Bust Bend, Gravity Cavity, Sunset Corner, and Mud Corner. Yes, it is a thrill ride. The Tail of the Dragon’s thrills used to be known only by word of mouth, but the word is out and the route can be very busy. Just expect that.
Deals Gap is at the heart of the Tail of the Dragon; it’s the gap in the mountains where North Carolina and Tennessee meet. It has become known as an international gathering place for motorcyclists. The first weekend in May each year, the Tail of the Dragon hosts “Mini’s on the Dragon” a gathering of Mini Cooper drivers that can include more than 800 of the cars. The Dragon’s Den Pub and Grill is there, as well as The Tree Of Shame, a sobering tribute to those who did not conquer the Dragon; it is made up of helmets and fenders and many other bits and pieces they left along the road. It is worth a look.
Purists will tell you it is all about the ride, but there are also craft stores and antique stores, and great scenic views. If you like to go faster than the vehicle in front of you, use your head and wait till it is truly safe to pass or better yet, use the pullouts and pause long enough to let the parade pass you by. The same can be said if you are bothered by the tailgating traffic behind you. Pull off and let them go. Don’t cross the double yellow. If anyone is even slightly prone to carsickness, take the prevention medication well beforehand. A plus is that the road is now off limits to large trucks and the posted top speed is now 30 mph. Even so, there are daredevils and risk takers out there, so be careful.
Hint: Consider making the drive in low season, mid week; there’s less traffic.
Caution: This is no place to take your RV.
Nearby Must-See Drives
Cherohala Skyway – First stop in at the Visitors Center. Then head along Tennessee State Hwy. 165 and North Carolina 143 a 42-mile stretch of top of the mountain road. This mile high road atop the Cherokee Nantahala Forests is not as curvy as the tail of the dragon. But it is much more scenic with breathtaking crest of the Great Smoky Mountains views, and great spots for a picnic. The highest point is the Santeetlah Overlook. A six-mile side trip on State Route 210 takes you to 100-foot Bald River Falls. Another short hike from the Skyway takes you to Falls Branch Falls. Some say this is the most beautiful drive in the eastern USA. If you have time, drive it both directions, since the views are great either way. If you depart from and return to North Carolina you can have lunch in Tellico Plains in Tennessee. As with the Tail of the Dragon, plan to drive the Skyway midweek when there is very little traffic. Lots of people who drive both say they prefer this one to “The Tail”.
Devils Triangle – This is a forty-four mile loop made up of Tennessee highways 62, 116 and 330, that some say is every bit as challenging as the Tail of the Dragon. The Foothills Parkway is America’s oldest unfinished road, started in 1944. There is a nice 16 mile stretch that is done, which is another great road for scenic driving. Go to Clingmans Dome for a very beautiful view, stroll out on to the dramatic forty-five foot observation tower, built in 1959 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, to enjoy the panoramic view of the mountains.
Places to Stay Nearby
Historic Tapoco Lodge, located on the banks of the cascading Cheoah River, dates back to 1930. They have lodge rooms with river views and with mountain views, cabins as well. The food at Jasper’s Restaurant, the dining room, gets high marks. Order the fried green tomatoes over goat cheese grits and save room for the crème brulee. Blue Waters Lodge, in Robbinsville, right off the Tail of the Dragon, offers rooms with a view of Lake Santeetlah, gracious hosts and fabulous meals. Rivers Edge Treehouse Resort lets you feel like you have been adopted into the Swiss Family Robinson, the suite rooms are on the top floor of a cabin on stilts, with a nice big private deck overlooking the forest. Perfect place to relax before and after your drive. Fontana Village is a rustic meets upscale quaint vacation resort just nine miles from the Tail of the Dragon, with lodge, cabin and RV accommodations.