Tail of the Dragon US-129
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How to Tame the Tail of the Dragon: Your Guide to Riding US-129

“The Tail of the Dragon” road in the Smokies is as legendary as the dragon itself. By now, you’ve either heard it’s one of the most dangerous roads in America, or it’s one of the most stunning drives in the Smokies.

The truth is that it’s a little bit of both, and you don’t have 100% control of how safe you’ll be driving it. At the same time, statements like that create a buzz that makes even more people want to slay this dragon.

Spoiler Alert–we aren’t going to tell you how to beat the record time on this twisty road with more than 300 curves along 11 miles. We’re more about sightseeing than countersteering.

We will share with you the tips and tricks to enjoy this road safely during the best times of the day and year and where to stop nearby to share in the glory of conquering the Tail of the Dragon.

Tail of the Dragon US-129-chicago_fangirl
Tail of the Dragon: US-129 | photo via chicago_fangirl

Where is Tail of the Dragon?

Better known as U.S. Route 129, Tail of the Dragon is an 11-mile ribbon of roadway that winds through Deals Gap across the North Carolina/Tennessee border. Less than a mile is in North Carolina, and the rest are in Tennessee

U.S. Route 129 rides the far southwest corner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Two cities bookend Tail of the Dragon–Robbinsville in North Carolina and Mayville in Tennessee.

One of the main access points is along North Carolina Highway 28, which carves through the Nantahala National Forest on scenic journeys of its own.

The Indian Lakes Scenic Byway spans 32 miles to Almond, including the Cherahola Skyway.

Twenty miles later, Highway 28 turns into the Waterfall Byway, running another 20 miles almost to the South Carolina state line.

While those are the official byway names, the route on Highway 28 is now known as the Moonshiner 28 among motorcycle and sports car fans.

How to Get to Tail of the Dragon

The south end of Highway 129 is about 50 miles from Cherokee, North Carolina. You’ll cover the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway on the way there. From Gatlinburg, you’re looking at a different 50-mile drive on the Foothills Parkway through Happy Valley.

It’s worth noting that even if you want to get to the other side of the Tail of the Dragon, you’ll need to take the road unless you want a 100+ mile detour.

If you need waypoints for Google Maps, select Dragon City in Maryville and Trail of the Dragon souvenir store in North Carolina.

Parson Branch Road

Here’s a well-kept secret entrance to the Tail of the Dragon from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Parson Branch Road is only for the most adventurous drives with a four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicle, and it has been closed for years, just opening again in May 2022.

From the Cable Mill Historic Area and Visitor Center at Cades Cove, follow the signs for Forge Creek/Parson Branch Road. After two miles, turn on Parson Branch Road. This is a one-way street, and you’ll navigate several streams on the way.

Parson Branch Road is closed during the winter, from December through March. When it is open, you will enter Tail of the Dragon somewhere in the middle.

Tail of the Dragon US-129-bylbash_garage
Tail of the Dragon: US-129 | photo via bylbash_garage

Trail of the Dragon History

A rudimentary trail offered access for the native Cherokee for centuries. Settlers used the trail in the 1700s. The British worked through this treacherous area to establish Fort Louden. During the Trail of Tears in 1831, Cherokee familiar with this route used it to escape the forced abandonment of their homeland.

The road then became the access to Parsons Branch, where settlements were established before the creation of the national park.

Up until the late part of the 20th Century, only people who lived here or lost visitors traveled this curved road. Over time, those who loved the challenge of navigating curvy roads by motorcycle or sports cars started to take notice of Route 129.

Local motorcycle rider Doug Snavely put the route on the map for the general population, much to the dismay of the locals. Angry that the secret was out, Snavely was threatened and shot once on his way to let other riders know about this epic route.

Since then, the Tail of the Dragon has become globally famous, ranked as one of the best drivers and most dangerous routes in the world.

Tail of the Dragon US-129-
Tail of the Dragon: US-129 | photo via ajboscand

What Makes Tail of the Dragon So Popular?

I don’t pretend to be a motorcycle rider, and my Suburu climbs mountains better than it handles hairpin turns, but it’s the epitome of a tough ride to challenge even the most experienced riders.

The road has 314 curves–some down to a suggested 10-mile-per-hour speed limit–across just 11 miles with minimal interference from cars entering the road. The road demands precision, control, and agility, providing a thrilling test of skill. Add in the road’s elevation changes and hairpin bends, and the Dragon is a dynamic and immersive driving experience unlike any other.

On top of that, the Tail of the Dragon has developed a vibrant community of motorcyclists, sports car enthusiasts, and automotive aficionados who come together to share their passion for driving and riding. This sense of camaraderie and shared enthusiasm adds to the appeal of the road.

Here are some places to visit if you want to meet up with the groups:

Look for the Tree of Shame, which is decorated with broken motorcycle parts for those who didn’t come out of the dragon’s lair unscathed.

Tail of the Dragon US-129
Tail of the Dragon: US-129 | photo via skittles_rs

Is Tail of the Dragon Really That Dangerous?

The biggest tale about the Tail of the Dragon is that it’s statistically ranked as one of the most dangerous roads in North Carolina/Tennessee/America/Earth, etc. It has the potential to be very dangerous or among the most dangerous. Most of the risks are less about the road and more about the decisions drivers make.

On average, about three people die each year on the roadway, and between 2021 and 2022, 17 accidents were reported. A dozen of those were motorcycle accidents. As the road became more popular with sports car drivers and motorcyclists, the intensity of rides increased.

Keep in mind this is a road with a 30-mile-per-hour speed limit with turns that usually average a speed limit of 15-20 miles per hour. We watched various YouTube videos where motorcyclists were trying to race the Dragon with speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, taking turns at 45-55 miles per hour. That is what makes this road dangerous for everyone.

If you’re sticking to the speed limit, staying in your lane, letting faster vehicles pass, and not getting distracted by the views, it’s as safe as any other road when the weather is clear. Every road becomes exponentially more dangerous with rain, snow, or ice on it.

Safety Guidance on Tail of the Dragon

You shouldn’t let the “dangerous” aspect of the road scare you away. In fact, more riders are heading to the Cherahola Skyway, and that’s one of the best drives in the Smokies.

Between best practices and road etiquette, you can enjoy the Tail of the Dragon.

Speed is one of the biggest reasons for accidents on the Tail of the Dragon. That goes as much for your vehicle as being prepared for speeding vehicles coming around the next corner.

If a vehicle going faster than you is approaching, do not be stubborn and keep going slow while allowing them to tailgate you. Also, avoid hitting the gas to match their speed. Simply pull over at the next road pull-out and allow them to pass.

Semi-trucks aren’t allowed on this highway, but they still use it from time to time and will take up much of the road while negotiating turns. Give them space. Salty looks are okay, too. Don’t attempt to bring a truck or trailer longer than 30 feet up this road.

Avoid the Tail of the Dragon on weekends, especially when the weather is nice, between 10am and 6pm. A mid-week 9am drive should be more pleasant than anxiety-inducing. Check road conditions before you head out, and use extra caution or avoid it altogether in winter.

What’s Near Tail of the Dragon?

Head two miles south of the souvenir store to see Chenoah Dam, otherwise known as Fugitive Dam. It’s where Harrison Ford jumped after being cornered by Tommy Lee Jones in the 1993 movie The Fugitive. In fact, the train crash scene from the movie is still just outside Dillsboro, about 60 miles from the dam.

On the way back to Cherokee, stop at Fontana Dam, an engineering marvel built during World War 2. Fontana Village offers shops and dining to explore, plus you can also catch up with the Appalachian Trail at Fontana Dam.

Tail of the Dragon US-129-greg_space_
Tail of the Dragon: US-129 | photo via greg_space_

Tame the Dragon and Other Scenic Routes

You don’t need to avoid any of these roads, as they offer some of the best views across the Smokies and Blue Ridge Mountains. Be smart and safe. If you aren’t a motorcyclist, you might want to skip a trip during the Smoky Mountain Bike Week or Thunder in the Valley (and other large bike events) that could put more people trying to slay the Dragon.

If the risks don’t motivate you to drive safer, the regular police patrols might. With the number of deaths and accidents, plus the risks rescuers take, you likely won’t get off with a warning.

As an avid road tripper, one of my favorite things to do is drive with a buddy. We take the road twice, so each of us gets a turn driving and the other sightseeing.

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