Road trips deserve the long route, and some of the best things come during detours.

Tucked on the western edge of North Carolina in the Great Smoky Mountains is a strip of road that has more curves than the Playboy Mansion on movie night, and, most likely, is more fun: The Tail of the Dragon.

It's a mere 11-mile stretch of US 129, this cambered ribbon of asphalt that weaves back and forth 318 times along trails that began hundreds of years ago. Indians, settlers and civil war troops all made their way through this mountainside pass through Deals Gap that legend says began as an animal trail.

None of them had as much fun on it as I did Friday along with the hundreds of other drivers on the Mini Takes the States road rally. We were heading to Nashville but took the long way there to drive the Dragon. As in life, road trips deserve the long route, and some of the best things come during detours.

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Simply put: The Tail of the Dragon is one of the most exciting pieces of American roadway ever.

Simply put: The Tail of the Dragon is one of the most exciting pieces of American roadway ever. Under the shade of poplars and kudzu, bikers, drivers and others ready themselves to dash through the public road, hoping to beat the Dragon and, often enough, the police setting up ticket factories for the 35-mph stretch of road.

The advice was straightforward: Don't drive beyond your means. If someone is coming up quickly behind you, pull over at the next available spot and let the driver pass. Stick to second gear, sometimes third will do. And make sure everything is secure inside your vehicle – if it's not, you'll learn that your cabin is about to become a pinball machine.



Friday, my whip was a 2011 Mini Countryman S with all-wheel drive. It was the perfect low-speed, high-performance vehicle that stuck to the corners like barbeque sauce to a pulled pork sandwich (exactly the lunch I chowed down a few minutes before heading down the Tail – which, after completing the run, I would not recommend).

In June, two people died on the Tail. This is serious.

Now, I'm not crazy behind the wheel. In fact, driving-wise, I'm as conservative as I imagine many of those ministers are who fill the countless churches I saw through the foothills of the Smokys.

But still, the Tail tests everyone. The curves are sharper than you expect, there never seems to be a rhyme or reason to them and it's impossible to focus on anything else. In June, two people died on the Tail. This is serious.

Nonetheless, I did what any other red-blooded American would do facing this type of course. I gunned the Countryman and let 'er rip.



Almost every corner is blind, which is probably why they have names like Horns of the Dragon, The Wall and Rocket Corner.

That's where I learned, when you start to bite into the Tail, it bites back. The road is extremely narrow and the shoulder is either the face of the mountain or a long drop down it. There's no cheating by crossing the yellow line because when you do, there's always someone else coming right at you. Almost every corner is blind, which is probably why they have names like Horns of the Dragon, The Wall and Rocket Corner. I'm surprised they didn't have names like Miss-Shift Death or Quarter Panel Crusher.

Every turn requires absolute concentration, and if you don't give it your all, you'll feel your car quickly losing speed because of an improper shift or an unnecessarily hard brake. I'll readily admit, I misjudged more than a few corners as I raced through the Tail, one eye on the road, one eye searching for flashing blue lights. At one point, I briefly looked up and saw that one police officer had pulled over an entire motorcycle club, which is one of the moments I knew I could speed up. He was, after all, very busy.



Most of all, I liked the unwritten code of the road along the Tail of the Dragon.

Every now and then, I would hit my downshift perfectly as I pushed into the curve. The 1.6-liter turbocharged engine of the Countryman would whine with delight as its 181 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque grabbed all four-wheels and chewed at the asphalt. I was cornering on those invisible rails you always hear us auto journalists ramble on about. The stiff body never gave an inch and I could feel my body push against the seat. The pulled pork sandwich rebelled a little in my tightening stomach, allowing me to taste just a whiff of it again.

Most of all, I liked the unwritten code of the road along the Tail of the Dragon. Twice, motorcycles zoomed up behind me, and as soon as possible, I would make my way to a small asphalt or gravel perch and let them pass. Later, when I raced up behind a pickup truck, that driver did the same for me. I also passed two motorcycles, meaning I gave up position to two vehicles and got position on three (if you include the motorcycle in the bed of the pickup, it was four.) So I figured I was up and never during the run was I delayed.



Of course, I could have gone quicker.

Everyone thinks that when they finish the Tail for the first time. But really, I could hardly remember any of the turns or corners after I finished. Your concentration is so focused on what's in front of you, you don't have time to download all of the information for your memory. You just get through this corner and move onto the next.

No one tames the Dragon on the first run.

After I stopped near Fugitive's Dam, the unofficial end of the run (and the place from which Harrison Ford, while searching for a one-armed man, jumped in The Fugitive), I already started to kick myself over how I could have done this or that better. Of course I could have.

We all could. But no one tames the Dragon on the first run. Some of the Mini owners on the rally have driven the Tail dozens of times. They have never mastered it, either.

But they'll keep trying: Again and again and again.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 41 Comments
      BLSully
      • 2 Years Ago
      I spent 4 years living just west of the Tail, and during my unemployed months in 2006, I was up there almost daily. After some time, the road does become familiar, but even after the several hundred times I drove it, I would never say I was great up there. If you want to see some truly mindblowing runs of the Tail, look up a Goldwing rider by the name of "YellowWolf". People rag on Goldwings for being big, heavy, ungainly bikes. After they see YW do his thing, they tend to shut up. I had the pleasure watching him in person several times before he stopped running up there, and it sent chills down the spine to see him ride. Sadly, the local and state LEO have ruined it (along with the "know-it-all" hotshots that think they can beat the local record their first time out and gotten themselves killed). There are some very good hiding spots for cop cars, and the risk of getting a ticket up there just became too high to bother. There are other great roads in the area which don't have the legendary status the Tail does.... less traffic, and fewer cops. For some reason I moved back to Northern IL where curves don't exist :(
        BLSully
        • 2 Years Ago
        @BLSully
        Actually, according to this video.... maybe he's still spending time there. I had thought I'd heard he quit riding. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w69HWqWEwXc
      billnparts
      • 2 Years Ago
      You keep referring to the road as the "Tail". The "Tail" is just that... The shop at the end of the road. The road is simply "the Dragon". Even the photos you posted show as much.
        Matthew
        • 2 Years Ago
        @billnparts
        I'm glad someone else brought this up! It's not the tail! They done the same on Hell Roads. To me, it's simply Deal's Gap. The "tail" is a shop at the end.
      Reb
      • 2 Years Ago
      I have been on the Tail twice, and learned something the 1st. time. It is beautiful scenery, but you don't really want to look at it, or you will become part of it. My fear, however, was not the curves. I knew I would be taking it easy. But I was worried about going 35 mph or less and all of a sudden a crotchrocket doing 85 comes around a curve behind me. I had numerous close calls that way. I would never take my wife on it riding double for that reason. But rave on all you crotchrocket daredevils. There is no shortage of coffins and my wife is an RN that often deals with head/bike injuries. Job security?
      cantankerousoldlady
      • 2 Years Ago
      my children, both paramedics, call this stretch "job security".
      telm12345
      • 2 Years Ago
      Greatly written article (albeit perhaps technically calling it the tail - not a fatal error). We need more articles like this - why we are on autoblog in the first place.
      skipc21
      • 2 Years Ago
      We've done the Dragon three times--last year will probably be our last. Had issues with the hot little cars the young folks like to run----you know-sound like sewing machines on steroids. They (10 of 'em) had some kind of a race going on. These guys may be able to drive good, but we're on our Classic, and there is no contest if someone screws up. We went to the Cherahola Parkway the next day, and darned if they weren't there too.Love to ride the Dragon-just isn't worth the risk anymore.
      MONTEGOD7SS
      • 2 Years Ago
      I live 30mins from The Dragon, and if you have never been before then please don't come. It is too busy as is. My favorite time is probably Miatas at the Gap.
      Mpowered
      • 2 Years Ago
      I drove a couple hours from Durham, NC to get out to the tail when i was at Duke. It was amazing and my Michelin Pilot Sports on my E36 M3 were squealing the entire way. I did see a group of ricers at the bottom revving their engines on my way up. I told my GF who was my passenger that one of them would probably wreck and sure enough on my way back down I saw an Integra in a tree. Dude was fine but was clearly being an idiot. Every year motorcyclists die on the Dragon's Tail. If you watch their helmet cams it looks like they just drive off the cliff, they are going too fast, can't make the turn in time.
      RUDEBOi
      • 2 Years Ago
      Sounds exactly like the kind of road ethics needed everywhere!!
      racingmaniac
      • 2 Years Ago
      I have literally just came back from the trip to the area. The roads(not just the Dragon, but many other ones as well) are just amazing compare to what we got here in MI. The combination of terrain, scenary, lack of potholes and corners are just nirvana for people who likes to put miles on their car/bike and having fun at the same time... Also had the pleasure of getting stuck there between couple of down trees midst a crazy wind storm last week. Very scary as you are literally surrounded by trees that you can hear crackling....
        FreddyKnoxville
        • 2 Years Ago
        @racingmaniac
        You had the privilege of enduring the worst storms we've had in decades, glad you made it through safe. Thanks for visiting.
      Charles
      • 2 Years Ago
      It's MINI, not Mini.
      tar2008heel
      • 2 Years Ago
      I've never driven the road but I was up there last summer for some white water rafting on the Cheoah River. It's the river that runs right along highway 129 and comes out in the lake below the fugitive damn. Hope to make it back there to actually give the dragon a shot.
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