Leaning as much as I can on my F700GS (bike review here) around Copperhead Corner, knowing my photo will be taken at the apex, I am feeling a bit cocky on my third ride on the dragon. I feel like I am making great time…. in the zone. Then a small straightaway appears and ZOOM, 3 sport bikes fly by, riders in full leathers with GoPros mounted to their helmets. Evidently I was holding them up. Seasoned vets and locals know this road like the back of their hand and are out to set a new personal best on every run. And then turning around at the end and blasting through it in reverse.
- Ride Time: Dictated only by riding skill
- Surface: Asphalt (excellent condition)
- Scenery: Bush line, rolling hills, and lake view.
- Distance: 11mi (18 km)
If you are planning on slaying the dragon, or riding on one of the many world class motorcycle routes in the area, Robbinsville makes the perfect base camp. The town is a busy little spot in the daytime, bustling with stretched out sport bikes, chromed out hogs, and expensive sports cars. At any given establishment, where you would normally see a handicap parking spot, you see a line of ‘Motorcycle Only’ parking next to the building. This is a bike town; there is no doubt about that.
My group gets a few light hearted jabs from the waitress at the local dinner for ordering the “dragon slayer”, a grilled chicken breast smothered in BBQ sauce, bacon and cheese, before actually slaying the dragon. That will take place the next day, but for now, late at night, we have to settle for the cleverly named meal. The nights are very quiet here, quite the contrast to the daytime, and there is a good reason for that. I was not formally warned before arriving, but Robbinsville, located in Graham County is in fact a dry county. That’s right, the beer you are accustom to ending your riding day with when traveling by bike is not available at the local restaurants, nor is there a liquor store located in the town. There are some exceptions to this rule, the Snowbird Lodge, Bluewater Mountain Lodge, Fontana Village, and Tapoco Lodge can serve alcohol, but some are restricted to guests only. Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort also serves alcohol in their Pub and Grill, but like the others, they are not located in the town itself. Riders in the know prepare for this and bring drinks to their hotel from neighboring Counties. At the end of the riding day, the hotel parking lots are full of bikers socializing about the days ride, standing around one of many coolers full of ice and beer.
As you start heading up US 129 from Robbinsville, NC towards the TN boarder, the road narrows and the turns become tighter. Soon you find yourself powering through corners and feeling the rush that only riding a motorcycle on this type of road can provide. And the best part about it is that you have not even reached the Tail of the Dragon yet. Roughly 18 mi (30km) from Robbinsville, you will arrive.
As you climb an incline, motorcycles of all kinds surround you, the T-Shirt Shack is to your left and Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort on your right. You are getting close to the Dragon, but a stop here is needed first.
The T-Shirt Shack is a modern building with a cool motorcycle café look. Ron and Nancy Johnson began selling T-shirts under a tail gate tent in 2000, and have come a long way since then. They built the building in 2006, with the big metal dragon following in 2013. The place is a must stop before or after the run.
Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort books up fairly quickly during the riding season, as large groups of riders flock to the popular lodge. It is located at the base of the Tail of the Dragon. Its home to the Tree of Shame, started by a group of Harley riders in the ‘80s, this shrine is a symbol of all the riders who were defeated by the Dragon.
There have been over 40 fatalities on the Tail of the Dragon since 1995.
Once you have had your fill of souvenirs, photo ops, and possibly some food and a drink, it is time to face the dragon. From the gate, the two lane road is a complete adrenaline rush. The high octane environment has riders feeling the need for speed and makes the tamest riders feel like they are running the last lap of the MotoGP in a three way battle for first with Rossi and Stoner.
Professional photographers put their neck on the line, standing on the small shoulders and in the ditches, snapping your picture as you lean around corners. Like a ride at Disney World, high quality photos are available later for purchase on their websites, capturing that moment when a rider drags a knee or a peg, and ultimately capturing some of the most impressive and horrific crashes that riders have seen. Images of crashes and downed bikes on the Dragon are not hard to find, a quick google search reveals hundreds if not thousands. The daily crashes, and they do happen daily, are a by-product of the roads ability to make riders want to push the limits and feel the thrill of cornering a road that is closer to a race track than a public transportation route. When you see the photographers, think to yourself, this is where all those gnarly crashes were photographed, and you may just slow your pace down a bit.
As you wind through the route, meeting tuners and modern muscle cars screeching around the corners, you become more comfortable and continue to test your riding abilities. When nearing the end of the road, which from a far resembles a dragon’s tail, a pull off on either side of the road appears, overlooking Calderwood Lake. At this gathering point, many riders stop for a break, and some to calm their nerves after the challenging ride. While the full leather riders, the ones with the GoPros strapped to themselves and their bikes, do a 180° turn and accelerate in the opposite direction, shifting in unisons, halting conversations as their Yoshimura exhausts overpower the crowd’s voices.
The Tail of the Dragon leads you to another unforgettable motorcycle route, the growing in popularity Cherohala Skyway.
With pressure from the motorcycle and sports car community, Tennessee has banned trucks over 30 feet long on the Tail of the Dragon. Riding this motorcycle route, I cannot imagine large trucks passing through here in a safe manor, even if the road was vacant, so this is a good move by the State. The speed limit has changed over the years and is currently 30mph (50km/h), although no one seems to have noticed. Police do have a presence here, and I drove through a few speed traps after the Tail of the Dragon, heading to the next set of twisties.
The surface is pristine, and the amount of tourism the road creates warrants the top notch maintenance. No other roads access the route which creates a “closed track” feel for users, maybe a false sense of security in a way. Generally speaking the road is not for beginners, especially if your intention is to ride fast and drag a knee for the first time. That being said, if you are a newer rider, you can always go for the experience and enjoy the ride at your own pace. Some slow vehicle traffic has riders eager to pass, and dangerous passing and aggressive riding is not uncommon. If you are holding up a fellow rider, pull into the next slip lane on the shoulder, and allow the faster bikes to go by.
Surrounded by the southern region of the Appalachian Mountains, wildlife is abundant should you venture away from the Tail of the Dragon. Generally speaking, those who ride the Dragon are not necessarily looking to do any bird watching along the way, but rather to get in their thrills for the weekend. I was lucky enough not to have any wildlife venture on to this quasi racetrack during my runs; however deer and black bears may make their way onto the road.
- Food: At the base of the Tail of the Dragon is Deals Gap has a Pub and Grill. Robbinsville, NC has a handful of decent eateries; however the inability to get a cold beer does put a slight damper on things. Lynn’s Place is home of the chicken dish that pays homage to the road.
- Camping: Deals Gap offers camp sites, and there are sites scattered throughout the area. The amount of wilderness nearby is seemly endless, making adequate camp sites readily available.
- Lodging: Options are many. Deals Gap is the most well known, but there are numerous wilderness lodges, resorts, even private vacation home rentals in the area. If you prefer to be in the town there are a number of Motorcycle Friendly hotels, including the affordable and clean Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndham, Two Wheel Inn which offers a small garage attached to your room for your bike, as well as other budget friendly options on the main drag.
- Gas: Fuel up at one of the gas stations in Robbinsville for your day’s ride.
Forget track day; grab your bike and all your gear and head to the Tail of the Dragon for heart pounding, unforgettable twisties, and a great motorcycle town full of great people. Just remember to slip a few beers in your tank bag before leaving.
While in the Deals Gap area, you will also want to ride the thrilling switchbacks of the Devil’s Triangle.
Photos: BMW F700GS Purchased from US129 Photos. All others by Ben Reynolds.