Tips for Riding Tail of the Dragon on a Motorcycle

If you’ve been riding motorcycles in North America for any amount of time, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of “Tail of the Dragon” (TOTD).  An expansive stretch of road that spans the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, featuring an extremely high concentration of curves (318 to be exact) over an 11 mile stretch of pristine pavement.  So, you may ask: does it really live up to the hype?

The short answer: Yes -as long as you plan your trip properly and understand how to maximize you enjoyment of “The Dragon” and the surrounding area.

  • If at all possible, ride TOTD on a weekday: Weekends during the summer and fall are a zoo.
    • If you’re not too concerned with your pace and are there to see a spectacle, this may not be a problem but if you’re there to get into a steady rhythm, you will get annoyed with the number of cars and bikes who frequent TOTD on the weekends.
    • If you do have to ride it on a weekend, the earlier, the better (eg. if you’re on it before 8am, you increase your odds of a clean run dramatically).
  • Take it easy on your first pass:
    • There are crashes every day on The Dragon, usually due to riders or drivers who are over-confident and unfamiliar with the road and overestimate their capabilities.
    • Combine that with sharp rock faces and steep cliff dropoffs and TOTD becomes and extremely unforgiving place to have an “oops”, with mistakes usually resulting in severe injury or death.
    • As of the time of writing this, 48 people have lost their lives on this road, since record keeping began in the 1990’s.  As you can see on The Dragon’s Death Map, the road does not discriminate as men and women, old and young, on sport bikes, cruisers, trikes (and cars) have all met their fate here.
    • In the same way you would take the time to learn a race track during your first few sessions, so too should you learn the ins and outs of TOTD.
    • Once you’ve ridden it both ways at (your) 6/10 pace , you can make the call on just how fast you can navigate it safely.
Death is a very real possibility on this road. In many cases, the body isn’t found for days because of the topography and medical assistance is nowhere nearby.
  • Be prepared to change your line:High lean angles (particularly on left turns) means you’ll often be in close proximity to oncoming traffic.
    • Cars and other riders frequently cross over the center line which can lead to disaster if you over-commit or even cross the line yourself.
    • As discussed in our recent Fault vs Responsibility article, leave enough margin to adjust your line mid-corner at all times and expect that you will need to do so over the course of your time at TOTD.
  • Let faster riders/drivers through:Especially during your first runs when you’re trying to learn the road, there may well be a faster or more experienced rider behind you.
    • It’s not a race and all you’re going to do by trying to ride faster is 1) increase your likelihood of crashing and 2) piss off the person behind you who wants to ride faster than you in the first place.
    • No matter how fast you think you are, there are veterans (and reckless people) who do TOTD on a weekly basis at near-race pace which is not something you want to trifle with during your first visit here.
    • There are multiple pull-offs where you can safely let traffic go by and slower drivers/riders will regularly use these to let you through if you come up on them at a faster pace.
    • Be polite and wave, whether you’re the one doing the passing or the one being passed -we’re all there to enjoy it/it’s not a race.
  • Gear up:If you’re thinking of pushing the pace even a little, full leathers are a good idea, both because it’s possible to get a knee down, but also because of the inherently high risk posed by you, the road, and others.
  • Make sure your bike is in top mechanical condition: Think of riding this area more like a track weekend than a casual ride.
    • Especially if you plan on riding hard, wear parts on your bike such as tires, brakes and oil will be put to the test in a way that few street rides ever could.
    • Pay particular attention to your tires; the pavement in the area is beautifully grippy but will wear tires more quickly than your average road.
    • Aggressive riders can go through a rear in as little as a week end, so prepare accordingly, bring a spare if needed (there are tire change shops in all the nearby towns) and if your tire is nearing its wear bars, replace it before your trip.
If you’ve ever wondered what happens if you ride past the wear bars…
  • Beware of the law:  TOTD itself isn’t a fast road (2nd or 3rd gear pace, depending on your bike’s gearing).
    • The posted speed limit has come down gradually over the years, from 55 mph (89 km/h) back in its hay day, to 30 mph (48 km/h) as of 2005 on both the TN and NC sides.
    • It’s easy to get above the posted speed limit, especially between corners and as one would expect, the road is regularly patrolled by those states’ finest (especially during busy week ends when the majority of crashes happen).
    • On TOTD itself, there are very few places where radar can be enforced however, due to the topography and layout of the road, with the most notorious spot being at the TN/NC border where speed traps are regularly set up.
    • Take your time on the few straight sections of The Dragon and you shouldn’t have any issues.
    • Wheelies, burnouts and the likes are grounds for a ticket although the level of scrutiny here will largely depend on the enforcer who witnesses the act.
  • Smile for the camera: What better souvenir from a visit to TOTD than a picture of you leaning your ride of choice WAY over on a gorgeous, curvy road?
    • In the same way at LA’s Rock Store Photos takes pictures of vehicles on The Snake (Mulholland hwy), there are actually several photographers that cover The Dragon and the surrounding area.
    • Just remember the saying that “the bike goes where you look” as you smile for the camera, then check out the sites to purchase and download your pictures which are typically uploaded within 24 hours., and are all sites that will be happy to sell you pictures of your TOTD run for an average price of $7 per photo.
  • Check out the “Tree of Shame” (but don’t contribute to it!):If you need proof that people crash a lot on TOTD, look no further than the Tree of Shame which is conveniently located at the southernmost end of TOTD, in the parking lot of the Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort.
    • While you’re there paying homage to fallen machines (and riders), pick up a souvenir T-shirt, keychain, sticker or your tchotchka of choice at either one of the gift shops.
Like the sign says: “Beware of falling parts!”
  • Ride some of the other incredible roads in the area: Although TOTD itself is an incredible stretch of road, it only take 15-20 minutes to ride (1-way) so you’ll want to plan other rides around the area
    • The good news is that there are several just-as-good (if not better) roads in the area
      • Cherohala skyway (US 143) is a must-do and connects very well with TOTD.  Speeds are higher here than on TOTD where most will use 3rd & 4th gear.  Standout features include some long 270 degree sweepers and gorgeous scenery.  If there’s one road that’s arguably as good or or better than TOTD, this is it.
      • Fighting Creek gap Rd off 441 from Gatlinburg (take a look at the video here) is a very scenic and very twisty ride through a state park.  Mostly 3rd gear, it gets very busy/touristy mid-day so you’ll have to go early (7am) if you want to have any of it to yourself.  This run features blind corners winding around a mountain and alongside a creek and is very technical.
      • 32 (off 321) is a very twisty 2nd & 3rd gear rd that ends in a gravel road (10 min each way) but is worth it due to no traffic and great pavement.
      • US 215 has incredible switchbacks and great pavement with dramatic elevation changes g-out corners.
The beautiful Smokey Mountains where rum runners and moonshiner once ran.

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2 thoughts on “Tips for Riding Tail of the Dragon on a Motorcycle

Add yours

  1. Good stuff I wonder where the author got that pic of a severely corded tire hmmm Lol

    Sent from my iPhone I apologize for any spelling errors



  2. A really detailed and informative article! Me and my buddies have always wanted to experience the TOTD for a while not but haven’t had the chance to. Maybe it’s time for us to make up our mind. Thank you for your information btw!


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