Extreme Twisties in North Carolina

Dragon guys smIf you like to ride twisting mountain roads, western North Carolina offers two opportunities you'll love: Tail of the Dragon at Deal's Gap and The Diamondback. Along  with these extreme twisties, the Cherohala Skyway offers a great alternate route back from Tennessee once you've completed the Dragon. 

Photo (left): That's my friend Jeff "Cutter" Northcutt and me at Deal's Gap in 2007, just before a long ride on the Tail of the Dragon and Cherohala Skyway. (It takes all day to complete.)

Tail of the Dragon at Deal's Gap

I have ridden the Tail of the Dragon three times, twice in 2005 and once in 2007. In the spring of 2005 my friend Mike Russo—and our wives—traveled out to Bryson City to stay for a week so we could attend the Rally-in-the-Valley spring version. Rally-in-the-Valley is typically held at Maggie Valley, NC in early September. We had wanted to attend the Rally-in-the-Valley in September 2004, but Hurricane Frances flooded the area and destroyed many roads in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. We got a pass on our rental unit for use in 2005 and we decided to make a go of it the following March. Mr. Russo and I were riding Harleys, which are not made to handle hairpin turns well, but our pride pushed us to ride the Dragon anyway—as long as I led. :-)

We rode the Tail of the Dragon primarily out of pride: we wanted the bragging rights to say we did it. What we didn’t consider was that we’d have to do it twice in order to get back in a reasonable amount of time! Paved roads are sparse in the mountains. While we were on the route, we saw two different motorcycle wrecks with one rider down in plain site. We also eventually saw two ambulances as well. We’d wondered if the other rider had gone off the side of the mountain.

In 2007, my friend Jeff “Cutter” Northcutt rode the Tail of the Dragon with me, with our brave wives on the back. On that ride, we rode all the way into Tennessee to Tellico Plains, where we got on the Cherohala Skyway for the ride back to North Carolina. I recommend this approach. The map I've included, which I borrowed from Cherohala Skyway web site, illustrates how you would complete this loop. While we started and ended in Bryson City, you can choose Robbinsville for this purpose, which is significantly closer to both places of interest. However, I have stayed in Bryson City twice now and it's been a great pleasure both times. I recommend it. I don't have any experience overnight in Robbinsville so I cannot give it an honest assessment.  

Tail of dragon MikeR sm

Photo (right): That's my friend Mike Russo at the highest point on the Tail of the Dragon route. There's a convenient pull-off area for photos and a break. 

Riding the Tail of the Dragon with friends, which is by far the best way to do it, will leave you with a great sense of accomplishment and memories of having survived a beautiful but dangerous road. If you're like me, you'll love the thrill of using your riding skills to their maximum. I was also super impressed by my wife’s bravery. ☺

I will say though that the Tail of the Dragon is too hazardous to enjoy the scenery and the probability of experiencing traumatic injury is too high to make it a regular thing. On the other hand, the Cherohala is great for scenery and a relaxing ride.

Cherohala Dragon area map smCherohala Skyway

If you complete the Tail of the Dragon into Tennessee, you can then continue on US129 to TN72 west to US411. Turn left (south) on 411 to Madisonville and turn left onto TN68 to Tellico Plains, TN. From there, you get on TN165 to NC143. These two roads combine to make the Cherohala Skyway. Unlike the white-knuckle riding of the Dragon, where even a small error in steering can be fatal, the Cherohala offers long sweeping curves at high altitude. The views are great and the curves fun but not scary. Of course, if you're coming from the Tennessee side, simply reverse my directions. In that case, Knoxville would make for a great base point.

If you are attempting to ride all of the Lower 48 states (and perhaps Alaska as I am), then this is a great ride because in a short time you can ride through Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. And as you can see on the map, Kentucky and Virginia aren't very far away either.

If you decide to ride this in October, make hotel reservations. Eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina are overrun with tourists in the autumn--including yours truly. :-)  

The Diamondback

Not far from Robbinsville is Bryson City, and not far beyond that is Cherokee. At Cherokee, you can get on the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) at its terminus at US441, Mile 469. Take the BRP north to Little Switzerland near Mile 320. Though only about 149 miles, you should plan on an average speed in the 30s at most. I also recommend you stop at Mt. Mitchell for a visit and stop along the way at other places to stretch and take in the scenery. Thus, give yourself five hours or so to cover this distance, not including a long lunch along the way. (But save room for dinner at Little Switzerland.)

Sunrise at Little Switzerland smPhoto (right): That's my wife, Sam, up with me for the sunrise as seen from in front of the Little Switzerland Inn. Behind her is also NC226A, the Diamondback route.

The Diamondback route is NC226A. It's a loop that begins and ends on NC226. From the Little Switzerland Inn (on the Parkway), travel north one exit and get off the Spruce Pine exit. There you will find NC226. Turn left and when NC226 splits off to the left bear to the right on NC226A and the adventure begins. You will pass by the front of the Little Switzerland Inn as you approach the town itself.  

In my not so humble opinion, the best thing The Diamondback has going for it as compared to the Tail of the Dragon is the Little Switzerland Inn and the view from there. The food in the Little Switzerland Inn is also really really good. Last time I was there, it was a buffet that includes rare prime rib and lobster. Hunger will not be a problem.

These three routes demonstrate that western North Carolina offers some of the best riding in the US. 

Keep the shiny side up!

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