Crossed off the bucket list: the Tail of the Dragon

However, we also witnessed the birth of an addiction— and not just to the Tail itself. In aggregate, the winding roads in the area that is the Great Smoky Mountains and its environs are far and away the finest we have driven to date. They are so good as to be habit-forming, and already we are hatching plans for what we hope will be a sort of yearly pilgrimage to the American South. And their names have been indelibly seared into our consciousness (a triumph of the marketing efforts of local businesspeople there, no doubt). Here are our impressions of some of the big ones we got to sample:

Tail of the Dragon (US 129). The grandaddy of them all. The main event. Some – okay, many – will say that the Tail has gotten too big, too popular. That the secret has been let out ages ago, consequently letting in innumerable car and motorcycle clubs, the Harley Davidson crowd, flatfooted thrillseekers, and local law enforcement officers. They wouldn’t be incorrect, but during our time there we really did feel there was nothing quite like the Dragon. So many banked 2nd gear switchback turns coming at you in an endless barrage, one right after the other. It’s a real workout, for car and for driver. The whole thing feels like a rollercoaster. And there are no intersections.

Even after all these years, after all the hype and build-up, the Tail didn’t disappoint, which is remarkable. For tight, technical driving this one is really hard to beat.

Moonshiner/Hellbender 28 (NC 28). The warm-up to the Tail of the Dragon— and what a heck of an appetizer it is. Not as tight and technical as the signature attraction that it precedes, but plenty entertaining in its own right. So good that it initially threw us for a loop— we thought we had stumbled onto the Tail before realizing we hadn’t reached it yet. Hugs Cheoah Lake for a short, scenic stretch. There are occasional intersections and driveways along the way (for things like lodging and campgrounds), but they are relatively far between and few.

Cherohala Skyway. Combines with Moonshiner and the Tail to form a lovely, varied driving loop. This is the longest of the three (stretching 43 miles) and also the fastest— there are some tight turns here as well, but this road is more about fast, sweeping corners. Virtually no intersections to speak of, though it can get foggy as you approach its peak elevation of one mile. Provided you don’t get caught behind slow-moving traffic, the Skyway ought to provide you with long, uninterrupted stretches of quality back roads driving.

’80s OGs.

Diamondback (NC 226A). A steep ascent. Tight 2nd gear turns. Sheer drop-offs. No guard rails. The occasional driveway dotting the road. The Diamondback is a white-knuckle ride, possibly the most thrilling of the bunch, and that’s why we loved it enough to do twice: once on an out-of-the-way but ultimately worthwhile detour en route to the Dragon, and again on the return home. Not the prettiest drive, but that’s not why you’re there— you are there to stretch your car and yourself as a driver. And in that regard, the Diamondback delivers. Big.

Devil’s Staircase (NC 80). The sleeper of the bunch. We stumbled onto this one purely by accident, and what a happy accident it was. Comparable in grade to the Diamondback – that is to say, steep – but with prettier views and corners that flow a little better by virtue of not being quite as tight. If all we could ever drive for the rest of our days was this road, we’d be happy— a testament to just how good it is.

Little Parkway (US 221). Arguably the prettiest road we drove – tree branches hang low to form a shady canopy over the road for much of its length – but with lots and lots of flowing corners, it’s not just for Sunday drivers (though you will encounter them also). The main challenge you will face is keeping your eyes on the road when you’ll want to be craning your neck to take in the incredibly lush surroundings.

Blue Ridge Parkway. An American treasure. Mind-boggling in its length (469 miles end to end, of which we ended up driving 350), and not quite an uninterrupted stretch of driving enjoyment (you will at times encounter any combination of long straight sections (watch your speed there), slow vehicles, bicyclists, road closures, and lots and lots of fog), we nevertheless couldn’t think of a better interstate (with a small ‘i’) road to take while traveling anywhere between central Virginia and the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. The stunning panoramic vistas along the way are icing on the cake— this is *the* way to experience the majesty of the southeastern United States. You will arrive at your final destination later than if you were to take the Interstate system proper, but the Blue Ridge couldn’t be more of a welcome alternative to the mind-numbing monotony of the latter.

And a little video we made:

Acknowledgments and thanks:

  • Levent E. of Guten Parts for making the E30 supremely roadworthy on very last minute notice
  • Evan S., route master nonpareil, for help with planning a trip this epic and picking out only winners to drive on our tight schedule
  • Brandon M., master DIY craftsman, for the custom fabricated E30 headlights! Driving once the sun went down was made so much easier (and thus more enjoyable) thanks to the ability to actually see
  • Bradley P. of Automobiliac for the camaraderie and memories. Let’s do it again soon, man

Black-and-white images ©

~ by velofinds on July 21, 2011.

23 Responses to “Crossed off the bucket list: the Tail of the Dragon”

  1. Wish I would have known about this!! Always wanted to check it out and not terribly far from me. Let me know next time..

    How many cops did you see?

  2. What a great post. I live in Atlanta, and am embarrassed to note that I haven’t (knowingly) driven any of those. Will have to plan a trip. Thanks.

  3. Supposedly you can check the website for police updates. That speed trap app would come in extremely handy there. I bet the turbo E34 would be a blast there!

  4. Any chance of putting up a highlighted map of the route you took. Looks like you guys had a proper blast!

    • here’s a popular route you can do once you get down there:

      you get to do the tail, the cherohala skyway, and moonshiner/hellbender. incredible.

      however, good roads abound. just take any, and you will be rewarded. if you zoom in, for example, i believe we accidentally took santeetlah rd (becoming joyce kilmer rd), which is a back-back road that meets 143 shortly before 143 meets 129. it was an unpaved narrow road that felt right out of a stage rally.

  5. Great coverage of a cool trip. Tell me true: did the Alfa make the whole trip without any hiccups? And is the GTV-6 driver really wearing red pumps?

    • it is true! 2000 miles round-trip with nary a hiccup. we tried not to talk about it for fear of jinxing it. but the owner will have you believe that tales of alfa unreliability are greatly exaggerated.

      and oh, they may not look it, but those are red driving shoes. as you can see, they get the job done.

  6. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Alfa hater, although I’d approach an 80s version very carefully. My ’69 boattailed spider carried me on many trips with near 100% reliability. Best was a raid of the Canadian Rockies. Crossed the border at a tiny checkpoint on the Alberta/Montana border at 3:00 am and, exhausted, answered the “where were you born” question with the city where I lived at the time (Seattle) and then quickly corrected myself with my birthplace (New York). My friend and I (both long haired, and grubby after a week on the road) were pulled from the car pretty damn quick and the Alfa was turned inside out.

    • Not only did the Alfa make the whole trip without a single issue, I didn’t even have to add oil, even though I checked it at almost every fuel stop. The GTV6, if well maintained, is probably the most reliable car Alfa made, thanks to its Bosch fuel injection. Yes those are red shoes, but I prefer flats over pumps. Easier for heel-toe downshifts.

      • Three words: Guibo. Magnetti Marelli.

        Really, though, I’m just razzing. Great trip, and the car obviously held up very, very well. I’m not sure that many highly tuned 3.0 litre modern cars could have done it without needing half a quart.

  7. This is a fun road, but much better on a Motorcycle

  8. I’m stuck in hawaii and I hate you all.


  9. Im a big E30 fan but I LOVE the GTV6. Video was great! Nothing but the sound of two great 6 cylinder engines and no stupid music. Well done sir!
    As soon as I can unload my 240z I plan on purchasing my grandpa’s GTV6 from my Uncle here soon. Watching this video has motivated me even more, however I dont think our family GTV6 is that reliable lol…

  10. just fantastic pics, video, and commentary. i wish i could have been there. really happy you guys had a blast!

  11. If you use them regularly and maintain them properly GTV6s are reliable cars. The problem is when they are left standing or in the hands of mechanics or owners who don’t understand them.

  12. I just happened to find this through automobiliac. This is exactly what I love about both of these old cars. I have an e30 as well. I look forward to more of your posts! Do you have any more information about the modifications of the bmw and alfa?

    • the alfa is lowered, but otherwise pretty much stock. amazing.

      the bmw is sitting on shorter springs and bilstein shocks. it also has an engine chip that’s purportedly good for 8 or 10 more hp (never dyno’d, never even butt dyno’d against a stock engine since that’s how the car was bought).

  13. […] (The BMW owner also wrote up a version of the trip, billed as a 6-cylinder shootout, on his blog, Motoring Con Brio.)Mr. Price said he planned to expand the watch line as well as add a clothing line, starting with […]

  14. […] la Route 129, à Deals Gap, dans le Tennessee, plus connue sous le nom de « The Dragon » ou « The Tail of the Dragon ». Pour profiter des paysages, la Blue Ridge Parkway, une route magnifique de 755 km qui va de la […]

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