Photo by Darryl Cannon, Killboy.com; Powerhead Productions
*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat 7/30/2006
Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Couey
One of the best known (and most notorious) motorcycle destinations in this country is Deal’s Gap, North Carolina, more specifically, the 11-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 129 known as “The Dragon.” This road traces the southwest border of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and consists of 318 curves in its tightly twisted length. It is considered by many to be the ultimate test of a street rider’s skill.
The Smoky Mountains, America’s most visited National Park, according to the National Park Service, is a scenic gem. Part of the central Appalachian chain, the Smokies stun the senses with beautiful mountains, dramatic overlooks, and dense cathedral-like forests. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Last of the Mohicans” with Daniel Day-Lewis, parts of which were filmed in the Park, than you know already about the abundant natural beauty to be found here. There aren’t a lot of resort or amusement park type properties in the region, but you can hike, bike, drive, canoe, raft, kayak, or indulge photographic passions to your heart’s content. The roads, although twisty to the extreme, are very well-cared for.
You can enter The Dragon at either end, but the “official” kickoff point is at the intersection of 129 and North Carolina route 28, the location of the Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort. This is not a luxury hotel, but simply a bare-bones place for the rider to sleep at night. The rooms are Spartan, but spacious, clean, and the owners have designed and developed services that cater to the motorcycle rider. For a more comfortable stay, there is the Fontana Village Resort, which is 11 miles away on NC Route 28.
The road itself is truly a challenge. Most of the 318 curves are of the hairpin and switchback variety, along with a few decreasing-radius turns that will take you by surprise. Although hundreds of riders navigate this road successfully, accidents do occur. The most common spill happens when a rider enters a curve too fast, or has their mind somewhere else. This is particularly bad for some cruisers, touring bikes and full-dressers, since their low profile severely limits the available lean angle. There are no shoulders to speak of, although there are a few gravel-covered pull-outs. If you find yourself in crisis corner, your options are usually limited to a sheer rock wall, or an unplanned tumble down a long, steep rock-and-tree-covered slope. At the Motorcycle resort is a monument to those who have been “bit by The Dragon” called “The Tree of Shame,” an otherwise unassuming Sycamore that has been liberally decorated with parts of motorcycles that failed to complete the route. You can always find a group of riders silently regarding the tree, a stark reminder that this is a serious road for serious riders.
The good news is the sense of accomplishment gleaned from successful passes, which will likely be forever enshrined photographically at Killboy.com and Zeefoto.com. A ride on The Dragon will teach you things about your bike and riding skills that you can learn nowhere else, and if you survive, you will come away a smarter and more skilled rider, the proud owner of the distinctive Dragon decal on your bike.
Of course, The Dragon is not the only road. Among the other spectacular routes are the Blue Ridge and Foothills Parkways, The Cherohala Skyway, Newfound Gap Road along the Oconaluftee River, and Laurel Creek Road are just a few of the magnificent rides to be found in the Park.
This is a place that satiates the senses and is a magnificent way to spend a two-wheeled vacation.