Latitude: 35° 27’ 59” N
Longitude: 83° 55’ 11” W
Deals Gap. Tail of the Dragon. Mecca. Call it what you want, but this one highway in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that straddles North Carolina and Tennessee embodies so many high points for the modern motorcyclist that you can't exclude it from any list of epic rides.
What makes it so good? Try 318 curves in just 11 miles along US Route 129. Excellent pavement, mostly good sightlines, and a rhythm that's easy enough to learn. Yet the Dragon can be a little unpredictable and definitely unforgiving of carelessness or stupidity. Just enough to keep you on your toes. This is reality—not Disneyland.
In many ways, Deals Gap and the Tail of the Dragon represent a high point of motorcycling
If this were just one road among many similarly scenic in this part of the country—and, well, it is, considering that the Cherohala Skyway and the western end of the Blue Ridge Parkway are close by—that would be reason enough to visit. But there's something more. The surrounding communities, from Robbinsville, North Carolina, to the south and Maryville, Tennessee, to the north, all embrace motorcyclists as part of the community. It's refreshing to see businesses acknowledge our economic impact and welcome us as part of a solution and not part of a problem.
A few years ago, six friends and I rode the Dragon at least twice a day for four days, basing in a dead-cheap but completely comfortable rental house in Happy Valley and riding long day loops into the surrounding countryside. It was bliss, even with typically muggy summer weather and the occasional thunderstorm to spice things up.
Yes, there is the occasional lunatic on the Dragon, and a few car drivers seem to think they have Mario Andretti's reflexes, but considering the amount of seasonal traffic and the mix of bikes and riders—plenty of Harleys, sure, but sportbikes and ST rigs are very well represented—chances are still good you'll have a pretty smooth experience. Check out the Deals Gap Motel at the intersection of US 129 and NC 28. Go to dealsgap.com for more area information.
Latitude: 35° 40' 34" N, Longitude: 93° 49' 45" W
Pig Trail Scenic Byway
Tail of the Dragon is an awesome ride, but the atmosphere can get a bit carnival-like—when the local sheriff offers discounted speeding tickets for out-of-state riders, you know that worm is starting to turn. The Pig Trail Scenic Byway, a 19-mile ribbon of State Highway 23 located just north of Ozark, Arkansas, is lesser-known than Deals Gap but no less spectacular. Pig Trail offers the same tantalizing mix of endless hairpins and constant elevation change, with less of the distracting sideshow. If you'd rather clip apexes than avoid clipping the bumper of every Corvette and Miata in the southeastern United States, aim your headlight towards the Ozark Mountains next time. —Aaron Frank