Classic Roads: Cherohala Skyway and Tail of the Dragon

Aug 10, 2020 View Comments by

These two classic roads, taken together, offer motorcyclists one of the most challenging days of mountain riding available anywhere. The full 138-mile route starts and ends in Tellico Plains, TN, at the Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center. From there the road rapidly gains altitude on SR 165. At around the halfway point of the 43-mile-long Skyway, riders enter North Carolina, where the road becomes SR 143. The Skyway ends in Robbinsville. This National Scenic Byway, which was completed in 1996, is named after the surrounding Cherokee and Nantahala national forests.

Next up is the famous (some might say infamous) Tail of the Dragon, an 11-mile section of US 129 that’s known for its 318 curves. The curves on the section of US 129 leading up to the Dragon, however, are less intense and allow moments for side glances of the verdant countryside. After crossing over the Cheoah River at the base of the Cheoah (aka Fugitive) Dam, it’s a relatively short ride to the start of the Dragon’s curves at Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort. This resort, on the North Carolina and Tennessee state line, has a restaurant, lodging, and a souvenir shop featuring a plenitude of “Dragon” memorabilia and decals. Before riding the Dragon, motorcyclists should thoughtfully consider the “Tree of Shame,” with its Christmas-tree-like ornaments of motorcycle parts recovered from riders who tempted the Dragon and paid the price.

The best time to ride the Dragon is on weekdays, when there’s less traffic. After completing the miles of twisty road heaven, follow US 129 deeper into Tennessee; the highway traces a couple of river impoundments that created Chilhowee and Tellico lakes. SR 300 charts a sinuous path through the lush environs of the Cherokee National Forest before arriving back in Tellico Plains. If you’re not pleasantly exhausted after this ride, and still want more, a career in MotoGP might be worth a try.

Cherohala Skyway and Tail of the Dragon motorcycle route

Points of Interest

1. Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center
This is an important first stop to find out about weather, road conditions, and things to see along the Skyway. 225 Cherohala Skyway, Tellico Plains, TN, (423) 253-8010.

2. Bald River Falls
The 90- to 100-foot-high falls are readily visible from Tellico River Road and can be found near the confluence of Bald River and Tellico River at Forest Service Road 210, Tellico Plains, TN, www.tinyurl.com/bald-falls

3. Santeetlah Overlook
The highest point along the Cherohala Skyway is at Santeetlah Overlook, which has an elevation of 5,390 feet. Enjoy panoramic vistas across a progression of Appalachian Mountains ridges (near mile marker 7 on SR 143), www.tinyurl.com/cherohala-sky

4. Cheoah Dam
Completed in 1919, Cheoah Dam has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2004. The 225-foot-high-dam gained everlasting fame after it was featured in the 1993 film The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford. www.tailofthedragon.com/cheoah-dam-100-years

5. Deals Gap/Tail of the Dragon
As most every motorcyclist knows, the Tail of the Dragon has 318 curves with no intersecting roads or driveways along its 11-mile route. The hairpins, decreasing radius, and blind curves can prove costly to the imprudent rider. Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort is located at 17548 Tapoco Rd (aka US 129), Robbinsville, NC, (800) 889-5550, www.tailofthedragon.com.

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