Classic Roads: Back of the Dragon

Classic Roads: Back of the Dragon

The appellation “Whatever of the Dragon” has come to denote a challenging road that motorcyclists particularly cherish. These are destination roads, which usually include switchbacks and steep elevation changes, and are usually laid out in a scenic landscape. While the Tail of the Dragon (aka US 129) in Tennessee may be the most famous of the expanding range of dragon roads across the U.S., the Back of the Dragon in southwestern Virginia, or SR 16, is rapidly becoming a rider favorite. It seems that America is awash with these mythical dragons.

The Back of the Dragon stretches 32 miles, with a reported 438 curves, between the Virginia towns of Tazewell and Marion. Its north-south trajectory crosses three Appalachian mountain ridges: Big Walker, Brushy, and Clinch. While the maximum speed limit is posted at 55 mph, many of the curves arrive at a posted 15 mph. There is often a strong temptation to aggressively twist the right wrist, but numerous hazards await the unwary. The tarmac winds through a heavily forested terrain with limited sight lines and bountiful wildlife. And this is not to mention the blind curves, loose gravel, fallen rocks, and slow-moving farm vehicles. The dragon imagery not only connotes commanding curves, but also suggests accompanying risks.

A Man With A Plan

The backstory of this dragon is an interesting one. During his military career assignments in Europe, Larry Davidson spent countless hours and days riding scenic switchback mountain pass roads in the Alps. Speaking from personal experience, this type of motorcycling, while requiring more than just basic skills, can induce that special state of riding nirvana that motorcyclists crave. After returning home, Larry rediscovered Appalachian mountain riding. He realized that there are roads right where he grew up that could induce that special feeling of riding bliss, but they were largely unknown. Larry named the 32-mile stretch of SR 16 the Back of the Dragon, because it reminded him of the humps on the back of the medieval beast.

Larry also had a knack for making his riding passion into a business. He was able to get his piece of draconic anatomy officially designated by the State of Virginia as the Back of the Dragon. Over time, the headquarters location in Tazewell became a destination in its own right, where enthusiasts gather to talk about their adventures with other like-minded folk. Larry’s enterprise has also helped breathe new economic life into this former coal-mining area of the Appalachians.

Planning Your Visit

While experiencing the Back of the Dragon may be your primary interest in planning a trip to the area, there are other nearby Dragon roads to explore. Accommodations can be found in both Marion and Tazewell, and camping options are available in Hungry Mother State Park, located right on the Back of the Dragon itself. Inviting restaurants can be found in both Marion and Tazewell and in some other villages not too far away. Even if visitors don’t have a motorcycle or sporty car to drive, two-passenger, three-wheeled Polaris Slingshots are available for rent by the hour or day.

Points of Interest

Back of the Dragon Store

Larry Davidson opened the new BOTD store in May 2020. The 5,000-square-foot space offers specialty coffee, yogurt, BOTD merchandise, open seating inside and out on the patio, and a nearby food truck offering gourmet burgers, sandwiches, and tasty side dishes. Tazewell, once a booming but then declining coal town, has transformed itself into a 21st century tourist destination, offering specialty shops, farmers markets, an art gallery, and inviting restaurants. Find it at 592 W Main St, Tazewell, VA, (276) 979-4288.

Hungry Mother State Park

This county park provides a natural respite for riders wishing to decompress. In addition to camping facilities, the park offers a lake with a beach, a diving tower, boat rentals, a concession stand, a conference center for larger gatherings, and cabins for overnight rental.

Marion, VA

At the southern end of the BOTD, is the town of Marion. At an elevation of 2,435, overnight visitors can mitigate much of summer’s heat and humidity. This Virginia Main Street Community of about 6,000 offers a full range of visitor services and is conveniently located adjacent to I-81. Performing arts are available at the Lincoln Theatre, which is the stunning art deco Mayan Revival-style home of a nationally syndicated bluegrass music program.