We did it! We navigated the famous “Tail of the Dragon” and have the tales to go with it.
The “we” part of this story is the Southeast Regional Automotive Media Association (SERAMA), an Atlanta-based media group. Formerly known as GAAMA, this association of journalists, podcasters, and other storytellers gathered in Alcoa, Tennessee for the inaugural “Dragon Drive” event. Arriving on November 13 and concluding on November 15, it was on Monday, November 14, 2022, whereby just over two dozen people braved chilly conditions to tackle the dragon.
Tail of the Dragon
For nearly everyone, it was their first excursion on a portion of a roadway that comprises 11 miles and 318 curves of US 129. That slice represents the “Tail of the Dragon,” with the first (or last mile) in North Carolina and the remaining miles in Tennessee. The roadway got its name due to its shape and perhaps because of the danger it presents — especially to inattentive drivers. Indeed, the dragon simply beguiles, then dares drivers to live life on the edge. Fortunately, our crew ignored the siren call and navigated the roadway without incident, but not necessarily without drama!
My drive partner was Kevin Meyn, whose YouTube Channel Exhaust Sports Auto is chockful of new and used car reviews. Kevin is about as modest as they come, despite nearly 65,000 subscribers and multiple videos tallying at least one million views. We made four excursions on the tail with Kevin taking the Toyota GR86 first, followed by me driving a Ford Mustang 2.3T on the way back. For our second round trip, Kevin navigated an Alfa Romeo Stelvio, while I drove a Mercedes-AMG GLE 53 Coupe.
We also made several Foothills Parkway trips with three other vehicles – a Nissan Altima SR, Mazda CX-30, and a Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek SUV. Other models in the test fleet included a Jeep Grand Cherokee, Infiniti QX60, Mazda MX-5 RF, and a Toyota Supra. A good selection of vehicles for two very different roads. That’s especially noteworthy considering the isolated location of the event and the availability of vehicles during these times of persistent shortages.
The following notes are derived from our experiences on the tail.
Take it in stride.
The dragon beckons, but you don’t have to be seduced. Or at least there is no need to drive stupidly. The roadway is marked with double lines and side markers. Provided you stay between the two and obey the posted speed limit (30 mph) and navigate curves with ease (15 mph), you’ll do fine. There are several places to pull over if you’re being tailed too closely. You should also know that included in the curves total are numerous hairpin turns and switchbacks.
Operate in manual mode.
Most of the test vehicles were automatics equipped with manual modes. Keep it in manual and allow the engine to do most of the braking. Your brakes will thank you for that. We discovered, though, that not all transmissions behave in the same way. One was hesitant to downshift immediately, while another one regularly upshifted the moment it sensed more speed was desired. Even though you’ll use your brakes far less this way, you must be mindful of your speed, road conditions, traffic, and curves. You’ll get to know your ride really well – precise steering with terrific feedback is ideal. Even if you think you know your ride, the combination of curves, speed, and elevation will teach you a few new things about it.
Expect the unexpected.
Human behavior is not always easy to anticipate. Indeed, to our surprise, we encountered a pair of cyclists riding side-by-side just as we took one curve. On straightaways, riding two abreast is legal, but that is not the case on the Dragon. Fortunately, the inside cyclist pulled ahead of his ride partner just as we approached. In a separate incident, we encountered a 16-foot box truck starting the tail just as we left it. Surprisingly, trucks with trailers under 30 feet are allowed on the highway. In 2014, Tennessee followed North Carolina in restricting semis on US 129. In any case, certain commercial vehicles and models pulling a trailer are allowed and should be anticipated.
Be mindful of the conditions.
Avoid weekend travel on the Tail of the Dragon unless you’re okay with heavy traffic. April through October is the best time to go, with the risk of snow and ice high during the other months. SERAMA set aside the morning of the second day for additional drive time, but heavy rains canceled those plans. Keep in mind that the tail is located within the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in America.
Add The Dragon to Your Bucket List
If you’re a fan of thrilling drives, the Tail of the Dragon should be on your bucket list. It ranks with the Stelvio Pass (Italy) and Transfăgărășan (Romania) as among the best drives in the world. As for this driver, a trip on the Dalton Highway ending with a dunk in the Arctic Ocean is a not-yet-mastered experience. Alaska, anyone?
Your Guide to Tail of the Dragon. Roadtrippers.
Lingeman, J. (2014, December 8). Tennessee bans semi trucks from Tail of the Dragon. Autoweek.
Stelvio Pass: 48 hairpin turns to the Europe’s most iconic road. Dangerous Roads
Puscasu, C. (2021, October 22). All About the Transfăgărășan. Auto Trends Magazine
Photos copyright Stumpwater Media Group, LLC. All rights reserved.