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Riding the Dragon - Deals Gap NC

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Riding the Dragon - A GREAT weekend!

Note: This very long trip report basically covers my virgin run(s) up into the Great Smoky Mountains of far western North Carolina with my Brother in law, Rusty on his Harley. It includes four nice rides, some in more detail than others: Maggie Mountain from Maggie Valley to Cherokee NC (15 mile, 9 miles of twisties and sweeps), the Hellbender 28 (32.5 miles, 18.5 miles are sweeps and twisties), the Dragon’s Tail at Gap NC (11 miles with 318 turns) to and the Cheoah Run from Deals Gap to Robbinsville, NC (18 miles of sweeps and scenery).

WOW! What a roller coaster weekend...literally!

I had read where a lot of folks become (and stay) excited about running the Tail of the Dragon up at Deals Gap NC and I can now totally relate. It was the best day riding I’ve ever had, thus far. The weather was perfect. We spent three days in the Smoky Mountains, getting up early Saturday morning to ride the Dragon’s Tail and still beat all the folks coming in for the bike rallies in Cherokee and Maggie Valley as well as missing most of the sports cars coming down from the giant car show up in Pigeon Forge. Along with the rides I also broke 5,000 miles on the odometer in just the 12 weeks I’ve been riding...and that’s with all the rain days I didn’t ride to work! Here’s how things went down this weekend. Enjoy...

Packing Up the Night Before the Big Ride

Friday, heading up there was fairly nice though colder than we had planned on the interstates, with the temperature drop and occasional thunder storm. Because of this we dumped our original plans to head to RobbinsvilleNC up from the southeast. I had packed up my VTX 1300 (“Hondo”) the night before and my brother-in-law, Rusty on his black HD FLHXI Street Glide met me at 0600 hrs to strike out for our northwesterly objective via I-26 and I-20. I made sure the last thing I did was shower and dress to feel fresher throughout the day based on veteran advice given me by other X Riders. Rusty and I took off in the dark and eventually made it to MaggieValley about 6 hours later with many stops along the I-26N and I-40W to take breaks, re-fuel or just warm up a bit. This was especially true for Rusty as he’s a native South Carolinian and my cool is closer to freezing to him. Each time we changed lead on the freeway I’d look over to see this big hunched over black Harley ninja with only his eyes squinting at his objective.

The rain ended up keeping us in the immediate Maggie Valley/Cherokee area once we arrived. It would turn out to be much warmer coming back home on Sunday and would only take us 4.5 hours to complete.

Rusty Trying to Get a Signal While Dodging the Rain at MaggieValley Bike Rally - No Such Luck

We checked out the tiny bike rally in MaggieValley when we first got into the hills to allow most of the heavier rain to pass. We hadn’t known about the rallies when we planned our trip a couple of months ago, but it gave us something to do in the damp conditions. As I mentioned, the rally was very small and only a few vendors of questionable products attended, but the music we heard while walking around was pretty good. We had burgers for lunch at the Legends Sports Grill on the main drag of town. Turns out this is a really great place and has no bad food. I mean it...NO bad food, which I found to be totally incredible! There’s more involving Legends later. I sadly learned we’d missed visiting a Motorcycle museum in MaggieValley so that will be one of the many things we failed to accomplish that need to make the list for “next time”.

As Friday afternoon wore on the sun came out and the heat and humidity became rather uncomfortable so we decided to head out and rode on to Cherokee NC via Hwy 19. Just like the proverbial bear, we went over the mountain to see what we could see. And a pretty good mountain road it was...especially with all that traffic. This proved to be my first introduction to sharp blind downhill turns with the stress of both oncoming traffic and tailgating locals behind me wanting to pass. I had practiced on a nearby lake road and a bit more at my father in laws farm in NE Kentucky, but this was much steeper and had a lot more traffic. It but was only an introduction as I was to find out the next morning at Deals Gap.

Because of the two bike rallies and the big car show the Holiday Inn room in Cherokee that Rusty had been able to get for only $64 two weeks earlier now cost us $137! It was now late, they refused to honor any coupons or the call we had the NC Visitors center make for us to lock in a rate. They had us over a barrel. As you can tell, we weren’t real happy about that little detail. But it was the only real negative to the whole trip. Even the rain wasn’t lasting long enough to dampen our overall spirits and definitely wasn’t taking our minds off of why we had come.

The off and on rain Friday night only allowed some local road explorations and did persuade us to check out the Cherokee Survivors Rally. Frankly it and the Thunder in the Valley (the little one in MaggieValley) were both pretty disappointing. Other than having LOTS more people and vendors the Cherokee rally didn’t really offer much more in content than they did in MaggieValley, which was one third the cost. Everyone we talked to at both locations said it was the Grand Strand (formally Myrtle Beach) Rally in SC, the Sturgis rally in SD and the Biketoberfest down in DaytonaFL that we should really try and get to for both the vendors and the great rides they set up around the area.’s certainly a thought. But there are bills to pay next month and I need to get the bike checked and serviced for warranty, plus it’s getting really chilly in the mornings and I haven’t got my leathers nor my rain suit yet, so probably not.

Back to the weekend...

Although a rider for many years, this was only Rusty’s second time that I know of him riding with a helmet and he kept riding off without the loaner I gave him before remembering. He later admitted that the little Outlaw half helmet wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be, so I told him to keep it as it rode my head too high (like a lampshade) anyway. I’m not sure how we’d explain away riding without a helmet. I must admit it was weird to see EVERY rider wearing one. One of the biggest hassles about it was that neither of us had any habits or routines on what to do with them when they weren’t on your noggin. So, when ever we stopped or parked we’d look around and imitate the majority that were there. Take it with you, lock it up, string it on a cable, carry it around, bump it, drop it, forget it, go back for it, drop it...what a pain! But hey, that wasn’t going to keep us from enjoying ourselves.

The entire SmokyMountain area is very pretty in most places and downright beautiful in others. There are some really gorgeous log homes sitting on the sides of some of these steep hills. In fact, BrysonNC was the only place that seemed a bit dingy (and only along Hwy 19), but the scenery of the surrounding hills made up for the dilapidation. I was surprised to see all the kudzu growing up the sides of the mountains this far north and draping down over the cliff walls, bridges and telephone poles like emerald waterfalls. It reminded me of Fort Benning, GA only with steeper hills. Looking back, one other regret I had (other than not being able to get in all the rides in we had hoped) was that there were so few places to pull over to get photos of the hundreds of photogenic sights we saw.

Anyway, I awoke early Saturday morning and was excited. I didn’t want to wake Rusty, so I quietly packed up my stuff and went out to wipe down Hondo with some pledge...there be professional photographers in those hills as well as dragons! Want the X to look good for her debut. After Rusty showered and had breakfast we headed out on Hwy 19 to get onto US 28 (aka Hellbender 28) as several folks had told us. This was supposed to be the perfect warm-up for both your bike tires and your twisty turns motor skills before hitting the Dragon’s Tail on US 129. I would now have to agree.

The Hellbender runs north from US 74/ 19. It is named for the local salamander that squiggles and twists in the waters around there. It starts out as a long 4 and 5 lane concrete highway that takes you way up the mountain, but then closes down into a shady well paved two-lane road that then snakes down the mountain to the river and along it until you reach Deals Gap. There’s a turn-off to Fontana Dam where they have tours. This is the tallest dam east of the Rockies and the same dam that Harrison Ford’s character leaped off in the movie The Fugitive. We didn’t take the tour, but I might go up and see it the next go around. I’ve never seen so many squirrels in my life, both live and as carcasses on the road. Some serious advice: NEVER try to avoid hitting a squirrel. Just ride and let nature take its course. They turn out not to be solid enough to make you go down, but trying to avoid them on a curve will.

Beautiful View over LakeFontana on the High End of the Hellbender (US 28)

Not long after you get into the Hellbender twisties there’s a nice big asphalt turn-off/overlook on a left hand sweep that I recommend for taking photos of you and your bike. It allows you to actually ride your bike between the barrier rocks and up to a low cross log fence that hovers at the cliff edge with LakeFontana in the distance. The location makes for great photos, especially (I would think) in the noon to afternoon period. We got there at mid-morning so there’s a bit of haze in the background to the east. I was in the lead and barely had time to pull over. I just wanted to get a better view of the lake I’d glimpsed out the side of my eye. After parking I gave the grassy area a test walk and thought, “What the hell...” So I pulled my bike into position and Rusty took a pic or two before several bikes that HAD been roaring by us now started coming in wanting to do the same. We had quite the unscheduled group meeting and everyone BS’d and shared thoughts about the Hellbender and the Dragon that was coming up. It was great!

Hondo Taking the Spotlight When Rusty and I asked a Passing Rider to Take Our Photo

One more note about this nice pull off: I wouldn’t back my bike in as a few later did. I just rode Hondo alongside the wood fence. That was close enough to the edge for me! Besides, the first guy who did that got dog poop all over both tires. I figure that would be a bad enough omen not to push things.

There was almost no 4-wheel traffic on the Hellbender with the exception of a small group of vintage cars that passed by as we were stopped. Other than the squirrels the roads were in great until we hit one uphill turn that had a Pekinese and a large white and brown hound dog loping together on the edge of the road. They seemed road savvy, but it sure took us by surprise as we banked into the corner!

After a Break We’re Ready to Head Straight Back into the Twisties of the Hellbender 28

We continued on with the road now flattening out, but still making nice long sweeps while running along the broadening river on our left side. It was very peaceful. The Hellbender comes to a sudden end and you find yourself at Deals Gap Resort and Store (which I found out is actually a misnomer since Deals Gap is actually the big rise/ridge that the Tail of the Dragon slithers over). The place just sort of springs up on you as you come to the stop sign. It’s right there on the right...big as life. We pulled in and parked and then just sorta sat/stood there and looked around. There were about 50 bikes in the lot with most folks just standing in little clumps near their bikes.
I later figured out that most of those lingering near their bikes were “virgins” coming forth to present themselves as potential sacrifices to the Dragon. The folks actually going into the store, taking photos or (more importantly) smiling and talking loudly were usually those that had already made the run. I didn’t figure this all out until I had gone up and back myself and then could see the social differences in everyone’s behavior. When I pointed this out to Rusty later he looked about for a long time and then started laughing and said, “Yeah, you’re right. I hadn’t noticed that before.”

Well, we couldn’t come up with any more reasons to delay so I pulled on my full-face helmet and we mounted up and took off up the hill. I led since Rusty has all the riding experience and wanted to keep an eye out for me. We didn’t get far (maybe two or so turns) when the Tennessee state line sign showed up as we were going uphill and we saw our first TN Trooper parked on the side of the road maybe two curves later. There is NO way you’d ever see these guys before they saw you first...not if you were paying attention to your riding anyway. I didn’t worry about these guys because there wasn’t a chance one of me violating the speed limit as I was being too cautious on my tight turning techniques to try and push my speed any. At the end of both runs (up and back) we only saw two TN troopers. There was one NC trooper car parked at Deals Gap but he was just walking around having conversations with all the riders. Seemed like a nice fellow, but we didn’t speak with him. Bottom line is if you don’t act stupid nothing expensive is going to occur with the law.

I had seen many photos of Deals Gap and the Dragon’s Tail and well as videos on the internet. It is not quite the same in reality. First of all, you can’t appreciate just how the turns are both banked, nor can you comprehend the several steep slopes going down into a twisty and then immediately back up the hill toward yet another blind curve.

I Lead the Way on the First Run with Rusty on My Six as We Start Into the Dragons Tail

Once, as I came out of a tight right-hand turn and headed up the sharp incline I could see nothing but the hard rocky cliff to my left, the drop-off to my right and nothing but blue sky out past the unguarded cliff directly in front of me with the trees making a shady tunnel that just seemed to lure you directly out into space. Secondly, you are only vaguely aware in the back of your head that this place is really pretty. You can’t (shouldn’t) put much thought into the trees, rock wall, drops, cliffs to the side, the water below or the skies and views in the distance. You are very busy hugging the white line, avoiding the center yellow and approaching traffic, checking your mirrors and setting up your approach into the next curve while still in the one you are leaning into.

Hondo and I Being Very Careful on Our First Run through a Blind Right Turn

Although I never once got higher than 3rd gear (I was in 2nd most of the time), you feel like you’re on some sport bike track that also goes up and down with all the leaning and re-leaning. Frankly, even with the up/down slopes at the turns none of them are “difficult” or even “dangerous,” it’s just having to do them over and over and over for miles that is the challenge, the fun and the exhilaration of success you feel later.

Looking WAY into This Turn as We Begin Our Lean - But Getting More Confident

I dragged my left peg four times (two up and two coming back) and the same thing happened with my right boot heel. Turns out I bent by right peg screw in a drop at home and my heel hits the road before the peg ever will. The first time I scraped the peg I was so startled my knee came up so high I’m surprised I didn’t hit my jaw! But I didn’t have time to dwell on it as I was already setting up my next turn. As for dragging my boot heel, it didn’t seem to bother me as much; probably because it didn’t make that grating sound or vibrate up my butt like dragging the peg does.

The sun was often twinkling down through the tree tops but, for the most part, it was shady. The light effect is not so “strobe” like as I was told as it is more like trying to watch something through a moving picket fence. I quickly got used to it though and don’t remember noticing it after I was into the ride some.

Double Overlook About Eight Miles into the Dragons Tail (Heading north into Tennessee)

If you are going for your first time heading north from the Deals Gap Resort I would advise against making the stop at the big pull- off/look out (open area with view on both sides of the road about 8 or so miles into run) unless this is where you are going to turn around as so many do that have already run the Dragon before. The reason I don’t recommend the stop your first time through is because Rusty and I found it hard to get back into the rhythm we had established earlier during the ride and I personally made a couple of mistakes choosing my line in the last few turns. The official 11 miles ends up at the bridge near the dam but that part is pretty flat and a bit “boring” after what you’ve just ridden, which is probably why so many folks just turn around at the overlook I suppose.

Getting Into the Groove on the Multi Twists and Turns on the Way Back through the Dragon

We went up to the Tallahassee Store on the Tennessee side to get a drink and then headed back down into the Tail. While we were there some lady was resting after accidentally driving her little van through the Dragon’s Tail on her way up to KnoxvilleTN. I asked her if she’d just driven up from Deals Gap. She said, “You mean Deals HELL!” I guess if you weren’t planning on riding the Dragon it could be quite terrifying, to say the least.

This time through the Tail I felt more confident so I changed headgear to my half helmet and told Rusty he could stop babysitting me now and go have fun and we’d just ride our own rides. I quickly lost him once we passed the sign warning trucks to consider an alternate route. Actually I lost him a half mile after that where the yellow caution sign for Multiple Curves Ahead / Next 11 miles was. I noticed someone had taken a black sharpie pen and written “No Sh*t!” on either side of the squiggly arrow. I had to laugh out loud at that bit of graffiti – they should leave it up. While you are on the Dragon some helpful locals have spray painted the roads just before certain turns that read “SLO.” I’d pay attention to those since they really mean it!

Going into Yet Another Blind Curve

In the Apex & You Take a Risk Being Close to the Double Yellow with Oncoming Traffic

After about a dozen turns back toward Deals Gap I was making a hard right turn and scraped my boot heel again. I instinctively glanced into my mirror as I had seen two big sports bikes coming up fast a turn or two earlier. I had just enough time to see them suddenly come up side by side to each other in the turn and they bumped their tanks or handlebars and crashed in separate low sides to either side of the road. I saw them both hop back up like rabbits just as I had to pay attention to the road again. I could see they were both wearing full armor gear and figured that if they could get up that fast then they were probably all right and I later saw them down at the Deals Gap store walking around. No harm, no foul.

My Favorite Photo of Me and Hondo on the Dragon - I Had Just came out of Steep Turn and Up into a Sharp Blind Curve
(Note the Right Peg Just Before It Starts Dragging and Making Sparks)

I blew my new Stegel horn in victory as I came into the Resort area and to give Rusty a chance to pick me out in the crowd as I came into the parking lots. I couldn’t see him and by this time the lots had gone from around 50 bikes to what looked like a thousand...and wouldn’t you know that 90% of them were all black Harleys...just like Rusty’s ride. Luckily, Hondo and I were there representin’ the X Riders!

Proudly Representing Honda X Riders on a Day Chock Full of Harleys and Crotch Rockets

I circled the parking lots and then just pulled into the first couple of slots by the loading ramp. After taking off my helmet I took a victory smile photo of myself and bike. I then got off to find Rusty and take some photos when somebody came running up the lot all excited looking for the NC trooper. He said a bike had gone off the mountain.

I now got a cold feeling in my stomach as I still hadn’t seen Rusty! Dang...he’s gone off that cliff! So, for about 5 minutes I was not appreciating my Slayer status as I was dreading the Dragon had just gotten one my family! But then someone else came by and said it was a trike. I was instantly relieved and then feeling guilty for someone else’s misfortune. Right about then Rusty came up to me and asked if I’d seen the Tree of Shame yet. I didn’t know whether to hug him or knock a tooth or two of his out.
It turns out that it was a cruiser, not a trike, and that they’d gone into a ditch, not “off” the mountain. The rider was able to keep his momentum to ride back up and out of the ditch but his wife fell off the back (they ought to make a T-Shirt about that) and broke her leg below the knee. Several folks stopped and got her out of the ditch, safe and stable while directing traffic until the cops and later EMS showed up. The road was never closed; they just kept shuffling folks into one lane.

There are some that pooh-pooh the Tail of Dragon and all the hype...and they may be right if they’ve done tons of that sorta stuff. But, personally, it was worth all the time, money, effort and planning to go and I still have a big smile on my face thinking about it!

The folks at Deals Gap gave me a free Dragon USA (US Army) sticker to put on my windshield. I thought that was nice. It certainly wasn’t something I expected. They have one for each of the service branches in their branch colors. I would have preferred it be black and gold as green doesn’t go well with my bike, but I may put it on the windshield anyway. I went across the street to the little Tail of the Dragon tent store but didn’t see anything I cared to buy.

Illegal Photo of Cheoah Dam

We took Hwy 129 back into Robbinsville, NC. This is an 18 mile route called the Cheoah Run. It starts at the Cheoah dam where we stopped illegally to get a photo, but traffic was very light at that time.. It’s very pretty with some really spectacular cascades over the rocks on the river to your right. But there is nowhere safe to get photos so you’ll just have to take my word for it or get a helmet cam.

Getting Ready to take on the Cheoah Run Back to Robbinsville NC

We spent the night at The Lodge in Waynesville, just off Hwy 74 at Exit. In fact, it’s so “just off” that we had missed it before we’d even finished merging off the exit! Rusty called about half-way into Waynesville for directions and we turned around and found it. It’s an older, but clean American owned place that only cost us 67$. You have a back porch onto grass and a pretty pool area plus your own porch rocking chairs to view the hills out back.

Legends Sports Grill - Maggie ValleyNC

Saturday night we ate at Legends again for dinner and to watch the Gamecock Vs Georgia football game. Rusty got another burger (guess he loves those things) and I got chicken wings (half Jamaican Jerk and half Thai). It was good. The place was crowded so they stuck us into a table with 2 couples and a local family of 3 that said all the locals love eating there. We ate and visited for about an hour. One of the couples (we never asked anyone’s name, it was like we’d already met) was hilarious. He was like a miniature Larry the Cable Guy and his wife’s reactions and embarrassment had me rolling most of the night. It’s been a long time since I’ve met someone come up with that many one-liners and comebacks at anything said or seen and actually continually to be funny. He had us all rolling off our stools. It South Carolina had been able to pull off the upset the evening would have been perfect. *sigh*

I had bit of added adventure since I’d left my glasses and yellow over-goggles in the room. So I had to ride back to Waynesville with my prescription sunglasses on.

Talk about tunnel vision...! :icon_eek:

Making New Friends at Legends Sports Grill

I have to say, I really enjoyed all the bikers we met over the last few days, especially at the many parking lots we stopped in. Not just in the Smokies, but all along the way up and back as well. It didn’t matter if we were getting gas, snacks, checking out shops, roaming the rallies or wherever. If you had a bike someone was coming up to say hello and chat for awhile. I even met a fellow SF soldier at a NC rest stop on US 74. We caught up a little and I got a brotherly hug when we departed. The US Army motif of the bike (big green Alice ruck sack) and my riding apparel caught attention and drew in conversations and even some “thank yous” from non-bikers. It was nice to be recognized for your service by so many great people. If you were one of those, I want to thank you for recognizing the many hard years of service so many of my brothers (and sisters) have given and continue to give today.

We made good time getting home. And it was great getting there. There were home-made BBQ ribs, cole slaw and melon to eat, a hot shower, all the dogs and my beautiful wife, Shelle. All in all, it was a memorable weekend, a great ride and a successful adventure to slay the Dragon.

Welcome Home!

Next year when we head back up into the Smokies we’ll stay a LOT longer and try to ride the Cherokee Foothills Byway, Caesars Head, the Highland Run, Thunder (Wayah) Road, the Cherohala Skyway, Devils Triangle, Great Smoky Mountain Parkway and at least some parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway coming back.

In the meantime I’ve been hearing a lot about the LakeLure and Chimney Rock area...

I can’t wait!

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Let me knw when you are doing the Lake Lure ride, I live about 8 miles from there and would be glad to join
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