FORNEYS GAP, NC - Deep in the Appalachian Mountains dwells a beast known as Tail of the Dragon. It might be named after a mythical creature, but the 318 curves packed into this 11-mile stretch of mountain road present an all too real challenge. Officially designated U.S. 129, the popular tourist attraction, located on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, saw 1,080 vehicles per day in 2018, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Darryl Cannon, a former motorcyclist, used to be in one of them.

“This road will mess you up if you don’t respect it,” he said. “I get why people do it. I don’t knock anybody for doing it, but I’m just of an age now where I’ve gotten it out of my system, and I’m OK with not doing it anymore.”

A biker riding the Tail of the Dragon around a corner with open sections and view of the Appalachian Mountains. [Oliver Fischer]

Cannon, who now runs his photography business, first rode the Dragon after hearing about it online and convincing some of his biker friends to do a road trip there. They had already ridden Blue Ridge Parkway and similar twisty mountain roads, but he said the Dragon was the highlight of their trip, despite being ill-prepared in hindsight.

“It was almost entertaining just to watch my line through the turns, back then versus now,” Cannon said. “Back then I would put in multiple inputs during one turn on the motorcycle. After a few years of riding, I could see a big difference.”

Humble beginnings

Cannon rode a Kawasaki Ninja 600 sport bike back then, mostly for the image. “Originally, I got into sport bike riding more for the cruising around, looking cool part,” he said. But with such a purpose-built machine, it wasn’t long before Cannon started craving more.

Brian Wylie, an experienced rider who frequents the Tail of Dragon, has not crashed a bike in 10 years until Sept. 7, 2019. With a broken frame and leaking fuel, his bike was stranded on the Dragon. [Oliver Fischer]

“I started experiencing what it was like to feel carving a corner and how it feels like you’re flying on the road on a motorcycle,” he said. “That rush of a sort of push into a corner, I wanted to feel that more. The Dragon was an obvious choice for somebody who wants to experience that feeling.”

Cannon rode the Dragon for the first time around 1998. While he said he did not encounter any surprises, it was still an intense learning experience. “To have all these turns thrown at you at such a rapid pace, it was good practice for learning quickly,” he said. “It was a little over our heads, but we managed to stay upright and in between the ditches and not cause any problems.”

According to Cannon, it’s that rapid pace of cornering and constant sharp turns that makes Tail of the Dragon so unique and attractive for riders.

“This road, the first couple times you ride it, is all reactive,” said Brian Wylie, a carpenter and frequent rider on Tail of the Dragon. “You can’t think about your lines. You can’t think about anything else. Especially if you come from flatland, and it’s all coming at you so fast.”

Riders do not have time to think between corners, but that’s part of the allure.

“It’s so immersive that that’s one of the big appeals of it,” Wylie said. “It’s a roller coaster that I can control. And then you spend time riding it, and it just becomes magic.”

The Dragon is surrounded by dense forests. [Oliver Fischer]

For Cannon, his attraction to bikes comes from the feeling of flying. “It’s probably as close as I’m going to get to piloting something,” he said. Cannon said it’s a feeling that cannot quite be matched by other types of vehicles, including sports cars.

“There’s hard forces in all directions in a car,” Cannon said. “It’s more violent, and so your inputs are immediate reactions in the change of direction.” Riding a bike, on the other hand, involves a certain laziness or flow, according to Cannon. After making an input, the motorcycle does not immediately start to carve a corner like a car. Instead, it leans and starts carving the corner once the input is stopped.

The Dragon bites back

Even on a motorcycle, smooth handling can come to an abrupt end. Cannon, like many others on Tail of the Dragon, has been involved in a series of accidents.

Two bikers riding around a corner on the Tail of the Dragon. [Oliver Fischer]

“I laid over to go into the turn, and I had my knee on the ground, and then the bike just started leaning over further and I was like ‘What’s going on here?’” Cannon said. He said he had all his gear on in that moment, including his back protector, but he was sliding back first across the road, heading straight for the trees.

“I just remember sliding backwards with my feet in front of me, and I was like ‘Oh, this is gonna be ugly,’ and I went sailing off the road, flying through the air,” Cannon said. He hit a fallen tree with his lower back, flipped over it and tumbled a couple times.

“It knocked the breath out of me,” he said. “I remember thinking this might be it. I may be knocked out, and nobody’s gonna find me.” His bike followed him and hit a different tree. It split in half. “I remember crawling up to the road, and somebody stopped and saw me and helped me from there,” Cannon said. “That was one of the final straws.”

Tail of the Dragon used to be primarily a biker destination, but cars have become just as popular in recent years.

Around the same time, Cannon’s wife also got into a few accidents on the Dragon. Another driver lost control and hit her. A few months after that, she hit a boar at night on Cannon’s bike. “Those things just kind of hit us all around the same time frame and we were just like, ‘You know, maybe we need to take a break for a while.’” They stopped riding for about eight years.

Cannon is slowly getting back onto bikes, but he said he isn’t planning on attacking the Dragon head-on any time soon.

“It’s just too risky on the motorcycle,” he said.

Accident-prone but rarely fatal

“They can’t just leave it and let it be the Wild West and everybody’s just crazy, but they don’t want to run everybody off and kill their tourism.”
— Darryl Cannon, Photographer

According to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, there were 468 crashes on the Tail of the Dragon between 2014 and 2019. 372 of them involved motorcycles, and 13 of them were fatal.

The highest reported speed during a crash, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, was a crash into a fixed object at 45mph.

Physical consequences are not the only repercussions of an accident. Cannon’s wife is still attending therapy weekly and suffers from anxiety. “She struggles now just to see other people coming towards her after being hit by somebody,” Cannon said. “Even in an SUV, it still makes her very anxious. Sometimes she just cries. Sometimes she just can’t handle it.”

Two riders carve a corner on their bike. [Oliver Fischer]

According to, the Dragon averages about one to four deaths a year. Cannon said the road is relatively safe due to the confining nature of constant turns that keep the speed of riders in check. “People respect it a little bit more because of all the negative press that it gets,” he said. One of the bigger dangers are cars and motorcycles sharing the same road.

“Even if you’re in little cars like Miatas and S2000s and things like that, you don’t think of it as being potentially big,” Cannon said. “But in an environment where you’re surrounded by motorcycles, suddenly you’re driving the equivalent of a tractor trailer on the highway. You’ll probably be fine, but you’ll kill somebody else if you lose control.”

The Dragon through time

Ron Johnson, who runs with his wife Nancy, has been digging into the history of Tail of the Dragon. He is currently writing a book about it and has a brief summary available on his website. Long before motorcycles and cars, the trail that would become the Dragon was formed by animals, Native Americans and European explorers.

“It’s amazing to me how they made it through these woods,” Johnson said. “There’s not a lot of detail on this particular road.” He did manage to find out that it was originally an animal track formed by buffalo herds, just like most roads in America.

“When the buffalo would move from spot to spot, they’d take the easy way around,” Johnson said. That meant walking around hills, rather than cutting straight through. “Then the Indians would start following the buffalo trails,” he said. “And then the explorers started following the Indian trails.”

The result are trails formed by wild animals centuries ago, although the Dragon has been altered slightly from the original trail. “It was difficult even for a wagon to get through,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how they did it.”

Regardless of difficulties, the road was paved because there was no road connecting North Carolina and Tennessee between U.S. 441 and U.S. 64. “It was another way to get from one state to the other,” Johnson said. Before World War II, there were also plans for tourism in the area around Deals Gap.

“There were some very far-sighted people that would never believe what’s happening now.”

Taming the Dragon

Today, the Dragon attracts visitors from all over the country and the world. With such heavy traffic, it took law enforcement some time to figure out the best strategies in preventing crashes. Blount County officers are the most common sight on Tail of the Dragon.

“They’ve got a tough job,” Cannon said. “They can’t just leave it and let it be the Wild West and everybody’s just crazy, but they don’t want to run everybody off and kill their tourism.”

Bikes lined up at the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort. [Oliver Fischer]

In the early days of Dragon tourism, police officers could get a little heavy-handed at times. “Little ladies in a van, if their wheel touched the yellow line, they’d pull them over and give them a ticket,” Johnson said. But law enforcement has become much more lenient in recent years, focusing less on the 30-mph speed limit people rarely abide by.

“They started focusing a little bit less on speed and a little bit more on maintaining control of your vehicle, especially in your lane,” Cannon said. Cutting the double yellow lane can be problematic with blind corners and oncoming traffic. Police will sometimes station a dozen officers on the Dragon to get people talking and perpetuate the myth of high police presence, while also saving them money and keeping riders under control.

“All they have to do is do it one weekend, and it perpetuates this myth that the police are all over the place out there for years,” Cannon said. “They are pretty cool about letting people have their fun. Just don’t cause problems, that’s the big thing.”