Five Roads Better Than The Tail Of The Dragon

Legends grow as they roll along. Like snowballs they gather hyperbole packed deep in layers until the truth is buried somewhere way beneath. Telling and retelling of ancient stories swell the past until they take on a life of their own, only resembling the original in hazy memory. Good days far removed become epic, the older I get the faster I was and ancient asphalt snakes become the Nurburgring.

Highway 129, i.e. The Tail Of The Dragon, is such legend. Its 318 curves in 11 miles are fact, but there is also some legend around this stretch of twisty tarmac. The Tree of Shame, that tree at the beginning whose bark is a mangled plastic fairing testament to poor decisions adds to the lore, attracting swarming moths of sporty pretenders on everything from Honda Groms to McLaren hypercars. They make the pilgrimage to ride The Dragon, to get the sticker, buy the refrigerator magnet and say they were there.

But is it a great road?

Legend removed, hyperbole peeled away, and cool nickname eliminated, would it still be worthy of a pilgrimage? There is a kernel of truth to the old adage about never meeting your heroes. Reality smashes home the truth that legends grow in the retelling, that facts can never match up to mental fables.

This spring, it was an honor to pluck Dave “White Girl” Wensveen from our Northwest home and take him 2,500 miles south east to join Rob and ride that legendary stretch of Hwy. 129. The smile on Dave’s face after the second hot lap through was a look I will never forget and I took much pride in helping him check it off his bucket list. But afterwards we discussed and agreed, as good as the Tail Of The Dragon is, there are better roads out there. Much better. And we’ve been on them.

So in no particular order, here are five roads we say are better than Tail Of The Dragon. All of them legends, but for the right reasons.

California Highway 1 from Legget to Hardy

This is the real Tail Of The Dragon. Curves in its 21 miles through the dense forest carpet of northern California remain uncounted, but at almost twice as long and just as twisty, no one cares. Endless succession of second gear corners come with severe banking and spots so narrow that RV forum members warn not to attempt it. I once drove it in a car with my wife and her fingernails in my arm almost drew blood.

The best part about this stretch of Highway 1 is that it ends at the Pacific Ocean and is the spiritual starting point for the Pacific Coast Highway. So when one journey ends, the other is just beginning.

Tail of the Dragon? It doesn’t end at the Pacific Ocean.

Lolo Pass

If you measure Lolo Pass from Kooskia, Idaho to Lolo, Montana, it is 134 miles. You read that right: 134 miles of curves. Idaho doesn’t have the budget to put three digit numbers on signs, so their warning sign reads “CURVES NEXT 99 MILES”.

Lolo Pass follows the Lochsa River so as the water meanders, so does the road. Pavement is flat, smooth, flanked by mountains on one side and a crystal clear river on the other. When people dream of pure, unpolluted northwest fantasies, this is what they see.

With not a straight stretch, passing is dicey. Get behind a Winnebago and meter your patience. You also run the risk of hitting snow in April, May, and June. And the speed limit is a ludicrous 50 mph on the Idaho side, which the Idaho State Patrol takes seriously. Very Seriously. That’s all I have to say about that.

Your exhaust echoes off the cliffs

But time it right, on a sunny, cool, empty Tuesday afternoon in June (while the Idaho State Patrol is on a shift change) and it will be one of those days. You know those days, the ones when your exhaust echoes off the cliffs, when you just feel fast, when you are thankful to be alive and living out God’s gift of speed, traction and timing.

Bonus points if you do it with riding buddies and stay at the Lochsa Lodge in a creaky log cabin where all of you are packed in like clowns in a Volkswagen. Double bonus points if you break into the cook’s storage behind the main lodge, steal a gallon of diesel and set the entire woodpile on fire, all at once, until the guests come pouring out of the lodge to see what the hell is on fire. Again, that’s all I have to say about that.

Tail of the Dragon is only 11 miles, follows no river and has no log cabins. And a river doesn’t run though it.

North Cascades Pass

North Cascades Pass is some of the smoothest asphalt, best curves and most dramatic scenery you will see anywhere in North America. As jaw dropping as Colorado and almost on par with Glacier National Park, this stretch of Washington Highway 20 that crosses the Cascade Range is the barometer for every other road you will ride. However, those qualities are also its biggest drawbacks.

It’s rugged location high in the Cascade Mountains, the source of its beauty, also means you have to work to get there. You don’t go across North Cascades Pass by accident. And that elevation far north in the Cascades means it is only open from roughly May-October. The rest of the time it is buried deep by snowpack measured in feet. Many feet.

This stretch of road took 80 years to build

But that location also means it is relatively open, so this stretch of road that took 80 years to build remains a great, uncluttered paradise. So remote is this stretch of Highway 20 that the sign at the beginning warns that there are no services for 70 miles. Nothing for 70 miles? Sounds good to me. I once rode it three times in 24 hours. It got better every time.

Tail of the Dragon has no jagged peaks, no June snowball fights, no glacier fed lakes. And only 11 miles?

Beartooth Pass

Beartooth Pass is a close relative to North Cascades Pass and like its cousin, it is open only from Memorial Day through mid-September due to snowpack. Whereas North Cascades Pass goes over the Cascade Mountain Range, Beartooth navigates over the Assaroka Range connecting Montana and Wyoming. With an elevation of 10,947 feet, it asks you to be prepared for any weather, any time of year. That elevation means endlessly climbing switchbacks, expansive grassy alpine meadows and views extending into forever.

Start at Red Lodge, Montana and head south to combine Beartooth Pass with nearby Chief Joseph Highway as you drop onto Cody, Wyoming and you will have one of the best motorcycle days of your life.

By the way, Tail Of The Dragon has a maximum elevation of 1,800 feet.

Photos by Getty Images. We were too busy riding this one to snap any decent pictures.

Million Dollar Highway

Connecting Silverton and Ouray Colorado, this highway cost much more than a million dollars to build. A million dollars per mile is likely more accurate. This stretch of Highway 550 is dangerous not because of road conditions, but because you will never be able to take your eyes off the mountains, snow, forest and abandoned gold mines. It is everything great about Colorado with high fractured peaks, nose bleed elevation and twisty pavement. At only 25 miles, it is over way too soon, but is unforgettable and easy to connect with other gems. It is Colorado after all. Miss this road and you have missed the heart of Colorado.

Bonus points awarded for ending in Ouray, riding your motorcycle through The Outlaw Restaurant, then taking a dip on the Ouray Hot Springs. Best day ever. Trust me.

Does Tail Of The Dragon have an old west bar to ride your motorcycle through?

Ted ripping on the Tail of the Dragon, destroying Indian Scout Rogue peg feelers. Photo by Killboy.com

Peel away layers of the legend and The Dragon is still a great road, but not even close to a top 5 American riding experience. Even when I am in that region, I would rather ride the Blue Ridge Parkway or Cherohala Skyway. There are other riding experiences out there better than Tail Of The Dragon, like Going To The Sun Road, the Pacific Coast Highway and all of eastern Oregon.

But when I ride The Dragon, I still get a sticker and a refrigerator magnet, just because.

Ted

*What’s a few of your favorite roads/rides? Share in the comments below!

 

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66 Comments

  1. Dave Edwards

    Another great ride…Coronado Trail Scenic Byway is the road with 460 turns from Springerville (in Apache County) to Clifton (a former copper mining center in Greenlee County)..

    Reply
    • Rob Brooks

      Coronado Trail- I’ve heard of it. the 460 turns alone makes me want to ride it!

      Reply
    • Richard Ohnstad

      I think you’re talking about US 191 in AZ

      Reply
    • Brett Billett

      Spine of the devil! old Highway 666 now Highway 191……. Desert to the pines

      Reply
  2. Jeff Diehl

    I agree Beartooth Pass is heavenly. Check out the 555 Triple Nickel in southern Ohio. That area has lots of short trips.

    Reply
    • Rob Brooks

      The Triple Nickel! Sounds like one to add to my list…

      Reply
  3. Mike Hunter

    That’s a matter of opinion….I’ve rode most of these but none are as intense as the Dragon….

    Reply
    • Rob Brooks

      Which is exactly why we published this- our opinions alone, and inviting good folks like you to share yours.

      Reply
    • David

      The Three Pass Blast, start in Bellevue, east on 90 to Cle Elum, north on Bluette pass to 20, West on 20 to I-90 or Monroe.

      Reply
    • CHUCK Amburn

      The “Tail of the Dragon”. Hwy 129 from Maryville, TN to Deal’s Gap NC. Don’t override the ability of your ride to take the curves….you’ll be in the ditch or worse, over the side of the mountain, and parts of your ride (and body) will be hung on the “Tree of Shame” at Deal’s Gap. No commercial traffic to add to the bike traffic is a plus. A few miles further you’ll pick up the road the Cherohala Skyway that runs from Robbinsville, NC to Tellico, TN. Great “Loop” ride going either way. Many great rides throughout this great nation. THERE ARE NO BAD RIDES.

      Reply
    • GEORGETTE

      Iron Mountain in SD is like Tail of the Dragon

      Reply
  4. ken OLeary

    From New Zealand and shipped our bikes over to Los Angeles yearly since 1999. Have ridden to Sturgis 16 times from Lax and up to Alaska 3 times and criss crossed US several times. Your 5 rides are amongst the best.
    One more I have always enjoyed is riding the Fry Canyon from Bluff to Hanksville on to Torrey then after a relaxing stay at Austins Chuckwagon on to Escalante over Devils Backbone and on to Zion and Kanab.
    Tail of the Dragon, we rode maybe 25 bikes from NZ and the enthusiasm was very muted from all, but I am being unfair when comparing one ride to many similar in NZ.
    Still, the US has the best I have ridden even after riding the Swiss Alps.

    Reply
    • Rob Brooks

      Thanks for chiming in, Ken! Cheers to you!

      Reply
    • Rod Brannon

      Damn Ken, I wanna make your kinda money, so I can get around like you do. I’m from Glen Eden. I assume you now where that is? I just ride in the Southern Utah mountains where I live.

      Reply
    • Jimmy O

      Maybe one day I’ll get out West and ride them, more to add to the Bucket List.
      As for the TOTD, it might not compare to the ones mentioned but still a great time. I’m sure you rode like we did, ya make a day of it and run the Moonshiner, make a left at the Gap and run to the Cherohola, then run across to the Dragon and ride back to the Gap. We ride it every Sept for the boys weekend away to ride and eat.
      So when I get out west I’ll make sure to ride as many as I can.
      Next time your out in VA try riding the Back of the Dragon, about 25 miles long but the roads leading there are just as much fun. I don’t think there’s a bad road away from the cities that is bad in VA.
      Enjoy!

      Reply
      • Ted M Edwards

        Tail Of The Dragon is a good time, but overhyped in my opinion. There are so many other roads that are longer, more scenic and a ripping good time, Cherohala among one of my favorites. Why The Dragon gets so much recognition I have no idea. Cool name, maybe?

        Reply
        • Chase

          The Dragon is fun in the Miata. My favorite is the road from the motorcycle resort to Fontana Village. The Dragon is fun because it’s tight and technical. I enjoy that much more in a car than on a bike. Long sweepers are fun on the bike. Cherohala is chill, but I also really like Foothills. Ran up there at night last time to the Look Rock Tower. REALLY cool at night.

          Reply
          • Rob Brooks

            Yeah, now you’re talking. We love the Cherohala, and the Foothills Parkway. Never been to the Look Rock Tower, will have to find that next time we’re up there.

      • Hunterdan

        I just rode rode the Back of the Dragon coming back from N. Carolina. 32 miles long, 438 curves, and I also enjoyed the backroads getting there. I would definitely go back!

        Reply
  5. Vicki

    I have had the opportunity to have ridden every one of the roads in this article, and totally agree. I live in the Pacific Northwest, and we have so many great roads to enjoy.

    Reply
    • Ted Edwards

      Agreed Vicki. We live in a motorcycle Disneyland up here and there are so many road gems out there for the mining. Discussing them and telling their tall tales is part of the magic of what we do.

      Reply
    • Eric Stevens

      Not to forget 30 and the old “Dirty 30” loop in Delaware county upstate NY.

      Reply
      • Tim Brown

        The dragon…imo… good time, good pavement, good paint. Not very technical but a good time EXCEPT for the morons who think they’re going for the checkers at IOM. If you’ve never ridden you should, buy a shirt and a refrigerator magnet and go explore the area. Lots of equals if not betters in the area and not infested by the IOMers. Not going to mention em to prevent infestation. Gimme a shout and i’ll show you some of em

        Reply
        • Ted M Edwards

          Agreed, there are better roads in the area than Tail Of The Dragon. Let’s keep them to ourselves, shall we?

          Reply
  6. Martin Scott

    Arizona US Highway 191 between Morenci, AZ & Alpine, AZ. This used to be US Highway 666. 90 miles of twists, turns, views, and elevation changes to above 10 k feet.

    Reply
    • Rob Brooks

      We’ve heard of the 666- wicked road, pun intended!

      Reply
  7. Jason Kendrick

    Also great is the Back of the Dragon. Way less crowded than the Tail. VA Route 16… 33 miles of curves from Marion to Tazewell, Virginia.

    Wow, looks like I need to head west!

    Reply
    • Rob Brooks

      We’ve got a friend who lives up that way in VA, and can attest to how great a ride Route 16 is. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
    • Jimmy O

      Just rode BOTD this past weekend and the roads leading there were a hoot as well

      Reply
  8. Deb

    Beartooth is amazing, but consider Iron Mt Road in SD Black Hills. Amazing views, 17 miles with 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, 3 pigtails, 3 tunnels, 4 presidents and 2 splits.

    Reply
    • Ted Edwards

      I have yet to get to the Black Hills Deb. White Girl and I had plans to get there until his diesel Dodge decided to puke its starter somewhere in Nowhere Eastern Montana, sending our trip into an epic tailspin. See our story,”Libby Accidentally”. We want to get there. One day…

      Reply
  9. May

    I the rode “The DRAGON “ and been on Highway 1 and Pacific Coast, also got my a$$ over Beartooth Pass and Million Dollar Highway unfortunately the latter four on in a “cage.” I agree with you the Dragon rep is better than the reality.

    Reply
    • Ted Edwards

      Agreed May, on all points.

      Reply
    • Leigh

      I live in Chattanooga and we ride the Dragon Tail about twice a year. So up 6 down 0. That is no accidents. It is a nice ride but if you go the speed limit (30) then it is fine. lots of riders don’t make it safely because they ride like they know the road. Any emergency help is 45 minutes away. Slow down and enjoy.

      Reply
  10. John

    Haven’t ridden the North Cascades Pass, but agree with the rest on this list. Need to add the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park to complete it.

    Speaking of the Tail of the Dragon, that 11 mile stretch of road gets all of the attention and is overrated. The entire length of US-129 from Knoxville, TN to Chiefland, FL is an enjoyable ride.

    Reply
    • Ted Edwards

      As I stated in the article, the five roads listed are just a sample, I could include Going To The Sun road, eastern Oregon’s Fossil to Antelope, and then there’s Canada 31A. I could go on, so I had to stop at five.

      Reply
  11. Mark Wialbut

    While the northern end of the Pacific Coast Hwy (Hwy.1) is a world class ride let us not forget Hwy 1 from Monterey to San Louis Obispo, California’s incomparable Big Sur coast. A complete sensory immersion, about 90 miles of breathtaking scenery and challenging road.

    Stop at Nepenthe for the penultimate California experience then hit endless twisties. Be sure to top off your gas in Carmel or you’ll pay dearly for go juice in Gorda Springs.

    Reply
    • Ted Edwards

      Like I said, I only included five roads, just a small sample of roads Better Than The Tail. And yes, been down Big Sur (when it is not blocked by landslides) and done the Gorda Springs gas up of pain. Most expensive gas in the lower 48.

      Reply
  12. Brian

    A lot depends on what type of riding you do. Every one of these mentioned is much more relaxing and scenic than the Tail. I’ve been a couple of times and I do not find “The Tail” enjoyable at all. Just too crowded, definitely dangerous, and more of a testosterone event than a relaxing time away from work. My favorite is the assembly of roads through the national parks on the UT-AZ border.

    Reply
    • Ted Edwards

      You bring up an excellent point Brian. The legend of The Dragon also attracts a crowd. None of us likes to have a good road ruined by traffic. We want the remote and empty, and the southwest fits the bill.

      Reply
  13. Andrew robertson

    As always, a question like the best riding road is as subjective as the best flavor of ice cream. They’re all great. One I enjoy out here in Colorado is the “Peak to Peak” highway (Rt.119/72/7) going from Idaho Springs to Rocky Mountain Nat’l Park. Why? because it’s easy cruising. As someone stated the Dragon Tail is intense (yes), while this is laid back riding on a rolling road with sweeping curves and beautiful views. Make it an all day loop by riding through and around RMNP on Trail Ridge Rd (also closed in winter) down into Lake Granby cruising US 40 down to Winter Park, over Berthoud Pass and take I-70 home. It’s a great all day ride with cool stops for breakfast/lunch/dinner -your choice.

    Reply
    • Ted Edwards

      If we start talking Colorado roads, you and I will have a long discussion. I will meet you in The Outlaw in Ouray for drinks and bench racing. Moscow Mules are on me. You can tip the piano player.

      Reply
  14. DavE

    Since I ride a lot of roads with Ted, and trust me he’s been on a lot of great roads, here is how I rank roads. Some I’d ride again with the same group or Ted (North Cascade for example). Then there are roads I’d ride again if someone in the group has never been on it. However, if the group has been on it before I might vote to seek another route. The Road to the Sun is that road to me. Cool to see it, but too much traffic and you must go too slow to be fun. The Tail of the Dragon was new to me and I’d ride it again, but I hope next year we take another route to see new great roads. (Hint hint Rob)

    Dave (White Girl) Wensveen

    Reply
    • Rob Brooks

      You guys come again, and we’ll ride a few of my faves- The Cherohala Skyway, some of the Blueridge Parkway, the Richard B. Russell, etc.

      Reply
    • Mike

      I find the Cherohala Skyway ridden on a motorcycle in the Fall change of colors one of the best experiences of my life. Absolutely gorgeous views with hardly any traffic.

      Reply
      • Rob Brooks

        My favorite too. Could ride it all day.

        Reply
  15. Mark hammond

    Spot on piece! Tail of the Dragon has indeed accrued a legendary status, but there’s much more in that region that merely the famed 318 curves in 11 miles. I love that region for the high profile motorcycle culture, moto-specific campgrounds, the little Mom ‘n Pop motels and diners in towns like Maggie Valley, and of course other roads like the Cherohala Skyway.

    I’ve ridden four of the five roads listed here, and will by doing the North Cascades route this summer for the first time. :smiles: If this list was expanded to say seven routes, I’d add Utah Route 12 from near Panguitch to Hanksville. That Utah scenery is so unique and amazing, and the road is fast and delightfully twisty. Thanks for a good read.

    Reply
    • Ted M Edwards

      Cherohala and Blue Ridge are much preferred to The Tail, as is North Cascades pass. There are so many more, but I kept it to five for the length of the story. My readers tend to fall asleep after a few paragraphs.

      Reply
  16. Jim

    Tail was worth the trip….once…just to check the box. Didn’t find it as impressive as the literally thousands of miles of basically empty 2 lane neck breaker highways in Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas. Beautifully peaceful rivers, hills, forests etc. Plenty of twistys, minimal enforcement and moto specific lodging and inns throughout. There’s even a town, Eureka Springs, that’s a biker-centric tourist trap….good people, good times.

    Reply
    • Ted M Edwards

      Minimal enforcement? Hmmm…

      Reply
  17. Mike Kirschmann

    Try Topsy Road in Wayne County Tennessee near Waynesboro. Ridge top with lots of scenery too if you drive the speed limit.

    Reply
    • Ted M Edwards

      Do you live near Nashville? I love good roads, good BBQ and good music. What is your address?

      Reply
  18. Gennadiy

    Thanks for the article, I added it to my bucket list. As an East Coast dweller, I rode only the last two last roads. Each is unique and hard to quantify in simple terms. The Million Dollar Highway is arguably one of the most beautiful roads and has excellent curves, but you are all but guaranteed to be stuck behind RVs.
    The Beartooth Highway has breathtaking views, but it is more about switchbacks rather than curves, the riding experience is too different to be directly compared with the Dragon. I was there twice. The first time I had to wait a while to enter because of construction related one way traffic. Friendly motorists let me go in front of the queue and the empty road was glorious, but otherwise the ride would spoiled by the traffic. The second time the pass was weather closed- in the middle of summer.
    The Dragon is also a tourist destination- the photographers, gift shops, roadside attractions, motorcycle parking full of chatty riders, etc… Most of the locals pull off for faster riders. At the same time, if you start reasonably early, you’ll have the road for yourself.
    There are a lot of other excellent roads- named and not in the mountains between GA and VA, and the Blue Ridge Parkway is unmatched- where else you can find over 400 miles free of commercial traffic and intersections with other roads? Usually, you see more bikes than cars, just don’t go there in the foliage season.

    Reply
    • Ted M Edwards

      If they would just raise the speed limit on Blue Ridge Parkway up from 45 mph.

      Reply
      • Rob Brooks

        Its the same on the Cherohala Skyway. Generally speaking, it’s an unwritten and unspoken maxim that the parkway police will give you up to 10 mph over the posted. But you didn’t hear that from me….

        Reply
  19. Collin

    I just got back from the Tail of the Dragon, and loved it, but I do agree that there are many other roads that are superior. Bear Tooth in a cage, or bike, can be emotional. (Due to oncoming traffic, and lack of guard rails in some areas.)
    Thank you for this list, great article, and replies. I always look forward to new roads, and many more memories!

    Reply
    • Rob Brooks

      Thanks for commenting, Collin!

      Reply
    • Ted M Edwards

      Agreed. Tail of the Dragon has a cool name, and you think it is a ton of fun, until you go to Colorado.

      Reply
  20. Scott T Orcutt

    They may all be better than the tail, but they’re all west of the Mississippi. I’ll take the back and tail of the Dragon and be extatic.

    Reply
    • Rob Brooks

      Scott, we just made another awesome discovery of a road that is “Better Than The Tail” as well, right in Hot Springs, NC. It is NC 209, otherwise known as “The Rattler”. It’s 36 miles long, following a river in a valley floor with the mountains on both sides, and is every bit as challenging as US 129, only longer, less traveled, and more scenic. We’ll discuss it some more in an upcoming story.

      Reply
    • Ted M Edwards

      Come out west. Revel. Renew. Recalibrate. Trust me.

      Reply
  21. Greg S Skeen

    191 alpine to Clifton, best road I’ve ever been on!

    Reply
  22. Dave

    az 191 the devil wins by virtue of being the least traveled highway in America and is also much longer

    Reply
    • Ted M Edwards

      I’ll take your word for it. Never been there, obviously.

      Reply
  23. David ditta

    I learn to ride in northern California – Mount Tam, Oakville grade, all the roads in the coastal range. You all need to really try those and I’ve also done the Silverton Ouray it’s just intense. Really does make the tail of the dragon seem less significant.

    Reply

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