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