123 Miles/4 Hours Travel Time
Beginning at the US 129/NC 28 intersection in North Carolina where the large metal dragon guards the highway, take US 129 north. The Tail of the Dragon begins in .7 miles at the North Carolina/Tennessee State Line. In the next 11 miles there are 318 curves of vary difficulty. The Dragon ends as you cross Tabcat Bridge.
There are a number of paved pull-offs to allow faster traffic to pass or to stop at and watch the parade. The most popular pull-off is the Tail of the Dragon Overlook with scenic views on each side of the road. Looking to the south you will see Calderwood Dam/Lake and forested mountains of the Cherokee National Forest. Looking to the north is the Great Smoky Mountain National Park which borders the enter length of the Dragon on the northern side.
Many visitors make several runs back and forth on the Dragon. It is only 11 miles and takes about 20 minutes one-way.
Crossing Tabcat Bridge US 129 then straightens as it follows the shoreline of Chilhowee Lake. Lakes in the region are named for the dam that creates them. This section of Us 129 is very easy to forget about your speed. The limit is 50 mph and it is a very lucrative spot for the Tennessee LEOs to make some money.
Three miles from Tabcat Bridge is the Foothills Parkway. This 16 mile stretch of the Smoky Mountains is very scenic with views to the west of the flatlands of Maryville. On a clear day you can see all the way to the Cumberland Mountains some 50 miles distant. If you are not going to take the Dragon/Smoky Mountain Loop you might want to do an out and back about 5 or 6 miles to see the view here.
Continuing north on US 129 there are many pull-offs to take a rest are take in the scenic lake. Most pull-offs are gravel, but there are a couple paved and many are hard packed gravel.
At Tallassee three miles past the Foothills turnoff is the Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson Dragon Outpost. Many Harley type souvenirs are available here.
Continuing northbound watch for the TN 72 turn-off to the left. There are several stores located here. Be careful of traffic coming at you around the blind corner.
TN 72 is a wide two-lane road with a 55 mph speed limit. There is a section of straight that is 5 miles long and looks more like a drag strip than a state highway. There have been cases of THP setting-up radar here and catching speeders breaking 100 mph. Stay alert here.
TN 72 then narrows and has a couple of twists before intersecting US 411. Take a left onto 4-lane US 411. The Tellico Blockhouse (fort from 1794 to 1811) is a scenic/historical place to visit (on your left). Cross the bridge on US 411 and you will be in Vonore. This small town offers a couple of places to eat and fuel.
From Vonore take TN 360 south, a typical two-lane country road. A couple places of interest along the route are the Fort Loudoun State Historical Park (British fort 1756-1760) and the Sequoyah Birth Place Memorial (Sequoyah created the Cherokee alphabet). At mile 7.2 take a right and cross the lake. Continue south on TN 360 another 14.5 miles to Tellico Plains and TN 165 aka Cherohala Skyway.
Take a right to visit Tellico Plains where you can get fuel and food. We highly recommend the Tellico Kats Deli which is located on TN 165 a mile and a half to the east. The fresh sandwiches are great and there is a scenic dining deck right on the Tellico River. There is also the Cherohala Harley-Davidson Outpost here on TN 165 with souvenirs.
The Cherohala Skyway twists some 41 miles over the mountains from Tellico Plains to Robbinsville, North Carolina. There are numerous scenic pull-offs along this National Forest Byway, but no fuel for the entire length. Once in North Carolina you will encounter mile-high vistas that have cooler breezes in the summer and freezing asphalt in the winter.
A popular side trip is along River Road to see the Bald River Falls. Take it easy along this route. It is paved, but fairly narrow with drop-offs if you leave the roadway.
Another popular spot if the Indian Boundary Waters Campground at Tennessee mile 14.3. This campground is located on Indian Boundary Lake.
The North Carolina side of the Skyway is designated as NC 143. Once you reach the end of the Skyway you have two options.
Option One: Take a left onto SR 1127 (Santeetlah Road) and tour Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Here there is virgin forest with trees that take 5 adults to reach around. Continue easterly on Joyce Kilmer road (SR 1134) to get to US 129. NOTE: This scenic back road around Lake Santeetlah is paved, but is somewhat “washboardy” and requires slower speeds.
Option Two: Continue easterly on NC 143 (Santeetlah Road) to Robbinsville. NOTE: This two lane mountain road claims more bikes/cars than the Dragon. There are a number of tricky curves that are off-camber and sharp. Take it easy, ride the white line and watch for gravel.
It is 11.5 miles into Robbinsville. The first fuel is at Thunder Mountain mile 4. Once in Robbinsville there are a number of dining/fuel options. Wheelers Motorcycle Shop is located on US 129 just 2 miles north of Robbinsville.
From US 129 and NC 143 take US 129 north back 16.5 miles to the beginning point. Most of the way will be along the Cheoah River where they have periodic releases for whitewater rafting. At mile 10 paring area you can take a short hike to Yellow Creek Falls.
At mile 14 you will pass the historic Tapoco Lodge. A great place to stop and have a meal. Just around the corner on US 129 is Cheoah Dam. We call it the Fugitive Dam because in the movie The Fugitive Harrison Ford took a dive off of it. It also appeared in the 1971 cult classic Two Lane Blacktop.
- In the warmer months you might want to plan on the Dragon early or late and the cooler Cherohala mid-day.
- The Cherohala can be literally “in the clouds”. Watch the weather.
- Plan for a whole day on this loop. Take your time and take in the sights.
- Pack a lunch and have a sandwich on the Cherohala. There are many places to picnic.
- Plan your fuel stops. There are 50 miles with no fuel on the Cherohala.