MUSICIAN'S ROOM: Great Smoky Mountains and the Dragon, 07/05/2006

I used to spend every weekend possible in the Great Smoky Mountains. I lived near there. I wanted to live... there. I hiked the trails, marking off my progress on a topographic map. I drove the roads at every opportunity. I dreamed of living on a ridge in a cabin. I loved the clear days, I loved the rainy days. The mountains called to me. The park rangers began to know me by name. Then one day, I woke up after spending twenty-five years working in the Virginia Tidewater. Wild.

On Wednesday, July 5, 2006, my wife and I packed up the Cooper S and headed to my old stomping grounds, the Smokies, for a family reunion. Convoying with us in their Jetta were my son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter. The first day of the trip was spent winding the 540 interstate miles onto the clocks, crossing the North Carolina Piedmont to get from the East Coast to the Smokies.

Click on pics throughout this article for larger views.

To stay fresh, we exchanged drivers between the cars. We used the FRS radios to keep in contact and coordinate our stops. It was a pleasant drive, if a little wet. I say "pleasant", and it was, right up to the point where we crossed the north end of the Smokies from Asheville via I-40. Just as we entered the mountain passes near Waterville, the sky opened up and we spent the rest of the trip in torrential rain and bilious runoff from the mountains, parched from a local drought. Our final destination was a three-floor chalet perched precariously on a peak of the foothills of the Smokies, right outside Sevierville, TN.

The last bit of driving was up a mountain road with grades approaching forty degrees – fun indeed at eleven PM in the driving rain and runoff and fifteen-foot visibility. Obviously, the shot above was taken on a clearer night!

Thursday was spent resting, talking, getting acclimated, getting unwound from the workaday mindset,

...celebrating my Father’s eightieth birthday, and enjoying the company and drama of a gathering of my relatives from locations around the country. The view from our perch was outstanding. From the back porch of our Chalet we could see all the way across the valley and enjoy the glow of the sunsets.

My brother Jim brought in his ’79 Mini (refitted to Cooper Spec) so we popped the lids and compared notes.

The Dragon

Friday morning dawned clear and cool - perfect for a day in the hills. Ruth and I climbed into the MINI, opened her up, and headed across Wear’s Valley to Townsend, TN, warming up on a few hilly curves along the way. Just north of Townsend, we hooked up with the gorgeous southwest leg of the Foothills Parkway. The Parkway was approved by Congress in 1944 as a scenic route along the northern border of the Great Smokies. The longest open stretch is this western line that gently undulates along the spine of Chilhowee Mountain from Townsend to Chilhowee Lake at the point where Abram’s Creek empties out into it from Cade’s Cove. To the south you are provided glorious, scenic views of the western peaks of the park, including my old friends Rich Mountain and Thunderhead.

On the north side you can take in a splendid panorama of the Cumberland plateau. There are plenty of overlooks with well-planned parking areas. Restriction to non-commercial traffic ensures that you will be surrounded only by other mountain and driving enthusiasts as you make your way down the eighteen miles to connect to Route 129. Even though a motorcycle convention had just finished in Knoxville, those in the know called this a lazy weekend in the area so we benefited from reasonably quiet roads. With a short wait, we were clear of most other drivers.

At the west end of the Foothills Parkway, we turned left onto U.S. Rt.129 and entered the road zone known popularly as “The Dragon”, skirting along Chilhowee Lake. MAP This stretch of road was originally built by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as an access road into the rugged mountains on the Tennessee/North Carolina border containing three of their dams. Because of the folded hills it crosses, the route requires 318 tight curves in its eleven miles. As a result, the Dragon has become a mecca for motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts, drawing hundreds to challenge and enjoy the thrill of the curves. Over time, many of the curves have been named. The route has spawned its own subculture, several websites including the excellent Tail of the Dragon, and a micro-industry involving swag and photo and video records of rider's runs.

At the southern end of the route there are service stations and resorts that cater to the numerous motorcyclists who take on the road. There’s even a tongue-in-cheek title for those who challenge the Dragon and survive: “Certified Asphalt Surfer”.

At the head of the route we took a break at the "Dragon Overlook", a small roadside with a view of the Calderwood dam.

Matching tie and handkerchief

As we pulled into the overlook to enjoy the view and shoot pictures, an ambulance and a rescue truck roared by with sirens wailing. Of course, that made us wonder what we’d find down the road as we set off. The civil engineers in charge designed the route with marvelous super-elevation (banking) to match the tight turns required. As you enter each curve, the inboard wheels of your car drop smoothly and you bank to an angle that helps you hug the road.

Typical combo curves over the route.
Note the superb super-elevation.
Images courtesy of

By and large, if you relax, concentrate, and work your eyes out ahead of you, the on-camber turns allow you to maintain a pretty good clip and a good line through the curves. At speed, there is little time to sightsee - you are using every bit of your concentration to hold your line. That is a little sad because this is a very pretty road, but its okay because just working the road is a BLAST.

Here we pass one of two camera guys on the curve shown above on the left.

And here we pass the other on Killboy Corner. Note the right front tire location.

In the MINI Cooper S, we worked between second and third gear, surfing the middle of the of the car's power band. We spent our time alternately pulling upgrade and engine-braking downgrade while managing the curves. With the positive inboard banking, our motion gave the impression of a roller coaster ride. The MINI performed marvelously, hugging the road, being splendidly predictable, giving plenty of feedback, and punctuating the occasional turn with a chirp. I suppose that is totally understandable because this is exactly the kind of driving the car was designed for. The deep turns such as “The Whip” and “Crud Corner” provided plenty of excitement, but the combo turns were the biggest challenge, with a second turn waiting just as you eased out of the first. We found the emergency vehicles and wreck about two miles into the course. A cyclist had overshot a curve and lost his bike down a near-vertical, forty-foot hill. No time to gawk – just avoid and continue to drive. On one run, Ruth attempted to follow a route map and the odometer and call the curve names as we approached them, but she gave up about halfway through the course due to the difficulty and discomfort of reading a map while the car was whipping around corners.

Here we take a combo turn near the station.
I'm just able to get in a wave while trying to hold a tight line.

At the South end of the run is Deal’s Gap and the Deal’s Gap Store and Motorcycle Resort. Riders gather there to chat, plan their next run, get a snack, and pick up swag. While we were there we visited the "Tree of Shame" decorated with hundreds of parts from bikes wrecked on the dragon, including a crushed BMW gas tank and the fairing from a Ducati.

Many of the parts were marked with the name of the rider and the date of the crash and at least one fairing memorialized the death of a rider. As we stood viewing the pile, the rider who crashed near the top of the route was deposited with his wreck at the motel. As he walked by, he disgustedly tossed in a beautifully faired-in rearview mirror from his bike. I couldn’t find any identifiable part from the MINI that crashed at the last MINIs at the Dragon. Also at Deal’s Gap, we met Nancy Johnson, who, with her husband Ron, runs the site mentioned above, the Tail of the Dragon. This site is crammed full of info and current news about the Dragon and the surrounding roads, and was very useful to me as I planned the trip. I was pleased to meet Nancy, who turned out to be just as knowledgeable and pleasant as I expected.

MINIs in and out of the Gravity Cavity, 2.9 miles from Deal's Gap
Timed exposures by jcmini, from MINI's on the Dragon 2006

When we finished our runs for the day, we headed back out along the Foothills Parkway, with frequent, leisurely stops at the overlooks along the way.

Apparently our timing was excellent. Within hours of our leaving the Dragon, roadwork was commenced to bring the level of the gravel pull-offs up to near road grade. Some had been as much as ten inches low. Of course, that meant gravel was left on the road in some corners.

Saturday was spent showing our son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter some of the sights in the beautiful Great Smokey Mountains. We hiked, visited lovely Laurel Falls, enjoyed the scenery, and dipped our feet in one of the many streams cutting through the mountains.

On Sunday, it was time to say goodbye to our family and the mountains, so we packed it up and hit the road again, making our way back home across North Carolina. It was another all-day hike, this time drier but with more aggressive motorists and bugs. Believe me, on Monday, after four days on the road, it was high time for a serious wash. I'm not sure the Rocket has ever been this dirty before, but it was righteous, travel dirt. I do need to brag a bit: Me little MINI got 35.8 MPG over the whole trip including highway, city, mountain, and performance driving on the Dragon! To semi-quote the Coneheads, "Ahhhh! Mountain Memories. We will enjoy them!"

Bob Womack, C.A.S.
Certified Asphalt Surfer

Driving Directions and Map for the Dragon and Foothills Parkway from MAPQUEST