There Be Dragons: Four Zig-Zagging Drives in the South

From head to tail and Virginia to Tennessee

Photo: Courtesy of Bryson City/Swain County Chamber of Commerce

Riding the Tail of the Dragon.

Fall is the South’s prime road trip season, especially for the sports car and motorcycle enthusiasts drawn to sinewy mountain curves. The Tail of the Dragon in the Great Smoky Mountains is one famous curvy route, but it’s hardly the region’s only scenic stretch of white-knuckle driving—or even the only stretch named after the mythical creature. These drives through West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee all have their own features and landmarks worth slaying. 

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Head of the Dragon

photo: Courtesy of McDowell County CVB
In the town of Welch, West Virginia.

This ninety-one-mile route runs through West Virginia’s section of the Appalachian Mountains on mostly two-lane roads and along the Tug Fork tributary of the Big Sandy River, home of the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud. On its own the journey takes about three and a half hours, but it’s the stops along the way that make this drive so unique, especially the small towns like Kimball or Elkhorn that feel untouched by time. Visitors can join one of the many ATV tours that traverse the backcountry or explore Pinnacle Rock State Park, named for a three-thousand-foot sandstone formation. There’s also an annual motorcycle ride with vendors and entertainment that starts in Welch.

Claw of the Dragon

photo: Courtesy of Visit Wytheville

This series of loops totaling more than 350 miles winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains near the charming town of Wytheville, Virginia, the home of First Lady Edith Wilson, whose childhood residence is now a museum. One of the most popular stops on the route is Big Walker Lookout, a local landmark where you can climb a one-hundred-foot-tall tower or enjoy ice cream from the on-site country store while a bluegrass band strums. Another essential detour is New River Trail State Park, the centerpiece of which is one of two rivers in the world that flows south to north (the other is the Nile in Egypt).  

Back of the Dragon

photo: Courtesy of Virginia Tourism Corporation

Running from Marion to Tazewell, Virginia, this thirty-two-mile stretch creeps through former coal towns and dense forests across three mountain ranges, with three hundred curves and hairpin turns along the way. As Virginia’s only designated motorcycle route, the road is especially popular with motorists on two wheels. Stop by Hungry Mother State Park for a hike or, after a day on the road, settle in for the night in downtown Marion, which has a craft brewery and distillery. 

Tail of the Dragon

photo: Courtesy of Bryson City/Swain County Chamber of Commerce
The “Tree of Shame.”

Perhaps the best known of the dragon roads, this eleven-mile portion of US-129 runs alongside the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee and the Cherokee National Forest through Deals Gap. The classic fall drive is home to the “Tree of Shame,” a cluster of car parts from drivers who didn’t take the curves carefully enough, and a metal dragon sculpture. If you’re not done driving, hop on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which can take you into Virginia and to the picturesque Skyline Drive. Otherwise, head into Robbinsville to see the Fontana Dam and the bridge made famous by the film The Fugitive.