The Tail of the Dragon and Cherohala Skyway

I’m sure most driving enthusiasts have heard of the famous Tail of the Dragon route.The road is a famous driving destination for both automotive and motorcycle enthusiasts. Its claim to fame: 300+ curves in 11 miles with beautiful foliage and views of the Appalachian Mountains along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. I heard about this road through a Gears and Gasoline YouTube video where they took cheap cars (a Type R swapped Honda Civic and a supercharged Mazda Miata) on a 7000 mile road trip. Immediately I wrote “drive the Dragon” down on my automotive bucket list. On a recent trip to Knoxville, Tennessee, I decided to check that item off my list and take a day to drive the Dragon.

While researching the Tail of the Dragon before the trip, I came across multiple articles about another road: The Cherohala Skyway. This road, the articles claimed, was in fact better than the Tail of the Dragon due to these main points: the speed limit was higher, the road could be driven faster without being reckless, the views offered were better, and there was less traffic. The Skyway falls only a few miles from the Dragon, so I decided to drive it as well.

The car I drove on both roads was a 2003 Mazda MPV. Yes, I know that this car is definitely not the first choice for a twisty mountain road. The setup is all wrong. The drivetrain puts power down via the front wheels through a 5 speed automatic. Front wheel drive. Automatic transmission. Not necessarily an enthusiast's first choice. Horsepower was 200 from a 3.0L Mazda AJ/Duratec 30 V6, with emphasis on the “was.” At 208,000 miles, there's no way it’s producing that now. At least it has a V6, which puts out a pretty sweet engine note. Furthermore, it weighs 3800 lbs and most of that weight lies on the front axle with a higher than normal center of gravity. Plus, the brake setup is small and stock front discs and rear drums. To top it all off, the MPV rides on skinny 215/60R17 Kelly tires, while fantastic for daily driving, are not performance tires. On all accounts it’s not a sports car. However, as a broke college student, this is the car I own, so this was the car I took on roads more suited for a Mazda Miata or Ford Fiesta ST. I do have to say though, I had an absolute blast! The MPV, while not the ideal choice, made a perfect companion for these amazing roads.

So, let’s talk about the actual drive. The Tail of the Dragon also bears the name of US highway 129. The part known as the “Tail of the Dragon” refers to the 11 miles of turns. Since I was staying in Knoxville, I started the Dragon from its north side. These roads were a far cry from the flat roads I’m used to in Louisiana. Throughout the entire route, there were many steep drop offs, changes in elevation, and blind corners. Let me just say that this road is not a road for the faint of heart. One wrong move and you’ll tumble down the mountain. The drive was epic to say the least. When I started, I was quite excited to push the little MPV to see what it could do in such a setting. I locked the automatic transmission in second gear (first would have been ideal, however that was not possible) and started driving. The corners were very sharp and very smooth. I focused more on trying to get the right line than going fast. There are no run off areas in case of error. While driving the Dragon, be sure to use engine braking, as it is very easy to heat up the brakes and experience fade. While that didn’t happen to me, I was nervous about brake fade the entire time (again, because the MPV is 17 years old and has 208k miles). I wanted to enjoy myself and take it fairly slow rather than try to get around it as fast as possible. Every corner, every straight was awesome, and I rarely exceeded the speed limit (which was hard to do in a car so slow). It took a while to complete the 11 mile stretch as I stopped along the way to take photographs of the MPV and the gorgeous scenery that surrounded it. I passed some very interesting cars while I was on the Dragon. Besides the dime a dozen Nissan Rogues and Toyota RAV4s that drive it as a means of transportation, there was a Porsche GT3RS, tons of Subaru BRZs/Toyota 86s/FRSs, a Lotus Exige, motorbikes from Harleys to Hayabusas, a genuine right hand drive JDM Toyota HiAce, and even a Jetski converted into a motorcycle. Let me just say the driving the Dragon was amazing even in a car not designed for corner carving.

However, I still needed to drive the Cherohala Skyway to get home. The start of the so-called “Skyway” is about a 15 minute drive from the end(or start) of the Dragon. Let me tell you, even in the winter, this region of the country is truly spectacular. Dense foliage, crystal clear streams, and roads that cut directly through the mountains. When I got to the start of the Skyway, there was a sign, a similar sign to what was at the beginning of the Dragon, warning motorists of the many turns and urging caution.

While the Dragon is a road more suited for a Honda Civic, the Skyway is more suited for a powerful grand touring car, like the new Aston Martin DB11 or a Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. The Skyway is home to long, sweeping corners, lengthy straights, and gorgeous views of the peaks of the mountains. The MPVs dynamics really shone through on this road. Second gear was perfect, keeping the V6 in the powerband the entire time, revving between 3000 rpm and the redline of 7200 rpm. If only the MPV had a louder exhaust to make “the hills alive with the sound of V6 music.” While the Dragon was mostly covered by trees on both sides, the Skyway was above the trees, and one could see for miles the tips of the Great Smokies. Once again, I stopped multiple times for photos and the views. On the Skyway, there were many places to get out and take a walk around. There are many places to pull off the road and park. Here, I saw many “exotic” cars as well, such as a Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, Polaris Slingshot, a few Mazda Miatas, and an actual gang of Minis ripping through the corners. The Skyway covers a distance of about 30 miles, so it took much longer to drive than the Dragon, even at higher speeds. The Skyway ended, and I made my way back to Interstate 40 to drive back to Knoxville. When I pulled into the hotel, I had driven for 5 hours and almost 200 miles, and I loved every second of it.

I think everyone should go and try out the Dragon and the Skyway. You don’t need to have a fast and expensive car. Heck, you don’t even need a sports car. I had the time of my life in an old Mazda MPV. Any car would work, and I promise you’ll have a blast.

Let me know in the comments if you've driven these roads and what car you would take on them!

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