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The History of the Tail of the Dragon

Old Tennessee Distilling Company / History  / The History of the Tail of the Dragon
A winding autumnal forest road with a road sign warning of curves ahead.

The History of the Tail of the Dragon

If you love getting out in nature, driving past breathtaking scenery, and exploring the great outdoors by car or motorcycle, then the Tail of the Dragon must be on your radar. This famous road is arguably one of the country’s finest drives, taking you through moonshine territory in the Great Smokies. The Tail of the Dragon began life as a path beaten through the undergrowth and grew in fame over time. The road’s intricate and deep history is as exciting as the drive.

What is the Tail of the Dragon?

Beginning at the Tennessee/North Carolina state border, the Tail of the Dragon, also known as Deal’s Gap, is a stretch of the U.S. Highway 129 that travels through the southeastern areas of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While the park attracts millions of visitors annually, the Tail of the Dragon also gets its fair share of interest. 

But what makes it a good drive? Well, to say the road is winding would be an understatement. The Dragon is one curvy lady – 318 curves, to be exact. Banked by forests and greenery, the road doesn’t have any driveways or intersections, so drivers can enjoy the challenge of the curves without interruption. 

You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d entered an older time as the scenery flashes past and the Little Tennessee River flows alongside you. Enjoying the Tail of the Dragon in summer is thrilling, but only the more seasoned adrenaline hunters should attempt it in colder months. But, no matter your chosen month, the Dragon can be a wild ride. And that includes the wildlife you might encounter: bears, turkeys, wild boar, and deer, among others. 

It’s no surprise that animals wander the area, as this highway you’re meandering through is much older than the asphalt under your tires; the Tail of the Dragon follows a path that’s been used for centuries. 

The History of the Tail of the Dragon

Where some of the road is today was likely to have originally been a path beaten through the forests by traveling animals. Buffalo herds probably made their way through this way, as did a group of Cherokee Indians who used the trail for centuries. When the Cherokee’s infamous Trail of Tears relocation to Oklahoma took place, the Cherokee took the Dragon path to avoid capture by the army sent after them. 

It is assumed that European hunters and trappers started using the track in the 1700s, and by the Civil War, the path had seen its share of action. The remote, forested areas were ideal hideouts for roaming soldiers and were frequented by “bushwhackers,” who were turncoats who supported the Unionists or Confederates interchangeably at their convenience. Back then, the Dragon offered less of a “thrill” and more of a “chill” as the road was dangerous. 

The Origins of Deal Gap

At some point in the Dragon’s history, the Deal family established a small outpost nearby, hence the road’s alternative name, “Deal’s Gap.” The road was officially designated in the late 1920s and was likely tarred around the same time. The Tail of the Dragon was a remote, quiet secret for motor enthusiasts for decades until the 1990s. When a motorcyclist, encountering the challenging ride and endless turns, gave the road the name the “Dragon” and created The Deals Gap Riding Society and newsletter for fellow enthusiasts, the name stuck, eventually expanding to “Tail of the Dragon.”

Today, the Tail of the Dragon attracts riders and drivers from all over the world. What used to be a remote forest trail is now the road to drive. And modernity has caught up to provide the extra creature comforts visitors need. You’ll find restaurants, diners, cafes, and various accommodation options to suit all budgets. And you can even rent some wheels to tackle the Dragon if you don’t arrive with your own. 

Souvenir Spirit of the Tail of the Dragon

Once you’ve conquered the Dragon, return home a hero with handcrafted authentic Tennessee spirits distilled not far from the tail itself. The Tail of the Dragon Tequila is the perfect souvenir to remind you that life’s a thrill. 80-proof and 40% alcohol, this tequila, like the road, isn’t for the faint-hearted. And, you can make your own Tennessee Moscow Mule with our recipe

Visit the Old Tennessee Distilling Company near Gatlinburg, TN, and wind down after the ride of your life with one of our famous $5 cocktails. We’re open seven days a week and ready to give you a warm East Tennessee welcome.

Kent Merritt

Gatlinburg native Kent Merrit oversees the behind-the-scenes operations at Old Tennessee Distilling Company. He has over 35 years of manufacturing and business management experience and is passionate about developing and promoting businesses with exceptional products and excellent customer service. He invites you to pop in at Old Tennessee Distilling Co. for a free tasting of moonshine and distilled spirits. "Take a moment, take a sip, and get a taste for Tennessee."

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