Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Back of the Dragon ride

I have been wanting to ride VA16 that runs between Marion, VA and Tazewell, VA. It has been named Back of the Dragon by the locals and has it own web page. Looks like it is being "marketed" as an alternative to the famous Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina (or maybe even trying to compete with it!). It is also listed on the Southern California Motorcycling Association web site as one of the Best 15 US Roads Challenge.With all of this, I had HIGH expectations!

Looked at the weather and Sunday/Monday had two days of great forecast for motorcycle riding. Not much chance of rain and party cloudy. Not too many occurrences of two consecutive days of nice weather (without RAIN) in Virginia recently!!

So I committed, made a hotel reservation in Hillsville, VA for Sunday night and lightly packed a few things. Left the house at sunrise on Sunday morning. Just had to take a quick photo heading out the driveway as I was leaving. It was a beautiful sunrise!

Took the country roads of US 360 and US 58 across southside Virginia. Very little traffic on those roads anyway and on a Sunday morning! It was a very pleasant ride, to say the least. Stopped in South Boston to take a break and get gas. Was surprised to see that gas was only $2.87 a gallon for regular there. Don't know what was up with that, maybe they were having an old fashion gas price war! Funny that high octane was still "up there" at $3.59 a gallon!

The first real mountains are west of Martinsville. I had to stop and take a break and a picture at a wayside appropriately named "Lover's Leap":

Headed straight for the "Back of the Dragon". Stopped and gassed up again at a Shell station in Marion at the start. Across the station parking lot was another motorcyclists on a Kawasaki Vulcan pulling a trailer. I had to run in to use the restroom and when I came out he was gone so I didn't get to talk to him (BUT I would later!!).

Here is the Back of the Dragon sign that was just recently put in the ground (you can still see the fresh dirt where they dug the post holes). Interesting with the words, "eleven....try thirty-two" on the sign, as this is a competing marketing statement with the "Tail of the Dragon" in North Carolina. The Tail of the Dragon is only 11 miles long and this Back of the Dragon is 32 miles long.

So off I went. There are three mountains that are crossed. Lots of very tight curves, some switchbacks that require you to only be around 5-10 mph and "steer" around! The curves are not marked, expect for signs such as "15 mph curves next 2 miles". No guard rails and some very steep drop offs in the curves too! At the bottom of the mountains the road has a couple of passing lanes and straights before going up the next mountain.

Now for the interesting part. On the top of the second mountain I could see where the road had recently been paved and new gravel put down heavy on the berms. As I approached the first downhill curve I could see a lot of gravel on the turn where cars had cut the curve short and tossed gravel from the berm onto the road surface as well as from rain runoff. That made for very slow going and careful riding. It was really not any fun!! Every turn on this downhill side of the second mountain was covered in a lot of gravel due to the recent new paving. About half way down as I rounded a tight blind curve I saw a parked motorcycle in the road with it's flashers on and three people standing along the road. As I straightened up and braked hard I saw the second motorcycle along with it's trailer in the ditch on its side!! The one biker standing had his arm bleeding. I pulled over in front of them and put my flashers on. Had to stay on the road as the berm was very narrow and filled with loose gravel. The biker that wrecked was from Niagara Falls, NY. He was on a two week motorcycle trip. Told me his wife let him go every year for two weeks in the summer. As he rounded the curve his front wheel hit the loose gravel and he low sided and skidded into the ditch. He hit the pavement with his shoulder and had some pretty bad road rash on his upper arm. It was bleeding and had dirt and gravel in it. The other motorcycle was a local couple from Marion that was just out for a Sunday ride. They had been following the biker that wrecked. He said he saw them behind him and was a little worried he was holding them up. That may have contributed to his accident too! That was about the time I remembered the guy across the parking lot at the gas station in Marion. I said to him, hey did I see you at a gas station back off of I-81. He said, yes that was me and I remember seeing you across the parking lot. What a way to meet later!

First order of business was to get his arm cleaned up. He had a whole case of bottled water in a cooler on his trailer (it appeared to be really loaded down!! Probably another contributor to the accident). We washed his arm off and used a tube of neosporin from my first aid kit that I always carry in my saddlebag. Didn't have a bandage big enough to cover it, so we left it open. It was just raw from the road rash and he didn't "feel" like any bones were broken or shoulder dislocated. I am sure he was sore the next couple of morning though!!!! His trailer was still hooked to his bike so we disconnected it and all three of us got the trailer back up in the road. His bike had the passing lamp and signal lamp broke off on the left side. His engine guard was bent bad and had a lot of dirt embedded on the left side. We cleaned all that out and had to straighten (beat it) his left footboard and front shifter. We decided to try and get the bike out of the ditch. The injured rider got on the bike and it started up. Took him a little while to work the shifter to get it into first gear. I pushed and the other guy pulled and we got the bike moving down the ditch and brought it up the incline of the bank into the road. It was touch and go with the bike almost falling over a couple of times, but we make it!

Hooked the trailer back up and away we went following him on down the mountain. About half way up the next mountain he pulled off on the side of the road. We checked on him again and his arm was stinging from the wind on it and he just wanted to take a break. I left them and finished the Back of the Dragon and stopped at Thompson's Country Store on the Tazewell end.

About 15 minutes later he pulled in too and was doing better. He told me this was the "motorcycle trip from hell". His battery had died on him up near Waynesboro, VA and had to buy a new battery. Then his stator burned out near Roanoke, VA and he spent two days getting that fixed (of course that was probably the root cause of his battery dieing the day before!). I think he was ready to get back to Niagara Falls! Hope he did OK for the rest of the trip. He was really lucky this accident didn't occur on one of the many similar outside curves that went over a steep cliff without any guardrails!! This was was on the side of a hill with a ditch.

The guy at the country store was a real supporter of the Back of the Dragon road. He, of course, rides a motorcycle too and the riders adds to his business. He said they have called the state transportation many times about the gravel and they haven't done anything about it. It had been that way for several months since they paved.

Anyway, I have "been there and done it" but don't plan to do it again. I would not recommend the road for motorcycles with the gravel hazard the way it is. Also, it is like a lot of roads in the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia & North Carolina. I think the designation is just a half hearted marketing scheme by the towns, county, business and state to increase business and the local economy.

There was a place I saw on the map that I had to ride to while I was over in the area and that was Claypool Hill, Virginia!! I should have spent some time looking at the area and doing some research on my genealogy, but I needed to get back to Hillsville that evening where I had my hotel reservation.

Another place I stopped at on the way back was Burke's Garden. This is an interesting geological area in the mountains. Only one road in and that road was just as good as the Back of the Dragon and it didn't have any gravel on the road!!!! Beautiful upland valley and again, wish I had more time to ride around in the valley. I think there was a paved road that went all the way around the valley (it was about 4 miles wide and 8 miles long!!). Interesting too the Vanderbilt family tried to buy up the land to build a house back in the 1800's. The farmers there wouldn't sell, so the Vanderbilt family bought up some land on down the mountain range near Asheville, NC and built their house, known as the Biltmore Estate!!!!

It was about dinner time as I was passing back through Wytheville, VA and I had bookmarked on my GPS Skeeter's Hot Dog shop. Sad to say, the only day they are closed is Sunday and it is Sunday!! At least I got my bike picture in front of the famous place!!

On back to the hotel in Hillsville and a nice evening meal at the Rio Grande mexican restaurant. It was excellent!!

Monday morning headed up to the Blue Ridge Parkway for a leisurely trip back. Love riding the Blue Ridge Parkway. Just about the best overall motorcycle road in the USA!!

Just had to stop at Mabry Mill and get a couple of pics and do some walking. I was the only one there that early on a Monday morning! Very peaceful.

Another beautiful vista on the Parkway:

Also stopped and took a hike under the James River bridge on the Parkway:

While I was crossing the bridge a man and his dog passed by in their boat on the James River. Not sure who was having the best time, the man or the dog!!

Overall a great trip. Did 750 miles and saw some beautiful country and great motorcycle roads. Weather was great. Stayed in the upper 70's to low 80's. It was 55 degrees in Hillsville when I left the hotel on Monday morning! Bike ran great. Other than the one motorcycle wreck, no unusual events (Just glad I was there to help!!!) As always, nice to be back home.


  1. Hi Jim, I am loving your photos with your motorcycle on the parkway and such. I am trying to design a motorcycle touring brochure for Carroll County VA and the City of Galax. Do you have photos you have taken with your motorcycle through here or in front of landmarks in our area? If so, would you be interested in sharing those for our publication? This is the first brochure of this type we are creating! Please let me know! There is one photo you have with the parkway view in the background...may we use that one? More if you have them!! Thank you!

    1. That is fine to use the pic. There are some others on the Blue Ridge Parkway from a trip I did in 2011. You should find them under the photo tab

  2. That is nice picture and nice tour places thanks for sharing it.Guided motorbike tours

  3. Really nice trip commentary and photos. I did the Dragon yesterday and had it to myself for the whole of the 33 miles. Rather magical in October.

  4. Never again will I ride the Back of the Dragon. Top much gravel for me and my wife on the road. It has not changed over the last three years. I thank VA is trying to kill its visitor. How hard is it to sweep the road of loss gravel, that the state left on the road that will cause a motorcycle wreck. I was there in Sept. 2016 NOTHING has changed the county or state don't care.