Claw of the Dragon

300 miles of exhilarating hairpin turns and switchbacks aren’t for the faint of heart.

The Claw of the Dragon is considered America’s No. 1 motorcycle and sports car road. Named for a companion motorcycle trail, Tail of the Dragon, which traverses parts of North Carolina and Tennessee, the Claw has garnered legions of fans, many of whom turn up on any given day just to watch high-powered riders take the trail’s twists and turns in thrilling style.

Bob and Hope Carneal of Powhatan agree with the riders and the followers. “Taking the switchback curves gets pretty exciting on the bike,” Bob says. Hope adds that some followers in their cars admit to not being able to keep up. 

Who thought of the trail? According to Ron Thomason, former Smyth County tourism director, the Claw was the brainchild of local motorcyclists. While some riders are the long-distance types, part of the appeal of the Claw is its array of short loops. They include Back of the Dragon, Bastian Loop, Bland Loop, Wytheville Loop, Galax Loop, and Marion Loop, which are all organized around the corresponding anchor communities of Galax, Marion/Chilhowie, and Wytheville. They also mimic a dragon’s assumed anatomy, with different routes named for its claw, back, and tail.

Curves, Turns, and Knee-dragging Roads

The trail meanders through parts of seven Virginia counties, with loops totaling more than 350 miles as it ventures over to the community of Marion to the west and Galax to the east. For variation, riders try routes like “The Woolly Mammoth,” the 138-mile road that includes Mount Rogers, Virginia’s highest peak at 5,729 feet, Whitetop Mountain, Grayson Highlands State Park, and Hungry Mother State Park, as well as the “Back of the Dragon”—32 miles and 432 curves that cross three mountain ranges with plenty of knee-dragging road, switchbacks, slaloms, hairpins, and spectacular views. 

I’ve personally made the scenic trip up Big Walker Mountain (Exits 47, 51 off I-77), a challenging 16 miles via scenic byway, and, at the top, I’ve taken a rest at Big Walker Lookout, climbed the 100-foot tower and enjoyed a snack in the old-timey BW Country Store.

Local organizations have an enthusiastic presence on social media and plan group rides almost year-round. If you’re not with a official group, you can check local bulletin boards once you get to the area and drop in at any motorcycle shop. The Moose Lodge in Wytheville has an active Moose Riders Club, which happily welcomes new folks. Tammy Grubb, who lives outside of Wytheville, says, “I grew up on dirt bikes and have been riding with the Virginia Moose Riders Association for years.” Word-of-mouth tips from residents are the chief source of trail tips for riders, though you might find some recommendations and stories fall under the category of tall-tale.

Planning your next trip: Wytheville

At the heart of the Claw sits Wytheville, which is a good point to begin each day’s ride, rest one’s head at night, and experience a one-of-a-kind getaway. From a boutique hotel experience at the historic Edith Bolling Wilson Hotel to the Trinkle Mansion Bed and Breakfast that includes a three-course, plated breakfast by the fire, the town of Wytheville offers several overnight options for travelers. 

After a long day of riding, sample Wytheville’s locally crafted beers and enjoy live entertainment at Seven Sisters Brewery and Seven Dogs Brewpub. Then stroll a few downtown blocks and enjoy dinner at the 1776 Log House Restaurant, which also boasts gardens filled with resident rabbits and doves. Check out the Wohlfahrt Haus Dinner Theatre’s Broadway-style musicals on stage, or immerse yourself in a remodeled vaudeville theater offering a variety of live entertainment and classic movies. Wytheville’s historic, revitalized  downtown district includes museums, specialty shops, boutiques, cafes, and parks, all of which are within walking distance of each other.

Planning your next trip: Marion

A visit to nearby Marion might prompt some travelers to revisit their history books if they can’t quite recall the significance of Francis Marion. This brigadier general in both the French & Indian War and the Revolutionary War was dubbed “Swamp Fox” for his cunning and resourcefulness in battle. 

“Claw” riders often stay at the restored General Francis Marion Hotel, the French Revival hotel whose original features such as terrazzo tile floors have been preserved. They undoubtedly check out the Card Room with tiles featuring a rooster holding a bubbling cocktail, symbolic of the Prohibition era, when regulars enjoyed their hooch privately while playing cards.

The town’s Lincoln Theatre, home of the nationally syndicated bluegrass music television series, Song of the Mountains, is one of only three remaining Mayan Revival theaters in the U.S., for its interior that suggests an ancient Mayan temple.

Marion celebrates the Hungry Mother Arts & Crafts Festival and the Downtown Chili Championship on the third weekend in July. Nearby Hungry Mother State Park (one of the Commonwealth’s most popular) offers cabins and campsites, plus more than 17 miles of hiking trails for anyone who needs a break from riding. That break also often includes music, which virtually oozes from Galax, the newest Virginia city to become an anchor for the Claw of the Dragon. The Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention, held annually the second week of August, has earned the community the distinctive title “World Capital of Old-Time Mountain Music.”

The authentic sounds of this region resonate during special events at Galax’s Rex Theatre, as well as its downtown festivals.

Click here for resources on Claw of the Dragon, places to stay, where to eat, and things to do in nearby communities.

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue. 

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum