If you’re a motorcycle or sports car fan, you’ve likely heard about the legendary Tail of the Dragon route in the United States. Part of Highway 129 in Tennessee, its 11 miles (almost 18 kilometres) feature 318 magical curves and is a dream for driving and riding enthusiasts alike. If you like to tilt your bike over in the corners, you need to put this road on your bucket list.
But fret not, Canadians, especially if you live in Ontario – there’s no need to cross the border to tame a mythical beast. The province boasts its own Tail of the Dragon, and in a weird twist of coincidence, it’s also on Highway 129 – Ontario’s version, part of the King’s Highways system. And it offers real adventure for those on two wheels or four.
Highway 129 in Ontario is a lonely, two-lane ribbon starting at Thessalon, on the shores of Lake Huron, just west of Sudbury on Highway 17, and snakes north 221 km to end in the small town of Chapleau in Northern Ontario. The road was built primarily for logging in 1949 and was gravel up until it was fully paved in 1982, but is little used today save for local traffic, outdoorspeople, and the occasional large truck, which is part of what makes it so special for motorcyclists and drivers. The Ontario Provincial Police, however, still patrol the area.
It also cuts through some of the most ruggedly beautiful terrain in the country. The route is lined with the Algoma region’s dense boreal forest, pockmarked with large blue lakes and smaller creeks, and much of it is set along the banks of the mighty Mississagi River. You’ll do well to keep your eyes peeled for wildlife such as bear or moose all along the way.
It doesn’t matter where you start the route, but fuelling up in either town is a good idea, as there are only a couple gas stops along the way. Coming from Thessalon, you’ll warm up your leaning or cornering skills with wide, sweeping curves, passing by the hamlet of Wharncliffe. And then it starts to get really fun: the next 80 or so kilometres feature some of the best thrills I’ve had on two wheels, with tight, slow curves coupled with wider, faster corners, and in some stretches, you’ll find you’re more often pitched over on the bike than you are sitting upright. And all of this surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful wilderness, though it might be more prudent to focus on the turns.
The terrain also offers up some small hills and valleys, which can be fun but can also hide some surprises over a crest; I’ve been jolted by a wandering bear ahead of me once, who was just as surprised as I was before he scampered off into the bush. As you travel farther north, the road begins to gradually flatten and straighten nearer to Chapleau, but that only means you can take in more of the glorious nature surrounding you. With so little traffic, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only person in the world.
A few hours could suffice for this ride, but a full weekend is best to take advantage of everything this road has to offer. You could find motel accommodations in Thessalon or Chapleau and take a couple days to hit the curves once and again, but there are other things to see and do here, too. Aubrey Falls, for example, is a stunning waterfall around the mid-way point, with a 2-km round trip walk through a bush path that takes you over a bridge and past a tribute to the Group of Seven, who used the area as inspiration for their art. There’s also the smaller Grindstone Falls, or even Pig Pen Chute, where you can catch your dinner in the Mississagi’s swift-running waters.
If you don’t want a motel in the terminus stops, there are quaint cabin resorts and lodges along the way, with rustic names such as the Aubrey Falls Trading Post and Outpost Camp, Limberlost Lodge, or Snowshoe Camp, among others. I stayed for a couple nights at The Outpost Lodge, in a cozy one-bed cabin overlooking Jobammageeshig Lake that offers a 1950s-era woodsman ambiance. Jim, one of the owners, will gladly show you his model train set in the main lodge, and he and his wife Ann offer up home-cooked meals and friendly conversation in the evenings. It’s best to book these lodges and cabins well ahead of time, as the area is popular with outdoorspeople.
The region is also ideal for Crown Land camping, and you can pick up gas and supplies at the Tunnel Lake Trading Post and Motel; don’t forget to pick up your Tail of the Dragon stickers, shirts or other souvenirs here. And nearer to Chapleau, stop for a photo at the Arctic Watershed sign – north of this point, water drains into Hudson Bay, while south of it water flows to the Great Lakes.
Highway 129 isn’t even the only source of riding thrills here; branching off this road, other routes, such as Highway 556 headed west towards Sault Ste. Marie, or Highway 667 going east to Sultan, as well as countless other smaller roads, offer even more twisty exploration for the adventurous biker. Be aware, however, that the 667 and others are not paved, and some are heavily used by large trucks for logging or other industries.
If you ride a motorcycle, chances are you like adventure. And if you like adventure, the Tail of the Dragon on Highway 129 – the Canadian version – needs to be on your list of rides, with its natural beauty, thrilling curves, and low traffic. It may be a paved route, but you can easily get lost in this visceral motorcycle experience.