Thursday, April 30, 2009

Clingman's Dome

Today the Great Smoky Mountains were just a little too smoky. After serious waffling on where to start the ride today, we opted to park at Soco Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) between Maggie Valley and Cherokee. Plan was to ride to the last mile marker of the BRP to begin the big climb up Clingman's Dome. We popped out on the parkway only to find three ranger trucks completely blocking the way. At first I thought cool, there will be no cars. But before we parked and kitted up, we asked what was up. Fire. I checked just a couple days ago and this area was clear. It's been dry down here, so many areas are burning. They were not going to let spandex clad freaks on that stretch of the BRP. The fire crews needed free use of the road. Major bummer. I did not have contingency ride plans for this area. That section of the BRP entailed about 5000ft of climbing out and back. I had no idea how to replace this. To further sour our mood, the skies looked threatening over the mountains. There was a 40% chance of rain today.

The rangers said we could still bike to summit of Clingman's Dome, but not via the parkway. We could park down in Cherokee and head up highway 441. We planned to ride much of 441 anyway. Brett and I figured if weather and legs held up, maybe we could do Clingman repeats (4600ft net gain, 5600ft climbing round trip).

Traffic in Cherokee sucked. It is Indian reservation territory with casinos. Go figure this would be in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But after a few miles, traffic thinned dramatically and our moods improved exponentially. After passing the blocked terminus of the BRP where we were supposed to come out, climbing got down to business.

Brett wanted to get an interval in on this climb, using his PowerTap for pacing. We weigh about the same, but I was carrying a little more gear. He motored at nearly 300W for the next 40 minutes. It felt pretty hard. The great scenery pulled thoughts away from the burning in the legs. From Cherokee, Hwy 441 gains 2700ft monotonically before climbing in an undulating fashion. As we climbed, the temperature dropped dramatically. Newfound Gap at 5000ft revealed that Clingman's Dome would be completely obscured by clouds. We were almost to cloud deck here and had 1600ft more to go.

18% path to Clingman's Dome. Gains hundreds of feet.

Taking left on Clingman's, rigorous climbing ensues for another 1000ft or so, then you get a reprieve in the form of a descent. Reprieves on climbs suck. You know you have to make that lost vertical up. We were holding a pace near 300W up much of Clingmans Dome access road too. I worried I would not only pay for all this threshold work later in this ride, but for the rest of the trip as well.

Brett approaching top of spiral ramp to viewing platform.

We reached the parking lot in 1:54hrs after rolling out of Cherokee, 26 miles of mostly climbing. The summit area was socked with clouds most of the time. Visibility could go from hundreds of feet to 50 feet in seconds. We weren't done yet, however. There's a paved path to the tower at the top. Brett attacked at the bottom of the path. When he relented, I continued. This sucker was about 18% grade and went on forever. Seated, my front wheel was coming up. Soon the spiral ramp to the viewing platform appears. It was nasty windy up here, and the railings were not very high. I had fears the wind would pitch me right over the side. This unique structure must gain another 100ft. I think I read somewhere this tower is 6800ft above sea level.

Another view of Clingman's Dome viewing platform. No view today.

Some trivia on Clingman's Dome. It is Tennessee high point. It is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. It is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On this day, it was possibly the coldest spot in the state. It might have been 50F up here. It was 70's in Cherokee. I put arm warmers on with rain shell. After infusion of carbs, we bombed back down to Newfound Gap.

When we turned left up Clingman's at Newfound Gap, I suggested to Brett maybe we go down the other side to Gatlinburg, TN. It was only 15 miles. I had no idea of traffic, road condition, or how far it dropped. Brett said sure, let's do it. Weather was holding up so far.

This descent rocked. It is possibly the most sensational descent I've done in the Appalachian Mountains. Rugged cliffs all around, road straight below in places. There were tunnels. Then there was this 360 deal where the road looped around and tunneled under itself. How often do you get to do that, ripping at 40mph? This descent just kept going, 35-40+mph. I don't have my GPS data display set up to show descent, only ascent. I was trying to estimate in my head vertical drop. Let's see, 40mph without pedaling usually means about 8%. For 10 miles? That is a lot of vertical. As we approached Gatlinburg, there was a huge Great Smoky Mountains visitor center. We went in to get fluids. I asked of our altitude. About 1440ft. We parked at 2000ft. This meant we now had a 3600ft obstacle between us and car. My legs were pretty nearly cooked already from more than an hour of threshold effort.

Looking up Hwy 441 on the Gatlinburg side.

This side of Hwy 441 was more trafficy. Maybe most people that visit Clingman's Dome come up from this side. There were only a couple knuckleheads drivers though. The climb went well. With about 1000ft to go, I felt early cramping warnings. This was going to come out really close. Once at Newfound Gap, it was 3000ft plummet back to car.

The drop to and climb from Gatlinburg turned out to be wonderful replacement for the missed BRP section. We got back most of the vertical we lost. It was 13 miles of monotonic climbing, a real spanker. When we got back up to the gap, Clingman's Dome was now out of the clouds. Figures. We were too cooked to head up again.

It was 19 miles back to car, almost all downhill. Sweet stuff, no brakes needed. We finished the ride with 80 miles, 9000ft of climbing, in 4:50hrs. It never rained. We hit a Mexican joint that always has people waiting outside for dinner. It is called Papa's and Beer. The food was excellent with reasonable prices. On tap for tomorrow is Brasstown Bald (or Brasstown Balls as Brett calls it). Forecast looks bleak, so we may do something more local.


Luke S said...

Sounds like a pretty badass day. I rode my broke-ass mountain bike (My big ring is completely unusable, and the 2nd cog in my cassette is slightly bent.) for an hour, on our very techy local trail, and felt accomplished. Real training starts next week. Be afraid. I certainly am.

Dave said...

So was that 4 1/2 hours or 4 hours and 50 min? Either way I couldn't keep up.

Hill Junkie said...

4hrs, 50min. Brett had 5hrs saddle time. I had to wait for him on the descents. Not only do I like to get my endorphin buzz on the climbs, I like to get a little adrenaline reward on the descents too. There was over 15 miles of monotonic descent coming down from Clingman's Dome to Gatlinburg.

Jason said...

"This descent rocked. It is possibly the most sensational descent I've done in the Appalachian Mountains. Rugged cliffs all around, road straight below in places. There were tunnels. Then there was this 360 deal where the road looped around and tunneled under itself. How often do you get to do that, ripping at 40mph? This descent just kept going, 35-40+mph."

I can fully endorse your description! I'm not sure if you're including the 7 miles from the end of Clingman's Dome road out to 441 but that section was also incredible. I would say even a little better because of the very limited amount of cars.

Leaving early and doing Clingman's Dome on a weekday make for an epic ride without too much risk.