Seems every trip I have a day that goes awry. Today was a double duzy. The weather funkiness finally cleared out overnight, and I was all set to conquer Pisgah National Forest. F-up number one: not realizing the time changed. I drop down to the lobby area to scarf down breakfast. It starts at 6:30am, and I went down at what I thought was 6:40am. There was nothing there, not even coffee. So I asked the desk dude what's up. He said, "Um, the time changed last night?" That's what I get for going away a few days without my wife. This wouldn't happen to her.
First peak is Black Mtn, second is Buckwheat Knob. Many of the little serations are >20% grade up and down.
So I kitted up, made up my Gatorade and got all set to go so I could roll right after eating. The breakfast sucks here and I should have just grabbed a McDonald's breakfast. Have to have my Starbucks though. There's one right across the highway from here. After getting my fix, I'm heading east on I-40 through Knoxville. You've probably seen these signs before. These are the ones that say tune to 1620 AM for important travel info when flashing. Well, they were flashing. I thought maybe just some construction or something. I tune in anyway. I-40 was closed on the TN/NC state line! Big rock slide they say. That is the only major route over the Smokey Mountains. The detour they gave on the radio was 140 miles! I was BS. I knew of another way over, a gap Brett and I rode this spring. It connects Gatlinburg TN with Cherokee NC. If I were smart, I would have cut my losses then and there, losing no more than 90 minutes on the day. But nooooo, I have to press on. F-up number 2.
So I head south on Hwy 441. Apparently an interstate's worth of traffic was doing the same rather than go on some 140mi boondoggle. The town of Pigeon Forge sucked. Biggest tourist trap this side of Vegas, with 10 miles of crap like this and this. The drive over New Found Gap wasn't too bad for early on Sunday morning. I still had to go over two more major mountain pass though. I skirted around Cherokee by taking the last segment of the Blue Ridge Parkway to Waynesville. It was deserted, as the diverted cars chose to plug up Cherokee instead. I chose to go over the parkway again by taking US-276 directly to my trailhead instead of getting back on I-40 near Asheville. Scenic. Not sure if it was faster, but it probably saved a gallon of gas. With over three hours on the road, I finally parked.
I parked at the Pisgah Ranger District info center. Another guy my age with his family was also getting ready to ride. We talked a bit and I explained what I planned to do. He was like, "Ah, you'll be hating life if you rode that loop today after all the rain and leaf drop." He was intimately familiar with the trails and marked up and alternate route that stayed higher and drier. A trail angel or devil? I was quite happy to get the info. Never got his name. He did the SM100 last year, so we had at least that in common. I didn't do any research on the trails he recommended, and I was abandoning what I did research. F-up number three.
Heading out, I was immediately on singletrack heading up Black Mountain. This is a real grunt of a climb, starting out at 15% grade and getting steeper as you go up. The deal was, leaf drop was complete above 3000ft. Lots of oak out here. Pile them leaves 6" deep on 25-40% grades, well, you ain't gonna be riding much. I found I could handle 25% climbing grade, but any steeper and the leaves would just spin out under me. The suck-ass XDX tires didn't help matters. I quickly learned that most of the climbing and descending along the route this guy sent me on was >25% grade. The final pitch up Black Mountain was barely hikeable on leaves.
Near the Black Mtn summit, I picked up Turkeypen Gap Trail. This was described as rolling ridgeline. I live for ridgeline riding, even if it entails a bit of hike-a-bike here and there. Well, the initial Black Mtn descent went over 40% decline. Twice my tires bunched up bushel basket bundles of leaves, leaving me to careen out of control until I crashed. The best I could do was aim for a good place to lay it down. Now I was freaked out. Nobody knew I was out here, since I left my original route plans with my wife. I needed to be more careful.
Ridgeline singletrack on Turkeypen Gap Trail.
Turkeypen Gap Trail hits peak after peak, with names like Horse Knob, McCall Mtn and Sharpy Mtn. The trail honestly follows the ridgeline, which meant fall-line climbs and descents. No IMBA standards were followed when this puppy was built! The trail may be over 100 years old for all I know. When I finally reached Turkeypen Gap, a trailhead parking area, I bailed out of the loop. It took me nearly 2 hours to go 9 miles! I also logged about 3300ft of climbing, much of it off the bike at 25-40% grades. It was already 12:30pm, and to continue with an unknown loop that looked to be at least 40 miles long of this stuff would be suicide. I'd finish 2-3hrs after dark with no lights. I bombed the dirt road down to Hwy 280 and went back to the car.
Studying the map, I thought I'd at least hit one more section of the route my trail "angle" marked up for me. This time, I'd climb gravel forest service road 477 to ridgeline and take suggested trails back down. The climb was nice, hovering in the 5-12% range. This was my kind of climbing. Could get into a nice tempo grove. The road was gated, so no cars either. I picked up Club Gap Trail at the top and commenced climbing. Right away, I was back into 20+% grades up creek bottom. No lie. The old wagon trail acted as a collector of run-off from the mountain and sent the water down the trail. Why anybody would keep XDX tires on an east coast bike is beyond me. Utterly worthless on wet rocks.
I make it to Club Gap, turn right, continue climbing up to Buckwheat Knob. You'd think with all these knobs, mountains and ridgelines there'd be a view somewhere. Nope. Too many trees and not enough rock ledges. You see, the Appalachians down here didn't get scraped bare by glaciers like the ones up north did. That also means the mountains are more rideable down here. You can actually benchcut trail down here, at least if you were designing a new MTB trail from scratch like the Tanasi Trails. This is hard to do in New England when all you have to work with is solid granite or slabs of rock.
The descent from Buckwheat Knob promptly went over 40% decline. I tried to ride it, sternum to saddle, and I went down again, this time not so softly. At least you slide on the leaves to a halt. Glad there weren't any trees in my way. When I got down to Bennett Gap, I bagged the rest of the singletrack descent. The sun was getting low, and we lost an hour of light at the end of the day. I ripped back down FS-477. I was freezing when I got to the bottom. The temp hovered around 50F, and I stayed in short sleeves all day. It was much colder at 4000ft.
In 4hrs riding time I managed only 33 miles with 5700ft of climbing. That is probably the hardest 33 mile trail ride I've ever done. The route definitely was higher and drier than what I had planned. I have to think it was much steeper though.
View from Blue Ridge Parkway just above area I rode in. Around 4pm, on the way home.
The drive back was going to suck even more. Traffic would be higher. I opted to go back the same way. Coming back down Hwy 441 was stop and go around switchbacks. It was bumper to bumper cars in both directions. I saw a pair of cylo-tourists with trailers coming up. It was getting dark out. I bet they had no idea interstate traffic was coming over this gap. I sure hope they made it safely. What they were doing was off the charts dangerous. It took me nearly 4hrs to get back to Knoxville. It should take just over 2hrs without rock slides. 7hrs in the car to get my ass handed to me in 4hrs on the trail is not how I like to spend cycling trips.
In hindsight, I should've gone up to Kentucky to ride today and hit a couple local Knoxville places on Monday. I did get a nice sampling of Pisgah though. There must be many hundreds of miles of rideable trails there. I can see big potential. I'll probably come back to ride there again some day, but chose my trails, or at least timing with leaf drop, more carefully. Monday's ride will be in Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky. I don't expect big elevation changes there, and some gravel road will be brought into the mix. Have to bring bike back before 8pm, then head to Nashville for an early Tuesday morning flight back to NH.