Three Weekend Century Rides Offer the Best in Blue Ridge Backcountry Adventure
There’s something romantic about the bicycle tour—exploring the country on quiet backroads and forgotten highways, using only your bike for transportation and what you strap to it for support.
Unfortunately, the traditional approach to bicycle touring—gear heavy, pannier dependent, bring everything with you and muscle it around the country, riding big miles from town to town—can make the rides lmore of a choire than a carefree joy.
“People will ride across the country with literally 100 pounds of stuff,” says Aaron Teasdale with Adventure Cycling, an organization that promotes traveling by bike. “They’re ready for anything that comes their way, but they’re loaded down and they have to work very hard to move their bike.”
Teasdale says that while many cyclists are still entrenched in this traditional form of touring, some bikers have recently begun applying lessons learned from the world of backpacking. “There’s a simple rule: The less weight you carry, the more fun you’ll have. It’s true in backpacking and it’s true in bicycle touring.”
Forget the heavy panniers and 70 pounds of gear; cyclists now are setting off on multi-day tours with a lightweight backpack filled with nothing more than the bare necessities. By taking advantage of the recent advancements in ultra-light backpacking technology and tweaking the concept of the bike tour itself, a brave new world of bike travel will reveal itself to the hardy individual who wants the self sufficiency and freedom of touring without the laborious constraints of the traditional touring mentality.
“One guy rode across the country with six pounds of gear, using only his water bottle cages and his pockets for storage,” Teasdale says. “He used panty hose for arm warmers. That’s obviously taking ultra light to the extreme, but you can take the ultra-light concept as far as you’d like.
With tents that weigh less than a pound and 10 ounce backpacks designed for biking flooding the market, you can keep your gear to under 15 pounds, strap it to your back, and climb mountain roads with an ease and grace unthinkable to your average cycling tourist. And the lighter you are, the further into the backcountry you’ll be able to pedal, enabling you to eschew the standard town to town tour routes for more adventurous itineraries that capitalize on our region’s national forests and recreation areas.
BRO selected three popular century rides that take bikers through some of the best backcountry adventure the Southeast has to offer. Instead of riding these tours in a single 100-mile day, we break the miles into three days, saving your legs and some daylight hours for adventures off the saddle. You’ll ride from a summit hike to a top-notch bouldering crag, from a swimming hole to a flatwater paddle. You’ll travel by bike, camp in the backcountry, and spend as much time off the saddle as on. Consider the following weekend getaways the new multi-sport bike tour, where the gear is lighter and the adventure is greater.
from Adventure Cycling Tours’ Aaron Teasdale
1. DITCH THE RACKS AND PANNIERS
“That stuff is heavy. If you can fit your necessities into a pack, you can cut at least five pounds from your bike in rack weight alone.”
2. THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX
“Most roadies don’t like backpacks. There are other options besides panniers if you absolutely refuse to have any weight on your shoulders. Look into frame bags, which use the bike frame itself to distribute pack weight.”
Carousel Design Works has a series of innovative frame packs, many of which turn the space between the center triangle into a U-haul trunk.
3. LEAVE WAR AND PEACE AT HOME
“Your goal is to get your weight down to 12 pounds total. You can ride any pitch with 12 pounds on your back. Pair your gear down to the bare essentials. Bascially, you trade comfort in camp for comfort on the bike.”
4. SMALLER IS BETTER
“Look for a backpack around 1,000 cubic inches. Many cycling hydration packs work for this sort of trip.” Wingnut’s Adventure Pack sits lower on your back to reduce shoulder fatigue and improve balance while on a bike. For a more traditional pack, try Deuter’s Race Ex Air II: 1200 cubic inches with an air-mesh back panel for breathability.
MIRACLE HILL CENTURY : UPSTATE, SOUTH CAROLINA
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WHAT IT’S FAMOUS FOR
Taking bikers through George Hincapie’s stomping ground. The Miracle Hill features one of South Carolina’s toughest climbs while putting you deep into the low-traffic territory of the Blue Ridge Escarpment.
Beastly climb up to Caesar’s Head State Park, Wilderness camping, waterfalls, pristine mountain lakes
STARTING POINT: Paris Mountain State Park
DESTINATION: CAESAR’S HEAD STATE PARK
TOTAL DAILY MILES TO RIDE: 25+
Kick your adventure off with a bang and pedal your aluminum steed up State Park Road to summit Paris Mountain. This is the same climb the pros do during the USA Pro Championships held in Greenville. Locally, it’s known as the Hincapie Challenge. Pro racer George Hincapie does the .6-mile, 11% climb in three minutes. Local cyclists continually try to beat his time, some of whom have come close to the coveted three minute mark. Feel free to give the speed record a go with a full pack strapped to your back. After summiting Paris Mountain, take rolling backroads to Caesar’s Head State Park. The six-mile climb on US 276 up to Caesar’s is one of the toughest in the Upstate and features more twists than a cheap detective novel. Once you reach the park entrance, take advantage of the mind-blowing views to be had from the overlook behind the visitor’s center. The park sits at almost 2,000 feet and offers views of Table Rock’s granite face and the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains.
Lock up your bike near the park office and backpack a portion of the Jones Gap Trail. The five-mile path joins Caesar’s Head with Jones Gap State Park, both of which make up the isolated Mountain Bridge Wilderness, offering some of the most pristine forest in South Carolina. Backcountry campsites abound along the trail, many of which sit on the bank of the Saluda River, a clear trout stream that attracts anglers from all over the South. After setting up camp, hike the short Cold Spring Branch Trail, which forms an easy loop with Jones Gap Trail, offering plenty of opportunities to soak your legs.
DESTINATION: TABLE ROCK STATE PARK
TOTAL DAILY MILES: 45+
Wake early and take the short hike to Raven Cliff Falls. The 400-foot waterfall is one of the most popular hiking destinations in South Carolina, but if you hit it before breakfast, you’ll have the falls all to yourself. Relax and enjoy a bowl of oatmeal as Mathews Creek falls 40 stories in a series of dramatic drops. Back on your bike, the route takes you into North Carolina via scenic US 276 and brings you back into South Carolina on backroads that skirt the edge of Pisgah National Forest.
Sidetrip: If you’re looking for more climbing, this is your chance to summit South Carolina’s highest peak. Sassafras Mountain tops out at 3,560 feet, and has a paved path all the way to the summit, making it one of the few state high points you can actually bag on your bike. Access the mountain off Highway 178 via Route 199.
Your end-game for Saturday is Table Rock State Park, an upstate gem filled with lakes, hiking trails, and an impressive granite dome that climbers salivate over but rarely get to send. Grab one of the developed campsites (complete with hot showers!) before soaking your legs in Pinnacle Lake, a 35-acre body of cold water that offers excellent views of the rock face the state park is named for. Before dinner, hike the Pinnacle Mountain Trail for a 2,300-foot climb from the Nature Center to the peak of Pinnacle Mountain. Along the way, you’ll hit waterfalls, overlooks, and even have the opportunity to set foot on the Foothills Trail.
DESTINATION: PARIS MOUNTAIN STATE PARK AND HOME
TOTAL MILES: 25-50
If you’re beat, it’s a relatively easy 25-mile pedal back to your car at Paris Mountain State Park. If you’ve still got some legs and you want to make the most of the day, head south on Highway 11 to Keowee Toxaway State Natural Area, a small park on the edge of the remote Lake Keowee. Give your legs a rest and hunt for waterfalls via kayak through Keowee’s miles of secluded coves and backwater channels (calmwaterkayaktours.com).Think of Keowee as a smaller version of Lake Jocasee. Hiking trails dot the shoreline, coves stretch into narrow fingers of forests, and at the bottom of the manmade lake sits the remains of a Cherokee Indian Village. Find a quiet spot for a picnic, take a dip, and mount your bike for the 35-mile pedal back to Paris Mountain State Park.
BLUE RIDGE EXTREME : AFTON, VIRGINIA
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WHAT IT’S FAMOUS FOR:
Punishing bikers on some of the steepest climbs in Virginia. During one particular climb,
it’s more common to see riders pushing their bikes uphill than riding them uphill.
Freakishly steep climbs, big views of the Shenandoah and Rockfish Valleys, Wilderness camping.
STARTING POINT: AFTON, VIRGINIA
DESTINATION: CRABTREE FALLS
TOTAL DAILY MILES TO RIDE: 61
Consider this your traditional “touring” day, when you’re focused primarily on riding your bike through some seriously scenic topography. You’re going to front load the bulk of your miles on the first day when your legs are fresh. This will save you road miles during the next two days, where some prime off-road adventures lie waiting along your route.
After skirting the edge of the George Washington for miles, you’ll tackle the big climb from Vesuvius to Round Mountain (Category 2–feel free to whimper) then head down route 56 to the Crabtree Falls trailhead and parking area. There are a handful of private campgrounds (crabtreefallscampground.com) along this stretch of 56, and the A.T. crosses the road near Crabtree Falls as well, offering backcountry camping options. Whether you want the solitude of the forest or the hot showers provided at a private campground, the choice is yours. This corner of the forest is extremely popular though, so think about making reservations at a campground ahead of time.
Regardless of where you pitch your tent, take the short hike into Crabtree Falls before sunset. In just a couple of miles, this popular trail offers a number of vantage points overlooking the falls, which drops 1,200 feet in a series of cascades and plunges. The area is crowded during the summer, but for good reason: This waterfall is simply spectacular.
DESTINATION: DRIPPING ROCK
TOTAL DAILY MILES TO RIDE: 30+
Today is about elevation. Consider yesterday’s long miles a warm up for the climbing you’ll do today, both on and off the saddle. After breakfast, take a quick spin down Route 56 to the Appalachian Trail trailhead and parking area off 56 along the Tye River. From there, hump to the summit of The Priest via a section of the A.T. that climbs 3,000 feet in four miles. At 4,063-feet, the Priest is the highest mountain in its county, offering big views of the surrounding Rockfish Valley from its rocky outcroppings. After scoffing down a snack near the summit, retrace your steps and begin to mentally prepare for the steep pedal you have ahead of you.
After spinning on the valley floor, you’ll muscle up Route 664 towards Reed’s Gap, which tops out on the Blue Ridge Parkway at 2,637 feet. This is the most brutal climb of the Blue Ridge Extreme (portions boast an 18% grade), and some say it’s one of the toughest road climbs in Virginia. It featured heavily in the original Tour de Virginia pro race and has been an infamous fixture of the Extreme for years. Don’t think any less of yourself if you need to walk the majority of this climb. A number of riders have been known to dismount during the Extreme.
Head north for three miles on the parkway to mile post 10, the Dripping Rock parking area. The A.T. parallels the Parkway through this portion of the ridgeline, so backcountry camping is only a short hike away. After setting up camp, hike a mile or so north on the A.T. to Raven’s Roost (mile post 10.7). The Roost is known for scenic top roping on its craggy 80-foot cliffs, but there is also great bouldering potential just past the main climbing area. Attempt the tough routes until the sun sets, then take the short stroll back to your campsite using headlamps.
DESTINATION: AFTON, VIRGINIA
TOTAL DAILY MILES TO RIDE: 10-25+
If you’re spent, it’s a quick pedal back to Afton via the Parkway. But if you’ve got some energy left, take a ten-mile ride south on the scenic highway to White Rock Falls at mile post 20. White Rock Falls Trail follows a creek of the same name as it cuts a thin gorge through the mountainside. In about a mile, you’ll come to White Rock Falls, where the stream drops 35 feet into a cold, refreshing pool perfect for swimming or soaking your road-beaten legs.
After you’ve gotten your fill, you have the option of biking north to Afton or heading further south to the Big Spy overlook (mile post 26.3), which offers big views of the Shenandoah Valley below and incredible sunsets if you time it just right.
SIX GAP CENTURY : NORTH GEORGIA
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WHAT IT’S FAMOUS FOR
The punishing climbs featured in the Six Gap are the highlight of the Tour de Georgia, arguably the best multi-stage professional race in America. You’ll bust up the same steep climbs that have given pro racers (yes, even Lance) such trouble over the last several years.
The climb up Hogpen Gap, A.T. shelter camping, a continuous ten-mile downhill stretch, and more waterfalls than a Costa Rica tourism brochure.
STARTING POINT: DAHLONEGA, GA.
DESTINATION: BLUE MOUNTAIN SHELTER ON THE A.T.
TOTAL DAILY MILES TO RIDE: 45+
This first day could be your toughest, depending on how gung-ho you are. The mandatory climbs aren’t as steep as some that you’ll encounter in the following days, but what the day lacks in steepness will be made up for in quantity. You’ll tackle three gaps and have the opportunity to mount Georgia’s highest peak if you’re a true masochist. You’ll also hike to one of North Georgia’s most impressive waterfalls and backpack a short piece of the A.T.
The first hike worth the effort hits you less than 20 miles from the start. Desoto Falls dominates Frogtown Creek through a series of impressive drops and slides. The two mile Desoto Falls Trail parallels the creek. The farther upstream you travel, the more dramatic the falls become, culminating with the 200-foot drop/waterslide combo called Upper Falls.
Back on the saddle, you continue pedaling through Neel’s Gap making your way towards Jack’s Gap, where you’ll have the option to trudge your way to the top of Brasstown Bald, the highest peak in Georgia. The three-mile climb is used as the finish for Stage Five of the Tour de Georgia and is essentially a non-stop leg burner with almost a mile of 20% grades. It’s the kind of climb that turns many roadies into walkers, but it’s so epic, you have to at least try it. If you make it to the top without walking, savor the accomplishment. Keep in mind, however, if you want to camp at the A.T. shelter, you’ve still got to tackle Unicoi Gap, a three-mile climb that feels like 13 miles with jelly legs from humping up Brasstown Bald.
Lock your bikes up at the Appalachian Trail trailhead at Unicoi Gap and head south for two miles on the A.T. to Blue Mountain Shelter. The trail switchbacks up to 4,000 feet, but it’s filled with wildflowers during the spring and tops out on a ridge with decent views of the forest below. There’s also a spring near the shelter.
DESTINATION: HOGPEN GAP
TOTAL DAILY MILES TO RIDE: 20+
Today is about karma. You start your ride from Unicoi Gap with arguably the best downhill in the state of Georgia, but finish up with undoubtedly the toughest climb in the state. From Unicoi Gap, Highway 75 drops dramatically into Helen via a series of sweeping turns and paved whoop-de-doos over the course of ten miles. It’s a non-stop test of your nerves and handling skills that attracts speed junkies from all over the region. Add some miles and veer off the century course by taking 75 into downtown Helen for a decent breakfast or lunch. Just avoid the Bavarian beers—you’ve got plenty of climbing to do.
From downtown Helen, take the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway a couple of miles north to the trailhead for the Raven Cliffs Falls Trail. This short hike hugs Dodd Creek and boasts an obscene amount of waterfalls per linear foot. The hike culminates 2.5 miles later at Raven Cliffs Falls, an 80 foot waterfall cut into a skinny notch between a massive granite gorge.
After the hike, worm your way up Hogpen Gap, a seven-mile behemoth of a climb with an average 7% grade. The steepest sections push 15%. But once you hit the top, your climbing is over. Lock up the bike and head north on the A.T. for a four-mile hike to the Low Gap Shelter. If you don’t have the legs for that long of a haul, head south to Whitley Gap Shelter, less than two miles from the road.
DESTINATION: DAHLONEGA AND HOME
TOTAL DAILY MILES TO RIDE: 37
You’ve got two gaps to climb before the day is through, but after summitting Brasstown Bald and Hogpen Gap, today’s ride will feel like a breeze. You also have plenty of opportunities to get off the bike and explore this popular corner of the Chattahoochee National Forest before your adventure is over.
Before busting up Wolfpen Gap, take a swim in Lake Trahlyta, a 22-acre stream-fed lake sitting inside Vogel State Park with views of the 4,000-foot Blood Mountain. If you still have legs after two and a half days of climbing gap after gap, consider hiking a piece of the Duncan Ridge Trail, which crosses Highway 180 at Wolfpen Gap on your way back to Dahlonega. The rugged trail is often used by A.T. thru-hikers as an alternative route because it receives less attention than the A.T., and it is often thought to be more scenic. From the gap, head east on Duncan Ridge toward Slaughter Mountain, or west toward Rhodes Mountain where it joins the Benton Mackaye Trail. After the hike, get back on your trusty alloy steed and pedal back to Dahlonega where you started three days ago.