Smooth Parkway Roads? Nah… Rough Pisgah Backcountry Trails!
Written by: Kevin Dobovedo
During the last Wednesday Bent Creek ride, I was towards the back of the line on Explorer loop, and I overheard some discussion about the upcoming weekend riding plans. Chris was lamenting the fact that he had to miss the big Sunday ride and wanted to ride Saturday, but that as far as he knew, nobody was available. I called out, “I’m available! That simple statement led to a week-long series of events that culminated in a decision that is either going to be the best thing I ever did…
… or it’s going to kill me.
What decision did I make? Well, that’s getting to far ahead of the story, so I’ll save that for later. Since I opened my big mouth about being available to ride on Saturday, Chris jumped all over it. We didn’t make a plan that evening, since the weather forecast for the weekend was still questionable. I did suggest that I was primarily interested in a Parkway ride up to Pisgah, maybe a bit longer out and back or loop.
On Friday after Julienne and I got back from our epic and historical ride in DuPont, I exchanged a series of emails with Chris, where I tried to convince him to do a Parkway road ride. Chris tried to convince me to do a rather challenging and perhaps too-difficult (for me) backwoods trail ride in Pisgah, on trails that are seasonal (not open to bikes during the warmer months).
In the end, we compromised. And by compromise I mean that I gave in completely and agreed to do Chris’s route, which was as follows:
- Coontree (up)
- Bennett (lower)
- Clawhammer Rd.
- Black Mountain
- Buckwheat knob or Avery creek / 477
- Bennett Gap (upper)
- Coontree (down)
I was a bit apprehensive about doing this kind of a ride, for a number of reasons:
- I am not as strong a climber as Chris
- I am not as fast a descender as Chris
- I am not as skilled a rider as Chris
- Even if I was as skilled, my low-end hardtail is less capable of handling Pisgah’s rough terrain than Chris’s higher end full suspension.
- I had ridden exactly 0% of the suggested route before.
- I was showing signs of fatigue, since this would be my 12th ride/run in as many days. This would compound all of the above.
On the other hand, I’ve been riding with Chris a lot lately, and he is aware of all these conditions, and still suggested the route. I decided I would trust his judgement, hence my agreement to give it a go.
And besides, I was brimming with curiousity to see what all this rampant Pisgah fussing is about. As I mentioned in #5, I’ve never seen any of these trails, and had never even heard of a couple of them. Which makes sense, due to their seasonal status. The last time they were open to mountain bikes, I was still learning my way around Bent Creek and hadn’t met any local riders yet.
I met Chris at the Coontree picnic area, and he described a bit of the route to me. At a couple of points I started to panic and thought about getting back in the car, but swallowed my fear and didn’t say anything.
In his description, Chris mentioned that the first part, Coontree, was “going to be a lot of up”
What he failed to mention was that by saying, “a lot of up”, what he really meant was, “you’ll be pushing/carrying your bike more often than riding it”.
This is a good thing not to mention to someone if you want them to show up for a Pisgah ride. That way once you get the poor schmuck (er… willing newbie!) out there, you can make them do just about anything, since they are already committed and would look like a chump if they bailed. So I followed Chris up Coontree.
We pushed the bikes up some.
We crossed a log bridge over a creek.
We pushed the bikes up some more.
Another log bridge over same creek.
You get the idea.
At some points we did get on the bikes and ride, but it was still very much up. And very slow. Over rocks and roots. And the trail was covered with slippery fall leaves.
I began to look backwards behind me, wondering how the hell I was going to get back down. Would I be walking as much on the return as we were on the ascent?
I think Chris musta caught me looking, because he said, more than once, “It’s not as hard as it looks going down”.
Eventually we reached the top of Coontree where it meets the ridge trail known as Bennett. As I mentioned earlier, Chris is a much stronger climber than I am, which includes off the bike as well. The benefit of his faster speeds, both uphill and down, is that he had time to grab his camera in a few key places and take pictures of me while I was still riding:
I should point out that I was waaaaaaay overdressed for this kind of exertion. I have not quite mastered the differences between road riding and mountain biking in cold weather, and I have a tendency to put on a layers that are about 10 degrees off. I’m getting better, but this day got much warmer than forecast and I also sorta forgot about the full sun.
From the top of Coontree, there are two options: go up Bennett one direction, or go down Bennett the other direction. I was relieved to find out that we would be going down Bennett, as I had had a sufficient amount of up at that point.
My relief was short lived.
As we started down Bennett, Chris quickly outpaced me and got ahead, and I quickly started grabbing a whole lotta brakes. Bennett didn’t really seem all that steep, but what it did seem to have was a whole lotta waterbars (steps), and a fair number of large roots. Consequently, I spent a whole lotta time bouncing over the 4-8? drops, braking most of the way, and getting very sore hands and backside. I had a couple of panic stops where I got a bit out of control, but overall I didn’t do too bad.
What I discovered upon getting home was that both Coontree and Bennett were about equally steep. According to Garmin data:
- Coontree (up): 648? in 1.16 miles @ 11.6%, average speed walking/riding 3.5 mph.
- Bennett (down): 578? in .91 miles @ 12.5%, average speed riding (ish) 8.6 mph.
As you can see, I don’t go downhill very fast on terrain like this. At this point I was really beginning to wonder what the hell I was doing in Pisgah on a hardtail bike with mechanical brakes. Chris, what little I saw of him, seemed to flow easily over the same terrain that was threatening to rattle my teeth out of my skull.
But we were now at a gravel road and I decided I’d made it this far without breaking either my bike or myself, so I was doing alright. We’d be climbing Clawhammer Rd. for awhile, so I cleared my mind of any doubts and enjoyed the casual pace up the road.
Clawhammer Rd. (up.. and up.. and up..)
I’m gonna cut this part of the ride description short. Suffice to say we went up a service road for a long time. It has three parts to it: Steep and not fun / flattish then not quite so steep and conversational / downhill just enough to make the last steep part hard on the legs.
The overall climb, including the downhill bits, is +1428/-173 = 1255? in 4.83 miles @ 5.4%.
Intermission for Ride Data Nerds
At the top of Clawhammer Rd. we stopped for a snack break and Chris pointed out some of the route options from this intersection of trails and roads. While we enjoyed a respite, I snapped what was almost, but not quite a 360 panorama. I messed up one frame.
Since we took a break there, I’ll take a break from my narrative here.
In case you’re wondering – and even if you’re not – where I get all my fantastic data from, I purchased a 3rd party plugin to SportTracks called Color Tracks. I think I described this in the post about the Hilly Hellacious ride, but here it is again. The main feature of the plugin is to color the route map according to one of a myriad of typical performance and statistical metrics: elevation, grade, speed/pace, power, cadence, temperature, wind speed, etc. All the maps I’ve included in my posts for the past month or so look something like this:
The lowest point (green), 2296? was at the Coontree parking lot. The highest (red), somewhere on Black Mountain trail, was just over 4000?. Everything inbetween shows the relative flow of the map up and down.
What I didn’t demonstrate in the Hilly Hellacious post is a secondary feature that is less interesting visually, but is very informative. If you highlight any part, or all, of the route on the elevation profile, like so…
… a summary box pops up on the map that shows you min/max (or low/high, start/end) and deltas/averages for each metric, not just the one selected for color coding:
The data box shows:
- Distance from start: begin – end, delta
- Time from start: begin – end, delta (note that this is elapsed ride time, without pauses)
- Elevation: lowest – highest, overall climb / overall descend
- Grade: max negative (downhill) – max positive (uphill), average
- Heart rate: min – max, average
- Speed: min – max, average
- Time of Day: segment start – segment end, delta (note that this is total time)
- ? Lat/Lon: begin – end
But I digress. OK, end of Ride Data Nerd Show & Tell. Back to the riding!
Normally when you stop for an extensive break on a long ride, it’s at the top of something or other. In this case it was at the top of Clawhammer, but by no means at the top of our climb. We still had quite some pedaling (and walking) to do. Chris assured me that “this part of Black Mountain isn’t very technical.”
I assured Chris (silently to myself) that I didn’t believe a word of what he was saying. By this point I was taking every statement with about as many grains of salt as Julienne takes with me when I tell her it’s just “a little bit more up” and “not all that difficult”. This is the mountain biking equivalent of “it’s just around the next bend” when canoeing/rafting/kayaking or any other outdoor activity that involves relative distances in the middle of nowhere.
So after a bit of hike a bike up those steps in the photo, we started pedaling uphill once again. Along the way we had to hike-a-bike some, but not near as much as on Coontree. Some of it got a bit technical and more than once I had to put a foot down, but it was actually quite enjoyable between the views, the exertion, and the challenge.
Chris tried numerous times to take photos of me, but in a lot of them he waited until the exact moment when I messed up and put a foot down.
He deleted those.
Here are a few where I didn’t screw up.
(And in my defense, I would have made the other ones too, and I only messed up because he was watching)
In case these don’t look very impressive, here’s a few details that don’t show up well in photos:
- The grades are much steeper than they look, both up and down.
- The leaves make it very difficult to find the best line, or sometimes any line, on a trail you’ve never seen before.
- The camera adds at least 20 pounds.
- The roll-off logs after that treefall that make it look easy are hidden when you approach the tree.
- And no… I did not hit that little tree after rolling off the logs.
At one point, it was Chris who got caught up on some roots and I managed to get around him, getting just enough ahead to capture one image:
Again, the image doesn’t show the grade well, but the look on Chris’s face shows he’s workin’ hard.
One non-riding image from one of the Black Mountain high points:
As we made our way along Black Mountain, Chris would slow down a bit and have me follow him more closely. The goal is to not look at the obstacles in the trail so much and just trust the rider in front of you. If you’re riding with somebody who knows where to put their wheels, your wheels will follow. It worked very well, and I started to gain some confidence on terrain that was much more difficult than what can be found in Bent Creek. About the only trail I’ve ridden that’s comparable is Heartbreak Ridge on the ORAMM route, but on the two times I’ve descended that I had horrible weather, extreme fatigue, and didn’t have wheels to follow.
When we reached an intersection of four trails (Black Mountain, Club Gap, Buckwheat, Avery Creek), we had a route decision to make. Club Gap drops straight down to the Cradle of Forestry/Forest Discovery Center, which wasn’t one of our options, leaving us to decide between Buckwheat and Avery Creek. Chris described both as being fairly technical, Avery the more difficult of the two. Based on how I felt, and Chris’s observations of me and my hardtail bike, decided that Avery Creek was probably beyond my skill level. Not necessarily from an “if you try to ride this, you will die” perspective, but more along the lines that if I had to hike-a-bike too many places it wouldn’t be any fun and would be discouraging. So we opted for Buckwheat Gap.
Quite honestly, I’m not sure which part of the trail is which here… Black Mountain and Buckwheat Gap are more or less two different names for the same trial with similar terrain. I think? At some point we started going down steeper and rockier and scarier stuff, and for the most part I cleared it all. In a few places both Chris and I hiked down areas that were covered in leaves or beyond our comfort levels on this particular day.
I clarify this by saying “on this particular day” because, as Chris pointed out, in some cases, like in a race situation, he’d normally ride these tougher sections. On a day when he’s showing a newbie around and in a more relaxed state of mind, however, there’s no reason to take the added risk. Why take the chance and mess up a perfectly good ride?
On the other hand, I continued to follow Chris’s wheel at times and back off on my own at other times, and I was clearing drops and loose stuff like I’ve never done before. It was hard, it was scary, and it was exhilarating. On a couple of occasions, I’m pretty sure I went down two drops on my front wheel only, pitched forward enough that my rear wheel completely missed the step between the drops. I reasoned that this was due to my lower speed and hardtail frame. Had I done the section faster, with more skill, I wouldn’t have been braking so much, but it’s also a matter of not having that rear wheel flowing over the terrain and “bouncing” down the steps.
FS 477 Bonus Miles: Oops
According to the latest Pisgah Area Trail Maps, when you reach FS 477, to get to Bennett, you turn downhill onto the road for a short bit, then turn back onto single track. So we went downhill for a bit. We didn’t see a trailhead, so we kept going. The Chris realized the map isn’t drawn well, and the trailhead is actually one of the two options that is directly across the road. So we went back up. Hey.. nothing like a little bit of extra mileage, right?
Once we got back on course, we started down the upper part of the Bennett trail. This was a mix of some fast flowy stuff and more technical stuff, including another section where I was exhilarated to clear some gnarly sections, and a few, very few, where I opted to hike it. At one particular “famous” spot, which I now wish I had photographed, Chris said he knows only of one individual who has cleared it. At another, he said he only knew of one rider who even attempted the section, and that rider crashed and broke his arm, (leg?… some part of his body). I pointed out that on these sections, if I met the person who had tried and cleared it I wouldn’t be impressed. I’d think they were an idiot. At some point doing things like this passes the point of being impessive and becomes plain and simple stupidity, whether you clear it or not.
But hey, that’s just me. If you wanna go out and risk your health and maybe even your life to ride bikes over this stuff.. have at it. I’m quite certain there are people I know who would say the same thing about trails I’ve chosen to ride, most of which are only rated “moderate” by Pisgah standards. As in downhill skiing, one person’s black diamond is another’s blue square is another’s green circle. It’s all relative.
Somewhere along the way we stopped at this great vista point for another short photo/snack break. There was quite a bit of haze and the sun was in the wrong place, but I got this relatively cool image:
At the next trail intersection Chris was stopped and asked if the area looked familiar. I looked around a bit and sure enough, we were back to Coontree.
By now I had gone successfully down some pretty significant ledges and drops, over some loose rock, etc. Standing at the top of Coontree now was vastly different than when I stood at the top of it three hours earlier. It didn’t seem easy by any means, but I was pretty sure I was gonna ride down nearly all of it. One stair section in particular Chris said he wouldn’t ride down, due to the leaf cover, but that he’d call it out ahead of time. And then he disappeared over the edge of the precipice.
I followed… slower but more confident than I would have guessed. At some point Chris slowed and I caught up enough to watch his line, and saw him take the right side of the trail, which to me looked harder than the left. In the process of watching him, I forgot to watch my own line, and got caught up in a bit of a mess. Nothing serious, but I ended up stopped with a foot on the ground in a place where I didn’t really need to.
Chris had stopped at the bottom of that section and was watching me, telling me to go to the right. Since I was paused there, I decided to argue with him. “What’s wrong with going left? It looks smoother with smaller drops”.
“You can go left, but it’s actually harder than right, and you’ve been down bigger drops than those today anyway”.
I believed him, but by now I was studying the trail lines like a pro golfer studying the 18th green, on the verge of winning the Masters if he can just sink this last putt.
In other words, I wanted to go left.
So I did.
And I rolled right down it without a hitch.
“What’s the big deal?”, I asked at the bottom.
“It’s a lot rockier on that side, in my experience, but you nailed it.”
I interpreted this as, “You got lucky.”
By the way, I’m sure I’m misquoting these discussions, but they are fairly accurate.
Soon after this section, we got to the “steps”. Although I had to ask Chris if that was them in hindsight, when we stopped at the first of the log bridges near the end of the trail. Not only did he go straight down them, I followed.
And they were easy.
One man’s black diamond was the same man’s green circle (OK, I suppose they were more like blue squares, but you get my point).
I’m not sure exactly where this was, but at some point Chris snapped four fairly rapid shots of me coming down the trail. I did a bit of editing and masking in Photoshop to bring them into alignment, then put the four bits of me on the same background. I then loaded the images into an online app called Slideroll, and voila… this short time lapse video.
Not bad for a first attempt. At the photo editing I mean, not the trail descending. Although that too wasn’t bad.
When all was said and done, we rode(hiked) just short of 15 miles and did nearly 3300? of climbing. That’s well over 200? per mile, nearly double what most rides in Bent Creek are. No wonder this Pisgah stuff is so much more advanced! Ride(hike) time was 2:45 for an average speed of only 5.4 mph. Given the difficulty of the ride and the skill level of the newbie, I think that’s pretty darned good.
It sure as hell was a pretty darned fun.
Yes.. fun. I had fun riding in Pisgah NF.
However, I also did a lot of thinking about the appropriateness of riding my Rockhopper on these trails, and replaying in my mind how smoothly Chris’s full suspension bike goes over the terrain. It can’t all be about the rider, sometimes it’s about the bike. As I drove out of the forest area and got back into Brevard (near), I decided I’d stop into The Hub, one of two local bike shops on the same intersection. Sycamore Bikes caters to both roadies and mountain bikers, and I’m sure there are many like me who do both. But The Hub is more focused on mountain bikes and is next door to an outfitter shop.
Chris also stopped in to ask some SORBA related questions and we shot the breeze about bikes awhile. I looked briefly at some full suspension bikes and asked a few questions, but didn’t want to take it any further than that. Pisgah rides or not, heading into winter isn’t the time to buy a new bike when the riding I will mostly be doing is in Bent Creek where my hardtail is more than sufficient.
Instead, I’m going to accelerate my remaining car payments so that I have it paid off by March, instead of next September. With no car payment, I can manage a nice investment in a full suspension bike.
The Hub also has another attraction – Pisgah Tavern.. one corner of the shop is a little pub with six tasty craft beers on tap (and some PBRs in a mini fridge under the counter if’n that’s your thing). Ya gotta keep the beer in the little bar area, but you’re basically drinkin’ beer in a bike shop! In fact, that’s their slogan:
Pisgah Tavern – “Ride Bikes. Drink Beer.”
What could be better than that? Well.. one of those six tasty craft beers was Highland Cold Mountain, my favorite beer ever and only available for a short time each fall/winter.
While I sipped on a Cold Mountain, I chatted with some of the other patrons and the bike shop employees, and felt really good about my first real day of trail riding in Pisgah.