For years we've heard of cyclists making the 6-hour drive to Tellico Plains to ride the infamous Cherohala Skyway, a 43-mile National Scenic Byway that connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee to Robbinsville, North Carolina through the Cherokee and Nantahela National Forests. Like most scenic byways, the road curves through a fairly wild landscape and has plenty of pullouts for taking advantage of the sights. This destination, that had attracted so many bicycle people before me, intrigued my curiosities with what might exist beyond the obvious routes. I wanted to see what all the hype was about, but as a skeptic, I had to pull out the handy dandy DeLorme maps for North Carolina and Tennessee and check out the surrounding roads. People always ask me, "how do you find your routes?" The process is usually pretty simple... I look at a map of an area and look for the lightest, squiggliest, road lines that connect to interesting points. What follows next in the process of creating a real route is pushing the pedals and scouting what has been mapped.
On this trip, as has been the theme with more than a few of our recent adventures, the odds were stacked against us. Weather predictions have always been a stumbling point with committing to big trips, but with recent success testing our luck, we packed for the worst and hoped for the best. With frost on the ground, we left early on Friday and managed to get a quick climbing ride in at the end of the drive. It was a good shakedown for everyone's equipment and helped shake the sixish hours of sitting in the car from our buns.
Saturday brought clear sunny skies, and slightly warmer temperatures than the mid-thirties we experienced the day before. We had a big day planned that started by climbing a gravel forest road to the Cherohala Skyway, descending on a smaller gravel road to Bald River Falls, and returning with an up-and-over on the Skyway toward Robbinsville. The mileage and climbing stats on the ride seemed perfectly reasonable for many places, but not this particular place, at this time of year, with this little daylight. The "Mountain Miles" spurred a group discussion, as we gathered halfway down our first descent of the day, regarding the practicality of the distances we were to do in the small amount of daylight we had left. The gravel descent was perfectly banked and had well worn grooves, so the decision to stop and double-back was tough. We stopped and climbed back up to the parkway. As the daylight faded and the temperature fell, we made our way to the top and enjoyed a snack break, high up, in the fall colors of the Smokies. The descent was generously long and allowed plenty of time to get acquainted with the high speed corners and wind chill. As ride metrics go, we ended up with 50 "mountain miles" and some 7,000 ft of climbing. Along the way, we saw a wild boar, rode to the highpoint of the Cherohala Skyway, and integrated plenty of interesting gravel roads.
Rain was predicted for Sunday and we were determined to ride. I had seen a few roads heading in and out of Cade's Cove, a remote valley within the mountains known for wildlife and with a neat pioneer village. We took the van along the famed "Tail of the Dragon" and started at the bottom of Parson's Branch Road. The road is a terrific ribbon of gravel, criss-crossed by creeks and winding along through wild pine forest, over the mountain ridge-line and down into Cade's Cove. The days route was shaped like a lasso, so any climb on Parson's was a preview of a descent for the return trip and visa-versa. On the other side of the ridge, the valley greeted us with a steady drizzle of rain and hundreds of car-borne tourists who had made the pilgrimage to witness the beauty of the area. The next leg of our ride, a scenic loop, was to be shared with the motorists, which was almost a shock after the raw nature we had covered to get there. Tom made good use of the audience with some exposition style riding, including some good wheelies and probably-out-of-control skids on the oily and rain slicked tarmac. We did see plenty of wildlife on the loop, including a mama bear with two cubs, some wild turkeys, and a very aggravated male white tailed deer in pursuit of a female. The loop experience was a bit like a safari really. By the time we had completed our 11-mile paved scenic loop we were soaked from head to toe and were properly motivated to high-tail it back up Parson's Branch road to the van. The way back, though we could see our tracks from the way out, was entirely different. Dry had turned to wet, and with the cold, everyone was riding hard to stay warm. With Mary and Todd ahead and barely in sight, I came around a bend in the road and encountered an adult black bear running at top speed from the road. Judging by the way he sprinted while taking peeks over his shoulder, Mary and Todd must have scared him away. My safari-like experience ended with that bear as the last animal I met before a descent to the van that included jumps, bumps, streams upon streams, and slippery rocks along the way.
We completed the weekend with a nice hike through the giant old trees of Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest before driving home to be greeted by 3-inches of snow. It's time to break out our fat-bikes and see where those will take us this year.
Here are the routes we completed. This was primarily a scouting trip for future weekends, so they may not sound or look like much, but like I said, they are "mountain miles", everything is larger and more rugged down there. Don't take my word for it though, go ride it yourself!
The Foothills Parkway: Click here
Cherohala Skyway and Gravel: Click here
Gravel to Cades Cove: Click here