Deep forests, gorgeous waterfalls, and stunning views, Western North Carolina offers miles of rugged trails for mountain biking enthusiasts. Part of the fun is discovering a new trail and finding out what it has to offer. With so many variables of skill level, solitude, and accessibility to choose from, planning your adventure begins with finding the trail that’s right for you. Capital At Play consulted with the experts to help you find the perfect spot for your summer ride.
With 38 miles of trails, Bent Creek is one of the most popular biking spots in Western North Carolina. A segment of the Pisgah National Forest, this destination sees a lot of traffic. The two main parking areas, Rice Pinnacle and Hard Times, can fill up quickly on a beautiful day. Both parking areas access a plethora of trails.
A major advantage Bent Creek offers are the highly visible trail markers that indicate what type of traffic is allowed (horse, bike, hike, or any combination). Trails are color-coded and signs direct visitors back to the parking area.
The U.S. Forest Service manages the Pisgah National Forest, and most people naturally assume they maintain the trails.
“Historically the forest service was mainly concerned with managing woods, not recreation,” Greg Leister explains, “because recreation doesn’t generate funding.”
Leister is the president of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association (SORBA), a local chapter of the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA). This nonprofit mountain biking advocacy group is made up of volunteers who work in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service to maintain trails. 2015 marks their ten-year anniversary partnering with conservancy groups to advocate for recreation, and finally things are starting to change.
“There’s a nation-wide plan revision beginning now and going forward over the next 15 years,” Leister says. The hope is that managing recreation will become part of the U.S. Forest Service’s main directive. SORBA has brought attention to the benefits of maintaining trails, such as clean water systems. But SORBA doesn’t do it alone, they often partner with The Back Country Horsemen of North Carolina (http://bchofnc.org/), as well as local hiking groups, to share trail maintenance.
“A lot of these trails are actually old logging roads,” Leister explains. “They were not designed for mountain bikes, hiking, and horses.”
Those of us familiar with the Bent Creek area have seen the affects of water damage on the main dirt road above Lake Powhatan. Leister speculates that an old culvert backed up. Unfortunately the U.S. Forest Service often lacks funds to maintain and repair these situations. Eventually, water flow caused a huge avalanche of trees, rocks, and mud, making the trail barely crossable and dangerous.
SORBA works to prevent this type of damage from occurring by rerouting trails, clearing brush to encourage water flow, and keeping drains clear. They also check regularly to keep trail markers up-to-date.
The Hard Times parking lot in Bent Creek feeds into a wide dirt road that forks at the creek bridge, with the lower road leading to Lake Powhatan, and the upper road leading to a long uphill slope. Single-track trails branch off both roads into a network of well-marked trails.
But according to Leister, the crown jewel of Bent Creek is Green’s Lick, which is accessed from the Rive Pinnacle parking lot. This is the ultimate ride: 45 minutes uphill and the longest downhill ride at 20 minutes. This ride requires endurance, but pays off with incredible views and bragging rights.
Weather and erosion can rapidly affect trails. Only those very familiar with the area would know of these transitory changes. Leister highly recommends getting trail maps and updated information from local bike shops before setting out.
LOCAL BIKE SHOPS NEAR BENT CREEK:
Bike shops can also be a good way to link up with like-minded folks for group rides. The Blue Ridge Bicycle Club offers week-end family-friendly rides through the Bent Creek area resuming this fall: http://blueridgebicycleclub.org
DUPONT STATE RECREATIONAL FOREST
With so many beautiful waterfalls to discover, DuPont State Recreational Forest (DSRF) is a biker’s dream. There are 90 miles of trails and dirt roads spread out over 10,000 acres. From easy wide roads to single-track trails, there are trails for every skill level. Hikers, horses, and mountain bikes share DSRF trails. There are only a few short connectors leading to waterfalls where bikes are not allowed. The successful trail sharing formula of DSRF is a model of how all types of trail users can ‘play well together.’ The ‘trail courtesy triangle’ directs the flow, instruct-ing bikes to yield to both hikers and horses.
One unique aspect of DSRF is the rocky gran-ite surfaces that make up many trails; the soil tends to be more sandy and quick to drain. After a big rain, trails in Pisgah Forest can be flooded and muddy, making DSRF a better post-rain destination. The Cedar Rock/Burnt Mountain loop is a great example of a quick-drying trail, and both trails are mountain biker favorites.
Originally called DuPont State Forest, the “Recreational” part of its name was added in 2011 when a bill was passed emphasizing management of the area’s recreational aspects, including trails. Because of this, DSRF has lee-way to improve trails and even create new trails that might be restricted in a park managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
“Over the six years I’ve lived here the DuPont area has exploded,” Leister says, “there are far more visitors there now. The Friends of DuPont Forest are a good, dedicated crew with deeper pockets to make projects happen.”
Trail Dynamics LLC coordinated with volunteers to reroute many DSRF trails to make them more sustainable, including the Corn Mill Shoals trail and Laurel Ridge trail. A highly recommended newer trail is the lower Airstrip trail. With so many trails intersecting, there are countless options.
DuPont Forest’s popularity may be attributed to Triple Falls, which was a location used in The Last of The Mohicans, and more recently in The Hunger Games. The Friends of DuPont website offers free map downloads and even a GPS map for smartphones: www.dupontforest.com/
Unlike Bent Creek and DSRF, which are fairly contained, the Brevard area of the Pisgah National Forest is much more spread out and vast, which means some truly remote trails. Although the trails are managed by SORBA, Leister says signs in this area often ‘disappear’, perhaps dismantled by rebellious teens or locals who don’t want tourists on their trails. This means a map is critical, but so is the advice of experts who know the area. “At Turkey Pen Gap if you go down one way it’s an hour and a half; the other way it’s four hours,” Leister says.
To make maintenance more complicated, Brevard’s clay-based trails easily erode to the point where there are two choices: reroute or close the trail.
One of the biggest and most successful projects SORBA has completed was the Big Dig in 2014, which was a logging road to trail conversion on ‘lower black’ mountain trail. This 58-day project involved several local bike shops, with volunteers cat-aloging over 800 hours. Tackling long stretches of trail that were eroding, the team rerouted trails to induce more effective drainage. The projects included a new bridge, new berms, and streambed reinforcement. “Clean water is a huge issue for the Forest Service,” Leister says. Keeping streams clean supports the entire forest ecosystem.
The amount of work required for continuing maintenance of trails and for projects like the Big Dig may surprise some cyclists and hiking enthusiasts. “The public typically hikes in pleasant weather when drainage issues lie dormant,” Leister says, “but once a big rain hits, signs of flooding and erosion become clear.”
The Big Dig is now completed, making ‘lower black’ an easily accessed destination, as well as a great example of successful rerouting. The black mountain trail ascends in difficulty as it ascends in elevation, with ‘lower black’ being the easiest, ‘middle black’ mid-range, and ‘upper black’ the most challenging.
The Brevard area provides the ultimate solitude; you may not see but one or two people on the trail. In a remote area like this, it’s advised to tell someone where you are going, carry extra food, and a flashlight. “Take a paper map with you in case your phone can’t get service or the battery dies,” Leister adds.
There are two local bike shops located at the mouth of the Davidson River; Sycamore Cycles stocks area maps: http://sycamorecycles.com/
And if you want to grab a beer before or after your ride, The Hub bike shop even has beer on tap: www.thehubpisgah.com/
The towns of Black Mountain and neighboring Ridgecrest sit at the foot of the Pisgah National Forest. This segment includes Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the Appalachian Mountains.
One legendary trail that any avid biker must ride is the Kitsuma Trail. With a backdrop of Mount Mitchell and over a dozen switchbacks in the climb, this 10-mile loop pays off with a 2.8-mile descent towards the Old Fort picnic area.
To get to the Kitsuma trailhead, take exit 66 off of I-40 toward Ridgecrest and turn right at Dunsmore Ave. Take a quick right on old U.S. 70, where you’ll pass Ridgecrest camp on the left. Follow the road down to Yates where you’ll make a quick right and an immediate left on Royal George. The trailhead lies at the end of the road.
Epic Cycles is a great place to get maps and local info right in downtown Black Mountain before you set out: www.epiccyclesnc.com
If the abundant trail choices in the Western North Carolina area seem overwhelming, why not hire a guide? The Bike Farm is a guide service that is permitted in the Pisgah Forest and DSRF. They offer half, full, and multi-day rides made to order, catering to all ability levels. They have male and female guides. They even offer a rent-a-riding-buddy program for those looking for a more casual alternative to a full-blown guide. As they say on their website: “The only way to ride like a local is to ride with a local.”: www.bikefarmpisgah.com
Another way to learn the specifics of a trail is to volunteer for a workday. Last October SORBA partnered with REI to reroute the lower Trace Ridge trail to keep sediment from flowing into Mill’s River. Over 70 people came out to help. This two-year project was just completed and a grand opening is planned for this year. Volunteers range from avid bikers to nature lovers looking to socialize while improving the forest.
A typical trail workday is about four to six hours. The tools used are simple hand tools like shovels and rakes. Often a local bike shop sponsors a meal for volunteers. Everyone meets at the closest point to the trail, then hike into the area where the work actually takes place. For more remote locations, SORBA can access forest service fire roads gated to the public.
One way SORBA gets funding is through a grant by the Recreational Trails Program through which they have received $200,000 in funds designated for trail work since 2013. Because the grant stipend matches volunteer hours, Leister encourages anyone interested to get on a trail crew through the SORBA website, or even volunteer to be on the board.
“We have a great core group of people that recognize the work never ends,” Leister admits. “As soon as you get one area done you have to start all over.”
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