After our time spent riding the coastal plains from Florida through Georgia and South Carolina, arriving in North Carolina and the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains felt really good, like we had arrived back in our preferred habitat. Brevard turned out to be the little haven of all things mountain biking and outdoor adventure that we had hoped it would be, and we made good use of the few days we had there.
However, as has often been the case on this trip (especially since arriving Stateside) we felt a little restricted in our day-off options. Sometimes it’s difficult to really get the most out of a place without a car and we end up choosing the less-strenuous options rather than the real highlights. When you are already pretty tired from riding to get there, and you also don’t want to overdo it as you need to rest at least a little before hitting the road again what you do on the days off is a big consideration. This is why staying with locals is so good.
From our host Tara, her awesome family and the local bike shop folks we learned of a bunch of cool places to explore while we were in town, a mountain bike loop around Dupont state forest was top of our priority list. It was a little way from Brevard but without any luggage on the bikes it wasn’t too taxing of a ride and when we found the trails in the woods out there it was totally worth the big day out. 100% sweet singletrack without any horrible climbs, but with a ton of flowy and super fun descents. Somebody really put some thought into the trail network over there, and we only just scratched the surface. After just one ride we already knew Brevard was somewhere we could spent a lot of time, but preferably with proper mountain bikes, to make the most of the huge trail network in both Dupont and Pisgah forests. We’ll go back one day.
One of Tara’s friends invited us to go and do a hike around some waterfalls in the private community where she lived, just outside of town. As it’s a private trail network we were the only people enjoying the stunning nature and amazing waterfalls that day. It made a nice change of pace from riding bikes! The area itself reminded us a lot of San Carlos in Colombia, full of crystal clear streams and thundering waterfalls. We also got to swim in the river, which is always a highlight of any hike.
We ended up staying with Tara a day longer than planned so we could attend the start of Brevard’s “White Squirrel Festival”, known to some (well, mainly just Tara’s daughter!) as “the Coachella of Brevard”. It coincided with Memorial Day weekend and Friday night saw the town center closed to vehicles, and food trucks and market stalls lined the streets leading up to a music stage where a selection of local bands performed. It was a really cool atmosphere and a great final evening to our time in town. The festival actually went on all weekend but we had made plans to stay with someone in Asheville, and we wanted to explore the Pisgah National Forest a little on our way over there.
The great thing about the national forests in the USA is that (for the most part) you can camp in them for free, legally. And even better than that some of them actually have ‘dispersed’ camp sites which provide a flat tent pad and a fire ring/grill, normally in a beautiful part of the forest. We took an extended route from Brevard to Asheville and we wound our way through the forest, spending the night at just such a campsite. It was a really peaceful place, next to a small river for another swim, though this time the water was freezing! Ben got a fire going and we spent the evening relaxing and chatting with passing hikers, mountain bikers and horse riders who were making the most of their Memorial Day weekend.
Setting up camp in the forests around here does take a little more effort though, mostly due to the presence of those super cuddly looking black bears. Spring is also the season when they are most active and with cubs so caution has to taken in regards to food at campsites. They can smell food from miles away so you have to make sure that you don’t eat in or near your tent, and you hang any food you have left in a tree overnight. The bears aren’t interested in humans, only food, so as long all of your tasty things are inaccessible (and well away from your deeply sleeping selves) it’s all good.
Brevard hadn’t been on our radar until Scott in Savannah had really sung its praises, but Asheville had already caught our attention with its ‘Beer town of the USA’ award, so when Kirk offered to host us there for a few days we jumped at the chance. We couldn’t have asked for a better host, another example of the awesome Couchsurfing community. Staying with him was made even more fun by his two lovable pugs called Nigel and Tobin. It’s safe to say we all became good friends very quickly. As it was Memorial Day weekend Kirk invited us to join him for his own little tradition of smoking a beef brisket for dinner. After 10 hours in the smoker and served up with some traditional Southern collard greens it was a real treat.
Asheville is a very cool town. With its trendy microbrewery and craft beer culture, a whole bunch of great restaurants, the Biltmore House* and a beautiful setting nestled in the Appalachians it was another easy town to love. Kirk gave us some great recommendations and took us to some cool places to see, eat food and sample some of the many craft beers that Asheville has garnered a reputation for, so we spent our days there really relaxing and spoiling ourselves with food and beer. It was just about a perfect few days of down time.
*The Biltmore house and estate look pretty incredible, google it. But, at $60-$85 for entry and a tour it was way out of our budget for this trip.
Leaving Asheville meant we would finally encounter the title character of this blog entry, The Blue Ridge Parkway. Dubbed “America’s Favourite Drive” it’s a very popular route with holiday makers, especially motorbikers and folks in RVs or with caravans (or ‘Travel Trailers’, if you’re American). As the name suggests the BRP sticks to the highest ridge in this region of the Appalachian mountains and for its entire 429 mile (690km) length you get stunning views over the North Carolina and Virginia surroundings.
We joined the BRP at one of it’s most mountainous sections, immediately climbing out of the valley that Asheville sits in and gaining 960m (3150ft) over the course of a days ride. To make things harder for ourselves we chose to climb just a little higher up to the top of Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi River, another 440m (1443ft) higher still. By the end of that day we were spent. Handily there is a campground up there so we could set up camp and enjoy the sunset with a handful of others that had had the same idea.
The next few days all looked fairly similar, following the BRP and drinking in the incredible landscapes whenever the road wasn’t entirely surrounded by native woodland. We could definitely see why so many people choose to come here, but doing it by car seemed to us like you would miss out on a lot; the forest sounds of the birds and the animals and the smells, like the wild strawberries that sometimes line the road. The road was generally quiet too, and what traffic there was normally gave us plenty of space when passing. That’s not to say the ride was easy though. The road is never flat. While the gradients aren’t overly severe you constantly undulate between short uphills and short downhills, gaining and losing the same couple of hundred metres in elevation the whole time.
Predominantly we camped along this section of the Parkway. There are some designated campgrounds but for cyclists they are often a little too far for a day’s ride, so we ended up camping for free in the forest, and also at a private campground/RV park for one night. This was a first for us as in the UK ‘campground’ means tents, but here private campgrounds cater for RVs as much (if not more) than they do for tents, so we spent the night surrounded by folks in their several hundred thousand dollar rigs with AC and satellite TV. We were only slightly envious, especially when it started raining and we had to dive into the tent! But the one thing that RVers miss out on is local hospitality and along the way we also managed to organise staying with a couple of Warmshowers hosts.
Sam gave us a place to stay in Boone, NC and we chatted all things bike related as he was imminently about to head out to ride the Great Divide route. Him and his housemates were our kind of people and we walked through the door into a lounge filled with a collection of snowboards, mountain bikes and parts and a whole range of climbing equipment, we even ended up sleeping underneath their home-made climbing wall that they had built in their garage!
After several days of camping we found ourselves staying with Jeff and Patricia in their own secluded paradise, and house that Jeff built himself, just off the Parkway. Jeff was a keen cyclist and had undertaken some long tours in the past, it was great to share stories from the road. They also showed us an incredible light show put on every evening by the lightning bugs/fireflies that live in the trees surrounding the house. Like endless tiny fireworks, it was mesmerising (but sadly not really visible in photos or videos, without more sophisticated equipment than we have!).
As you head north on the Parkway, the section between Boone and Roanoke, the undulations become less severe, you leave the Pisgah National Forest and the scenery opens up a bit more into rolling farmlands. The elevation is a lot lower so the views aren’t quite as spectacular but it was a nice change from being consistently enveloped in the thick forest. Roanoke, VA was to be our next stopping point for a couple of days off and after 8 days of riding since Asheville we were ready for it too. In a yet another testament to the amazing Warmshowers and Couchsurfing networks we had a great couple of hosts agree to take us in and allow us to rest, do laundry (necessary by this point), and plan our next steps. More about that next time.
Pedal with a purpose,
Ben and Steph