The sign at the trailhead may say Youngs Ridge / Kitsuma Peak, but to mountain bikers this classic 10-mile singletrack loop near Black Mountain, North Carolina is just known as Kitsuma – and, whatever its proper name, the heart-pounding Kitsuma downhill is worth the sweat required to climb the many switchbacks and 2,000 feet of elevation gain along the way.
What Makes It Great
The Kitsuma descent is truly one of the best downhills in the area, and rightfully included in the Pisgah Enduro as well as the long-running ORAMM mountain bike race. For those nearest the National Forest’s Grandfather ranger district, this trail and Heartbreak Ridge are most similar to the classic Pisgah descents near Brevard. Asheville mountain bikers who’ve ridden Green’s Lick (at Bent Creek Experimental Forest) but haven’t ridden Kitsuma yet are absolutely missing out!
It’s awesome, I promise. Most riders start from the Kitsuma Peak trailhead at the end of Royal Gorge road, literally a few dozen feet from Interstate 40. Hit the obvious trail out of this parking area, and you’ll have a minute or two to try and warm up before the truly-monstrous first switchback appears.
Pedal hard; the toughest climbing is right here at the bottom! Once you reach the third switchback, the ascent is much more humane. The trail is lined with rhododendrons, and those legendary Kitsuma switchbacks themselves aren’t overly difficult. Near the top of Kitsuma Peak, a rocky outcrop at a right-hander offers a glimpse both of the mountains and the highway far below. This section of trail gains approximately 500 feet in the span of a mile.
At the 12th switchback, you’ll reach a trail junction. To the right is Young’s Ridge Trail, and to the left is Kitsuma Overlook trail. See below for the full history here, but to continue you’ll want to TAKE A RIGHT onto Young’s Ridge, the result of a 2011 trail re-route. Kitsuma Overlook is a spur trail closed to bikes.
The climbing isn’t quite over yet, but what remains is relatively tame and intermittent as the trail works its way along the forested ridgetop. There are a couple of fast sections, and a couple of false summits, before the uninterrupted downhill begins approximately 2 miles into your ride.
Once it does, stay in control and hang on tight. For the next 2.8 miles, the trail loses 1500 feet of elevation, and its last mile and a half does so at an average grade of -13%. It’s an incredibly-fast, flowy roller coaster ride that will make you forget all about that climbing! Near the bottom, a narrow section of trail that crosses a small root garden has a tendency to eject riders off the downslope side of the trail… be careful!
Eventually, the trail spits you out at the Old Fort Picnic Area, a great place to stop and grab a snack (or fill a water bottle) before starting the gentle climb back to your car. Some mountain bikers prefer to park and begin their ride here, especially those driving in from Old Fort or points eastward instead of coming from the Asheville side. Ride out of the parking lot and take a left; this is Old US 70, and before long you’ll ride through a gate.
This section of Old US 70 is a paved greenway, closed to motor vehicle traffic, that climbs gently for 3.5 miles and gains 800 feet or so in the process. There are some nice views along the way, and an overlook at the top. After the overlook, you’ll reach another gate; continue straight on Mill Creek Rd for about a mile, take a left back onto Royal Gorge Rd and you’re back at the car!
Oh, and this trail sees plenty of foot traffic, so be sure to watch for runners, hikers and dogs! From Kitsuma Peak trailhead to the Old Fort trailhead, it's 100% singletrack, so there's not much room to pass.
Appendix: Let’s clear up a few discrepancies about this mountain biking route.
First, the trail was significantly re-routed and renovated in late 2010 and early 2011, due to major erosion and drainage issues. Previously, the Kitsuma trail climbed 14 switchbacks, then skirted a campsite atop the peak before curving around Kitsuma Peak’s north slope. This trail has been intentionally removed, leaving only a foot-traffic-only spur trail to Kitsuma Overlook, and replaced by a more sustainable trail on the south side of the peak. This reroute created the trail intersection noted above. Second, the Pisgah National Forest’s website calls this one trail from the Royal Gorge trailhead to the Old Fort Picnic Area and lists it as TR204, “Kitsuma / Young’s Ridge.” However, more recent USFS documentation associated with the trail renovation lists it as two separate trails, TR205 “Kitsuma Peak Trail” for the switchback section and TR206 “Young’s Ridge Trail” from the summit to the Old Fort trailhead. The small portion of the old trail that was rehabilitated and marked as “Kitsuma Overlook Trail” does not appear on any maps or documentation as of October, 2014.
Who is Going to Love It
Descending the Kitsuma trail on a mountain bike is not for the faint of heart. The trail surface isn’t very technical, and it certainly doesn’t include anything resembling typical Pisgah gnar; the trail itself, however, is narrowly carved into a precipitous mountainside, with several sections quite exposed. Steep grades and the resultant fast acceleration make careful braking critical, frequent grade reversals demand your unwavering attention, and switchbacks appear with little warning. Failing to pump your bike adequately over a high-speed water bar can easily mean sailing off of the mountain.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
From MTBProject.com: "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 US 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."