Good Times & Bad Luck: A Pisgah Mountain Biking Adventure

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Weekend warriors need equal parts good beta and good luck. Let’s start there.

We’re not professional mountain bikers. We have real jobs, wives, houses. When I floated the idea of meeting in Brevard, NC for a weekend of mountain biking, it would mean leaving Chattanooga before dawn on Saturday and driving home Sunday night. If everything went according to plan, we could ride everything on our list.

The list? Photograph Avery Creek, Bennett Gap, Cove Creek / Daniel Ridge and Butter Gap for RootsRated. I'd be joined by David Neiles (head mechanic at Bear Creek Bikes in Dalton, GA) and David Riggs (from Boone, NC).

Good beta wouldn't be a problem, but we'd still need some luck; by Friday night, Sunday's forecast looked bad enough to alter the plan. Instead of riding Avery & Bennett on Saturday, then Cove-Daniel & Butter on Sunday, we'd try to tackle all four in a single day.

 

Saturday

Things began well enough. It was 5:35 AM when Neiles and I left the driveway, bikes handlebar-to-handlebar on the roof. Early bird gets the worm. With any luck, we’d meet Riggs at 9:30 and be grinding up Clawhammer by 10:00.

Ambitious plans thwarted within 15 minutes of the house. Ever wonder what an exploded WaveRunner looks like?
Ambitious plans thwarted within 15 minutes of the house. Ever wonder what an exploded WaveRunner looks like?

We didn’t have any luck, though. 10 miles down the interstate, we found all four lanes blocked and totally shut down. As we’d find out later, a personal watercraft had wriggled free of its trailer and onto the highway, to be promptly obliterated by the truck behind it. The ensuing debris field of unrecognizable metal and plastic parts shut down the highway for a solid hour. As the minutes ticked by, our chances of tagging all four descents before nightfall grew slimmer and slimmer.

When a single lane was re-opened and we found ourselves driving away, I was already mulling backup plans. It was after 11:00 when Clawhammer gravel finally crunched away beneath our tires.

The leaf litter was steep 'n' deep on Avery Creek. Roots and water bars lurk around every corner, and they're trickier when you can't see them coming.
The leaf litter was steep 'n' deep on Avery Creek. Roots and water bars lurk around every corner, and they're trickier when you can't see them coming.

We climbed, gaining +1100 feet up Clawhammer, then another +400 to the ridgeline of Black Mountain and down to Avery Creek, snapping photos here and there along the way. Avery isn't my favorite Pisgah downhill, but it's hard to complain too much when you're kicking up a rooster tail of fallen leaves. The climb back up FS477, another +1100 feet, was taxing but uneventful; reaching the Bennett Gap trail, we spent some time taking in the views.

The most technical trail features are up here along the spine of the ridge, and we burned more time sessioning the rideable parts.

Excellent views from the top of the Bennett Gap trail. We're burning daylight here, and we know it, and we don't care.
Excellent views from the top of the Bennett Gap trail. We're burning daylight here, and we know it, and we don't care.
Neiles cleans a particularly tricky rock garden just before the start of the "Devil's Staircase" feature on Bennett Gap.
Neiles cleans a particularly tricky rock garden just before the start of the "Devil's Staircase" feature on Bennett Gap.

Once the trail nosed downhill for good, we barely paused to regroup, cooking brake pads and slinging more leaves as we raced back to the car. The "seasonal" section of the Bennett Gap downhill, from its upper junction with Coontree Loop, is blistering; Bennett is a must-do if you find yourself in Pisgah when these trails are open to bikes.

It was almost 3:30 at this point. Uh-oh. We drove right past the fish hatchery, my usual starting point for Cove-Daniel, and parked at the Cove Creek Group Camp gate. This shaved a few miles off the loop -- and meant we wouldn't even be attempting Butter Gap. We'd be lucky to photograph Daniel Ridge thoroughly before dark, at this rate, let alone add anything else.

Cove Creek Trail, just before the bridged crossing. Even the easy ones have their moments in Pisgah.
Cove Creek Trail, just before the bridged crossing. Even the easy ones have their moments in Pisgah.
A bridged creek crossing near the top of the Cove Creek Trail. 30 minutes of daylight remaining.
A bridged creek crossing near the top of the Cove Creek Trail. 30 minutes of daylight remaining.

The only thing to do was pedal, with another +1000 feet of climbing looming, and we spent minimal time taking photos on Cove Creek. I watched the sun disappear over the adjacent mountaintop as we climbed our way up the fire road connector. No time for a break at the top today!

The upper portion of Daniel Ridge's "technical" west side is rooty, off-camber and steep. Don't even THINK about riding this loop counter-clockwise.
The upper portion of Daniel Ridge's "technical" west side is rooty, off-camber and steep. Don't even THINK about riding this loop counter-clockwise.

We hit the singletrack hard, enjoying one of my all-time favorites. The upper portions of Daniel Ridge are rooty, narrow, off-camber and steep; once you pass the trail junction at the bottom of Farlow Gap, it's rocky and fast all the way back down.

By the time we reached that junction, it was time to dig out the headlamps. If you don't own a good headlamp for after-dark mountain biking, buy one; if you don't typically carry one on long rides in the mountains... start.

Charging through the twilight by headlamp on Daniel Ridge.
Charging through the twilight by headlamp on Daniel Ridge.
Below the Farlow Gap junction, Daniel Ridge becomes a rocky, high-speed romp above the right fork of the Davidson River.
Below the Farlow Gap junction, Daniel Ridge becomes a rocky, high-speed romp above the right fork of the Davidson River.

We cruised gravel back to the cars. Back in Brevard, we polished off huge plates of food at El Ranchero and were in bed before 9:00 PM.

 

Sunday

I woke to find it had indeed rained overnight, but not much. A look at the radar revealed a window of better weather expected between 9:00 AM and 1:00 PM; the forecast said "cloudy" instead of "showers," and hard rains wouldn't likely arrive until later in the afternoon. We might be able to sneak in a decent ride.

Knowing Sunday's weather was a crapshoot, I'd already asked a local friend or three what my best options were for rainy-day riding without chewing up any trails or packing our bikes full of mud. The answer? Stay at high elevations, which typically have steep side-slopes and drain well, and pick something rocky. Both are easy enough to do in Pisgah, though the list of options reads like a list of the roughest trails around: Farlow Gap, Laurel Mountain / Pilot Rock, Squirrel Gap, Horse Cove, Turkey Pen.

We decided to give Laurel-Pilot a shot. It seemed like everyone we spoke with had been down Pilot Rock in the rain; we'd take our chances that its many rock features were grippy when wet. Besides, neither of my cohorts had seen the loop, and it's a mega-classic.

Remember, kids, always invite your bike mechanic along. And snap photos when he's trying to fix your suddenly-dysfunctional derailleur in a steady rain, instead of helping.
Remember, kids, always invite your bike mechanic along. And snap photos when he's trying to fix your suddenly-dysfunctional derailleur in a steady rain, instead of helping.

When we arrived at pull-off below Pilot Rock, it was drizzling steadily and in the mid-40s. Only three miles away from the trailhead, the trouble started.

First, Riggs realized -- almost as soon as the gravel pointed uphill -- his nagging knee pain from Saturday was worse than initially thought. Climbing another 8 miles seemed like a bad idea, even in a weekend packed full of bad ideas, and he decided to head back. We knew he was about to miss one of the best descents in Pisgah (assuming it wasn't too sketchy to ride in this weather), but we also knew he'd be warm and dry in his living room before we even saw our car again. It was hard to decide whether we should feel bad for him or be jealous.

No sooner had he pedaled away than I had a problem of my own; my rear derailleur stopped shifting entirely. Neiles spent a moment working on it while I took pictures, to no avail. All I could do was put the chain on the largest cog and pedal, all +2100 feet of the way up. As we turned off of the gravel and onto the singletrack, I knew that gear would probably be just fine.

As we gained elevation, temperatures dropped noticeably. An hour into our ride, the rain hadn't stopped for a moment, and we were thoroughly soaked. So much for that window of "cloudy" weather! Short on patience and body heat, I left my camera mostly in my pack as we pedaled upward.

Before long, we reached the foot of the legendary Laurel Mountain hike-a-bike. It was raining sideways up here, and we both slipped on an extra layer before shouldering the bikes and heading uphill. Neiles was starting to shiver, and keeping my camera dry was almost impossible, so I only managed a couple of snapshots.

I know what you're thinking: that doesn't look steep at all. Trust me on this one.
I know what you're thinking: that doesn't look steep at all. Trust me on this one.

Laurel Mountain rises over 4,800 feet, and by the time we summited the ridge we were as happy to escape the mountaintop weather as we were about the upcoming downhill. It's worth every bit of the climb, mind you; the Pilot Rock downhill might be the best I've ever enjoyed. That said, we didn't linger long, just enough to lower saddles (curse my lack of a dropper post!) and move my chain to a more reasonable gear.

Our apprehensions about bombing down Pilot Rock in the rain disappeared immediately. Sure, the roots and wooden water bars were greasy, but the granite rubble which makes up much of the trail had traction for days. In addition, the wet leaves we'd battled all the way up Laurel were almost entirely absent from Pilot.

I wish I could describe the Pilot Rock descent, but you really need to see it for yourself. This is the reason full-suspension mountain bikes were invented. Drop after rocky drop, tight switchbacks, sweeping views... it has everything. In two miles, the trail drops 1,400 feet, with an average grade of -13% and a jarring, technical trail surface that never lets up.

My wet brakes screamed all the way down; later, Neiles and I would learn that we'd both finished off a set of rear pads on this downhill.

I wish the photos did Pilot Rock justice. The combination of swirling rain, cold riders and simply having too much fun to stop, though, meant only taking the camera out at the well-photographed rocky switchbacks shown above and the signature rock garden midway down. Proper documentation will have to wait for another day.

Soon, the trail spat us back out where we'd parked. We cranked up the heat, frantically changed out of our soggy clothes and drove directly to The Hub & Pisgah Tavern for the mandatory post-ride beer. I highly recommend Highland Brewing's Cold Mountain Winter Ale, by the way. Nothing was left, now, but the long drive home.

We'd bagged our four classic descents, though not the four we'd set out after. Our bodies and bikes had suffered, but never enough to put a stop to the fun. We'd ridden about 37 miles, climbed nearly +7000 feet... and we'd definitely be back again soon.

Want to know more about National Forests? The National Forest Foundation (NFF) promotes the health and enjoyment of the 193-million-acre National Forest System. By directly engaging Americans and leveraging private and public funding, the NFF improves forest health and Americans' outdoor experiences. Since 2008, the NFF has achieved $104 million of it $125 million goal in conservation impact to restore America's National Forest and expand community engagement nation wide. Learn more at www.nationalforests.org.

The only acceptable way to finish a Pisgah mountain bike ride: beer at The Hub & Pisgah Tavern.
The only acceptable way to finish a Pisgah mountain bike ride: beer at The Hub & Pisgah Tavern.

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