The weekend of October 8-11, 2019, James joined super cyclist Marty Cooperman to do a couple dream rides in the Appalachian Mountains. We climbed Mount Mitchell in North Carolina, the highest point east of the Mississippi, and Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the highest point in Tennessee.
After a wonderful and poignant 10 day-vacation in middle October, most of which was spent driving around California visiting various branches of Nozomi's and my families, I was short on cycling fitness. I had already made a commitment to Marty to do the mountains rise in the second week of November. but my significant training was only the 65 miles of the Red Flannel on Sunday, November 3, and the Lake Erie Wheelers Wednesday Night “A” ride. When nobody but our faithful ride leader Jim Boland showed up, and I had negotiated with my wife for the time away, I went ahead and rode alone. With my busy schedule, if I have set aside the time for a ride, I will do it regardless of company and weather - - which is as sound a training tip as any other I have read or heard. Marty didn't do any special training for this trip, just continued his usual daily 50-100 mile rides!
The TIMING: WEATHER and TRAFFIC and ACCOMODATIONS. Saturday, Sunday and Monday looked like the last good weather for a while in the northeast, as far south as the Smokies. Saturday was retail shop day, but to have all day Sunday for riding instead of driving, I closed the shop at 2 pm and drove to Johnson City, NC that afternoon and evening. We were rewarded with temperatures in the 50s-60s Sunday and Monday, and even some sun and high 30s on the southern edge of snowstorm on Tuesday. Temperatures at the tops of the mountains were 10-15 degrees colder than that, so we dressed lightly with two breathable core layers, thermal tights, cap, and regular cycling gloves for the climbs, and carried in our panniers/saddlebag a windbreaker, balaclava, shoe covers and 2-layer mittens for the descents.
While a last chance to view the remaining fall foliage probably attracted a few tourists to the Blue Ridge Parkway, Mount Mitchell State Park and Great Smokies National Park, roads were undoubtedly less congested than during the summer. I would describe traffic as occasionally annoying rather than aggravating-to-dangerous. Drivers were courteous and patient by and large, which is more likely when the length of the string of cars waiting to pass slow-moving cyclists is less than half a dozen.
We paid $50 a night for two in an air bnb in Johnson City and a quite comfortable hotel in Cherokee Tennessee, which was far below mid-summer prices.
MOUNT MITCHELL: We slept an hour later than intended, lingered longer than necessary at breakfast, then had to drive an hour to get to our departure point in Asheville. We started at 11:30 am, late enough to regret later.
The 6.3 mile, 1214 foot climb from downtown Asheville up Town Mountain Road (SR 694) to the Blue Ridge Parkway included the steepest grades of the whole trip at >10%. We hit the parkway at Craven Gap at mile 377.8 and 3132 feet. We climbed pretty steadily 2792 feet through thinning foliage with majestic rock outcroppings to the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center (closed for winter) at mile 365. There we learned that even though it was already 2:30 pm, we still had 10 miles including 540 feet of climbing to get to the road up Mount Mitchell. We had come too far to turn back now, so we pressed on. From the turnoff from Blue Ridge Parkway into Mount Mitchell State Park, the road climbs 1408 feet in 4.8 miles to the parking area below the summit. We arrived there at 3:45 pm glad to be at least in better shape after our considerable exertions than the mountain's eponym was after his. We took the foot-traffic-only trail 300 yards to the observation tower at the summit.
After delaying putting our tired bodies back on the bikes with sight-seeing and self-congratulations, we started our descent at 4:30. While the 6155 feet of descending was fast and easy, an additional 1760 feet of climbing lay between us and Asheville. Last light fell as we left the Blue Ridge Parkway for a half hour more of climbing on Town Mountain Road before the precipitous descent into Asheville. Positives: We had good lights and reflective gear (absolutely required for cycling this time of year), we could see our moon shadows and hear the Great Horned Owl calling a few dozen yards from the road. Those sights and sounds are there when you are driving your car, but you don't notice them in the great steel and plastic artificial womb. Negative: it is harder to judge the curves in the dark, so I almost went off the road over the guard rail on one. Five fishtailing skids kept the shiny side up, and I averted disaster.
CLINGMAN'S DOME: A short ride from Cherokee brought us to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center entrance to the Great Smokies National Park, next to grassy meadow of (reintroduced) elk. In the town of Cherokee and in the national park, all road signs are in Cherokee and English. The Cherokee people living here are not reintroduced, because during the Trail of Tears (under the president now gracing the $20 bill) the Smoky Mountains provided sanctuaries in which people could hide.
Here is Marty's description of the ride up Clingman"s Dome:
"Day 2 and more beautiful sunshine, although the winter storm is on the far horizon. After yesterday's climb of Mt. Mitchell we are both sore, albeit in different parts. James' glutes hurt. For me it's my left lower back. But Clingman's Dome beckons, and after a hearty breakfast of Backpacker's pancakes (three grains with walnuts) and an additional bowl of grits (the closest we can come to oatmeal), we are off.
Careful not to exert ourselves too quickly, in light of yesterday's rigorous climb, we go slowly, but eventually pick up the pace. The roads in the Great Smokies National Park are evenly graded at roughly 7- 8% uphill, and as we realize there will be no steep surprises, we push for the top. It comes surprisingly sooner than expected. And with far more tourists than expected. The parking lot is nearly full. Thankfully the lower, overflow lots are not. In season the entire approach road is jammed with cars. The 1/2 mile walk to the Clingman observation tower allows for a commanding view for us, and gives a variety of hikers the chance to comment, admiringly on our ascent. We puff out our chests, while deprecating the accomplishment. There must be some gracious way to handle this without coming off as total jerks. Let us know if you discover it.
Then we bundle up for the descent. Over an hour of hairpins, leans and eyes tearing, but no desperate braking, so good is the National Park Service at designing roads."
CLIMATE ZONES, APPALACHIAN STYLE: While the changes in climate and vegetation as you ascend to the Appalachian peaks are not as dramatic as in the higher mountains in the west, they are still wonderful. We went from mixed oak-pine forest in the valleys of Asheville and Cherokee, through Appalachian oak forest, dominated by the white oak and black oak groups, then through northeastern hardwood forest, composed of birch, beech, maple, elm, red oak, basswood, hemlock and white pine, to Spruce-Fir forest on the high peaks. We were fortunate that skies were clear and vistas magnificent on both days.
RIDE TO BRYSON CITY: Facing a 10-hour drive home to Cleveland on Tuesday, we couldn't resist stretching our legs a little befotehand. There was snow in the mountains closing the high park roads, but around Cherokee we were greeted with temperatures in the mid 30s with light rain forecast to end around 10 am. Marty found a back road winding along the river to nearby Bryson City. While we were looking forward to flat 20 miles to relax our tired muscles from two days of climbing, there is no such thing in this part of the country. Even along a river, the road lurches up and down, with steeper grades than anything in the higher parks. Nonetheless, this humble route, paved and gravel, through beautiful forest along a crystal clear mountain river, by itself would make the whole trip worthwhile. The long drive home is a little easier with a few more miles in the legs and memories in the minds.
For Clevelanders and other cyclists in the northeast, therefore, the southern Appalachians offer opportunities to ride beautiful mountains with less traffic in off-season romps when fair weather hits. While the big climbs in southern West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia are 9-10 hours drive from Cleveland, that still makes for an economical 4-day to week-long adventure, which I highly recommend!