Thursday, November 5, 2015

Smoky Mountains

It's been a while since I posted, I guess I was waiting for something worth writing about. Well let me tell you, the Smoky Mountains in mid-autumn are worth covering! Gorgeous leaves, long climbs, quiet roads (and some really busy ones), and all-around amazing riding. I'll take you through a short tour of some of the biggest climbs in the area and recommend some routes. It should be pointed out that drivers in the South are quite friendly to cyclists and usually wait until a safe passing opportunity arises. Try to return the favor by pulling over in cutouts if a long line of traffic forms behind you.

Between cloud layers on the Cherohala Skyway
Let's start with a brief characterization of roads in the area. A main conduit for cycling is the Blue Ridge Parkway which ends it 469 mile trip south just outside of the Smokies. This road is full of long, gradual (no steeper than 5%) grades and descents with short tunnels and gentle turns. The views can be gorgeous and the asphalt is generally fresh but there are rarely challenging climbs or tricky turns. Too much distance on the Parkway can become monotonous. Several of the roads discussed below have similar topology. We'll go south to north in our routes.

The view from the top of River Road

Bald River Fall
  • Cherohala Skyway - Constructed recently in 1996, this 43 mile mountain road connects the towns of Tellico Plains, TN and Robbinsville, NC. This road climbs gradually out of Tellico Plains with some steeper ramps and several short downhill sections. With the descents, it takes a full 30 miles to reach the summit or 23 to reach the state line (a popular turn-around point). The side from Robbinsville is a challenging 10.5 mile climb mostly at 7% with some flatter sections for a 5% average. Water can be found at Rattler Ford Campground on the east and the Tellico Plains visitor center on the west. The Skyway is as quiet a major climb as I have found, especially in the early morning. I went 30 minutes without seeing another person at one point. Extended views are a bit rare but nice when they come. This road is worth doing if only for the isolation. Very similar in nature to the BRP.
  • The lovely River Road leaves the Skyway 5 miles in from Tellico Plains and makes a more gradual, consistent climb for 20 miles at 2% to the state line. Near the end, the road kicks up through some photogenic switchbacks to end in a single lane, gravel road. Early into the climb, you pass Bald River Falls and continue to follow the river for nearly the entire climb. An easier alternative to the Cherohala Skyway, River Road has more scenery with the falls, river, and views from the top with similar traffic. River Road earns the stamp of quality road from cyclingdr.
Cades Cove Loop
  • Cades Cove is probably the busiest 11 mile loop you'll ever see. Filled with traffic moving only in stops and starts, expect to take over an hour to cover it if you arrive during normal hours. Try to ride it on a Wednesday or Saturday morning in the summer when the loop is closed to motor traffic. Mountains loom on all sides and black bears sometimes relax in the meadows. Take a twisty, challenging climb up Rich Mountain Road if you have your cyclocross bike, it's a road you won't regret climbing!
A break in the trees on Rich Mountain Road

Rich Mountain Road

Early morning light on Route 441
  • Clingman's Dome is a very trafficked road. Starting from either side on Route 441, go early and get off the climb ASAP. Traffic begins to back up, even on weekdays. A few tunnels and a unique 270° turn are some of the highlights, along with amazing views and a fun set of turns near the top of the descent on the western side. The last 1/2 mile of the climb must be walked unless you do the climb after it closes in December. The top does offer nice views from a large spiral viewing platform but is probably not worth the clumsy hike up in cycling shoes. The western side is a nicer climb in terms of road interest (turns, gradient) but the views near the top of the eastern side are incredible. Ideally, climb the western side but detour over to the outlooks on the east on your way down. Water is available at the visitor centers on both ends of Route 441 or for sale at the top of Clingman's Dome. Definitely a climb to do if you can find a quieter window in the traffic.
Sunrise on Route 441

View near the top of Route 441

Top of Clingman's Dome!
There are several other roads in the area to consider riding:
  • Foothills Parkway - Another BRP-like road, this medium traffic road takes you along a ridge with great views into the Smoky Mountains. Scenic, challenging climbs on the east and the west
  • Blue Ridge Parkway - Ending at Route 441, the Parkway will take you as far north as a ride can go. Try the challenging climbs up Waterrock Knob, quiet Route 215, or the Pisgah Highway. Watch out for tunnels that appear short but actually have no light in the middle. Nearly every climb up to the Parkway is more interesting than the BRP itself, so don't restrict yourself to the main road!
  • Tail of the Dragon on Route 129 - If you want to run with the bulls, take Route 129 along the Little Tennessee River. Known for it's density of winding turns and challenging driving, sports cars and sport bikes flock to the area so expect a lot of dangerous, crowded roads. I haven't ridden it myself, nor can I really recommend it.
  • Laurel Creek/Little River Gorge Road - Connecting Cades Cove and the road up Clingman's Dome, these roads twist along creeks, through tunnels, and along some gradual climbs. Traffic can be high, so take care. Still very scenic and fun to drive as well (though Rich Mountain Road takes the rally track crown).
270° turn on 441
Finally, if you have a cyclocross/mountain bike - congratulations! You have access to much more of the area and surely some incredible backroads. Send us road riders some pictures when you get back. Overall, the area has some incredible scenery but traffic can be frustrating if you don't leave early and plan accordingly. Going in fall is sure to provide some breathtaking moments, like when a RV passes a bit too close. Enjoy the monster climb on Clingman's Dome and try sleeping in one of the numerous local campgrounds. Don't forget, these days the smokiness comes from air pollution so make sure you stay on your bike and keep the car in the garage.

Looking down onto the coming 441 east descent

Route 441 through fall leaves

Entering Pisgah forest on Lake Logan Road