Chapel Hill to Nashville
This leg was broken into three distinct sections: A 5 day cycle through the rolling hills of rural North Carolina to get to Asheville and rejoin Appalachian mountains; 4 days of riding along the Blue Ridge Parkway to Cherokee followed by a final crossing of the Appalachians into Tennessee; and a 5 day ride from the mountain pass to Nashville. I’d been joined by Katrina, a friend from the UK for this leg.
The first four days were filled with pleasant but pretty unexciting cycling through the rolling countryside of North Carolina back towards the Appalachian mountains. There were a few highlights of these first few days: the first night out of Chapel Hill we camped in a little wood on the edge of a park and spent the evening watching a spectacular display of fireflies zipping around the woods; coming across the incredibly pretty Lake James nestled in the foothills above Morganton, NC; and frankly anything cold! The temperatures had climbed significantly since I’d cycled down the week before and we were facing highs of 38C in the shade (my GPS recorded a high of 45C in the sun). You ended up covered in sweat before you’d even got on the bike and trying to do anything above the minimum amount of effort is nigh on impossible!
By the fifth day we had clearly crossed the line from undulating countryside and into mountainous terrain and we had our first proper climb through some woods past a very pretty gieser and looping back forwards across a railway line that was making impressive and lengthy loops around the valley to be able to gain the altitude it needed while keeping the grade low enough for a train to be able to tackle it. That evening was spent in the pretty little town of Black Mountain with a few well deserved beers at the local brewery! The next day we peddled into the laid back hip town of Asheville and visited the spectacular Biltmore Estate.
Pulling up to the gatehouse we had the frustrating experience if being told we couldn’t cycle on the estate, it took a good 10 minutes of explaining we didn’t have a car we could put the bikes in and drive up for the guy to get we didn’t have a car we could put the bikes in. Eventually we found a supervisor who agreed we could ride the bikes up to the house and we were let loose on to the estate. After a 4 mile meander through the estate we came across the house. Built by the Vanderbilt family as their country retreat Biltmore House is a grand chateaux style building nestled in the largest private estate in the US. The house is absolutely stunning inside (it’s asymmetric and a bit ugly from the outside) and the surrounding woodland and gardens are immaculate. What is especially impressive is that when the estate was purchased the forest had been depleted by ship building and over the past 100 years it has been regrown and restored to its current condition.
After a relaxing evening the next morning we headed out through the Biltmore forest and then joined the spectacular Blue Ridge Parkway which would take us up to our campground at Mt Pisgah. The first 10 miles on the parkway were pretty easy then the unrelenting climb up to Mt Pisgah began. The climbing was worth it though, we soon emerged from the forest and started to get views out across the surrounding valleys and mountains which only got better as we got higher. Our campground was just under the 6000 foot mark which gave us spectacular views as we ate dinner looking out over the misty blue ridges running away into the distance.
The second day was more of the same as the first with Mt Pisgah replaced by Mt Balsam. The first hour was spent descending down to wagon road gap before starting the ascent of Mt Balsam. A few miles into the climb we stopped to take a walk down through the woods at Graveyard Fields to a series of pretty waterfalls. The final 12 miles of the climb took us up to the highest point on the parkway - 6,047 feet - followed by a 10 mile adrenalin filled descent to the campsite at Balsam Gap.
The final day on the Blue Ridge Parkway was unsurprisingly stunning again. There was slightly less climbing with the high point of the day sitting a little below 6000 feet at the Waterrock Knob Visitor center which gave great views out over Big Smokies National park and the Newfound Gap our target for the next day.
I was pretty nervous about crossing the next day as everything I had read said the road through Big Smokies National Park - US 441 - was totally inappropriate for cycling on as it was a single lane in each direction and jam packed full of cars with lots of tight bends, no shoulder and very few passing places. In comparison riding on the blue ridge parkway is a real pleasure, cars are generally good at keeping an eye out for you, nobody passed us stupidly and as soon as you get beyond Mt Pisgah there are very few cars. The only scary moments when cycling on the blue ridge is when descending at high speed you hurtle through tunnels still slightly blinded from the sun with no idea how long the tunnel is and only a very small amount of light to see from the flashing lights on the bike and hope that you’ll come out the other end or spot a curve in the road if there is one… All made worse if you don’t bother to remove your sunglasses before heading in to them!
The next day was still a fabulous descent away dropping quickly down to Cherokee and the end of the parkway. Sadly there was no convenient selfie finishing sign for the Parkway but there was a very convenient river for a swim!!
The next morning we set off a little before sunrise - the plan was to have the climb done by 08:30 and hopefully avoid the worst of the traffic or at least be going downhill at a decent speed when the traffic did get heavy. For the first 10 miles or so we meandered up through a pretty valley alongside the river we had swam in the day before. The light from the sun coming up made it even more spectacular. As we rounded a corner a herd of elk emerged from the mist - their antlers were still small but they looked majestic in the dawn light. As we got further into the valley and we continued to climb very gently. I began to get worried - I knew we had a little over 3000 feet to climb and it was 18 miles from Cherokee to the top of the pass - a 3-4% average climb rate, enough to get you a bit sweaty but it’s not going to kill you. After 8 miles we had only climbed a few hundred feet and that meant that that 3-4% was rapidly heading up towards an average 7-8% climb over 9 miles - a much less pleasant prospect. The climb duly started and although it was tough, helped by the cooler morning weather, we both made it to the top before it got too busy. We stopped at the viewing area to cook breakfast and enjoy the views from the last mountain pass until I get to the rockies.
The descent was spectacular - often edging above 40 mph - and including a full 360 degree corkscrew in the road as it plummets into the town of Gatlinburg. The plan of heading out early was definitely a good one as the opposite lane was nose to tail for the entire descent. Flashing through Gatlinburg we continued on down the valley emerging from a slightly hairy ride along a highway into the surreal town of Pigeon Forge.
Pigeon Forge is a long strip mall (something like 2.5 miles in length) and seems to be focused around Dolly Parton related theme parks and shops that proclaim they are the best in the world at something tacky. It seems like the total antithesis to the national park it sits on the edge of but it was heaving with people seemed incredibly popular. We decided to join in and headed off for an afternoon at Dolly Parton’s Splash County - a Dolly P themed water park. We met up with Cassi, a friend from the UK that night along with her sister and flat mate who just happened to be in the area.
After a couple of drinks in their amazing mountain lodge we headed off to see Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede - one of the most unique experiences of my life. I’m not sure I can do it justice and still make sense but I’ll try! You sit on benches around a central arena and are served dinner (no knives or forks for some reason) and are entertained by a variety of acts involving animals. One half of the area is designated the North and the other the South and it’s and competition of the North vs the South. Each half of the arena is represented by some professional riders. There are then a series of competitions such as micro pig racing, followed by micro pig hurdling, trailer racing, playing horseshoes with toilet seats and chicken herding interspersed with various stunts, songs and dances all topped off with a good healthy dose of American Patriotism at the end. The food was good and it was silly but incredibly entertaining. If you ever find yourself within an hours drive of Pigeon Forge it’s definitely worth a trip.
The next day we were back in rolling countryside with the only four days cycling into Nashville. Passing through Knoxville and then edging the lakes created by the Tennessee Valley Authority’s dams we spent the first night in Lenoir City and had a long second day to get to Pleasant Hill which broke the back of the ride. The third night was spent at Short Mountain Distillery - an old moonshine distillery. Billy the owner showed us around and we sampled a few different moonshine -luckily Billy was happy with us camping there so we didn’t have to cycle on wobbly legs.
The final day took us on mainly busy roads into the very lively city of Nashville for a day off before Katrina headed back to the UK leaving me on my own again.