Sassafras Mountain, 3,560ft
Date climbed: May 28, 2008 5:25pm
Bicycling the highest points in North and South Carolina
Our grand plan after finishing up undergrad at MIT was to celebrate by taking the summer off to do an awesome bicycle tour from Prudhoe Bay in northern Alaska down to the continental US. The only problem was that we had never done more than a two-day bicycle trip and weren’t sure what to expect. Our solution was to do a shake-down trip – a trip long enough to teach us some lessons about bike touring but not long enough to get us into trouble.
We both had the foresight to only register for final-less spring term classes, conveniently freeing up finals week for our more important business. Our shake-down plan was thus to bike for a week down south, covering ~500 miles and tagging the highest mountains in North Carolina and South Carolina along the way.
Now there are two main gear choices in planning a bike tour: which type of bike do you ride, and how do you transport your gear. We bought some brand new touring bikes from REI for this trip because they have slightly wider tires than a standard road bike for riding over rough roads. For gear transportation the choice was actually made for us. One day in our hometown of Berea, KY as we were hiking across an overgrown field we found two B.O.B. bike trailers laying upside down and collecting rust. Those run for over $300 a piece new and we had just found two of them! It was clear they had been there for a while and must have been abandoned by some other bikers. (Our hometown is actually on one of the official transcontinental bike routes, so we see a lot of long-distance bicycle traffic go through).
Day 1: Leaving KY
By the middle of May we were officially finished with classes. We flew back to Kentucky with our bikes and packed up for the trip. On day one we biked out of our garage in Berea and started heading south on US 25. Our Dad drove ahead for a little while and met us in Mt Vernon, 20 miles south, for a few final pictures. Then we were on our own.
We hit the 80 mile mark in Pineville in southeast Kentucky and took a well-deserved ice cream break. It was pretty stinkin’ hot in there in southern Kentucky in mid May. It was still mid-afternoon and we figured we could probably make it into Tennessee before stopping for the day. As we got to the state border we met our first unexpected obstacle: the Cumberland Gap Tunnel. It was officially closed to bikers, and there weren’t really any other roads around it. We didn’t know what to do and called our Dad to see what he thought. He made some other phone calls and miraculously some official person in a pickup truck drove over and offered to escort us through the tunnel. Perfect!
We threw the bikes in the back, hopped in, and found ourselves safely on the other side in no time. By now it was time to find a place to spend the night. We had brought a tent but we had no intention of paying to camp. Our only acceptable option was to stealth camp. Unfortunately we were still in the town of Cumberland Gap, TN but we found some woods on the outskirts of town that looked secretive enough for our tent. Matthew walked around our proposed site a little more just to make sure and, dang it, he ran into two people on a four-wheeler.
“You can’t camp here,” they said. “This is private property.”
That was actually one of only two times we’ve ever been caught trying to stealth camp (the other was in Norway), and we got out of there in a hurry.
It was getting close to dark and we knew it would only get more difficult to find a spot. One thing we were sure of, though, was that if we could get far enough out of town we could find a spot nobody would care about. So we actually biked north out of town for about 5 miles, officially crossing into Virginia and crossing the century mark for the day. Finally we found a secret place on the edge of the Cumberland Gap Park and set up camp.
“It had better not be this hard to find a spot every night or I might just consider paying the $10 to camp in a state park,” I told Matthew.
“I refuse to pay to camp,” Matthew replied. “That’s just a basic human right nobody should have to give up.”
Day 2: Mount Mitchell
The next morning we stealthily left our spot and continued biking into Tennessee. Our first objective of the trip was Mount Mitchell, the roof of North Carolina and the tallest peak east of the Mississippi at 6,684ft. Eastern Tennessee is pretty hilly, and there were few easy miles that day, aside from the downhills of course. We had been biking with clip-in pedals that kind of wrap around your shoe, and Matthew figured out that the extra efficiency they provide did not outweigh the discomfort they gave him. That’s a useful thing to discover before a much longer tour. We finished the day just across the border in Hot Springs, NC, and camped just outside town.
As we were planning out our route for the next day we realized that one of the roads our GPS recommended didn’t even show up on our paper street atlas. That meant it must be what we refer to as a “Billy Bob” road – a rinky-dink out-of-the-way tertiary road that most people wouldn’t have an excuse to drive on. That sounded fun and traffic-free, so we decided to go for it. We continued riding through the hills the next day until early afternoon we made the final turn to the Billy-Bob road. We didn’t see any dead-end signs, so at least that was reassuring.
As we biked up the road it started getting steeper and steeper and the intermittent houses on the side were replaced by forest. Then we started seeing more potholes and eventually the road turned completely to dirt. The grade was so steep that we actually had to walk the bikes up for several miles. Luckily we wouldn’t have to take this road back, because that’s a terrible waste of elevation gain to burn it on a gravel downhill where you can’t safely ride fast. We turned a final corner and magically popped out on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was indeed not a dead-end road!
At this point Mount Mitchell was about 10 miles north on the parkway, but in the opposite direction of our next destination, Sassafras Mountain in South Carolina. The Parkway was notorious for going out of its way to go over the hilliest terrain, so we decided to make this a fast and light summit attempt. We stripped down our bikes of all unnecessary gear and stashed the extra gear in the woods. Then we took off up the road.
There wasn’t too much traffic on this weekday afternoon, and we had the road mostly to ourselves. Gradually we wound our way through tunnels and up above 6000ft until we reached the end of the road just below the summit.
We couldn’t believe our eyes – the true summit was covered with construction equipment, fences, and “No Trespassing” signs! But it was literally close enough to through a rock at from the parking lot!
We walked over to a little visitor center building and found an official-looking person to talk to.
“What’s going on with the summit?” I asked.
“Oh we’re building a new observation tower,” he said matter-of-factly. “You guys can’t go up there now, but you can certainly come back in three months when it’s finished.”
“Oh well, guess we missed out this time,” I replied. Matthew and I then walked out and started planning our next move.
“What do you mean ‘guess we missed out’!?” Matthew asked once we were out of earshot of the official person. “I didn’t bike no 200 miles to come within 200ft of the summit and just turn around.”
We both knew we would somehow find our way to the summit that day. I had purposefully played it cool talking to the official guy so he wouldn’t get any ideas that we might just sneak up there anyway. If I had gotten angry he probably would keep his eye on us to make sure we biked right back down the road.
By this time of day the construction workers had all left, so if we could just sneak up the mountain from the opposite side nobody would notice – thus nobody would care. It was kind of like stealth camping.
We started biking up the road until we were certain we were out of sight of the visitor center, and then we darted into the woods. We dropped our bikes behind some trees and then started bush-whacking (quietly) back up and around the opposite side of the mountain until we reached the clearing where the construction was going on. There were no fences on this side. We looked around and didn’t see anyone.
The summit was a pile of dirt that would be clearly visible from the visitors center so we’d have to act fast. I got my camera out, screwed it into the mini tripod, and then we went for it. I set the camera up on the ground on time delay and we both ran over to the summit. In the 10 seconds before the picture took we managed to tag the summit and pose with hands raised, then just as quickly we disappeared back into the woods. If someone had blinked they would have missed us.
Mission accomplished, we quietly bushwhacked back to the bikes and took off down the hill. I quit looking over my shoulder after about a mile, finally certain that the authorities were in fact not in pursuit.
The bike back to our stashed gear was incredible – we reached up to 40mph several times on the steep hills. By far the most exhilarating part was cruising through completely dark tunnels at 30mph not being able to see even your front wheel contacting the pavement. We got back to our gear just before dark and managed to find a level spot hidden from the road to set up camp.
Day 3: Sassafras Mountain
The next morning we continued south on the Parkway to our next objective – Sassafras Mountain. We reached Asheville, NC in the morning just as it started to rain and decided that would be a perfect time to resupply at the local Walmart. We bought three more days of food and a bunch of town food to gorge on for lunch. We tried to drag our feet and stall as much as we could, but the dang rain just would not let up. Real mountaineers battle cold, wind, snow, avalanches, and all manner of obstacles, and we couldn’t be sissies and let just rain keep us from a mountain. So we hopped on our bikes and took the plunge.
Once you accept the fact that you will get completely soaked, biking in the pouring rain isn’t that bad. Our gear in the trailers was in waterproof bags so we didn’t have to worry about that. The only real difficulty in the rain happens when you go really fast. We were pushing 30mph going down some hills and the rain felt like bullets in our faces. At one point we pulled off the road to consult the map and a driver pulled over too and offered to let us warm up and have a meal at his house. We thanked him but said we’d be fine. We were on a mission and wouldn’t let anything stop us from reaching our mountain.
We were biking deeper and deeper into the backwoods of North Carolina. Eventually we reached the
South Carolina border at the top of a little pass back in the woods. The highpoint was a few miles farther down the pass and then up some more back roads. It would be another out and back trip just like Mitchell, so again we stashed our unnecessary gear in the woods and continued on fast and light.
When I think of South Carolina I usually think of Myrtle Beach instead of mountains, but there’s actually some rugged terrain near the North Carolina border. We descended from the pass to the little village of Rocky Bottom, and then started our climb. At one point we actually had to walk our bikes up the road, it was so steep. But luckily it was all paved. We biked up to about 3400 ft where there was a small parking lot, and then walked our bikes up the final half-mile trail to the summit – the roof of South Carolina!
We didn’t spend too long there, since it was still raining. We cruised back down to Rocky Bottom, then back up to our gear stash. A few hours before dark the rain finally let up and we biked about 20 more miles, putting us up to 90 miles for the day. We were having a particularly hard time finding a level stealth spot to camp in such hilly terrain, and knew it would be nearly impossible once it got dark, so we gave in and stayed at a state park campground that night.
Day 4: Into the Smokies
This was the halfway part of the trip and, with no state highpoints left on the list we planned to take the most direct route back to Berea. Our GPS told us this involved riding on the Blue Ridge Parkway to Cherokee, NC, then cutting through the Smoky Mountains and back up US 25. Our previous day on the Parkway told us it would be hilly, but we figured hills were better than the alternative of tractor-trailer traffic and debris-strewn city roads.
The next morning started with a monster climb – we started around 1000ft elevation and had to gain 4000ft to reach the Blue Ridge Parkway. That’s the best time to do it though, in the morning when you’re still fresh from the previous night’s rest. We gained the Parkway and were greeted with spectacular views and very little traffic. The road actually wound up to a few 6,000ft peaks that were higher than almost any other state highpoint on the East Coast. The best part of the day was the descent down to Cherokee 70 miles later where over the course of five miles we lost all 4000+ft of elevation we had gained that morning.
It was about 4pm when we cruised into Cherokee and we had a decision to make: 1) push on all the way through the Smokies by dark to find a legal campsite in national forest, 2) camp right where we were, or 3) bike as far as we could into the smokies and camp on a trail off the road. Well, we certainly weren’t going to stop for the day at 4pm after only 70 miles, and we knew it might be tough to find a stealth spot north of the Smokies in the urban sprawls of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, so we decided to see what options the park would offer us.
We started slowly working our way up into the park, up the road to Newfound Gap, elevation ~5000ft. We were basically on a roller coaster that day, starting at 1000ft, biking to 6000ft, back down to 1000ft, then back up to 5000 ft. With only a few miles to go before Newfound Gap I finally hit the wall and my stomach told me I had to inject calories or else. Biking is the only activity I’ve found that is so binary like that – I can be fine one minute and the next be dead. Even running marathons or hiking 50 miles at once don’t make me hit the wall like biking can. Matthew could use the break too so we both stuffed whatever food was most accessible into our mouths and then continued the climb.
We got to Newfound Gap with about 30 minutes of light left and stopped to take some pictures. Our potential plan was to push the bikes up the Appalachian Trail a little ways until we found a good stealth site, but there were so many tourists milling around that we knew it would be too much of a risk to attempt to camp anywhere nearby. So we decided to cruise down the other side of the gap and keep a close eye out for spots.
This was more difficult than we anticipated. The only flat places were near trailheads, and that’s where all the people were. It was getting darker and we were getting dangerously close to the edge of the park, where the Gatlinburg sprawl started. Then, with probably 2 miles left of the Park, we spotted a gated gravel service road off to the left leading up the side of a streambed. Perfect! We made sure no cars were coming, turned off our flashing lights, removed our bright orange vests, and sprinted up the road.
That’s the trouble with stealth camping while bicycle touring. You want to be as visible as possible while biking so cars can see you, but want to instantly turn invisible when leaving the road for a stealth site. This always involves at least 15 seconds of stripping off clothing while nervously checking for passing cars and simultaneously trying to act like you’re just casually taking a break (in case a car actually sees you there). Someday I’ll invent an instant bike invisibility switch to cater to fellow bikers that also face this problem.
We made it past the gate and into the woods with no cars noticing, and then started looking for a site. The road dead-ended at a gravel pile after a quarter mile, but we pushed on farther into the woods and found a perfect spot to camp. Even if someone drove up that gravel road they couldn’t have seen us.
Day 5: Northward
The next day it was back to civilization as we biked through Gatlinburg, Knoxville, and north toward Kentucky. By the century mark for the day we were just shy of the state line in Jellico, TN. We had been looking for a campsite since mile 90 but there were just too many dang houses around. Finally we gave up and stayed at another state park just outside town. This was getting a little ridiculous with two state parks in just a 6-day trip (a 33% failure rate), and we vowed to avoid them if at all possible when we did our big trip through Alaska and Canada.
Day 6: Heading Home
We officially crossed into Kentucky at 8:30am the next morning, the start of the last day of our shakedown trip. We took US 25 north through Corbin, London, Livingston, and Mt Vernon. By that point, with only 20 miles left Matthew was worn out and called our mom to come pick him up. I decided to end under my own power and biked the final miles back home.
The trip was a great success, with 2 state highpoints bagged, 500 miles biked, and quite a few lessons learned about long-distance cycle touring and stealth camping.