Going Home to Appalachia in Search of Dirt Rocks

An experiential guide to exploring the North Carolina destination for mountain biking, 17 miles from the Asheville airport. Book your tickets, trail beers and campfires are waiting.

As a native-born East Coast mountain biker, who learned to bike on trails in the mountains at a place called Michaux, but now living in sunny southern California, I missed rocks. Specifically, I immensely missed the rocks of Appalachia, those piles of bocce and bowling balls that sit scattered amongst slabs, some sharp-edged enough to gash your shin or ankle, made by Mother Nature over eons that are a kick-in-the-fun bone for many mountain bikers, if fun equals strenuous, technical riding through rocks. So, when the news came in that friends were gathering in Pisgah National Forest for a week of autumnal riding in western North Carolina, I moved things off the calendar, asked my bride for blessings, and checked the airline miles account.

Arriving in Asheville

Landing in Asheville, the weather was what you would order if you wanted idyllic October days for mountain biking in the surrounding mountains that the native Cherokee people called Warwasseeta (the Pisgah ridge) and Elseetoss (Mt. Pisgah) for centuries before the government moved in and attempted to eradicate the Cherokee via slaughter and forced migration on the “Trail of Tears;” it was in early “American” history when the newcomers likened the area to the Biblical Promised Land that Moses saw when looking around from the top of Mount Pisgah and named it such. Today, it is well-known as an eastern USA mountain biking (MTB) mecca.

On this trip we had dry, sunshine-y, warm afternoons followed by cool, crisp overnights, which was nothing but perfect for five days of pedaling up and down the topographic folds that lie in the vicinity of the Davidson River campground. The tree canopy shone in leaf colors of varying hues of yellow, orange, and red. Up high, the breezes softly chilled the skin, causing us to laze less and move more.

Day 1: 477 › Clawhammer › Black MountainBuckwheatBennett Gap › 477

Camaraderie smiles, and simple good cheer was in the air, with friends coming together after not seeing each other for a while because of jobs, life, and moves to new locations. When I heard that the plan was to ride Bennett, I could not have been happier. I had not ridden it, ever, and was looking forward to the rocks and descent. While it did not disappoint, Buckwheat was the humdinger for me. When we finished it, I was thinking “That is a mountain biking trail.”

Navigating the downhills, picking my way, finding lines and not bombing them (which is not my skillset) and doing so unscathed put me in a mountain biking high from the get-go on day one of five. Cruising on the forest road to the hard road and back to camp, we decided the next day’s route. No doubt, it was going to be a good one. Uncertainty hung in the air.

Day 2: Black Mountain › Turkey PenSouth Mills RiverMullinaxSquirrelSouth Mills RiverBuckhorn Gap › Clawhammer › 477

We woke early, ate breakfast, and pedaled out of camp over to Black Mountain. Up we went, taking our time, but also keeping an eye on the timepiece, knowing about where we should be at what approximate hour. The plan being was to finish with the hike-a-bike up the back of Black and then descend all of it back to camp. As we continued on to the upper reaches of Black, before Turkey Pen, we saw what people had been talking about: Black was getting blown out. Dry weather over months to the point of drought created sketchy lines characterized by bones, a.k.a. rocks that were more pronounced than when the soil is moist and plump. Then, seemingly out of nowhere and after a few spirited hollers of “coming downs” and “rider” from ahead, a blur came ripping down the trail. I stood mouth agape at what I had seen.

We found out from his riding partner a few minutes later that the guy with the mad skills was a former pro downhill racer. Humbled, I was. We arrived at Turkey Pen and turned onto it. My memory of the trail was that it was somewhat “dirty”, a.k.a. not a groomed flow trail, possibly with some trees down and other trail litter. My memory was not wrong, but I did forget the number of hike-abikes (was it three or four). Fortunately, I also forgot the technical descent to the parking area, which was an absolute blast in the late morning. Down by the river, we ate lunch and basked in the sunshine. Admittedly at this point, I knew I was in for a long day. My legs were not there; it was setting up to be one of those days.

Out on Squirrel, I took my time riding in the middle of the group. When it came time for the rock gardens, I pushed the “hammer” button and made it through, grunting and smiling. I even let out a chuckle because I was so damn happy to be there. Then we had the slog back up to Black. Though not strenuous, it is long and requires near constant pedaling which, on another day, would likely be my game. I hung on the back wheel of a new-found mountain biking friend in front of me. Up at the junction, we sat our bikes on the ground and I told my friend, “I am not climbing up Black. I am beat.” The others arrived and I told them the same thing. We agreed that it would be too much to add-on that late in the ride. What’s more for me, seeing what I saw of upper Black, I had no business riding that trail. The possibility of messing up and getting hurt was increased from the last time I had ridden it. With three more days of riding ahead of me, I threw in the towel and headed down Clawhammer.

Day 3: Shuttle to Laurel Mountain Trail / “Inner” Pilot Cove to Slate Rock Loop

I knew when I woke up in the tent before dawn that I was not going to do the climb up Laurel to Pilot Rock and then down. I felt “off.” Since my bout with rhabdomyolysis [Ed. A breakdown of muscle tissue that releases a damaging protein into the blood, a common result of overtraining. Can kill you.] earlier in the year, I had decided that I would play shuttle driver and then hike/ ride the inner loop with a friend and then meet them at Slate Rock. And that is what I did, telling myself that I still had another two days of riding to go and there was still a possibility that I could do the Laurel-to-Pilot ride (Laurel being a “zen” climb that I enjoy). Out on the Slate Rock vista, I could hear them coming across, their voices carrying through the trees and floating on the fall air. Not long after, we met up, enjoyed the spectacular view, and made plans to go The Hub for beers since two of the group had to get back on the road home in the morning.

Day 4: Upper DanielsFarlow Gap to Shuck Ridge Creek › Lower Daniels / Local’s M Loop

I liked Daniels Redge. It felt remote, had back country flavor, and seemed little-traveled. The connection in with Farlow and a little out-and-back made for a nice, couple hours ride. The hike-a-bikes were par for the course, so to speak. We both cleaned the sketchy descent to Shuck Ridge Creek, a first for us. There, I sat on “my” boulder overlooking the drop off where you can hear the creek, but not see how it gets to the forest floor. Deep in the heart of Appalachia is a place I like to be. I thought of my bride’s grandmother, whom I met only once, and of her great-grandfather. He was 100% Cherokee. I never met him. Generations have passed by and people continue to persevere. I thanked them, my bride’s bloodline, offered them a prayer of goodwill and peace. I offered it to their people as well. Feeling content, I did not feel a need to go up farther on Farlow. Back through on Farlow, we went the way we came and then down Lower Daniels. If you do not have fun on that stretch of trail with the water flowing below on your right, then you really are doing it all wrong. Lower Daniels is good ol’ mountain biking defined.

We drove back to camp, knowing that another friend was due to arrive in the late afternoon. Text messages noted that he would want to stretch his legs after seven in the car. He arrived, set up his tent, changed clothes, and with an hour or so of light left in the sky, we pedaled through the campground and rode the locals M Loop. Campfire beers and positive cheer set us up well for the next morning.

Day 5: South MillsMullinaxSquirrelSouth MillsBuckhornBlack MountainBuckwheatBennett Gap › 477 › Clawhammer › Presley › Black Mountain

Another friend arrived in the morning, bringing our group back up to four riders. The day’s plan required driving to the trailhead, but finishing up back at the campground. For whatever reason, I was feeling it. What I mean to say is that I was feeling great. The climb up to Squirrel rolled with ease, and it was a blast. Climbing back up to Black was an enjoyable, all-out crank fest. I turned and turned the pedals, having such a good time clippin’ off the miles. Up on Buckwheat, I picked and slashed, hootin’ and hollerin’ as I went. My legs were there, the day was glorious, and I was in the middle of a ride that I did not want to end.

Back up Clawhammer and across on Presley, we went. Then, I saw it, a sighting that was the dream ending of a week in Warwasseeta. A black bear ran across the side of the ridge below me. S/he, with head down, dodged downed trees and those still standing, completely in her/his element, making the steep mountain side terrain look like s/he was on smooth pavement. Excitement filled my being, and the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stood up. I was so darn happy. I thought again of Grandma and Great Grandpa. I thought of and thanked my bride for supporting my love of mountain biking. I offered thanks and spoke it on to the air to my mountain biking friends–old, new, and those still to come. The bear kept running and then I lost it in the trees, s/he giving way to the Warwasseeta Forest.

You can find the Nantahala & Pisgah National Forest Maps at the USDA Forest Service website

You can read more from James Murren’s travels on his website, jamesmurren.com.