In the mid-1930s Congress decided to share the miracle of electricity to the savage hillbillies of Western North Carolina (e.g., my family). To do this they dammed-up and tamed the last of the wild free-flowing rivers and built a series of peaceful and picturesque concrete hydroelectric dams. After completing the dams and seeing that the hillbillies no longer needed electricity because their homes were submerged under 150 feet of frigid mountain water, the government decided to send the electricity across the state line into Tennessee and give it to an aluminum company to make beer cans. They also sent some to Nashville to fuel America’s most important industry, country music, because you can’t drink beer without country music. Although homeless, the hillbillies were happy because now they had lakes to play in and they had learned a new word, corporatocracy. It was what aluminum company executives called a win-win situation.
Anywho, what we are left with today are some pretty nice lakes and some scenic road riding around said lakes. One of my favorite road rides here in the Smokies is an absolutely beautiful stretch of road from the foot of Fontana Dam, slicing its way between the lake and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park till it reaches the tip of the Dragon’s Tail. By Dragon’s Tail, I’m speaking of ‘The Tail of the Dragon’, a famous and dangerous twisty-turny road (318 turns in 11 miles) where motorcyclists and sports car-er-ists come to challenge their skill and bravery. The trees along this road are festively decorated with car, motorcycle and body parts. Despite being so close to the Dragon, this mountain lane sees little traffic and is relatively flat considering it’s skirting the GSMNP. Not to say there isn’t any climbing, there’s plenty from the Twenty Mile ranger station up to Deals Gap. Enough to kindle a small fire in your thighs, but a series of switch-backs makes the climb manageable for most riders.
This ride is about 22 miles round trip. For extra credit (24 miles round trip) start and end on top of the dam, but be careful. The steep road winding snakishly (yes, I do like to make up my own words; why do you ask?) from the top of the dam to the foot of the dam is just about as dangerous as it gets. For extra-extra credit do a loop around Yellow Creek and experience the steepest paved road in North Carolina – see my Yellow Creek ride post.
Today’s post-work ride into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park ended with the first crack of lightning popping the ground not far from where I’m riding. As I’m whizzing back down the mountain into Bryson City, I’m thinking how nice my Darwin Award will look on my wife’s mantle as her and her new husband Carlos burn through the last of my life insurance.
Spectacularly beautiful Lake Junaluska marked the start and finish of this awesome ride. I chose the shortest ride option, the Rabbit Route, and I was impressed with how well my recently reconstructed knee performed. The Rabbit Route is only 25.8 miles but with 1200 feet of elevation gain, 7% and 12% up and down grades, it’s a challenging ride. But not so challenging that a fit beginner with some experience in the mountains couldn’t handle. The rest stops along the way were very well staffed and stocked. This is one of the best laid-out and organized rides I’ve done and it passes through some beautiful countryside.
For me, what made this ride great was connecting with old friends and making new ones. Kent, owner of Motion Makers Bicycle (located in Sylva and Asheville, NC) was wrenching at the start and the first rest stop. Kent built both my road bikes and if you do any organized ride in the area, it’s not uncommon to see him repairing injured and maladjusted bikes.
I also ran into Russ and Laura the Path Less Pedaled people. This inspiring couple spent some time with my wife and I on their last trip through our area. Those of you who have been around awhile will remember Russ as The Epicurean Cyclist. Although not much has been posted there lately, it’s still up and makes for some great reading. And be sure to check out The Path Less Pedaled if you’re not already following. I’d guess about 99% of the cycling world must follow their blog, so Dude, don’t be a 1 percenter.
The starting queue is as usual broken into blocks of riders according to how fast they think they ride. The 40-50 mile-per-hour, zero percent body fat, determined glare in their eyes guys up front and the 0-5 mile-per-hour, cotton t-shirt wearing, picture-taking happy-go-lucky gleam in their eyes folks in back. I’m in back. You meet interesting people in back and since there’s no rush to set a personal best, you have time to chat. I met bicycle adventurers and authors of The Practical Guide to Bicycle Touring, Ben Owens and Jason Sickle. I knew immediately they were bicycle adventurers because out of the 400 or so riders, they were the only ones with panniers; a bold statement to make in a sea of carbon racing bikes.
I had promised Zeke, of Zeke’s Great Smoky Mountain 2 Wheeled Adventure, to look him up before the ride, and I looked, but no Zeke. I finally spotted him yonder-end of the mass of riders as we were rolling out. “Hey Zeke!” followed by a “Hey Jack!” and that was about it. Zeke is one of the organizers and volunteers of this event as well as a newspaper journalist and a fellow bike blogger. He reports on the bike-beat in the beautiful mountains of Haywood County. He is also a co-worker and a legend in the field of Mental Health and Substance Abuse. So he’s a good guy to know if you become addicted to something.
The Blue Ridge Breakaway would make a great addition to a Smoky Mountain Vacation. So mark your calendar for the 4th Annual BRB and hopefully I’ll see you there. Jack
Long, straight, flat and swampy describes this trail perfectly. Named for General James A. Van Fleet, a commander in both World Wars and the Korean War, the trail slices through the Green Swamp. Stop for more than a minute and mosquitoes will suck pints of blood from your body. I would have taken more photos but really it’s what you don’t see that makes a swamp interesting. It’s the creepy things lurking just under the surface of the black brackish water, the unseen slithering creatures, that make a swamp a swamp.
Aside from some buckling, the pavement is in good condition and services (restrooms and water) are located at either end and at the ten mile marker. At 29.2 miles one way, with only one curve in the whole trail, this is a good one to hammer out some fast mileage or meander along and spend the day bird and alligator watching.
Mileage: 58.4 round trip
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate (moderate only for the remoteness of some portions of the trail)
Environment: Like I said, it’s a swamp.
Thanks for reading, Jack
About thirty-miles southwest of Orlando is the smaller and a bit more suburban Lakeland, Florida. The Lake to Lake Bicycle Route winds its way through well kept neighborhoods and around five lakes. Begin this short day tour at Lake Hollingsworth then visit lakes Hunter, Mirror, Wire and Parker. The route is well marked and road conditions are smooth for the most part. There is one short brick section of road but it is in good condition.
Difficulty: Super easy
Add more mileage by doing a few laps around Lake Hollingsworth. The “trail head” is a municipal park located on Lake Hollingsworth Boulevard just south of Beacon Road. Facilities are limited to a water fountain and porta-potties.
More to come, Jack