We have landed in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. After doing several all-nighter drives and checking in on the farm at Serenbe, we have retreated to spring break (vacation, ha) in Highlands. Funemployment continues to have perks.
Staying at the Mitchell Lodge and Cottages with my parents, we’ve explored many of the gravel roads and have climbed more than enough 10-14% grades up mountains. So much for recovery days on terrain like this! Highlands is a place that is super familiar as it’s been a place where my family has vacationed for many springs and summers and it is only about an hour from Clemson where Justin and I went to school. I can recall many a weekend bringing friends up here to visit waterfalls and go on mountain hikes.
I’ve been to Panthertown Valley (dubbed the Yosemite of the East) a few times, once for a day hike, once for a bike ride long long ago, and once on a backpacking trip with Justin and Bosco. It’s a remarkably beautiful 6300 acres full of granite domes, picturesque waterfalls, and many well maintained trails.
After a nice lazy morning, we drove from Highlands for about half an hour to the Salt Rock Gap west entrance of Panthertown Valley. We decided to hike up to Blackrock Mountain with my folks. With minimal foliage blocking our view we could see the distant domes and even found a few garnets in the mica rocks.
As my parents drove away, we pulled our stealth two wheeled machines out of the truck and biked up the same path. Strava’s explore feature led us to a great loop that serious riders like “Yeti” and TNGA finisher Barnabas Froystad have ridden. I enjoy the Strava social fitness website – it helps me to catalog my workouts, analyze my results, and of course get a little giddy when I place well in the various ‘segments’ or ‘climbs’. It helps me to stay focused but I try not to get overly competitive (unless it comes to my used-to-be-local trails). I can see the flip side (as you can read here), but without taking it too seriously and not being a crazy downhill rider I believe the positives outweigh the negatives.
Anyway, after a couple of recent rough experiences with route finding, we studied the map, then another map, and had a cue sheet handy. Only having to stop at a few intersections, our cues worked perfectly and we actually never got off track. Looks like I’m getting my navigation skills back or maybe it’s just because the trails are marked incredibly well. (Thanks Friends of Panthertown Valley!!)
After riding up the mile long climb to the top of Blackrock Mountain we dropped down the only Pisgah-like eroded section of trail that was covered in leaves. Still, no walking and a nice break from the technical rides in Sedona. We turned onto the Powerline Trail which is a grass covered gravel road that has very sweeping turns all in grades that are minimal. Fun and fast. Then turned left onto the Riding Ford trail. This trail is tight to begin with a few downed trees then opens up with some classic grade reversal wide track. We had to slow as a group of cute spring break kids with pruners hiked by. The 20 or so girls were enjoying nature and trail maintenance for their vacation. I thanked them and continued on. The ford at the bottom of this descent is not terribly deep but incredibly slick and wide. We took of our shoes and socks and scooted across then climbed the other side. The climb again was steep but not difficult.
We continued on the Devil’s Elbow trail on the easy and flowy singletrack to another intersection. Heading left at the next major intersection (following the red blazes) we started to gradually climb and go through a few easy switchbacks.
At a gate we headed right across a bridge and a steep eroded climb and to a parking lot. We turned left down the road away from the hiking only trail and took a right onto Mac’s Gap trail. This trail was a ton of fun! Fast and downhill. A sharp right turn down an eroded path (where if you continue straight you can hike to Greenland Creek Falls) leads to a very sandy and deep creek crossing that we hiked through to save our bikes.
The 3.3 mile Mac’s Gap trail was continually fun with rhododendron tunnels, a few climbs, and some great descents. Passing a few hike only trails on the right the trail leveled out and crossed a few wet drainages and eventually came to a 4 way intersection. We headed straight through this intersection onto North Road trail which was a road turned singletrack. It was gravel and sand and very fast. The 1.3 miles flew by and we hung a right to get onto the Powerline Trail and another right onto Panthertown Valley Trail (paralleling the creek that we had seen earlier from about 400 feet higher on the Blackrock Mountain hike). This trail was quite wet but an easy climb and had slick rock outcroppings. Back to the 4-way intersection we were at about 2.5 miles earlier and straight through and up the steep but wide climb. One more right turn and we popped out at our car after a good 14 mile ride with 1700+ feet of climbing in about 1 hour 40 minutes of travel time. Had it not already been after 4 pm we would have done another loop.
I highly recommend this route for anyone that wants a decent length ride in this gorgeous and peaceful place. It was a good length for the time we had and didn’t require any out and back sections or any repeated trail sections. It also rode each trail in which they were designed to be ridden (although it would be fun to try the loop in the opposite direction – probably more challenging).
It’s a nice welcome home to the Southeast as the weather has been perfect – a balmy 68 degrees and not too wet on the trails. It seems like an opposite landscape from the open desert of Sedona – we’ve gone from vast views to a tunnel of greenery.