Pisgah National Forest encompasses more than a half million acres – if you’re in the mountains in Western North Carolina, chances are you’re probably in Pisgah. While I’d personally love to ride every trail there is in this mountain biking wonderland, for the purposes of this article I decided to stick to “Pisgah Proper,” known more formally as the South Pisgah Ranger District.
Pisgah is full of technically challenging mountain bike trails, and I’ve ridden all four of these trails at least a couple times. I confess it had been a while so I decided the most efficient way to freshen up my knowledge and snag some pictures was to gather a crew and ride all of these trails in a day (with the help of some combustion engines). With that in mind, I’ll list these trails in the order we rode.
Farlow Gap/Daniel Ridge
You can’t shuttle all of the 5.5 mile climb up to Farlow Gap, but if you’re planning a full day in Pisgah you’ll be forgiven for driving as much as possible and minimizing your early gravel grinding. Leave a car at the intersection of FS 475 and FS 137 by the Davidson River where Daniel Ridge emerges from the woods. Head up 475 and take a right on FS 229, also called Pilot Mountain Road. Stop when you get to a gate and continue pedaling up Deep Gap until you see the entrance to Farlow on your right.
Right off the bat, the bottom drops out of this legendary trail. Expect a steep, root-filled descent that only gets steeper and rockier. Eventually, it feels like you’re riding down a dry creek bed, because you are.
After the first (and easiest by far) of several creek crossings, you’ll want to buckle up for the next few features. These abrupt horizon lines definitely warrant taking a look before you leap.
Farlow is known as the most difficult trail in Pisgah, and you don’t hear a whole lot of argument to the contrary. Still, while it’s not likely to become your main squeeze thanks to the gravel grind and the apparent lack of “flow,” this trail is something special. Besides the challenge of the 1,800 foot descent in just 3 miles, riders are rewarded with old-growth trees, beautiful waterfalls, and uninterrupted wilderness.
After a steep staircase and a few more switchbacks, take a right at the intersection with Daniel ridge and enjoy an extra 1.8 miles with 600 feet of descending. Not a bad start to the day.
Laurel Mountain/Pilot Rock
To earn the descent on Pilot Rock, you’ll have to climb Laurel Mountain first. While the trail isn’t particularly steep until the end, it climbs an impressive 2,530 feet over its seven-mile course, so it’s a good idea to pace yourself.
Once you’ve done your time and suffered up the mountain, you’ll enjoy an unbroken descent with memorable features and fantastic views of the forest.
When you come to Pisgah, be sure to bring a bike that can take a beating. In spite of our own precautions, our day saw a broken spoke, a bent rim, and a shattered derailleur. On the other hand, we were all intact, and you can’t ask for much more.
After Pilot, we followed Yellow Gap Road to FS 476 and began to climb. South Mills River gave way to Buckhorn Gap, allowing us to experience one of Pisgah’s best trails in its entirety.
Upper, Middle, and Lower Black Mountain
The bottom section of Black Mountain is the most frequently ridden, which isn’t surprising since it’s the most accessible. The problem is, that route cuts out some of the best parts of the ride, including the incredible view.
From Buckhorn Gap, expect to climb another 600 feet on Black Mountain followed by a misleading downhill and another 250 feet or so of climbing.
The summit is a great place to fuel up and prepare for one of the best trails in the forest. The descent starts by meandering through dense tunnels of rhododendron, but the bottom quickly drops out.
When the rhodo clears, enjoy dropping two- and three-foot ledges back to back to back as fast as your suspension can keep up.
Eventually, a gravel road comes in from your right. Continue straight and climb around 200 feet to begin your descent of Middle and Lower Black. You’ll quickly realize why Lower Black is one of the most popular rides in the woods. The majority of its length is fast and flowy, and there are a number of berms that help riders keep up speed. Don’t be surprised when you cross one or two chunky sections — these are just there to remind you that you’re in Pisgah.
At the bottom of Black Mountain, we hopped in the truck for the finale. Bennett Gap is perhaps my favorite trail in Pisgah, descending 1,400 feet and climbing just 250 feet in 3 miles. If you’re looking to maximize your time in the saddle, the pedal up Avery Creek Road is long but the grade is fairly relaxed. At the end of our day, we were more than happy to hitch a ride.
The beginning of Bennett is particularly unique as the trail seems to disappear through an overgrown field.
After riding through the vegetation, you’ll reach an overlook that offers a spectacular view of the east face of Looking Glass Rock.
Of the four trails on this list, Bennett Gap is the most rideable. That being said, there are two crux moves that will keep even advanced riders on their toes. The first is a steep, rocky switchback with two main line options. The left side is steeper but gives riders the straightest path through the turn, while the right is a more gradual descent, albeit one where trials skills will come in handy.
After more fun descending, the trail makes a sharp left turn with a steep dropoff behind it. It’s a good idea to hop off and walk down the hill to take a look at the second significant drop. A tricky entrance slows you down right before a 3-4 foot ledge, and a tree in your landing zone means you have a limited runway for decelerating.
After this feature, a little more climbing leads you to the final descent on Bennett, where four or five pedal strokes at the beginning will get you all the way to the bottom. After a long day we were eager to get out of our riding clothes, so we stopped at a pulloff to freshen up in the chilly Davidson River. Even if you’re heading somewhere bike-friendly like The Hub to grab drinks or food, if you smell like we did, the people around you will no doubt appreciate this gesture.
These four trails are certainly some of the best in Pisgah, but they’re still just the tip of the iceberg. It would take years to explore the incredible variety of riding opportunities in the area, and there’s something for bikers of every skill level to enjoy. Whether you’re in the neighborhood of Western North Carolina or planning a trip from around the world, come ride with us for as long as you can. I guarantee you won’t regret it.
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