Road Trip: 11 Days Riding Some of the Best Mountain Bike Trails in the Southeast

Colorado resident John Fisch rides some of the best mountain bike trails in the southeast during one epic road trip.

It had been quite some time since I’d done a major mountain biking road trip, and I’d never done a big one completely solo. When my daughter invited me to see her defend her master’s thesis at the University of North Carolina, I saw an opportunity to string together an epic road trip where I could hit a variety of trails along the way. So I made a dot-to-dot puzzle out of a map, stringing rides together like a popcorn string on a Christmas tree, and with nobody else able to get time off, I would head out alone.

Weather and health willing, this would be the longest road trip of my biking life. My wife was attending the master’s thesis defense as well, but not keen on driving almost 5,000 miles round trip, she caught a flight there and back while I spent the days on the road. With family and work requirements in flux, and unpredictable weather, I had to be flexible, patient, and willing to focus on the journey as much as the destination.

Day 1: Two Local Favorites

A rider finds some air in flat Kansas. photo: Derek Hildebrandt

Passing through Wichita, Kansas gave me the opportunity to get out of the car after seven hours on the road and stretch my legs on a small local system. A narrow, wooded strip of land just off the freeway is home to the Air Capital Memorial Park trail, with roughly two miles of very tight and twisty trail that makes maximum use of the limited space. While there was little mileage or elevation change, the locals have crafted a “quick fix” venue that includes some modestly-technical features and even a couple nicely-bermed turns.

While this is not to be confused with a destination ride, it was well worth a short detour to get there, and the time required to ride it. Since the trail is so short, I did two laps, one in each direction, just to get the full measure of the place

It’s not often one gets the urge to say “Oklahoma Rocks!,” but it certainly does at Tulsa’s Turkey Mountain. photo: SMT

The big surprise of the day was adjacent to my first overnight stop in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  A large preserve in the midst of an urban area, Turkey Mountain has loads of singletrack for all levels of riders.

A long ridge runs between a suburban area of Tulsa and the Arkansas River. This ridge is impressively rugged to say the least. A rather confusing collection of trails runs mostly in concentric ovals around the mountain, with some connector trails in between. The trails range from nicely buffed and level, beginner-friendly paths to exceedingly technical, narrow, and challenging rock fests. Some of the unmarked connectors between trails were especially challenging, looking like a trials course on an extreme tilt.  This is a trail system I would go well out of my way to hit.

Day 2: Monster backcountry in Arkansas

Serious solo mountain biking in Arkansas’ beautiful Buffalo Headwaters backcountry,

Every once in a while, you find a genuine unknown epic; a ride that deserves to be part of mountain biking’s short list but has somehow remained under the radar. The Upper Buffalo Headwaters trail system in Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains is just such a ride. This is true backcountry in the middle of nowhere. It’s in a place I didn’t even know had a middle of nowhere. I’m used to big, remote rides in the great big West, but out east? Color me surprised. Even getting to the trailhead was a bit of an adventure, requiring lots of winding backroads nowhere near any human population.

There are enough miles in the trail system to keep a strong rider occupied for a full day, but what makes the place exceptional is the sheer untamed ruggedness of it. The climbs, while not as big as my Rocky Mountain climbs back home, are no less demanding. The trails are intended for mountain biking but are not groomed or punctuated with mountain biking features. Every pedal stroke requires your attention as well as acceptance for what is as opposed to what might be. It’s all about playing it as it lies, and that ends up being a very satisfying experience.

The woods are thick and the light that filters through the trees makes joyful patterns on the land. The singing of the birds is constant, varied, and uplifting. When I rode, large, colorful butterflies attended my every pedal stroke. Best of all, I rode on a Saturday with perfect weather and didn’t see a single soul on the trails. This is a legitimate destination ride for those with the ambition to get after it.

Day 3: Two more quickies in two more states

Pleasant greenery awaits at Union University. photo:

With Alabama as one of my waypoints, driving from Arkansas gave me the opportunity to add two more states to my riding resume along the way. Like day one, the first stop was a local quickie, the Union University trail system in Jackson, Tennessee. Directly across the highway from this small, private Christian University is about seven miles of twisty stacked loops that fill a very green space on the edge of the city. Other than a few short but sharp climbs, there’s nothing of technical note here. It’s just a few miles of relatively easy but pleasant cruising. This is another trail that’s worth a stop if you’re in the neighborhood.

Leaving Jackson, it was time to drop into Mississippi and head for Tombigbee State Park, just outside Tupelo. As you leave Tupelo, the woods thicken quickly where the state has preserved a beautiful bit of forest surrounding a very pleasant lake. They efficiently pack about nine miles of singletrack into an area much smaller than that would indicate. In fact, I would say they put too much mileage in, as the trail is constantly doubling back on itself. However, it is a nice place to hammer out some miles. The best feature of the park is the rustic but well-appointed cabins that make for a wonderful night’s sleep among the fresh air and cheerfully chirping crickets.

Day 4: A big day in Alabama and Georgia

The rightfully infamous “Blood Rock” at Alabama’s Oak Mountain

Okay, so I overdid it here. I originally was looking for Coldwater Mountain in Alabama and hopefully throwing in a couple of others. But I got time-pressed and realized I could either just ride Coldwater, or ride Oak Mountain, which is Alabama’s top-rated trail on Singletracks and then head to Georgia’s Five Points. I went with the latter, rather than leave Georgia uncovered, and I’m glad I did.

Oak Mountain ended up being bigger and far more taxing than I expected. Add to that some hugely-oppressive humidity that I am grossly unaccustomed to, and that ride ended up being big, and a big drain. The good thing about Oak Mountain’s vastness is that it’s also varied, with everything from warp-speed ripping through the forest to some of the rockiest, most unforgiving gnar I’ve seen an any of the 36 states I’ve ridden.

So fazed, dazed, and down about 10lbs in water weight, I climbed back into the truck and made my way to the northwestern tip of Georgia, determined to get in another ride in spite of my depleted condition. Five Points looked to be a good option as it doesn’t have major elevation gain, and it’s a collection of modest-sized loops where I could tailor the length of my ride to my remaining energy level. I expected to do a couple of quick loops and call it a day, but Five Points ended up being one of the major surprises of the trip.

Despite being mostly non-technical, the trails were a blast. There is a central nexus where many of the loops meet, making the map resemble the outline of the petals of a flower, all radiating from the same center. Every time I returned to the center, I just couldn’t help but head out for another loop. The loops seemed to ride fast, and energize me rather than wearing me out further. This was, no doubt, due to the relative lack of elevation change or serious technical challenge. I put Five Points right up there with my favorite non-technical trails out west.

Day 5: A Tough time in Tennessee

Taking a much needed break from the Raccoon Mountain climb to admire the morning sun fighting its way through the forest canopy.

Before working my way to my ultimate destination of North Carolina, it was time to pop back into Tennessee, this time at the eastern end. After spending the night in Chattanooga, I made an early rise and shine with a trip to Raccoon Mountain. Raccoon is a fascinating bit of geography: a flat-topped mountain with a large lake up top that’s part of Tennessee’s largest hydroelectric facility. A trail system circumnavigates the mountain and provides a few opportunities to ascend and descend its flanks.

Despite its industrial purpose and proximity to a major population center, you get a very remote feel for most of the ride. The three-mile, 1,500ft climb on the High Voltage trail is nonstop brutality. It is tight, it has technical challenges, and it gets heinously steep in places. The trail gives no quarter to the unfit or unskilled rider.

It’s all worth it because when the trail turns down on Live Wire 1, it’s time to strap in and hang on for the trail segment, which just begs to be ridden wickedly fast. By the time your eyes are watering so bad you can barely see, the trail transitions to Live Wire 2, which has enough awkward bits to slow you down to this side of the sound barrier, but will still keep you on your technical toes. The mileage and relentless challenge of this ride was nothing short of exhausting, and so worth it. This is another trail I would go well out of my way to ride again.

Day 6: Abusing myself in the Tarheel State

After spending the night in Asheville, North Carolina, it was time to do my first-ever Pisgah ride. Since it was on the way to my final destination, I selected the Kitsuma trail right off of I-40. This ride is not part of the larger, more famous Pisgah riding complex, but it is still classic Pisgah.

Most people park at the west end, right next to the freeway, which means finishing the ride with a five-mile climb to get back to the truck. I started at the east end, at the low point, ensuring I could finish the ride with the long descent. It was a good choice. That five-mile climb is actually wonderful, as it ascends a paved, nonmotorized greenway at a continually gradual pace, allowing you to soak in the scenery while saving energy.

Then, at the top of the greenway, where the singletrack starts, the climb becomes genuinely brutal.  It’s not technical, but at times it shoots up with such a grade that nothing short of iron legs can ascend it.  Again, in the end, it’s all so very worth it as there are almost five continuous miles of butt-behind-the-seat descending. It’s worth slowing down on the flat sections to take in the blooming laurel that lines the trail. While not part of the core of Pisgah, this is a fully worthwhile ride, made all the more enticing by its convenient accessibility.

Some surprisingly sweet singletrack in the Brumley Nature Preserve.

Upon approaching my final destination of Chapel Hill, I learned that my wife’s plane was delayed, so I had some free time, which meant hitting a couple of local trails. The first, the Brumley Nature Preserve, ended up being a wonderfully pleasant ride on high-quality singletrack.

The last stop before reuniting would be the Carolina North Forest, right in town, which was relatively lacking in interesting singletrack and was a rather anticlimactic way to finish the journey. Given my level of exhaustion at that point, it was probably for the best.

And on the seventh day, I rested

(It was a family day, and not a moment too soon.)

Day 8: The voyage home, back through Asheville

A racer sprints across DuPont slickrock. photo: Greg Heil

On the way back to Colorado I drove down to NC’s top-rated trail system, DuPont State Forest. DuPont has 86 miles of trail, some of which is world-class and some of which is much less interesting. Connecting the goodies requires long connectors or roads. I wanted to maximize the fun factor, so I broke up the ride into two separate sessions, driving between them.

The first ride made a figure-8 incorporating killer descents on the Burnt Mountain trail –that must be ridden clockwise to get the bug-eating grins and avoid a significant hike-a-bike — finishing with the Big Rock Trail, and joined by the Cedar Rock Trail which features DuPont’s famous eastern slickrock. To be honest, the slickrock wasn’t particularly interesting or entertaining, but more like a smooth strip to follow between the vegetation. Even if I’d never been to Moab, I don’t think I would have found this feature reason enough to make DuPont a destination. Big Rock and Burnt Mountain definitely are.

In contrast to the first route, my other route, further north in the park, had DuPont’s best flowy and fast trails, and the popular Ridgeline trail delivered exactly that. In the end, it’s obvious why DuPont has earned its reputation among the very best of the east.

Day 9: Pisgah proper

Some typical gnar from the relentless Pilot Rock descent.

I wasn’t leaving the area without riding one of the classic trails within the Pisgah National Forest, and Laurel Mountain proved to be a superb choice. This is rugged Pisgah. This is vertical Pisgah. This is rocky Pisgah. This is deep, dark forest Pisgah.

There are a number of ways to construct a loop incorporating the Laurel Mountain trail, and none of them are easy. But the actual Laurel Mountain trail by which most folks refer to this part of Pisgah is most often just a means to an end. That end is getting to the top of the Pilot Rock trail.

The last mile of Laurel Mountain approaching the intersection with Pilot Rock is as demanding a mile of trail as you’re likely to encounter anywhere. Once on top, the reward is huge for the confident, skilled rider as the plummet on the Pilot Rock Trail is relentlessly wicked. It is steep. It is loaded with jumbled rocks. It’s narrow. It has many very tight switchbacks. It will force the majority of riders off their bikes multiple times. It is a test piece. I passed the test — if you’re grading on a curve.

Day 10: Back into deep woods Arkansas

One of the gorgeous overlooks in Arkansas’ Syllamo trail system.

This was another Plan-B, but it ended up being a good one. Plan-A was to go north from Pisgah and hit one of my long-time bucket list rides in Indiana’s Brown County State Park. Indiana had been inundated with a full week of steady and heavy rains, rendering all the trails closed. The worst of the rain had not pounded areas further south, so I sprinted back across Tennessee and into Arkansas where I sunk my knobbies into the Syllamo trails.

This trail system, once highly rated in Arkansas, had fallen from favor due to lack of care and lack of use. That care has been picking back up and the trails are once again a worthy destination. There are miles and miles of mostly cross-country oriented singletrack in a positively beautiful corner of the Ozarks, with a few tricky techy segments thrown in. Once again, Arkansas offered me a massive, gorgeous, and varied trail system all to myself on a weekend. Shocking but true, and most welcome.

Day 11: Hitting what I could on the sprint home.

A nice piece of wooded singletrack in eastern Kansas.

After completing Syllamo and spending the night in Bentonville, I was looking forward to hitting one of Bentonville’s now famous rides in the morning before moving on. The area was already wet, once again deluged by another major thunderstorm overnight. It was still raining steadily when I woke, so a local ride was out of the question. Rather than driving home without a final ride or two, I scared up a couple out of the way options in eastern Kansas.

The first was Gunn Park, while modest in scope and challenge, it was nonetheless a pleasant surprise in that little ol’ Ft. Scott, Kansas has managed to pack some quality singletrack into their little park.

Finishing the epic road trip with a surprisingly demanding. Badger Creek in eastern Kansas.

The second ride in Badger Creek was quite interesting. There was a small, treed oasis in the middle of the prairie, which was also covered in blocky rocks, often at the most inconvenient angles. This could have been a technical rider’s dream, but the place retains water well, often making the stretches between the rocks a sloppy mess, and the rocks themselves rather treacherous. It’s the kind of place I might wish to revisit when conditions are better, but only if I’m already in the neighborhood. Just like the trip out, the last ride ended up being rather anticlimactic and, in this case, frustrating way to finish.

Overall, the trip was a huge success as I got to sink my knobbies into a great variety of bucket list rides and obscure trails scattered across eight states. While eastern riding will never supplant western riding as my preference, I always love doing something different, and this was really different! From the mood, to the vibe, to the environment, everything was utterly unique and new to me, and therefore refreshing and joyful. What a blessing to have the opportunity to expand one’s biking horizons in this way.

I gotta’ get back to doing this more often!


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