North Carolina Mountains Outdoors
|Linn Cove Viaduct: Keep your eyes on the road|
Often riding atop the very crest of its namesake, the Blue Ridge Parkway treats travelers to clear eastward views of forest, wildlife, and mountain villages, free from fast-food pit stops, billboards, and foggy weather rolling in from the west. This scenic byway stretches from Shenandoah National Park all the way to the Smokies—a good 469 miles through Virginia and North Carolina—and crosses the Tar Heel border at mile 216.9. As you navigate the twisting, two-lane blacktop up and down the valleys and peaks, just remember to keep your eyes on the road. This is especially good advice at mile 304.6, the Linn Cove Viaduct, where the parkway appears to be suspended in midair as it hugs the southern face of Grandfather Mountain (5,964 feet).
What's in a name? The 51-mile Cherohala Skyway looks down on some of the best scenery found in the Cherokee and Nantahala national forests, and it reaches elevations of more than a mile high. Allowing for stops to take in the views—from the churning Tellico River to the giant trees of Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest—allocate about 1.5 to two hours' travel time.
Trading in four wheels for two is a great way to soak up the scenery, but biking the Blue Ridge Parkway isn't for the faint of heart (or quads). The road can be brutally hilly—at its worst, the parkway climbs 1,100 feet in 3.4 miles—with narrow shoulders and wide-load RVs. Fortunately, the experience of pedaling along the spine of the southern Appalachians will help cyclists forget about the strain of their burning legs and the stress of sharing the road.
For an even tougher challenge, sign up for the annual Assault on Mount Mitchell, which finishes at the top of the highest peak in the eastern United States (6,684 feet). This 102-mile ride climbs 6,500 feet in the last 27 miles. What's the payoff for such a lung-busting, gear-grinding, quad-burning ride? Spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and the Pisgah National Forest—not to mention a snazzy finisher's patch.
The popular Cades Cove Loop Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers cyclists views of the valley floor, historic structures, and wildlife (hopefully). To avoid the usual congestion, try pedaling this 11-mile, one-way loop on Wednesday and Saturday mornings in summer, when it is closed to auto traffic—or by the light of a full moon.
Just south of the park, go back in time with a visit to the Oconaluftee Indian Village (www.untothesehills.com), a re-creation of a Cherokee settlement from the 1700s. A mite further south, in Dillsboro, rest your legs with a ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (www.gsmr.com); diesel and steam trains provide a scenic tour along river gorges, across fertile valleys, and into mountain tunnels.
North Carolina's national forests provide mountain bikers with miles of sweet double- and single-track. Head to Pisgah, where the local Outward Bound chapter holds its mountain-biking classes, and enjoy your own refresher course in fat-tire fun. Navigating the seemingly endless network of trails—with enough variety to satisfy a wide range of biking abilities—will exercise both body and brain
Get back to nature with a bike-camping trip in Nantahala. The forest's Tsali Recreation Area, just off of NC 28 near Almond, combines a scenic setting (the backwaters of Fontana Lake), a developed campground, and several challenging loops that you can link together for 40-plus miles of double- and single-track.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication