A fall ride from Asheville to the restaurant on top of Mt Mitchell and back.

In the leaf season, usually mid to late October, the Blue Ridge Parkway is even more beautiful than it is during the rest of the year. This year, on one of my weekly rides to the restaurant on top of Mt Mitchell, I took along a camera so I could share some of that ride with you. It is 35 miles and 6,000 feet of climbing from my house in north Asheville to the top of Mt Mitchell. The restaurant, at about 6300 ft, is several hundred feet below the top (about 6680 feet) on a saddle between Mt Clingman and Mt Mitchell. Mt Mitchell is the highest peak in the eastern USA.

Leaving my back yard, we ride briefly through residential parts of Asheville before heading south up Old Toll Rd. This road climbs part way up Beaucatcher Ridge ( Thomas Wolfe made this ridge famous in ‘Look Homeward Angel’) and then ends at Town Mountain road where our route turns north and finishes the climb. It is a couple of miles from my house to this intersection with 700 or 800 feet of climbing, mostly at 6% or so grade. There is one, several block long, section with a 15% grade on Insbrook Road just before Old Toll Rd.. Even with a 25" low gear on my road bike I usually zig-zag up that hill.

Town Mountain is nearly flat as it runs along the top of the ridge towards Patton Mountain, then it turns east and climbs another couple of hundred feet up the ‘esses’. This part of the route was part of the Tour Dupont when it came through Asheville back in the early ‘90s. It is fun riding down through those esses. After the esses things level off a bit. From that section, you can look across Haw Creek Valley and see the Parkway climbing the other side of the alley. Then, with one last climb bringing the total climbing up to about 1250 feet at 6 miles into the ride, there is a nice two mile, 35+ mph, downhill to the Parkway at Craven Gap. By this route, Craven gap is eight miles and about 40 or 45 minutes from my home.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is great bicycling, although leaf season can bring too many cars and make things unpleasant. This ride was on a weekday and traffic was moderate. Here is a view looking up the Parkway shortly after Craven Gap. This section is also pretty flat until Bull Gap where the Parkway descends briefly and then starts a 10 mile long climb up to Craggy Gardens. Just after the start of this climb you ride though a Tanbark Ridge Tunnel. Here is a shot from just inside that tunnel looking back down the road. There are two other short tunnels on this route, one on either side of Craggy Gardens, but this is the only tunnel long enough to require at least some sort of rear light. I don’t use a front light going through it, but coming down I’ve come (too) close to hitting the wall (at 30 mph...) because I couldn’t see where I was going. The tunnel is almost straight and you can see through it, but it long enough to get rather dark in the middle.

After the tunnel you are in for a pretty steady climb of about 2000 feet in the next 10 miles. Very pretty riding made even more interesting because it goes through several climatic zones with different vegetation. The views are nice too! Several places along the way allow you to see the Parkway far ahead of you. Here is a picture, taken a few miles beyond the tunnel, which shows the Parkway as a small notch it the hill half a dozen miles away. The next picture is of my bike with some pretty scenery in the background. I stop for a rest/food break about 16 miles (and an hour and 40 minutes or so) into this ride. My stopping place is a cut in the mountain which has breathtakingly beautiful colors in the fall. They don’t come across (actually none of these images do) in this medium nearly as beautiful as they are. If you’ve been lucky enough to see some good Elliot Porter prints of fall colors, then these should look like those!

As we continue to climb, we sweep around a valley and pass the road to the Craggy Gardens picnic area. We are now at close to 5000 feet and, a mile or so past that road, we can look back on the way we’ve come and, on this rare clear day, see mountains 50 miles away. Looking the other way , we see the Parkway climbing past a wall of glistening rock. That same rock is covered by a foot or more of ice in the winter.

We are now approaching the notch we saw several valleys ago and the Parkway has a very different look than it did near Asheville. After going though that notch, we head up a long hill that hugs the mountainside near the top of a ridge. You can clearly see this part of the Parkway from I-40 near the town of Black Mountain. It is really pretty awesome to look up there and realize that you have ridden it. The first photograph was taken looking back towards the notch and Asheville from near the Craggy Flats Tunnel. The second was taking looking east form the same spot. After passing through that short tunnel and climbing another few hundred feet, you pass the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center. This is a pretty spectacular place since it is right on top of a mile high ridge with dramatic views in both directions. It is especially dramatic when the weather is quite different on the two sides of the ridge.

There is a second tunnel and a bit more climbing after the visitor center, but then we get a flat section with really great views to the west followed by a 600 ft vertical in 2 miles downhill to Balsam Gap. Of course if, after the long climb up to Craggy, you legs are feeling a bit rubbery, then that long downhill may bring on nagging thoughts about having to climb back up it on the way home. At the visitors center, you had come about 23 miles and climbed about 3,500 feet. That is about a third of the round trip distance to the top of Mt Mitchell and about half of the climbing. Here is a picture of that downhill, looking back from the other side of Balsam Gap.

Climbing out of Balsam gap you actually reach the highest point on the Parkway north of Asheville at about 5700 feet. The view of the valley is incredible. Several thousand feet below and five miles or so away is North Fork Reservoir, which is the Asheville water supply. Here are a couple of shots of the reservoir from different parts of this section of the Parkway.

When you finally turn away from that valley, it is mostly downhill to Rt 128 which goes from the Parkway to the top of Mt Mitchell. It is 30 miles with about 4500 feet of climbing to Rt. 128 from my house. On Rt 128 you have less than 3 miles to go, with 1200 ft of climbing, almost all of which is in a single 2 mile long hill before you reach Mt Mitchell State Park. Then things are much easier for the next two miles and then, if you go to the top, the last half a mile is pretty steep. Here is a shot of the road near the top. That is Mt Clingman in the background with radio antennae on top. This stretch of 128 maintains a pretty steady 10 % grade. It isn’t fun for tired legs, but it is doable and, for me, the thought of a good meal at the restaurant on top is enough to keep me going for the half an hour (I’ve done it in 20 minutes and I’m sure the best Assault folks do it in less than 10...) it takes to cover that 3 miles. Here is a shot taken from inside the restaurant. Nice view!

That little bump on the left is the tower on top of Mt Mitchell

Coming back down Mt Mitchell is a great experience if you like speed. The road that took half a hour going up can be covered in a few minutes going down. It is twisty enough to be challenging at 45 mph and steep enough to make it possible for me to hit near 50 (typically 48) on the fast bits and average about 40 mph from the gate of the state park to the Parkway,

Craggy Dome straight ahead

Once on the Parkway again, the reality of the ride home sets it. There is only 1500 feet of climbing on the way back and 1200 of that comes before you reach Craggy. Those 10 miles usually take me about an hour. Then there is that great 10 mile downhill from Craggy back to near Bull Gap. There is only one brief uphill section in the entire 10 miles. As I’m getting near the end of that section, it is getting to be late in the afternoon. Here is a shot taken a mile or so before I got to Tanbark tunnel. Pretty fall colors in the late afternoon light.

We have one more climb of a few hundred feet after we exit the Parkway at Craven Gap and head up and over the ridge. Then it is almost all downhill to Asheville. Both the esses and Old Toll road are great fun, even at the end of a long hard ride. We've come about 65 miles and climbed over 6500 feet. Time for a good supper and some ibuprophen!