North to Craggy Gardens

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the top of Craggy Gardens.

Everything suddenly went black.

Well, not black, exactly. More like gray.

The black part only lasted while I was riding through a tunnel on the Blue Ridge Parkway that ended just about one mile distant from the Craggy Gardens Visitor’s Center – my goal for the day’s ride. My flashing white and red lights barely registered in the darkness….but you could make out the light at the end of the tunnel.

You could also see the steep hill – just the latest and hopefully last ascent that would take me up final 300-or 400-feet up to the nearly 6,000 feet elevation point that marked the Visitors Center.

I would have liked to have made it. It was so damned close.

Yet so far away as things turned out.

What happened was that at the top of that final hill I ran into a thick bank of gray fog that was rolling across the top of the mountain.

Now I saw it, now I didn’t.

In fact, I literally couldn’t see much of anything beyond my handlebars. And that’s not a great situation to find yourself in when you are on a narrow, two-lane, twisty mountain road much favored by cyclists, automobiles, motorcycles and RVs.

So, conceding defeat, I turned around and headed back the other way, downhill. Luckily, the fog did not follow me.

The Visitors Center will still be there for some future ride.

And the long, steep, descent between Craggy Gardens and the distant Folk Arts Center – at about 2,200 feet just outside Asheville – is reward enough.

Really, how often do you get to ride at speeds of up to 35-plus MPH (could have gone faster at points, but I get skittish at a certain velocity and start feathering the brakes) for mile after mile? Certainly nowhere in the vicinity of my usual Florida stomping grounds.

Having climbed steadily and doggedly for upwards of two hours, that return ride seemed to fly by in a matter of minutes.

In my previous blog, I criticized the National Park Service’s “ride on the right side of the road” rule for bicyclists on the Blue Ridge Parkway – aka its “suicide by bike” requirement. Which criticism I stand by.

But I also had some not very flattering things to say about cycling the segment of the Blue Ridge Parkway that runs through the Asheville area. That last complaint calls for clarification.

So here goes: There’s nothing wrong with riding the Blue Ridge Parkway out of Asheville, indeed it is recommended – providing that you are headed in the right direction.

In fact, cycling north (in the direction of Mt. Mitchell) on the Parkway out of Asheville is a delightful experience. Beginning at the Folk Arts Center, the climbs are challenging but not especially punishing, the descents are thrilling and the scenery is spectacular. The traffic tends to be light, at least earlier in the morning, and not nearly as intimidating as what you would encounter riding south.

It is riding south out of Asheville (toward Mt. Pisgah) that should be avoided, most especially during the week days. The first several miles is essentially a forested local road which is used by commuters to get to work and back or wherever, thereby avoiding the city’s more heavily trafficked surface roads. You can tell it’s a local road not only by the volume of fast-moving traffic but also by the roadside litter that is all too common along this stretch of the Parkway. It isn’t until after you cross the French Broad River, about 10 miles into the ride, that the trip south begins to seem as pleasant as the trek north. (Ironically, right after crossing the river we saw construction signs advising cyclists to go no further because of loose gravel on the road. Sometimes you just can’t win.)

Judging by the number of cyclists I was able to observe, the locals know this north-south divide very well. Over several days we passed (or were passed) by dozens of riders headed north. Only a hardy few were evident on the one day we ventured south.

And most were headed north for reasons of safety and scenery. The overlooks at Haw Creek Valley, Craven Gap, Tanbark Ridge, Bull Creek, Lane Pinnacle, Potato Field Gap and so on all make for scenic water stops that more than compensate for the hard work involved in riding steadily uphill in the direction of Craggy Gardens.

Listen, I’m a Florida flatlander who does most of my riding at sea level. But this summer I’ve had the opportunity to cycle in the mountains of western Virginia, the uplands of southern Scotland (more about that in a future blog) and on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. All are recommended.

Life’s a journey, folks. Just make sure all of your gears are in working order – not to mention your tires, brakes and flashing lights etc.

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Author: floridavelocipede

A sometime journalist who used to string words together for a living before I retired to run a non-profit cycle touring organization that will henceforth go unnamed, as I have subsequently retired from that career as well. I write a bi-monthly column, theater reviews and an occasional magazine piece for my old newspaper. If I still had a business card it would read: Ron Cunningham: Trained Observer Of The Human Condition. Because like The Donald, you know, ego.

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