17 January 2012

Best-kept "secrets"

When I first started riding, I remember hearing about Tsali, the trail system outside of Bryson City, North Carolina, nestled just this side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the shores of Fontana Lake. "For a hot minute," as they say around here, Tsali (and with a bit of a stretch, Asheville and the Pisgah National Forest) was mentioned in the same breath as Moab, Big Bear/Canaan and Whistler as must-do mountain bike destinations.

But then something happened. Or rather, multiple somethings. This was a bit more than a decade ago, and while places like Moab and Whistler, along with upstarts like Park City and Tahoe, heavily invested in their summertime "active tourism" infrastructure to bolster their struggling economies, Western North Carolina lagged behind. To be fair, as much as I like Tsali, it's fairly limited in its trail geography. And downtown Bryson City is no Moab. But with not so much imagination, the French Broad River basin, including Asheville, Hendersonville, Brevard and even extended to include Tsali and Boone, sure could have done more with itself, rivaling a place like Whistler as a "I-must-go-there-before-I-die" Mecca for mountain biking.

Instead, the area has languished in relative obscurity. It became a "secret" destination. Now, those "in the know," know what's what. Some of the best riders in the country -- and the world -- sing this area's praises. The Pisgah Ranger District is one of the most visited Districts in the U.S. Forest Service system. The DuPont tract was recently named North Carolina's first-ever State Recreation Forest. Heck, I even remember the first time I heard of Pisgah, following along on Ronsta's blog as he posted a photo of himself, chest-deep with his bike held above his head, fording South Mills River in what I now know is Turkeypen.

But locals here are funny. Mountain folk aren't given to easily part with their secret stash of singletrack. City and county governments have been slow to embrace the lifestyle. It's been less than a decade since the factories closed, and it's taken this long for them to realize the economic potential of active tourism -- and even slower to embrace each other for truly regional planning. (In fact, I would argue they're still behind the 8-ball in a lot of ways -- if you're Asheville and Buncombe County, it's too easy to rest on the influx of blue-hair tourism dollars that accompany being the location of the most massive private home in the country.) The riding is not always visitor-friendly, and can be pretty "epic" in the overused form of the word. And long-time locals here, not of the mountain biking variety, can be loathe to hoards of stinky, baggy-clad, sometimes bearded nature-lovers taking up space in "their" towns.

Thankfully, things are changing. While the name Transylvania County may conjure up images of caped, fang-tooth monsters lurking in every wooded cove, it is instead home to literally hundreds of waterfalls and the charming city of Brevard, gateway to the Pisgah National Forest. The powers-that-be saw fit to do an economic impact study a short while back, and what they found was pretty incredible: Active tourism far exceeded their expectations, and was a key driver in their economy. This built on and gave urgency to a number of projects that were already underway, and moved City and County leaders to focus their energies on attracting even more dollars, with advertisements in mountain-bike-focused magazines like BIKE.

In fact, BIKE chose to base their 2012 "Bible of Bike Tests" in and around Brevard. Over the course of two packed-agenda weeks last autumn, a crew of wreckers hit the trails at DuPont, Pisgah and Beech Mountain (Boone), riding this year's whips in back-to-back runs on some of the most fun trails we have. Admittedly, even Ridgeline will get "boring" after the 15th time in a row, so they also headed deep into the Forest for a session on Farlow Gap; which, afterward, one of the testers said to me that night at dinner with a reverent tone, "is really world-class, mate."

That issue has now hit the newstands, and last Friday the County held a "coming out" party of sorts. By all accounts, mountain biking was represented -- but mountain bikers weren't the only ones excited by the exposure. The very next day, this past Saturday, was also the first volunteer day on the Bracken Mountain Trail -- which, when completed, will literally link downtown Brevard with "Big Pisgah" on a ribbon of widetrack that will be anything but a "paved" multi-use path. I was there on the work crew, with its diversity of volunteers (mountain bikers, hikers, others), and am more excited than ever to do a big loop, now that I've seen the views and what an awesome trail layout it's going to be.

In fact, after the work day, I headed over to the Fish Hatchery to ride the other side of the mountain, and discovered another "secret" gem: Forest Road 475C, which will link the City with the Forest, was one of the most breathtaking rides I've done in a long, long time. At one point, just 15 minutes up from the Hatchery, you hit a bend that offers an incredible view of John Rock on one side and Looking Glass Rock on the other, with the Forest spread out around you, rising to the peak at Pilot Rock above Farlow. Forty or so minutes later, I topped out in an almost Alpine setting, alone for all the world just below Catpen Gap, in a clearing with an old fire pit and a goat-trail connection to the Art Loeb. The ride was double-track, but was double-track a la Pisgah ... which, if you know what I mean, is worth every ounce of sweat you've got.

I'm proud to call this area my home. I'm excited that the Southeast arm of IMBA, known as SORBA, is working hard in the region to push forward a pro-mountain biking agenda with local and national land managers. I'm doing my part on behalf of Cane Creek, SORBA and myself to work with local politicians and business owners to realize the potential of the resources we have at hand. I'm psyched that our little part of the Appalachians is once again being recognized for what it is: One of the best places in the world to ride a mountain bike. We have our challenges ahead of us, to be sure, and opportunities will be hard to come by in some respects. But we also have a new/old group of leaders putting in the work and rebuilding bridges that have been burned, a renewed sense of purpose, and momentum. It's no secret anymore, we've paddled out and grabbed the wave, and now it's time to stand up and start ripping.

It's gonna' be an awesome ride.


Rick said...

Well put Chris. I moved here a year and a half ago because of Pisgah. It has always been my "secret" destination of choice, and I finally have a home that I absolutely love. I'm excited about the recognition Brevard especially is getting, and even more excited about the construction of the trail that is almost literally in my back yard. I'll need to go hit 475C soon.

1speed said...

Back in 2005, I took a solo road trip to Asheville to ride in the region because I'd heard that it was someplace I'd really enjoy. I've ridden all over the country, usually in places "off the grid", so the idea of driving 9 hours to hunt for singletrack was right up my alley. During that week, I rode Tsali, multiple sections of Pisgah (including a trail near that Fish Hatchery) and DuPont, and basically did so by finding them on a map, driving to the general area, hopping on my bike and riding into the woods. Compared to other place I've been, I'd have to say that only one ride I ever did exceeded the experience I had in your area (and that was a ride I did in the back country above Sedona during the peak time of year there in early May.) The Asheville region has something for everyone - Tsali is tame and fast, DuPont is crazy variable with some of the best views I've ever experienced, and the Pisgah rides left me wrecked, tired, hungry and smiling ear-to-ear. It's really cool to see how the locals like yourself appreciate what you've got! Enjoy!

clay said...

I wonder how, or if, you linked up 475C into a loop. There are a few mandatory hiking options for loops up there.

Chris said...

@Rick: I knew it was time to leave Chicago when I was sitting on the tarmac in Monterey, CA, thinking "Now I *have* to go home." Since moving here, it's "I can't WAIT to get home!" ... even from Monterey.

@1Speed: I can imagine Sedona is pretty awesome. I can't wait to get up there -- my experience has been in PHX and a bit in Tucson. And yeah, we know how good we've got it!

@Clay: Funny you should mention -- I talked to my boss yesterday, and he remembers a ride about 15 years ago that went up 475C and ended on Butter. Yeah, you can do it -- but yeah, you'd be on Art Loeb for a while, which is now hiking (and probably was then, too.) A pipe dream of mine would be to see a non-pavement connector from the Ranger Station to the Hatchery -- there's a road (FS5062) that goes out the back of the Work Corps and gets within 400 vertical feet of 475C right below the intersection of 475C and Art Loeb. Think about what a loop that would be!

Rick said...

When the Forest Service sent out a letter regarding the connector trail they're going to build between Bracken and 475C, I suggested a second connector over to 5062. I was shot down because it was beyond the scope of the scoping letter, but I think that would be a great option.