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It’s truly a gift to be able to Escape the Dreary Confines inside the city of Richmond.
On New Year’s Eve, Lucaca and I decided to check out a ride listed on Mtbproject.com as Mineshaft via Bobblet’s Gap. It started with a scenic drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Bobblet’s Gap parking area, which would be our starting point for the day.
Upon arrival, the temperature was 32 degrees, but the wind was howling making it feel way colder. We put on and/or packed all of the layers we had and hit the trail.
The route starts with about a mile of downhill along the Glenwood Horse Trail before reaching the singletrack entrance of the Mineshaft section, which is a hard right and starts out very steep. A blessing in disguise, the hike-a-bike up that section helped warm us up. Upon reaching the switchback, it turns back to the left and levels off and the fun begins.
For several miles, the trail follows the contour of a narrow gauge railway bed that was used to mine iron ore during the Civil War era.
The loop we followed required a fair amount of road riding, both paved and dirt, and the last 5+ miles is uphill before passing the Mineshaft trailhead and returning to the parking area.
In all, it’s just shy of 13 miles with about 1800 feet of elevation gain, and most of that is on the road. Even with all the road riding, I would do this route again. However, I would recommend parking at the Pico Rd parking area, getting the climb out of the way first, and finishing with miles of wonderful, mountain singletrack and an awesome descent.
This past weekend, MS and I headed back out to the GWNF to complete the route we had originally planned to do on the same weekend as the SM100. I had estimated the route to be about 30 miles but, by comparison, I had also expected it to be “easier” than the Elliot Knob fire tower route. One of my main goals of this route was to check out the new work on the Wild Oak (FS 716) trail up to Dowell’s Draft (FS 650).
We pedaled out of the Braley Pond Day Use area at 8:37 AM Saturday and headed up FR95 to the Wild Oak trailhead. It was cool with heavy overcast, drizzle, and everything was wet. Back home, it was a no-ride day, but as we would soon be reminded the mountains are a great alternative when it’s a little wet out.
The new route up Wild Oak to Dowell’s Draft is amazing. I’ve only climbed up to Dowell’s Draft one time before, and it was on the old trail that went straight up the fall line. It was grueling and, unless you are a glutton for punishment, not a whole lot of fun.
After a few miles of beautiful, flowy, bench cut climbing, we arrived at the intersection of the old Wild Oak trail and the Betsy trail. Turns out the old Wild Oak trail at that point is the “death drop” that was the final push to the Dowell’s summit the last time we did this. Oh, and it’s also a section that MS wanted to descend last time and for which he has been laying on the guilt trip for a couple of years.
Well, he finally got to cross it off his list. While I chilled out near the bottom, he pushed up and up and up and then descended the steep and gnarly terrain with a steep and gnarly grin on his face. Now, can we move on?
(it’s steeper than it looks – and that’s not the steep part)
After the much needed diversion, we took the half-mile, half-track called Betsy trail (aka Magic Moss) up to the top of Dowell’s Draft and hung a left. New trail work climbed up for another mile or two, but it was more sweet bench cut trail with occasional rock work thrown in for good measure. As we climbed, I could hardly wait to descend it, but I would have to.
The new trail fizzled out and we transitioned to the old school singletrack, which descended softly toward the Hankey Mountain trail (425). It leveled off in dense forest socked in with fog which reduced visibility and created an eerily beautiful setting.
We exited into open fields and the singletrack soon turned into fire road. While fire road sections are usually greeted with disdain (as this was), we would soon find ourselves descending some of the most fun fire road. Ever! Of course, we’d pay for it later.
We descended Hankey Mountain Trail to Lookout Mountain. The beginning of Lookout Mountain is more fire road before turning to singletrack and includes some climbing, but once things get going it is an absolute blast of undulating rocky singletrack with interesting rock features followed by ridgeline riding and ending with an aggressive rocky descent down to the North River. Wow, that was a long sentence.
The next several miles are, unfortunately, on paved road as we followed FR95 past Todd Lake and around to Leading Ridge Rd. The road turns to gravel here has you head toward the Staunton Dam. Just passed the North River Campground is the Hankey Mountain Trail, which is a fire road climb back up to the Lookout Mountain trailhead where we hung a right and started backtracking toward Dowells Draft.
At this point, we were about 30 miles in and the climbing required on the road/fire road section had taken its toll. And we weren’t done. Hankey Mountain trail from Lookout to Dowells is a grind, and we found ourselves off the bikes pushing.
Getting to the open fields at the top was another small achievement and good for morale. We re-entered the dark forest, and took a refueling break before making the short-climb up to the reconnect with the new trail work above Dowells. Upon making that left-hand turn and seeing the new soil brought huge smiles with the promise of several miles of downhill goodness.
The descent of the new work was as awesome as expected and in just a blur we were at the top of Dowells, where we took out last (planned) break of the day. The sun was finally out and the beers were still kind of cold. It was all good.
The beginning of the Dowells descent was a rip-roaring good time, but just a minute or two in I heard a noise from behind me. Coming to a stop and looking back I saw nothing. I heard nothing. Oh no, MS is down!
Hustling back up the trail I was relieved to find that it was only a flat. Considering this was the first mechanical of any sort in two outings totaling about 60 miles of rocky, backcountry trail, I’d say we’ve been pretty lucky. After a “quick” change, we surfed down the remainder of Dowell’s.
At 36 miles, my estimate of 30 was on the low side, but I think my estimate that it was not as grueling as the Elliot Knob route was accurate. That’s not to say we didn’t have our moments. Unless you are an SM100 type, this route is pretty aggressive but is definitely doable. All in, it was a 9 hour route. I’d do it again!
Braley Pond >> FR95 >> Wild Oak Trail >> Betsy Trail (aka Magic Moss) >> Hankey Mountain Trail >> Lookout Mountain >> FR95 >> Leading Ridge Rd >> Hankey Mountain Trail >> Dowells Draft >> Braley Pond.
Min Elevation: 1,616
Max Elevation: 3,379
Elevation Gain: 5,220
Mileage: approximately 36 miles
Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.
A week before Labor Day weekend, MS and I had a loose plan to ride on Sunday. That led to a plan to get out of town. Maybe Freedom Park or Walnut Creek. We initially settled on Walnut Creek, which developed into going further West.
So, the plan ended up being to leave crack of dawn and head to Braley Pond. From there, we would explore the recent trail improvements around Dowells Draft and then sort of play it by ear from there.
As we approached the Calfpasture River bridge just before Braley Pond Rd., we saw a makeshift sign that read “Caution Bikes”. MS asked if there was a race today. I responded, “I have no idea”.
Things were quiet in the day-use area where we parked and started to gear up. Just before we pedaled out, a guy pulled in behind us, hopped out of his truck, greeted us and asked if we were here for the race. I replied, “No, there is a race today?” Turns out he was a volunteer and was working the aid station over in the dispersed camping area. “Yes”, he said, “the SM100. There will be about 600 riders out here”. Oh great. Apparently, everybody knows the SM100 is on Labor Day weekend. Everyone except me.
After reviewing the map with our guardian trail angel, we concluded our original plan was toast. We tossed around a few ideas. And then the five words that would shape an epic day were spoken by MS: There is always Chimney Hollow.
Flashback: About a year and a half ago, MS and I set out on a mission to ride from Braley Pond to the Elliot Knob firetower. We didn’t make it very far. You can read all about it here. It was 9:30AM, Plan B was in effect, and we were about to take another shot at it.
As we rolled out toward US Route 250, a sheriff parked at the intersection turned on his lights and got out of his car. We approached casually in the cool mountain air. As we neared, he asked if we were in the race. I replied no, we were trying to get away from the race. He wished us well and told us to be careful. Of course, “careful” is our middle name.
30 seconds later, we were at the Chimney Hollow trailhead. You can read about the Chimney Hollow trail at the link above. When we got to the top where MS took his siesta last time, we hung a right on Crawford Mountain trail (485) and kept going. And going.
Initially, the Crawford Mountain trail was very overgrown. It eventually opened up a little and became more like a fire road in places showing signs of recently being bushwhacked, and we dropped some very steep descents. They were fun at the time, but we would have a different opinion on the return. Before we knew it we were at SR 688 and connecting to North Mountain trail (443). Let the grind begin. Again. Destination: Elliot Knob fire tower. Only the destination was really the mid-point.
North Mountain trail worked us pretty good. Heading south it is mostly ascending, and if that wasn’t enough, there were a lot of extended rocky sections and some ridiculously steep pitches to keep you honest. The final push was a narrow bench cut, off camber rocky section of which the horses had made a mess in a few places. I was fatigued and struggling to maintain momentum and keep my balance, so I ended up walking a lot of it to avoid the risk of falling down the mountain side. Turned out walking only reduced the risk slightly.
The trail finally popped out onto a gravel road underneath several small towers of a transmission station. Oh, and to add insult to injury, the road up was very steep, loose gravel, in full sunlight. Seriously?
After five hours of pedaling and pushing, we arrived at the fire tower. For a short while we relaxed, had lunch, and took in the views before departing the fire tower at about 3PM. Knowing that we would have gravity to our advantage going back for more of the trail than not, we knew it wouldn’t take us 5 hours to get back. I mean, as long as there are no mechanicals or other issues. That never happens in the backcountry…
Heading north on North Mountain trail was a hoot. With really only one gradual climb that I can remember, we were making good time. And having a good time! Once we reached SR 688 and Crawford Mountain trail, we knew we had some work cut out for us. But our memory did not do us any favors. The next 2.6 miles were pretty much miserable. We were tired and running out of water. I probably pushed my bike up at least 75% of this section and at times, it was 10-20 steps at a time, rest, and push again. Miserable, but as I say, it’s all part of the adventure.
With hydration packs dry and a half of a bottle of water between the two of us, we were all smiles when we reached the top of Chimney Hollow trail knowing we had 3.5 miles of downhill left before an easy jaunt back to the Braley Pond parking area. With that said, there is plenty of fast, narrow, bench cut trail and several extended rocky sections that demand every ounce of your attention, so after a day of hard mountain riding it wasn’t a gimmee. It was definitely a hoot though.
All in all, it took us 5 hours to get to the fire tower and 3 hours to get back. We covered 25 miles of steep, rugged, rocky, backcountry. It was an awesome experience that was equal parts awesomeness and demoralization. There are parts I would absolutely do again and other parts I will probably never do again, but am so glad that I did it.
Be careful going in search of adventure – it’s ridiculously easy to find
–William Least Heat-Moon
Been away at the beach for a week. Lots of surf, beer, food, good times and living the beach life. I could get used to that, but today I was back on terra firma and on the bike.
MS was my wingman, or I was his, and we hit up Powhite Park. It’s been a while and as it turns out, we were there a year ago to the day. I can’t help but be intrigued by the cyclical coincidence of that fact.
Bad enough how out of shape I am, but the oppressive heat took it to another level. After a torturously beautiful ride, we dropped by Chesterfield’s own Steam Bell Beer Works.
Beats the hell out of yard work…
Editorial: No updates since January. Man, where has the time gone? I can assure you fun has been had. Without further adieu, here is the beginning of a recap of our most recent mini-adventure.
Well, we did it again. Well some of us did. Ahem. We went to the Mid-Atlantic Mecca of bikes and brews: Pisgah! Agendas varied, but MS, Lucaca and I departed Tuesday night and returned Sunday night. Five days of riding, breweries and shenanigans makes for a lot to talk about, so I am going to do my best to keep it short.
Part 1 – Rocky Knob Mountain Bike Park, Boone, NC
Boone was a bit of an excursion from our primary destination, but well worth the time. Arriving late, we enjoyed some Lap Lap of Luxury and awoke with visions of Rocky Knob Mountain Bike Park.
Hear that y’all, it’s a mountain bike park. We were there back in 2012, but it wasn’t quite finished. It’s a great little trail system that packs a lot of punch, as I would find out the hard way.
The Ride – in pictures
Post-ride in pictures
It was a great start to our mini-adventure. In the PM, we departed Boone for South Mills River group campsite in the Pisgah National Forest. More to come…
Such is winter. People hibernate, I guess even when they have no reason to. This winter has been especially mild though and aside from recent wetness, it’s been a great winter to ride bikes in the woods.
With a wet period upon us now, it’s a great opportunity to give some love back to your trails. And even riding boring old fire roads can have a sense of adventure if you seek it. Plus, it’s a great time to practice riding wheelies.
This is a call to get off your duffs and come out and play. Or work, but our work is more like play, so it counts too.