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