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Southern Appalachia Mountain Tour by Bike: 825 Wonderful-Miserable-Unforgettable Miles

Editor's note: Today’s guest blogger, Ching Fu (below), the outreach specialist at the REI Asheville, N.C., store, recounts the soaring highs and chilly lows of her bike tour of the entire Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway last summer.

It had been raining for 3 days straight, and I was ready to just be home. But I had to keep pedaling. The bitter cold rain was an unwelcome surprise, especially since it was July in the southeast and the weather had plummeted from an uncharacteristically high 100 degrees to a freakishly low 40 degrees overnight.

Ching Fu, blog author

Shivering, I had my doubts if I could tough it out to the end.

It was last June when my partner Jerud and I set off with our fully loaded touring bikes to cycle the entire Blue Ridge Parkway, and then some. Bike touring the Blue Ridge Parkway was Jerud’s challenging dream; I was just up for a new adventure. And an adventure it was!

Touring the Blue Ridge Parkway is logistically challenging for cyclists looking to do it as a self-supported ride. The first two things you must decide are which end of the parkway to start on and how to get there.

The north terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway is in Waynesboro, Va., and the south terminus is in Cherokee, N.C., a distance of 469 miles. Since we lived close to the parkway in Asheville, N.C., we decided to complete the tour car-free by taking a train to the northern end.

mountain-vista

We were amazed at how hilly the route was. Every mile was hard earned.

Sounds simple, but this meant riding 75 miles from our house to the closest Amtrak station (Greenville, S.C.), taking the train to Washington, D.C., riding to Front Royal, Va., connecting to Skyline Drive, taking the Blue Ridge Parkway to its end, and riding home. This added 356 miles to the length of the ride, which we were excited about because of the additional challenge.

Old fort

As well as our trip was planned, it’s tough to be fully ready for the unexpected. Our trip started off with record high heat of 100+ degree days. We got stuck on the Amtrak train for an additional 12 hours due to storms in Washington, D.C. and Virginia, and then more record heat, which lasted the majority of our tour.

Our goal was to complete the tour in 17 days. The train delay created a big challenge for us since it set us back by a full day. This meant we had to play catch up on mileage to reach our food resupply that we mailed to ourselves ahead of time.

The storms had caused widespread electrical outages, some that lasted days, which resulted in water shortages on Skyline Drive (electricity is used to pump water up to visitor centers there). Then suddenly, the temperatures dropped down to the 40s and it rained for almost 4 straight days towards the end of our tour.

drying-clothes

We took every opportunity to dry out our wet gear.

Jerud and I never discussed bailout options because we knew if we stopped we would regret it forever. But I thought about it.

That afternoon in the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center was the third day of rain. Soaking wet and shivering, we sat in the rocking chairs staring out at the downpour. We were at 5,500-foot elevation and I was really worried about the next 18 miles of downhill in the cold rain with wet clothes on.

Jerud shows the route

We were only 105 miles from the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, but also only 30 miles from the turn off to the road that would lead us home. I remember sitting there and wondering how tempted I would be to turn off the parkway and ride home.

I didn’t. The next day the rain stopped for good. The clouds lifted as we rode towards the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway and the sky was a brilliant blue. I had never been to that section of the parkway before. After days of clouds and rain, the sun made everything seem so much more vivid and green. The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful.

So the adventure I had signed up for, I got! The tour was miserable, challenging, beautiful, and worth every pedal stroke we took during the 825 miles we rode.

in-the-clouds-1

After days of clouds and rain, the sun made everything seem more vivid.

The thing about bike touring is that life becomes so simple: you wake up, eat, pack up, ride, take a break, eat, ride, find a place to camp, eat, sleep and repeat. You get to enjoy the scenery at a slower pace, hear branches break as deer and black bears run through the forest, stare in awe of the wildflowers along the side of the road, and wake up outside everyday.

Berries

Our tour took us along the ridges of the Shenandoah Mountains while we were on Skyline Drive and through the Appalachian Mountains while on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

What surprised me, despite having driven on the Blue Ridge Parkway many times, was how hilly the parkway and Skyline Drive were by bicycle. Every downhill was hard earned!

While the 2 scenic highways are extremely popular with road cyclists and we saw numerous riders during our journey, we only came across one other bike tourist like us towards the end of our trip.

blue-ridge-celebration

A stop at the highest point of the Blue Ridge Parkway (and of the entire route).

My bike hauled me all those miles with my stinky previous day’s clothes tied to the top of my panniers drying in the sun and wind. We learned to either cook our dinners at lunchtime or simply eat them as lunches because we could take advantage of the places we were that could give us hot water to cook with.

Gentle curve in the road

The trip had so many memories: the sound of spokey dokes on my wheels notifying me when I dropped to less than 3 mph was disheartening; a spoonful of chocolate and peanut butter can make an endless hill seem doable; cheers from motorcyclists as we climbed up that endless hill were a welcomed surprise; having a stranger wave us down to make sure we were taking the best route was unforgettable; a camp counselor who stuck her head out off a moving van while it was pouring down rain to applaud us made me tear up; sharing a sunset with AT thru-hikers and their dog was incredible.

Perhaps best of all, realizing that I’m tougher than I thought was pretty cool.

Interested in doing a fully supported, 4-day ride in this area? Check out REI's Blue Ridge Parkway Cycling trip.

rest-break

A well-deserved rest break. All photos courtesy of Ching Fu.

Posted on at 10:00 AM

Tagged: Bike Commuting & Touring, Blue Ridge Parkway, Cycling and Skyline Drive

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marribikeboatboard Staff Member

Great story, thanks for sharing, you are so tough, i know I would have bailed
Love the picture in the air

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