The Ultimate Southern Mountain Bike Road Trip

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Bikes, brew, and barbecue fill this 3-state, 4-day adventure through Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.

Road and trip. Two words that, when combined, conjure visions of wide open spaces, highways without speed limits, and tumbleweeds. Yeah, definitely tumbleweeds. But there's a problem with those fantasies: They're all set in the American West. And while most mountain bikers' dreams are dominated by 2,000-foot loamy descents and desert slickrock, we mustn't forget about the epic riding–and arguably superior culture–of the great American South.

The comfort food, the brimming hospitality, the lush rolling landscapes–these uniquely southern qualities lend themselves to both on- and off-bike enjoyment to the Nth degree. So forget tumbleweeds and think kudzu instead as you prepare for the ultimate southern mountain bike road trip.

Day One: Birmingham to Anniston, AL

Distance: 59 miles // Drive time: 1 hour

Start your trip in Birmingham, the heart of Dixie singletrack and a culinary destination recently ranked No. 1 on Zagat’s list of Next Great Food Cities. The airport is a breeze to navigate and less than one hour from Alabama’s buzzworthiest trail network. First, though: Indoctrinate yourself to Southern foodways in Avondale, a neighborhood exploding with local eats. The Pork n’ Greens plate at SAW’s Soul Kitchen is a hot mess of turnip greens layered atop grits, piled high with pulled pork, and crowned with golden-fried onion rings. It’s a feast, but save room for the banana pudding.

In the Appalachian foothills between Birmingham and Atlanta, the city of Anniston is expanding a network of IMBA-designed singletrack at the 4,000-acre Coldwater Mountain. This Bronze-level ride center features 24 miles of stacked loops that mix pumpy sections with mellow climbs and yield a disproportionately generous helping of downhill whoop. The network has two trailheads at the foot of both sides of the mountain.

Park at the Anniston trailhead and climb Tortoise and Chilhowee to Rock Slot, a feature that’s less technical than it looks. Blast down Bomb Dog, a frisky downhill with plenty of optional air that was named for Floyd, a beloved local pet. At the bottom (the Cold Springs trailhead) visit the Mama-, Papa-, and Baby-Bear loops for a flowy interlude. Then climb back over the mountain and zip down the doubles and snappy berms of Hare.

 

The Rock Slot | Photo: Kim Cross

The best advice a trail sign will ever give | Photo: Katherine Fuller

Grab a post-ride beer and a pimiento cheeseburger at Cheaha Brewery, housed in a former train station. Bed down at the Parker House, a fat-tire-friendly B&B (they have secure bike storage on-site) housed in a well-preserved 1889 mansion.

Day Two: Anniston to Ellijay, GA

Distance: 124 miles // Drive time: 3 hours

Fuel up on the B&B’s home-cooked breakfast, then enjoy the scenic drive to Mulberry Gap Mountain Bike Get-a-Way (don’t forget the time change). This family-run camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains has rustic cabins, fire rings, hot tubs in the woods, showers, and ride-in-ride-out access to Georgia’s IMBA Epic Pinhoti trails.

Pack a snack and prepare yourself for 3,300 feet of climbing on a 23-mile loop that starts on your cabin porch and links Bear Creek, Pinhoti 1, and Pinhoti 1 trails (known locally as “P1" and "P2”). Settle in for an unrelenting 5-mile climb on a scenic gravel forest road (Mulberry Gap also offers shuttles for a small fee). At the top, you can “stop for a photo” (read: recover) at the scenic overview before the trailhead.

Tight switchbacks, creek crossings, and rugged doubletrack define the fast and fun Bear Creek descent (look for the giant Gennett Poplar on the right). Pinhoti 1 begins with a brutal climb that peaks at a 19% grade, but the downhill is worth it—classic Southern-Appalachian singletrack that’s NASCAR-fast, with swooping turns through the Chattahoochee National Forest. Pinhoti 2 is dessert: a swift descent through a tight tree tunnel that feels like the speeder-bike chase in Return of the Jedi.

Back at camp, shower off and gather with fellow guests at “the barn,” a mess hall with a chandelier fashioned from bike parts. Your hosts have prepared a hearty buffet—pulled pork on Friday, beef brisket on Saturday, plus fixins’—and finish with a soak in the streamside hot tub and trail stories around the campfire.

Day Three: Ellijay to Chattanooga, TN (via Ducktown)

Distance: 116 miles // Drive time: 2.5 hours

After breakfast in the barn, get an early start. You can get to Chattanooga in an hour and a half, but the scenic route (an hour longer) offers a bonus ride. After crossing into Tennessee, stop at the Ocoee Whitewater Center, the canoe slalom venue of the 1996 Summer Olympics. The dam-controlled river is often no deeper than a parking lot puddle, but recreational releases create raging rapids before your eyes. Half-day commercial rafting trips are a blast, but you’re here to ride, so sample the IMBA Epic Tanasi Trails on the 6.2-mile Chestnut Mountain Loop.

Tanasi features roots, roots, and more roots. Photo: Steven Durr

Grab a fried bologna sandwich or a chicken fried steak at the Ocoee Dam Deli & Diner (closed Wednesdays), then continue to Chattanooga, an outdoor town with an amazing riverfront and some campy Southern icons (Rock City, Ruby Falls, and the incline railroad). Chatty has tons of great trails, but if you can only pick one, opt for Raccoon Mountain. Crowning a mountaintop, several loops of different distances promise stunning views and overlooks where you can probably See Seven States! without going to Rock City.

Book a private room or a budget bunk at The Crash Pad, a “boutique hostel” that caters to adventure-loving adults. Then, walk to the The Flying Squirrel for a watermelon salad (seriously!), duck tacos, and a memorable craft cocktail (pretty sure you can’t find an Abita Strawater Beermosa back home. Yup, that's a thing and it's as good of a recovery drink as it sounds).

Day Four: Chattanooga to Birmingham, AL

Distance: 163 miles // Drive time: 2.5 hours

Tuck into a Dirtbag Benny (waffle, avocado, bacon, sunny egg, and bourbon molasses syrup) at the Flying Squirrel, then gain an hour on the drive to Oak Mountain State Park, just south of Birmingham. The crown jewel of Alabama singletrack, this 10,000-acre state park has all sorts of amenities, including a lake with SUP and paddleboat rentals, another lake with a wakeboard park on a cable-ski system, guided horseback rides, and a golf course.

Pack heavy snacks or a lunch (no food vendors in the park) and start from the South trailhead. Do a 4-ish mile warmup on Rattlesnake Ridge and the Lake Trail, then embark on the IMBA Epic “Red Trail,” (maps may ID it as Double Oak, but no one calls it that). Now a stacked-loop system, you can choose your own 20- to 30-mile adventure from a robust menu of trail flavors: rock gardens, lung-burning climbs, tight turns through the trees, chunky descents, and pumpy flow trails. A few highlights: Jekyll ‘n Hyde, half rock monster and half roller coaster (best ridden from the ridge down); Thunder and Lightning, a pair of swooping downhill trails with plenty of berms and air time; and Blood Rock, a short-but-famous technical spot on the BUMP Trail known well by local paramedics.

Berms for days on Lightning Trail | Photo: Leslie Kehmeier

You’ve earned a feast at Carrigan’s Public House, a sprawling gastropub with indoor/outdoor spaces and some of the best craft cocktails in town. The pub fare takes a modern twist on Southern classics: jalapeño boiled peanuts, an upscale corndog with guajillo ketchup and cotija cheese, and panko-fried chicken with gouda grits.

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Splurge for a night at the Redmont Hotel, a revamped 1920s hotel in the heart of downtown with a lively rooftop bar and a great location. Rent a Zyp Bike (the nation’s first bikeshare fleet with a few electric-assist bikes) and take a spin through Railroad Park (which beat New York’s Highline for a green-design award) or catch an Uber ride to the nightlife at 2nd Avenue South, Five Points, or Avondale.

In the morning, stop by the Woodlawn Cycle Café to wake up with pour-over coffee. It’s overrun by roadies, but the sweet-potato biscuit with bacon, egg, and white cheddar is a perfect meal over which to start planning another trip to the Dirty South.

Ready to ride? Google Maps has the drive pegged at nine-ish hours and 485 miles.

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