Monday, January 20, 2014

Mountain Biking - Kimsey Mountain Highway, Cherokee National Forest

Trail conditions have been terrible over the past couple of weeks in the Southern Appalachians due to very cold weather with cycles of rain interspersed. This results in freeze-thaw cycle that prevents the trails from drying out properly. Basically the soil freezes every night, then thaws into mud during the afternoon but refreezes before it can dry out. People have been riding trails anyway and tearing up the surface. I decided the MLK holiday weekend was a good opportunity to get out and investigate some forest service road that I've been wanting to ride for several years: Kimsey Highway. It would allow me to ride something other than pavement yet not tear up any trail.

The Kimsey Highway was built almost a century ago by a local doctor who wanted to open up a new route from the Tennessee River valley into the Blue Ridge mountains. The result was a primitive gravel road running from near Reliance, Tennessee to near Turtletown, Tennessee, running along the flanks of Little Frog Mountain, one of the more prominent peaks of the region. The road has never been paved and is believed to be more or less in a similar condition to when it was first opened. Although bad by contemporary standards for vehicle traffic, I found it be pretty typical Forest Service Road. It now runs through Cherokee National Forest and is a truly remote region of wilderness.

I drove up the paved parts of Kimsey Highway until I hit the true gravel Forest Service Road 68 and parked at gated Fire Road 50561.

I started out on what for me was the near side, just off Highway 30. I studied my topographic map of the area carefully but the contours were only just sufficient to show me that I could expect a good bit of climbing. I did not plan to ride the entire length as it would have involved climbing nearly 2000 feet both ways, not something I thought I would be up for given my low fitness level of mid-Winter. In fact, riding even half amounts to riding to near the crest of Little Frog Mountain and is almost continuous climbing for over 6 miles, with only a couple of respites.

This small waterfall was easily visible from the road. The photo is zoomed a bit though.

I was pleasantly surprised by ample opportunity to view the landscape. Normally gravel Forest Service Road in this part of the country does not provide a lot of opportunity for overlooks and scenic points, but somewhat by coincidence of terrain and an extra-wide power line cut that runs through the area, Kimsey Highway has a number of good places to look at the mountains.

The best views were at the extra-wide power line cut.
This view is off towards the Ocoee River Gorge. I have encountered these particular power lines before when I hiked part of the Benton McKaye trail from the Ocoee up into the mountains. I never quite made it all the way to Kimsey Highway though.

Temps at lower elevations were quite pleasant for mid-January, reaching the mid-50s Fahrenheit, but I started to see ice somewhere around 2000 feet or above and the air temps were slightly too cool for comfort given my clothing choices, even with the continuous climbing. I had to avoid a few patches of ice in the road surface and there were plenty of icicles on rock outcrops and boulders.

Icicles somewhere above 2000 feet.

I had noticed some small orange signs alongside the road since I started but didn't process what they were until I got all the way up to the crest of the climb (or near it anyway) when I saw a manhole cover, which at first had me flabbergasted, then I put the two together. There is a buried cable running the entire length of the highway. Manhole covers are a strange thing to see in the middle of a wilderness on a primitive, rocky gravel road.

A mostly buried manhole cover. You can't see it on this one but the others had an AT&T logo on them. Telecommunications I presume, if in fact they are still in use.
A framed view from near the high point of Kimsey Highway. I think this is somewhere around 2800 feet above sea level.

I turned back when I was pretty sure I had crested the mountain and hit my time limit of 3:30 pm. The ride back down was extremely fast with the only inconvenience being the cold wind on my face. It caused me to limit my speed at the cost of some brake pad thickness I'm sure. There was one significant climb about halfway back down which had been the only respite to the climb on the way up that served to warm me up. The air temperatures also moderated nicely and the difference between the top of the road and the lower part of the road where I started was more noticeable due to the quick descent. Before I knew it I was back at my car.

I have to say I was fairly impressed with the ride and the scenery on Kimsey Highway and wouldn't mind riding it all the way through sometime. I'm not sure I'll ever be in good enough shape to do that as an out-and-back, which must come to around 25 miles and 4000 feet of climbing, but maybe I can get a friend to come along and we can set a car at both ends.

Here is the Strava.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Hiking the George Disney Trail

I took advantage of clear but cool weather to get out for a hike on the first day of my three day Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday weekend. Since my fitness level has declined as usual through the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and the brief daylight of winter, I decided to go for what I thought would be a short hike. The hike turned out be only about 3 miles but it was so steep that my legs were trembling by the time I got back to the car. I blame not the trail but my usual lack of gym time for this season. On the other hand, it is a particularly steep trail.

A cloudless sky in North Georgia. This hike was at an important Civil War battle location - Mill Creek Gap. The flags reflect the outcome of the conflict. The flag of the United States is on top with a Georgia flag below. Locals will note that the Georgia flag without the Confederate "Stars and Bars" that used to be in the upper corner.

I followed the sign on US Highway 41 and parked at some historical markers in front of the rather imposing Highway Patrol station in Mill Creek Gap. A connector trail winds up through a piney woods to the property of a Church of the Nazarene. The main trail is at the back of the property where there is additional parking that I really didn't know about until I got there. It wasn't a significant inconvenience, just an extra two or three minutes of walking.

The trail begins at a nice parking area in front of the very imposing Georgia Highway Patrol outpost. There is another parking area on the property of the Church of the Nazarene next door but there is a connector from the historical park that is short and easy.

The trails starts to get steep fairly quickly, leveling off only for some short sections of switchback, including where it jumps on an old "truck road" that was abandoned at some time in the past. It steepens considerably the closer you get to the bluffs at the top of the mountain.

This tree-obstructed view shows the topography of Mill Creek Gap, the low ground between the mountain from which this photo was taken and the mountain opposite. The Confederates held the high ground on both sides, the gap, and the land to the right. The Union forces of the U.S. Army attacked from the left in an attempt to get through the line of mountains.

The trail requires a bit of climbing. This is the route I took on the way down but there is another similar climb up a few feet away that I took on the way up. I couldn't see any way to get up on top of the mountain without these short climbs.
This obstructed view is the best shot I could get of the Blue Ridge Mountains just to the east, which is a shame because viewing conditions were ideal and in person they looked huge and stood out sharply through the trees. Again I fail with the camera work.

At the top there are jumbles of boulders and exposed bedrock with good views off to the west and northwest.

The Ridge and Valley Region, backed by the slightly higher line of the Cumberland Plateau and Lookout Mountain in the distance. My point-and-shoot camera does not take very good photos on bright days, or at least I am not competent enough with it to get good results.
The twin ribbons of asphalt comprise I-75 as it heads generally northwards towards Chattanooga.

At the rock promontories you feel like you are at the top of the mountain but the trail continues to climb and eventually you get to the grave of George Disney, an officer in the Confederate Army that was killed instantly by a bullet from Union forces that were assaulting the ridge in an attempt to get through the gap. It is reported that he was buried where he fell, but if so then he must have been hit by a bullet that arced over the mountain top because there is no line of sight from down below. Of course that is possible but I wonder if he was actually shot at the lip and then dragged back by other soldiers before they decided he was dead. Either way his grave is on the other side of the ridge line.

The grave of Confederate officer George Disney. It is said he was "buried where he fell."

A trail review I had read on the web indicated to keep going to find a cairn that marks a local high point on Rocky Face Mountain so I kept pushing on but had to wander off the main trail a bit to find the cairn. It made me a little nervous because I have lost trails before and it is not fun, but in this case the worst that would happen would be that I would have had to bushwhack down to settled areas to find a road because the mountain is entirely surrounded by roads and development.

This is the old "truck trail" that originally led to the top of the mountain near Disney's grave. I followed it a ways looking for a way up to the local crest of the mountain where I had heard there was a cairn marking the high point.

Rock cairn at the local high point of the mountain. I had to wander off the main trail onto some very faint tracks to find it.

Finally I started back down the mountain and discovered just how out of shape I was. My legs were trembling with every step. This worsened as I progressed and I had to stop to still the trembling several times. It was a pathetic showing and a testament to how far I have let my fitness slip over the last few years. Back to the workout routine! That said this is a very steep, strenuous hike despite being pretty short in length.

Too much pork and pilsner. The blue in the lower right is my hat, which I had to use to prop up the camera.

The George Disney Trail is actually a very nice hike, if extremely steep. It's better than the hikes I did at Dug Gap and Snake Creek Gap and provides excellent views from the top of the mountain. All three gaps are significant to the history of the U.S. Civil War and I could recommend all three for history buffs but the Disney trail at Mill Creek Gap is preferable for outdoor enthusiasts.