Clemmer Trail by Mountain Bike

(It’s out there people. You just have to be willing to go get it.)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

[Sorry for the poor quality of the photos - I forgot my camera and had to use my iPhone.]

Having celebrated Father’s Day on Saturday, my Sunday was available for High Adventure. In recent years, doing the Same Old Things with all of my friends has become less interesting. What really gets my attention is doing The New, The Unknown, The Exploratory. Since I had been on the road 3.5 hours Saturday, I wanted to stay nearby, yet I wanted something novel, that I had never done before. I thought of the few places locally I have not ridden my mountain bike, and the Clemmer Trail popped into my head.

The Clemmer Trail (Cherokee National Forest Trail Number 302) is known as a screaming downhill that drops nearly 1000 vertical feet from the top of Chilhowee Mountain in Polk County, Tennessee – a mere 50 minutes from my house in Ringgold, Georgia. It was time to go get it – only having no shuttle vehicle I would have to earn it, by climbing Chilhowee Mountain before I could descend it.

After I got done pissing around with my bike (having forgotten to lubricate the front axle for 3 rides – it was squeaking like a rusty hinge), I finally got started and headed up the waterfall trail to check out Clemmer Falls, 1.7 miles out – 3.4 miles round trip. Things went reasonably well for a while, but eventually I hit a stream crossing that was unthinkable to peddle through. I’m sure there are some hot shots that can take it on, but I needed to carry and rock hop. It wasn’t terrible.

Stream crossing - yes, I carried my bike over that, and one more like it.

A couple more hike-a-bikes, a second stream crossing, and some root hopping and I was at the falls. Beautiful – the falls are well worth the effort and I didn’t have to get off the bike too many times . . .

Clemmer Falls at low flow.

After this I headed downstream, hopping off the bike only for the worst of the chunkery, rockery, over-the-handle-barsy bits of hiking-not-biking-trail. It took only 20 minutes or so to traverse the return from the trail before I hit a connector that led over to Trial Number 302, the notorious Clemmer Trail that leads from the Highway 30 parking area to the top of Chilhowee Mountain. I cheerfully followed the short connector up to the 6 feet wide path that is not too steep but is absolutely relentless.

I cranked up the trail for 10 to 15 minutes without stopping, encouraged by the increasing signs of success visible through the trees to the right as I ascended the mountain. A ravine, then a vast gulf opened up on the right and still I kept climbing. After a while, I began to feel the fact that I was not nearly in the physical condition I had been in when I went to New Mexico and Colorado in 2011 to ride above the tree line. As usual, my lungs and heart were holding out fine, but my traitorous legs were acting like sissified little princesses. I pushed them for a while and eventually out-climbed the worst of the insects but after a quarter hour or so I had to stop. The bugs caught up and swarmed viciously. Driven forward by the swarming bugs, I managed to ride for quite a while again before having stop. This process continued for several iterations. Eventually I got to the point that I had to hop off the bike and let my gelatinous legs rest. It was a very disappointing performance.

The first good view from the Clemmer Trail No. 302. A wide swath of the Blue Ridge/Unicoi area. Note the pine needles. This side of the mountain is leeward and rather dry in the middle elevations.

After a half mile or so of alternately riding and hiking my bike up the mountain I finally noticed the trail leveling off and I encountered a beautiful slick rock stream crossing. Off to the right I could see the stream continuing over bedrock down the mountainside. It’s an inspiring moment to think of the water cascading down moss-slicked rock all the way down to Clemmer Falls. The cool air wafting up from the moist ravines at the top of the 2500 foot Chilhowee Mountain reinforced the feeling of the moment. But the coolness and the shading from the increasing cloud cover served to remind me that I had not gotten an early enough start and yet again I was on top of a mountain with potential storm clouds building in the mid-afternoon. I rushed on to get to a point that I recognized from previous rides – concrete evidence that I had made the climb complete. Finally I came upon a trail junction with one of the slick rock trails on top of Chilhowee that I had ridden the previous fall. It felt like a major accomplishment. I took a picture of the sign. Then, worried about potentially developing thunderstorms, I headed back.

Wide trail for most of the day and the trail on top of the mountain is wonderfully smooth with just a few wet spots.
Amazing slick rock stream crossing on top of Chilhowee Mountain.
A slightly constricted view of the Unicoi Mountains from the trail. This iPhone photo does not do the view justice, it was amazing in person. Note the gathering cloud cover. I got lucky though, it did not rain.

The trail downhill was not as much fun as I expected from a descent of several hundred feet. It was just a little too rocky for someone who rides platforms. I had to bear down hard on my overheating brakes to the melting point to keep my speed checked enough to avoid sheer terror or over-the-handle-bars-over-the-bluff disaster. Plus I stopped to take advantage of a couple of views that I had somehow missed in my leg-killing ascent from the trail head at the base of the mountain. Eventually I got back to my pickup truck, but not before missing the connector trail to the parking lot and ending up at the end of the fire road on US Highway 64 overlooking Parksville Lake. I pulled off a deer tick and made my way around the corner onto Tennessee State Highway 30 and back into the parking area and enjoyed my Diet Mountain Dew before heading home. EPIC ride – just the way I like it – so much better than sitting on the couch watching American Idol.

It’s out there people – you just have to be willing to go out there and get it. Never be afraid to explore or you’ll miss all the best stuff.

SYOT  - See You On the Trail


  1. The pond bed is dry all through the year except Winter. (bike highlighted) hiking hydration pack


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