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.

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