Monday, May 26, 2014

Mountain Biking the Pinhoti Trail - Snake Creek Gap to Pocket Road, Chattahoochee National Forest

For the Memorial Day weekend, I decided to push myself a little bit and planned a ride that I knew would not be long but has a reputation for horrible climbing: the Pinhoti Trail from Highway 136 at Snake Creek Gap to Pocket Road, located near the Johns Mountain Wildlife Management Area of Chattahoochee National Forest, Armuchee Ranger District. It's a section of trail I had partially ridden and partially hiked, but never linked up the two ends of the trail. The route climbs over the top of Horn Mountain and along the crest of it for some little distance before descending steeply into the valley of Furnace Creek. It was one of those rides that I knew would be an adventure and would require some caution due to the remoteness and difficulty of the trail.

I parked at Snake Creek Gap, careful to leave my pickup truck visible from the highway because it's a pretty lonely stretch of country, although not completely uninhabited. After that I conducted the maintenance that I always put off until the next ride along with applying gobs of sunscreen and rode across the highway and into the trees.
A tiny turtle in the trail, about 2 inches across.


Some of the smoother trail in a sunny section of pine forest.

It takes no time at all to start climbing and within a quarter of a mile I hit a particularly steep stretch and had to get off the bike. It was pretty frustrating decision to get off the bike and start hiking so early in the ride but I had not realistically expected to make it all the way to the top of Horn Mountain. Another problem was that the route I chose allowed no opportunity for a proper warm up, which has caused me problems in the past on huge climbs. I love climbing but early climbing on a ride often burns my legs with lactic acid and I have to fight for power for the rest of the ride. Very frustrating but it wasn't entirely unexpected.

Steep, rocky, technical crap trail (in my opinion). My legs were already killed by the time I got to this section so I stopped to take a photo. Yes, it's steeper in person than it looks here.

From there the climbing only got worse, with sections that are not only steep but also rocky, rooty, and technical. Very hard climbing and beyond my ability and my confidence, which has been particularly low lately since I started riding with SPD pedals (shoes clipped to the pedals). As a result of this, I ended up hiking much, if not most, of the climb to the crest of the mountain. The last 50 yards or so to the top are ridiculously steep and rocky, and although I know there are probably riders capable or riding up it, I did not feel the least bit bad about pushing my bike up. It was so steep I had difficulty even accomplishing that.

After taking a photo of the rock cairn at the crest (and adding another rock myself), I mounted up and began riding. There were some rocky technical areas from there on that still required me to do a little walking but as I progressed, the trail gradually became more rideable for someone of my fitness and ability and I began to enjoy the ride more. I had gotten a late start and the day was warm so the cooler temps and fresh breezes on the top of the mountain were a welcome relief from the hot, sweaty climb. Unfortunately having to do the climb with no prior warm up really hurt me so I ended up pushing up some more short, steep climbs that would normally be within my ability on my local suburban trail systems. Oh, well.


Video from the crest of Horn Mountain.

At one point, much to my surprise, I came upon a backpacker's camp site. Based upon where he was and what he was carrying, I would say he was probably a Pinhoti Trail through hiker. The Pinhoti is a long distance trail that runs from Alabama into Georgia, where it links up with the Benton McKaye Trail, and thereby the Appalachian Trail. This allows backpackers to hike all the way from Alabama to Maine, with only occasional jaunts onto the shoulders of roads.

Finally the trail started the true descent down into the valley of Furnace Creek and it was fun riding. I still stopped a couple of times to walk some short steep sections because I was alone and felt it was risky, but rode almost all of the descent and thoroughly enjoyed it. After the descent, the trail goes into a rolling section with some short, punchy climbs and sections of good smooth singletrack. It's fun riding and soon I recognized the section I had ridden before when starting from the Pilcher's Pond area off Pocket Road when I was a beginning mountain biker. It was a relief to see familiar trail but I began to realize the length of my ride was going to be shorter than I expected. My legs were so used up that I did not mind the distance being shortened, and I knew there would still be a road climbing to get back up to the crest of Snake Creek Gap where I left my truck.

When I got to a trail intersection, I decided to take a spur off the Pinhoti to go take a look at Pilcher's Pond for old time sake. It was a little longer of a ride than I remembered but I wasn't too concerned. I stopped at the pond for a brief rest and to take some photos before jumping back on the bike to return to the Pinhoti. This low elevation area was pretty hot and uncomfortable, but the trail is pretty smooth riding so I enjoyed it anyway. I went across a familiar stream crossing that has been chopped into mush by horses and soon was back at Pocket Road. I had stopped a couple extra times to drink water out of my lightening camelbak due to the heat and to rest the burn in my legs, and I wondered how long and difficult the road climb back to the gap would be.

Pilcher's Pond. The water level is considerably lower than it was the last time I was here. I'm not aware of a drought so I'm wondering if the dam is in need of maintenance or something.
A creek crossing that is now churned into a state that is impassible, because horses. I had to hike through the woods to find another spot.
The initial ride out of the national forest along Pocket Road was mostly downhill so I built up speed and enjoyed the breeze to cool off. Within a few minutes I made the right turn onto Furnace Creek Road and the climbing started. My legs were so rubbery and it was so hot by this time that I got overheated and had to stop in the shade at one point. I had to take a week off riding recently due to a minor surgery and stitches and another week of light riding and I think it took a fine edge off my fitness. This was not a long ride and I should have been able to keep going, and I could have, but it was turning into a suffer fest so I decided to go ahead and stop. The heat of the valley and the hot asphalt did not help. I should have done the ride in the morning.

Finally reached Pocket Road, which is a scenic byway and therefore frequented by numerous motorcycles so it's not as quiet as it appears in this shot.

The crest of Horn Mountain from 136. You can see the mountain sloping down on the left towards Snake Creek Gap where I started.  I wish I could say I rode over the top of that mountain but there was so much pushing of the bike that I hesitate to use the word "rode."
I passed some free roaming dogs that made me nervous but they paid me little mind, much to my relief. Finally Furnace Creek Road intersected Georgia Highway 136 and I made the right turn to climb back up to Snake Creek Gap. This was the part of the ride that made me most nervous since the traffic on the highway had picked up in the late afternoon. I was soon cranking along nicely, but it was a long, steady climb so I took advantage of another photo op to rest my legs a minute. Fortunately the highway isn't too narrow and since I was on a mountain bike it was feasible to ride off in the dirt in many sections. I think it was a couple of miles back up to the truck. I was very happy to be there.

This ride was not very long but it nearly beat me to death with the extremely steep, rocky climb up Horn Mountain and the afternoon heat. I had numerous bloody scratches on my legs from the very narrow and slightly overgrown stretches of the Pinhoti along the crest of the ridge. I think I would have enjoyed the ride more in cooler temperatures but I still always take enjoyment from getting far away from the road and exploring places I've never been before so I'm still calling it a good start to my Memorial Day weekend.

Quite a bit of climbing on the GPS track. I've done more climbing in a day recently but this one really hurt due to it being steep, rough singletrack rather than forest service road.

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