A two-wheeled, well-hydrated roll through fall’s crisp splendor, or—in other words—leaf-peeping turns into leaf-pedaling, and a whole lot of fun
Imagine an old log cabin tucked in the woods. Inside: there’s a big stone hearth and its ashy aromatherapy, thanks to a half-century of spark and flame. Outside: a tumult of amber-hued oak leaves, garnet maples, and buttery yellow birch leaves like deciduous jewels twirling down from the canopy above. And yes, just steps away, a waterfall—tumbling and emphatic—a constant lullaby. If this sounds a tad too dreamy, then just ignore the fact that the cabin’s refrigerator is stocked full of Dale’s Pale Ale and other Oskar Blues’ hoppy delights. Wouldn’t want to overdo it.
But the truth is, this is pinch-me for real. And for a glorious October weekend, this circa-1940s cabin with its rough-hewn walls, slightly drafty coziness, and ample craft-brew supply is our base camp for taking in the outrageous kaleidoscope that is fall in the North Carolina mountains. It’s the kind of place—rugged, authentic, wild, and romantic—where I imagine Ernest Hemingway would have hunkered down had he instead written Old Man and the Mountains and opted for IPAs over more potent spirits.
Hemingway would have loved the fishing to be had in the waterfall’s residual pond and beautiful lakes in the bordering DuPont State Recreational Forest. And he, too, would have appreciated what Dale Katechis, the founder of Oskar Blues Brewery, gonzo mountain biker, and creator of Oskar Blues’ REEB Ranch (where this cabin and waterfall happen to be located), loves about this Transylvania County wonderland: that it’s a cycling haven.
“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them,” Hemingway once said. And we are here to prove him right. To get to know the rolling contours and riotous colors of the greater Brevard countryside, in peak leaf season, by cycling and sweating up those daggum hills, and coasting, or in some cases roller-coaster-zooming down them. It doesn’t get any more convenient than riding our custom, climb-anything REEB mountain bikes right off the cabin porch and onto the Ranch’s own trails that then connect to DuPont’s more extensive network.
“DuPont’s trail system is unbelievably fun—challenging and rewarding for more experienced mountain bikers, but also easily accessible and doable for beginners. There’s something for everyone,” says Charleston’s Robert Prioleau, who has a cabin nearby and steals away from his work masterminding brand strategy at interactive marketing firm Blue Ion as often as possible to ride the trails. Prioleau meets up with our group and orients us to the endless playground that is DuPont’s 90-plus miles of well-marked trails and service roads. If the 10,473 pristine acres of lush virgin hardwood forest look familiar, perhaps it’s because The Hunger Games was filmed here. Hollywood knows a magical backdrop when it sees one.
The air is frisky and cool, energizing us for the gentle climbs and twists and turns that lead to one of many of the forest’s ponds and lakes. We take a pit stop to breathe in the welcome reprieve from the Lowcountry’s lingering heat and soak up the watercolored reflections of fall’s flamboyance. While DuPont is also popular among hikers and horseback riders, on this sunny day, the serene trails are mostly ours, which is a particularly good thing when we get to the zippy downhill of Ridgeline Trail, an insanely fun and flowing descent with big berms and bigger adrenaline rushes. Buckle your helmet: it’s the kind of trail that gets beginners hooked and keeps advanced daredevils coming back for more.
Beyond DuPont, the area’s mountain biking bounty extends to Pisgah National Forest, with some trailheads leading straight from downtown Brevard. While Pisgah’s trails are somewhat more technical and wind deep into the 500,000-acre forest, the combination of options within DuPont and Pisgah has made Brevard a mecca for mountain bikers, garnering acclaim by Bicycling magazine and others as one of the primo spots in the South and indeed the country, a distinction the town happily embraces.
Local businesses—including helpful bike shops; hotels; and restaurants (see sidebar, page 113), such as Marco Trattoria, where we carb-loaded during an alfresco dinner of wood-fired pizzas, hearty salads, red wine, and fresh pasta—cater to cyclists and other calorie-burning visitors and residents. Our lunches at The Square Root and Magpie Meat & Three were satisfying feasts of tasty local fare, particularly Magpie’s fried catfish and black-eyed peas. As a college town and home to a world-class summer music festival, Brevard’s vibe is earthy yet cultured, relaxed but energetic, small town but not too small. And if you’re looking for bigger and grittier, more altitude and attitude, Asheville is just a half-hour drive north.
Hitting the Road
Full disclosure, my husband and I are novice mountain bikers, so a day and a half navigating between trees and over stumps was plenty fun but just right. The rest of our weekend we spent exploring on our road bikes—our default mode. And for the road cyclist, the region’s options are equally robust and awesome, both in and around Pisgah and on rural roads throughout Transylvania and neighboring Hendersonville and Polk counties.
We gladly let our friend John Duckworth, a Charleston artist and avid cyclist who knows the area’s highways and byways well, lead the way. I serve on a board with John and have worked on a few projects with him; I know to trust his judgment, so when he insists, “You’ve got to ride 276. It’s a classic, an absolute must,” we oblige. Despite being well aware that Highway 276—a Forest Heritage Scenic Byway beginning at The Hub bike shop and leading to the Blue Ridge Parkway—is a long, winding climb and that John’s long, lean legs are stronger than ours, up we go, and we’re not disappointed.
The ride is like pedaling through a forest cathedral, limbs arching over us in arboreal Gothic architecture, their leaves a glory of stained glass color. With little to no traffic, we pedal in hushed awe, with birdsong and our own heavy breathing keeping us company. John slows down enough to ride with us a bit. “I told you it was incredible!” he says, and between gasps, we agree. A couple of miles up the road, we stop at Pisgah’s iconic Looking Glass Falls to snap some selfies before continuing on, and up, some more.
And yes, in this cycling cathedral there are definitely prayers uttered before we reach the top. The 16-mile ride to the Blue Ridge Parkway has a few semi-steep, come-to-Jesus moments, but it’s doable for any cyclist who has good gearing, a little endurance, and lots of will power. At the top, the reward of overlooks with breathtaking vistas, not to mention the one long “amen” of the happy descent back to Brevard, is more than worth it. Plus, there’s a craft beer tap waiting at The Hub—talk about a full-service bike shop.
For road cyclists seeking more gently rolling terrain, Brevard’s environs don’t disappoint. Everett Road and Crab Creek Road to Talley Road towards Etowah serve up gorgeous scenery along the French Broad River; old red barns framed by brilliant fall leaves, meadows of golden rod, and hay ready for harvest. In neighboring Rosman, more miles of well-maintained undulating roads with scant traffic await. No wonder this region has become home and training ground to professional cyclists like Matthew Busche and the now-retired 17-time Tour de France veteran George Hincapie: there’s everything from killer climbs to mellow, meandering backcountry roads.
For the Lowcountry cyclist used to sea-level “climbs,” heavy traffic, heavier humidity, and only a hint of fall color, the cycling here, especially in peak leaf season, is an exhilarating change of pace. Ol’ Hemingway was on to something: you not only get to know the contours of the land by pedaling through it, but by hearing the poetry of mountain streams and feeling the wind on your face and the steady thump of your heartbeat. You get to know your own inner contours better, discovering what thrills you; what intimidates you; what keeps you going; and what makes your jaw drop in awe, wonder, and gratitude. Meanwhile the mountain leaves, decked out in their vibrant fall wardrobe, grace the roadways and trails and sway in the cool breeze, applauding your effort.