Words and Images by Josh Whitmore
I had 12 days to make it home to Asheville, NC from Front Royal, VA. On the 2nd day, I came to the conclusion that I must be crazy to attempt the route I had chosen, a combination of the “Virginia Mountain Bike Trail” (VMBT), one of the toughest bikepacking routes in the east, and part of the “Trans-WNC”. I’ve never done any bikepacking before, but carved some time off work and was yearning for an adventure. I had just spent 2 hours pushing my impossibly heavy mountain bike up an impossibly steep and rocky climb to cover a measly 2 miles. I sat down at the top, head in hands, contemplating the enormity of the challenge I had just undertaken. As it started to rain, I could hear thunder in the distance, so I shortened my break and pushed onward to get off the top of the high ridge-line that would surely be attracting lightning strikes in the near future.
Although my current career as a full time cycling coach and mountain bike skills instructor mostly sees me return home each evening, I pine to get away from it all and challenge myself on multi-day adventures in the mountains. I always make time each year to tackle some new journey with uncertain outcomes. The VMBT seemed like a low cost and easy way for me to be self sufficient to make an adventure happen. I downloaded the GPS route onto my Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT, rented a car in Asheville, loaded my bike with mostly borrowed bikepacking gear, and drove north. I abandoned the car at the rental agency in Front Royal, pulled my bike out the back, and started pedalling south. I knew from the maps, I had over 600 miles to cover with more than 60,000ft of elevation gain. From all the route descriptions and reports, I gathered that lots of this route tackled some of the most challenging and remote trail terrain available between Front Royal and Damascus, VA, mostly along the Virginia / West Virginia border. Once finished with the VMBT in Damascus, I’d hop on the Trans-WNC route to take me the rest of the way home in Asheville. The challenge seemed audacious, but maybe just what I was looking for.
Being a bikepacking newbie, I quickly learned that there are lots of different flavours of routes to choose from. Depending on how much time you have, people seem to have mapped out options ranging from quick overnighter loops to multi-week international expeditions. You can also choose your surface type. If gravel is your thing, you can find routes that prioritise that. More of a mountain biker? Yep, there are mostly trail versions also. Heck you can even choose how much you want to “rough it”. Whether you want to carry a change of clothes and a credit card for hotel stays, or carry full camping/cooking gear for multi-day backcountry travel, there’s something for you.
When looking at bikepacking routes suitable for mountain bikes, I also found that people have mapped routes seemingly for different purposes. For example, the Trans-WNC route appears to be a collection of some of the most popular mountain bike trails in Western NC, connected by roads to make a continuous route. These are trails that people ride regularly. The route also conveniently makes it way past several of the great craft beer breweries that Western NC is famous for. The route is plenty challenging but doesn’t always take the most linear or logical route across the state.
The VMBT, on the other hand, is more of a route designed to traverse the length of the state by bike on the most remote and challenging terrain available. Sure, a few of the trails are popular riding destinations, but many of them are seldom traveled and aren’t necessarily great riding in their own right. Some of the trails aren’t really suited for mountain bikes at all, but the connection of trails together makes a great and logical continuous route. The route also dips into small towns occasionally, allowing you to resupply food every few days.
Once I let go of my expectations of continuous buffed flow trail, the journey along the VMBT was fantastic. Keeping mostly on top of the long narrow ridges which characterise that part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the trails are rocky and challenging. Miles are hard won with a lot of elevation gain and rock-tech features to keep you on your toes with a fully loaded bike. Heck, some of the trails barely even exist. Once, I was following a GPS line across the top of a narrow razor back ridge-line with no discernible trail features within sight, just pushing or riding through seemingly untracked forest. I’d come across an old painted blaze on a tree and know the GPS line was correct, there used to be a trail here somewhere! There was also a long section of what looked to be proposed trail, not yet built. Just flagging hung from trees with some vegetation removed, but no trail tread work done.
After a few days on the trail, with the most technical and rugged miles behind me, I mostly found my groove. I saw amazing long-range views from mountain tops, beautiful flowing waterfalls, and continuous ribbons of wildflowers. The wildlife was amazing. I ran into turkey and deer daily. I watched a red-tailed hawk catch a mouse in a grass field. I saw a total of six black bears, all of whom were very afraid of me and ran away as soon as they saw me.
Just as the terrain eased a little for the second half of the route, I experienced fairly continual rain for four days straight. Living in the rainforest day and night was challenging, in fact I had to make a re-route in the Wilson Creek area due to a landslide that erased a gravel road that I intended to ride. I mostly kept my sleeping gear dry however, and took full opportunity to stay at a hiker hostel in Damascus along the Appalachian Trail to dry out and reset for the last couple days home.
In the end, I found the adventure I was looking for and more than enough challenge to test my will. By the last day however, I was absolutely smashed from being on the move with a heavy bike for 8-10hrs a day. After climbing up into the clouds on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mount Mitchel State Park, I descended towards Asheville and found a patch of sun to warm my soaking bones. Overwhelmed by fatigue, I stopped and took a nice nap before continuing the final couple hours home.
So, what’s the best way to ensure a great trailside nap? Find a route or create one yourself, load it into your Wahoo, and start pedalling. Be open to the adventure and let the journey take you where it may
Josh spends his days coaching endurance athletes and then trains and prepares for some of the biggest bike races in the world. Josh has competed at Leadville 100, Dirty Kanza, Cape Epic and has climbed Denali, Aconcagua, and Kilimanjaro. He lives in Brevard, North Carolina and rips local singletrack right out his backdoor.