Graham Grant (2)
I and two friends (Luke & Justin) took on the Tellico Highlands route on Saturday, November 20, 2021. I had ridden numerous forest service roads in the North GA mountains, but this was my first time riding in the Tellico Plains area. My rig for the day was a 2019 Giant Fathom 29 2 hardtail, with 2.5” Maxxis Minion DHF tires. This somewhat inefficient tire choice arose out of sense of caution, as I’m relatively new to both bikepacking and mountain biking and valued durability and grip above weight and rolling resistance. My drivetrain was a 1x with a 36t chainring and 11-42 cassette. A MooseTreks frame bag and small Topeak top tube and saddle bags housed my food, tools, & supplies for the day. Overall, my rig weighed around 40lbs. I carried around 96oz of water, distributed between a set of handlebar-mounted bottle holders and a hydration vest. I carried a few emergency supplies (space blankets, extra jacket) but no camping equipment since we planned to complete the ride in a single day.
We started from the Oosterneck Overlook at around 9:45am CT. It was a crisp, cold (low 40s F), sunny morning; the Tellico River was absolutely beautiful in the morning light & mist. Most of the leaves had already fallen from the trees, but there were still patches of colorful foliage scattered around the forests. We rolled out and took the opening climb at a fairly easy pace. It served as a pleasant warmup on the cold morning. Throughout the day the three of us oscillated back & forth around one another; I would typically inch ahead over the climbs, but Luke & Justin were faster on the descents. As a result, we were each able to ride at our own paces & naturally regrouped after each set of climbing & descending. The day warmed quickly; temperatures were in the 50s F by the time the big climb to Basin Gap came around. The lower slopes of this climb had been recently regraded and were very loose as a result, but the road quickly became fairly well packed after the first few pitches. Large sections of the forest along the climb had recently been logged (or otherwise cleared of trees), so there were many corners that provided lovely views of the surrounding mountains. I reached the top at around 11am. The descent down to Holly Flats was extremely steep & rocky. I took this section very cautiously then stopped for a brief rest along the Bald River to wait for Luke & Justin.
The next few miles ran along a relatively flat, smooth gravel road that wound upstream along the Bald River. A series of small climbs followed, none of which were particularly difficult or rough. Following these was a long, fast descent down to River Rd. I rolled into the Lodge at Green Cove at around 12pm and waited for Luke & Justin to roll in while I bought some snacks. The next few miles were paved and wound downstream alongside the Tellico River. This was a nice reprieve from the climbing, but didn’t last long. Before long we turned east toward the main climb of the day, up to Stratton Gap and the Cherohala Skyway. At the start of the climb Justin decided to turn back due to some back pain from a lingering injury. Luke & I continued on but quickly separated on the climb. The rough gravel road climbed consistently upwards for several miles through remote forest; the gradients weren’t especially steep, but the sheer length of the climb made it exhausting. I reached the Cherohala Skyway at around 1:30pm and continued on, figuring Luke would likely catch and pass me on the long descent towards Citico.
Several overlooks along the Skyway presented beautiful panoramas of the mountains to the south, west, & north. As mentioned earlier, most of the leaves had already fallen from the trees, but there were still patches of gold and orange interspersed among the browns & grays. This gave the mountains a unique glittering look. Going into the ride, I knew that the Skyway section of the route contained several small climbs embedded into the long descent. However, in reality the climbs were far more challenging than I had expected, though my struggles here were exacerbated by the heavy, knobby tires I was running. After struggling up and over what seemed like a dozen punchy inclines, I descended off the Skyway and into the trail along Indian Boundary Lake at around 3pm. The Lake Trail was one of the highlights of the ride. I stopped at a landing on the north shore and ate my biggest meal of the day. Luke arrived around 30 minutes later.
We left the Lake together but quickly separated again on the next small climb. After a couple short climbs & descents, the gravel road met Citico Creek then ran along its bank for several miles. In my opinion this was hands down the most enjoyable section of the ride. The gentle descent through the picturesque forest along the winding, roaring river was an absolute blast. This quickly changed after the right turn onto Doublecamp Creek Rd. This climb felt considerably rougher than anything on the route up to that point, and it became considerably steeper as it went on. I reached the top at around 6pm, then cautiously rode the descent down Cold Spring Rd back to Citico Creek. High, thin clouds in the west produced a colorful sky as the sun began to set during the descent, which was just smooth enough to be pleasant and not require excessive braking. Luke caught me again before the bottom, and we rode the next few miles together. After the descent, the route rejoined Citico Rd and wound along Citico Creek for a few more miles. It was dark enough to require use of lights by the time we started the last few climbs of the day. Several of the roads in this section were in very rough shape, with downed trees, large rocks, & occasional deep puddles and ruts. Descents had to be taken with extreme caution. I started to fall behind on nutrition during the last few sharp climbs & descents but was able to press through without major problems. I reached the Turkey Creek area at around 7pm, by which point the last bit of twilight had vanished and a gibbous moon had risen. Luke caught & passed me shortly thereafter. The last few miles transitioned into smooth, relatively flat gravel roads. I struggled with the cold a bit here as the temperature dropped back into the low 40s F. The final couple miles wound downstream along the Tellico River; the sounds of the roaring river created a very neat atmosphere at night. I reached the Oosterneck overlook at around 7:50pm, for a total ride time of just over 10 hours.
Overall the route was beautiful & enjoyable to ride. The roads were generally in good condition, with the exception of a few of the service roads between Citico Rd and Turkey Creek in the second half of the route. Having ridden the Death March Revival a month earlier, I judge the Tellico Highlands route to be somewhat, though not a lot, easier. The weather was tolerable for late November, though the morning and evening cold did become bothersome for my hands & feet. I’d love to come back and ride the route during the spring or summer. The scenery all along the route is absolutely stunning.