Graham Grant (3)
I and a friend (Luke Eichelkraut) decided to tackle the Dirty 130 on the weekend of May 7 & 8, 2022. This was the last leg of the Triple Crown for us for the 2021-2022 season. My rig for the ride was a 2021 Salsa Fargo with 2.2” Teravail Sparwood tires. I ran a 36T front chainring and an 11-42 cassette. Part of my goal for the weekend was to train for TNGA later this summer, so I loaded the bike up with my full set of bikepacking equipment. Topeak handlebar and seatpost bags carried my sleeping bag, hammock, first aid kit, and extra clothes. A Revelate top tube bag, dual handlebar bottle bags, and a hydration vest carried the remainder of my supplies. The complete rig weighed in at a bit over 60lbs.
Due to time constraints & weather concerns, we decided to drive up to the Hiawassee area Saturday morning and ride an extended 150 mile route, hopefully finishing by early Sunday afternoon. A series of severe thunderstorms had moved across the area on Friday, so I expected the roads to be in very rough shape and for this to slow us down significantly. As a result, we expected to camp for a while near the middle of the route during the overnight hours. We started at the top of Chilhowee Mountain at 12pm on Saturday, then rode 10 miles of rolling downhill gravel and pavement to Hall’s Grocery and the start of the Dirty 130 proper. The weather on Saturday was cool (mid 50s-60F, depending on elevation) and cloudy. We left Hall’s Grocery at around 1pm and began the long climb up Kimsey Mtn Highway. The climb was relatively enjoyable; the gradients throughout the gravel section were very mild. The forests were beautiful; the trees were fully leafed out and patches of blooming flame azaleas dotted some of the slopes. The cloud ceiling sat at around 2500ft, so the last few miles to the top were shrouded in fog. I reached the top a few minutes before Luke, but he quickly caught and passed me during the long & sometimes steep descent down to Lost Creek. The roads along this descent were extremely rough & rocky, and tons of downed tree branches and slick mud made the miles extremely challenging. The rollers along Lost Creek Rd were in much better shape, and we made good time down to HWY 30. We stopped at Webb Brother’s General Store to resupply at around 4:45pm. By this time scattered rain showers were moving through the area, despite weather forecasts predicting only cloudy but dry conditions.
We were able to cross Spring Creek without much trouble, though the trail along the railroad tracks just before and after the crossing was massively overgrown and covered with fallen trees. The next miles flew past quickly on smooth gravel and paved roads. Luke and I reached the bottom of Starr Mountain Rd at around 6:30pm, at which time it began to rain. The climb was steep but relatively steady. I reached the top 15 minutes ahead of Luke and began the descent down to Bullet Creek. The combination of heavy rain, relatively cold temperatures and fog resulted in the descent being extremely chilly; I was somewhat worried whether I would be able to continue due to the cold if the rain persisted. Fortunately the rain let up shortly thereafter. Darkness fell as I rode the rollers between Bullet Creek and Coker Creek. Luke and I regrouped at the highway crossing at Coker Creek at around 9pm and began the climb up Unicoi Mountain in pitch darkness. The climb was mild, but the roads on the following long descent to the Hiawassee River were covered in a thick mud from recent rains. The mud was so sticky that I had to make as much effort to keep a 12-15mph pace on this descent as I had to get up the climb. Luke and I reached the end of this particularly frustrating section together at around 10:30pm.
We then proceeded straightway up the long climb to Buck Bald, searching for suitable campsites to wait out the remainder of the cold, foggy night as we went. I reached the summit of the Bald at around midnight, with Luke following 10 minutes later. We descended back down the beginning of the spur to the bald and set up our hammocks. We camped from around 12:30am-7:30am, but didn’t manage to get much sleep. In the morning I realized that I had forgotten to take the mandatory selfie on top of the Bald during my night ascent, so I rode the spur back to the top at 7:30am and snapped a photo. Sadly, contrary to the weather forecasts we had seen, the clouds did not lift during the night and the bald remained shrouded in fog, so I didn’t get to see the views of the surrounding mountains. We started the descent down to HWY 68 at 8am. The descent was rough and covered with more down tree branches and mud from recent storms. I enjoyed the rolling gravel along Fingerboard Rd down to Towee, though some of the climbs were extremely steep.
We took the spur to Reliance Fly & Tackle at around 9:30am for a much-needed resupply. The next few flat miles along the Hiawassee River were some of the most scenic of the route. By mid-morning the clouds had finally begun to break, the weather turning partly cloudy & mild. We crossed the suspension bridge over the river at 10:30am and began the final set of climbs back toward Kimsey Mtn. The opening few miles of this section were pleasant enough, with steep but smooth climbs and descents rolling through picturesque forests. The final climb began with several miles of gentle climbing alongside Wolf Creek; this section was another highlight of the route. The road wound along a steep gorge above raging rapids. Once the road turned away from the creek the nature of the final climb changed dramatically. The last few uphill miles transitioned to a steep, overgrown service road covered in rocks, mud, fallen trees, and sticks. I had to hike a few sections due to the weight of my rig combined with the thick mud and debris. After what seemed like an eternity of miserable slogging I reached the intersection with Kinsey Mtn Highway at around 1pm. Luke had dropped behind and didn’t reach the top for another 45 minutes. By this time the sun had come out and the day had warmed to near 70F. I continued over the top and started the descent back down to Greasy Creek just after 1pm. The long, gentle descent flew by fast enough, though I made a wrong turn near the bottom and ended up climbing a steep dead-end gravel road for half a mile. I finally reached Hall’s Grocery just before 2pm, for a total ride time (for the Dirty 130 route) of just under 25 hours. I believe my moving time was around 17 hours; I was very pleased with this given the adverse weather and road conditions coupled with the weight of my rig. Luke arrived a little over a half hour later. I rode back from Hall’s to Chilhowee at an easy pace for a total ride distance of 161 miles.
From my perspective, the Dirty 130 route was significantly more challenging than DMR or Tellico Highlands. Overall I enjoyed the route, though many of the descents were extremely rough and challenging, more suited to a mountain bike than a gravel bike. The scenery along the route (the Hiawassee River, vistas from the climbs, countless miles of pristine hardwood forest) was spectacular, and I hope to eventually ride the early stages again when the peaks aren’t shrouded in clouds. A big thank you to Kim & Shannon for putting this route together!