North Georgia Spring Break-Away

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. When tough comes in the form of three-plus feet of snow in the course of a few weeks, the tough get going south. North Georgia mountains—that has a nice ring to it. We’ve had open invitations from the kind folks down that way, and this particularly harsh winter seemed like the perfect time to cash them in. Truth be told, it didn’t take much arm twisting to get Shannon, Justin, Matt and I to load up our test bikes and gear into the Dirt Rag van and plot a course to Gilmer County—the official Mountain Biking Capital of Georgia.

We spent the first three nights at Mulberry Gap Mountain Bike Get-A-Way located just off Highway 52 between Ellijay and Chattsworth, GA. Nestled on the doorstep of the he Chattahoochee National Forest and rugged Cohutta Wilderness, Mulberry Gap offers epic mountain biking right from the venue (more on the riding in a moment.) But first let me say that Mulberry Gap more than "gets" mountain bikers, they cater to bikers’ needs with features such as never-ending plates of home cooked meals for breakfast and dinner, a bomber shower room, hot tubs, bike wash, rec room (with ping pong,  TV and exercise space), and laundry room. Not to mention a gang of like-minded individuals in the other cabin to swap stories with over dinner. There’s no cel phone coverage, but they’ll let you use the land line if need be, and there’s free wireless internet for staying connected to the outside world.

mulberry gap

Amenities aside, the proprietors are the best thing about Mulberry Gap. There’s nothing that Diane, Ginni and Andrew won’t do to make your experience more enjoyable. If you want vegetarian meals or have special dietary needs, they’ll be happy to oblige. There are over 150 miles of riding, right from the cabins, but if you want to opt for a shuttle run, they’ve got a vehicle and trailer to make it happen. There’s nothing they enjoy more than preparing home cooked meals and talking about mountain biking with their guest, over a homemade dessert and/or microbrew (BYOB). Mulberry Gap is a bargain at $65 per person per night which includes breakfast and dinner (Sunday – Thursday) and $75 per person per night (Friday & Saturday). They’ve also got a number of campsites. For more information, call 866-635-1740.

Dining hall at Mulberry Gap

Speaking of riding right from the cabins, our first excursion rolled out of Mulberry Gap next morning, and included a gaggle of Canadian bikers that we’d met the evening of our arrival. The excursion was designed by none other than Rick Moon, president of the Georgia Pinhoti Trail Association, and the route featured section #3 of the Pinhoti (per local numbering system), which challenged our van-weary legs with 4,546 ft. of elevation gain over 20 miles of riding on a mix of singletrack, doubletrack—and a short paved section. The Pinhoti Trail System includes 150 miles of shared-use trails in Georgia, and the Alliance website offers wealth of maps, history and other information. My Garmin Edge 305 produced the following trace of our ride from Mulberry Gap (forgive my error of turning it off prematurely near the end, as we retraced a short section of the route near the start/finish, hence the short "straight line" artifact). To a man, we were worked, but heaping helpings of Ginni Taylor’s special pork BBQ (done via a technique that reduces the fat content, for a healthier meal) recharged our energy reserves.

canadian-club-posing-creekside

ride from Mulberry Gap

The next morning we creaked out of our bunks early, devoured another lumberjack-worthy breakfast, then shuttled to Dalton, GA to ride the infamous Snake Creek Gap Six Mountain Time Trial Series race course. Thanks again to Rick Moon and Northwest Georgia SORBA President Gennie Dasinger for setting up the shuttle logistics that allowed us to experience point-to-point Snake course (in the same fashion as the actual race), and to local legend Bruce Dickman for guiding us on the ride. Much of The 31 mile long Snake course is hand-built singletrack that runs along the spine of bony ridges that offer spectacular views, when you aren’t target fixated on the rock gardens in front of your wheel.

snake creek gap
Matt rocking the Snake.

Snake Creek Gap

Snake Creek Gap Elevation Profile

Elevation Gain: 6,147 ft
Elevation Loss: 5,970 ft
Min Elevation: 696 ft
Max Elevation: 1,822 ft

Day three of our trip coincided with a Saturday-morning trail maintenance day on the nearby Bear Creek trail, so we rolled up our sleeves and helped brushing back the trail. The work party was organized by Mike Palmeri, owner of Cartecay Bikes in downtown Ellijay—and member of Ellijay Mountain Bike Association, the local IMBA and SORBA affiliate club. Even with his bike trailer loaded with a chainsaw and pruners, it was tough to keep Mike in view as we rode up to our work site. After a hearty brush-wacking session, we handed our pruners back to Mike and let him tend to his other duties while Andrew Gates from Mulberry Gap led our group up to "The Overlook", which is the reward for the 7-mile climb. The other reward is bombing 7 miles back down Bear Creek trail—which includes gnarly singletrack, wide open doubletrack with sweet dips/jumps, and a smile-inducing, flowy creek-bed that was pure bliss. There’s even a 400+ year old Poplar tree that’s worth stopping to check out. Cartecay Bikes has a webpage devoted to the Bear Creek ride, complete with driving directions, a map and clue sheet (the site has a wealth of information on the great riding in North Georgia). Mike the owner is good people, and he is ready and willing to help visitors dope out a great ride, and has even been know to close up shop and lead complete strangers on the area trails. Cartecay is a must-stop whenever you visit the Ellijay area.

bear creek overlook

Saturday evening we said goodbye to Ginni, Diane and Andrew at Mulberry Gap and moved our act down the road to Sliding Rock Cabins‘ Ellijay rental cabins. I use the word "cabin" loosely, as these posh surroundings felt more like a five start hotel to this mountain biker. Our four-bedroom, two-bath unit was located on a private road—right on the bank of the Ellijay River. The pet friendly, non-smoking, unit came fully furnished, and included a hot tub, fully equipped kitchen, washer/dryer, gas grill, fire pit, picnic table, hammock, TV, DVD player, telephone, two fireplaces, air hockey table, screened-in deck, and free internet access. Our cabins’ nightly/weekly rates of $185/1100 would make the price of luxury surprisingly affordable for a group of four mountain biking friends (even more affordable for four couples). Sliding Rock manages a number of cabins, of varying sizes and configurations, in the area—check their website for the details (or call 866-666-2224). Mike and Terry Palmeri stopped by our not-so-humble abode bearing a housewarming gift of homemade lasagna, and fresh-baked pies for dessert (one each berry and bean). While we mowed down the delish food that Terry had made, Mike cooked up some ride plans for the next three days.

The "Forever Friday" cabin courtesy of Sliding Rock Cabins.

On Sunday afternoon Mike took Justin and Shannon on the "River/Boy Scout/Red & White Loop" in Ellijay, while Matt and I fired up the laptops and caught up on work. Trail access is a short 10-minute drive from downtown Ellijay. Interestingly, this area played host to the first mountain bike race in the region in 1984. Boy Scout, the product of one ambitious young man’s Eagle Scout project, is a 1-mile beginner friendly trail that’s tight and twisty enough to keep everyone and anyone happy. The Red & White Loop is 2.2 miles of fun, tight and twisty singletrack that will keep you on your toes at high speed, but is still accessible to beginner riders. The 3.2-mile River Loop is the most difficult of the three trails with a steep, rocky downhill to the Cartecay River that will challenge intermediate riders, so use due caution. Otherwise this trail is tight, twisty, and flowing. You can loop all three of these trails together in succession to create a challenging 6-ish mile ride for beginners, or a mellow recovery day for seasoned riders. Either way, the trailside vistas of the Cartecay River are well worth visiting.

Shannon down by the river.

River Loop in Ellijay, GA.

River Loop in Ellijay, GA.

Elevation Gain: 1,441 ft
Elevation Loss: 1,404 ft
Min Elevation: 1,376 ft
Max Elevation: 1,792 ft

Fueled by a hearty Waffle House breakfast, our intrepid crew met up with Mike Palmeri and his cousin Rob for a Monday morning ride on the Stanley Gap loop. Did I mention it was snowing as we left the cabin? Yep, as we drove through the higher elevations on our way to the trailhead, the snow was starting to stick. Once on our bikes and climbing even higher, we were indeed riding in snow in Georgia—on a day when the forecast back home in Pittsburgh was in the 60s. Sure, we’re used to cold weather, but none of us had expected the wintry conditions, so we were somewhat unprepared. However, cold toes and fingers were a small price to pay for the spectacular singletrack and surreal, snowy scenery. The group consensus was that the 18.6 Stanley Gap loop was the most fun route of the trip so far. The numerous singletrack climbs were steep, but not brutal, and each was followed by a screaming, flowy downhill payoff. In the middle of the ride we happened upon Van and Michael Council of Van Michael Salon—two Georgia boys made good in the hair-styling business, who were pedaling in the opposite direction. To top off the day of riding, a gang from the Gilmer County Chamber of Commerce hosted a group dinner and drinks at Jilly’s Irish pub in downtown Ellijay. We we grateful for the opportunity to thank the folks who helped make our press trip to Northern Georgia possible.

Snow leopard Mike leading the way on snowy Stanley Gap.

stanley creek gap

Stanley Creek Gap Route Elevation

Elevation Gain: 3,725 ft
Elevation Loss: 3,714 ft
Min Elevation: 1,719 ft
Max Elevation: 3,358 ft

A sunny and rapidly warming day dawned on our final session in the North Georgia woods. Sixty-ish and short sleeves—now that’s what I’m talking about. The sporty, but not overwhelming, 15-mile loop guided by Mike Palmeri included the Bear Creek loop and Pinhoti Trail segments #1 and #2 (as they are know to the locals). The route blended sweet singletrack, narrow-gauge logging roads, and a gravel road at the homestretch. Thankfully, the climbing grades were kind to legs made weary by a week of fun hogging. The downhills had the same kind of "flow" that we’d experienced the day before. Plenty of smiles per hour. Our start/finish was a roadside pull-off, but this loop could be ridden from Mulberry Gap, with a few additional gravel road miles tacked on to the either end of the route. In fact we popped over to Mulberry Gap for a hearty bowl of post-ride chili, topped off with homemade peach cobber and ice cream. Can’t visit Georgia without eating a peach, I say!

Mike flying the Dirt Rag colors.

Bear Creek/Pinhoti 1&2 Route

Bear Creek/Pinhoti 1&2 Elevation Profile

Elevation Gain: 2,772 ft
Elevation Loss: 2,728 ft
Min Elevation: 1,558 ft
Max Elevation: 2,309 ft

Photo Gallery: