Lake James, North Carolina
Each year my in-laws spend a week at a friend’s house in Jonas Ridge near the Blue Ridge Parkway. Jim and I usually go spend a night with them, and I often will ride my bike up there or back. This year I decided to do a short tour with an overnight at one of my favorite North Carolina state parks.
Wednesday morning dawned bright and clear. The forecast for the next two days was sunny and warm, with only a 10 percent chance of rain. I gathered my gear, loaded up my Salsa, and left home in the late morning. My route for the day would be around 36 miles, with a nice downhill to start the ride.
I left my home in Black Mountain and rode to Ridgecrest, where I picked up the Point Lookout Trail/Greenway. This Greenway winds 3.6 miles down the mountain through the Pisgah National Forest following the old highway. It is quiet, with beautiful views into the distant mountains and foothills.
Once down the mountain, I rode through the small town of Old Fort and onto the quiet country roads of McDowell County. This rolling, rural route through the foothills of the Bllue Ridge Mountains never disappoints. Entering Marion, I stopped at the welcome center and perused the visitor information (one of my favorite bike-touring activities). Then it was on through downtown Marion for ice cream, and into the rural countryside to the south of Lake James.
I reached Lake James State Park in mid-afternoon and found a tent site. Lake James is one of my favorite campgrounds. There are only 20 sites and they are all walk- or boat-in sites. Most have a wonderful lake view.
As I got ready to set up my tent, thunder started booming and the rain soon followed. Ten percent chance? Rather than setting up in the rain, I hiked over to the park office and registered for the night. Following the storm, the evening was cool and clear. After supper, I made the short hike from the bathhouse to a lookout over Lake James, where I sat lazily watching boats as they skimmed across the lake with Linville Gorge visible in the distance.
The next morning I was up early to avoid the heat on the climb back up into the mountains. My route crossed to the north side of Lake James, following nearly deserted roads for the first half of the 30-mile-plus ride. The lake peeked through the misty fog as I rolled toward the mountains.
There is no easy way to make the 2,500-foot climb up the escarpment to the Blue Ridge Parkway, especially on a loaded bike. I’ve tried most routes, on both road and mountain bikes, and have found Highway 181 north of Morganton to be one of the best. The grade is not too bad, traffic is relatively light, and there is a good shoulder. Plus, you get some great views of the east side of Linville Gorge, especially Hawksbill Mountain.
So, up I went, stopping occasionally to take pictures or sit on the gate of a Forest Service road. The turnoff leading to my destination in Gingercake Acres left the highway about 3 or 4 miles shy of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The climbing continued, the final portion of it on a very steep gravel road. Well, you can always push what you can't pedal, right?
Lunch was just about ready when I arrived. It was wonderful to sit on the deck with good company, good food, and an amazing view of Grandfather Mountain.
This ride could easily be done as an out-and-back from Black Mountain. On the return trip, you could follow the north shore of the lake and take different roads back to Old Fort. From there you could pick up the Point Lookout Trail/Greenway to ride back up the mountain. I just might have to plan such a trip for our bike club.
Tip for this adventure: While you don't have to make reservations for Lake James, it is recommended. Sites 4 and 6 are on the lake and very nice. Sites 4 through 17 all have good lake views. The Lake Channel Overlook Trail takes off from near the bathhouse. It is short and worth the walk.