Page Contributor(s): Ron Hawks, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Amy Subar
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Cycling Mt. Mitchell -- a bike climb in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains
Ride 24 miles to elevation 6,684’, gaining 6,409’ at 4% average grade.
Mt. Mitchell is both extremely scenic (it is a Top 10 US Scenic Bike Climb) and very difficult. While the average grade is 4%, this is misleading due to two brief and one significant (2.1 miles at 5%) descents along the 24 mile climb. The overall average for the climb, excluding descents, is 5.7%. While 5.7% is a good climb for 20+ miles, this climb is much harder than the 5.7% average implies -- there are several one-half to one mile segments that average over 8% -- the steepest quarter-mile is 11.2% and steepest mile is 8.1%.
Left Photo: Just past the junction of Routes 70 and 80, five miles from the climb.
Right Photo: Climb begins at the western edge of Lake Tahoma on Route 80.
Note there is very little parking at and near the start of the climb. The best place to park for the climb is near the junction of Routes 70 and 80. Thanks to Amy Subar for this detail.
Parking at the T of Routes 70-80 and just up Route 80 on the left.
Mt. Mitchell is a long climb with many switchbacks that begins on Highway 80, west of Lake Tahoma. At mile 8.4 take a hard left onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is known for its beauty and length, running 469 miles through 29 counties in Virginia and North Carolina, connecting Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. Shenandoah National Park (est. December 26, 1935; 200,000 acres), is located just 75 miles from Washington, D.C., but seems like a world away.
PJAMM APP - Start of climb
Things to see within Shenandoah NP include “cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, fields of wildflowers, and quiet wooded hollows” and it’s lands are a “haven to deer, songbirds, and blackbear.” If you’re planning on exploring throughout Shenandoah NP, visit the US National Park’s services webpage for the park, here. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is actually the nation’s most visited national park (with 11,421,200 visitors in 2018). On a visit to GSMNP, one can expected to be dazzled by the park’s “diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture”. This gorgeous National Park exists on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee and is certainly a gorgeous place to visit. For more information on planning your trip, you can visit the National Park’s services webpage for Great Smoky Mountains, here.
The bike climb to Mt. Mitchell runs through thick forest from start to finish. We end our climb at the Mt. Mitchell Summit Trail in Mount Mitchell State Park (est. 1915; 1,966 acres) and here we are a stone’s throw form Pisgah National Forest (est. 1916; 512,758 acres). This wonderous bicycling adventure is located within the famous Blue Ridge Mountains, which run 550 miles southwest from southern Pennsylvania through Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. The Blue Ridge Mountains are a portion of the Appalachian Mountain Range, which stretches from Georgia and Alabama all the way into Canada.
First third of the climb.
Word of Caution: The first 8 miles on State Route 80 is along a windy road with minimal to no shoulder. There are sharp (blind to nearly blind) curves along this segment. Therefore, we recommend you wear fluorescent clothing and/or use a rear light for the first segment.
Sunnyvale Baptist Church at mile 3.3 -- at the bridge over Buck Creek.
Big Laurel Gap Overlook - mile 12.6.
Miles 8.4 to 19.4 are along the gorgeous Blue Ridge Parkway. It is along this stretch that we have the benefit of several of the Parkway’s scenic overlooks.
Middle section of the climb.
There are a couple sets of short tunnels in the middle section of the climb.
Turn off of Blue Ridge Parkway onto Highway 128 at mile 19.7.
As of 2020, there is no fee to enter the park on bike or in a vehicle.
Park office at mile 22.8
“Mount Mitchell has one of the greatest elevation gains of any climb in the United States and contains many different types of climbing sections along its route. The first section (Route 80) is a very narrow road. It starts out over shallow grade but gradually gets steeper as you ride between small mountain homes in places. Eventually signs of civilization disappear and you find yourself in thick woods. Toward the top of this section you encounter several switchbacks as you near the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of which contains the maximum grade on the hill. Turn left on the Parkway to find more moderate grade and soon travel through two short tunnels. Just beyond the 2nd tunnel you will find a descent. Climbing soon resumes over solid grade and you will find good views in places. After a mile long descent, resume moderate grade climbing which then gets more shallow. After almost 20 total miles turn right on Mount Mitchell State Park Road. This final section is a bit steeper overall and the road dead ends near the top of Mount Mitchell as the highest legal paved road in the eastern U.S. this is a long hill so make sure you go prepared.” (This quote is presented with the approval of John Summerson, from his book, The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike), 2nd Edition, pg. 110.)
Bike climb finishes at the parking lot at 6,578’.
Walk another 300’ to the highest point in the Appalachian Mountains and North Carolina.
There are many running and hiking trails in Mount Mitchell State Park.
Observation platform and the Mount Mitchell high point, a 300’ hike up from bike climb finish.
There is a plaque showing peaks in the distance from every compass direction on the tower.
MT. MITCHELL IN THE FALL
“The 44th Annual Assaults presented by Greenville Health System will be held on Monday, May 20, 2019. The Assaults is one of the most intense, premier cycling experiences that draws a full field of nearly 1,000 cyclists from across the world each year. This one-day challenge takes riders from Spartanburg, SC to the top of the highest peak in the East, Mt. Mitchell. Please join us for the 44th Annual Assaults on Mt. Mitchell and Marion in 2019” (The Assaults).
There are seven official overlooks along the climb to the top of Mt. Mitchell, in addition to the multiple locations you can pull over on your bike and enjoy the magnificent view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The overlooks begin with Singecat Ridge Overlook (3,406’) at mile 9.7 and end with Ridge Junction Overlook (5,160’) at mile 19.7. Each overlook has a space for at least several vehicles, and a couple are full parking lots. The views from the overlooks on a clear day are simply extraordinary and we do recommend stopping at each to enjoy the scenery.
Note: You can view our photos of each overlook on our in the Virtual Ride section of this climb page by clicking on the blue “Images” button just above the gradient profile.
SINGECAT RIDGE OVERLOOK
Mile 9.7 / 3,406’.
BIG LAUREL GAP OVERLOOK
12.3 miles / 4,175’.
This is also referred to on some maps as Hewat Overlook, but the sign clearly calls the Overlook Big Laurel Gap.
CURTIS VALLEY OVERLOOK
Mile 13.1 / 4,460’.
LAUREL KNOB OVERLOOK
Mile 13.6 / 4,606’.
Iconic Tree at the overlook.
This overlook is not to be confused with Big Laurel Gap Overlook which is 1.3 miles earlier in the ride at mile 12.3.
MT. MITCHELL OVERLOOK
Mile 14.3 / 4,825’.
GREEN KNOB OVERLOOK
Mile 14.8 / 4,760’.
RIDGE JUNCTION OVERLOOK
Mile 19.7 / 5,160’.
That’s a wrap!
No, wait - we received in September, 2020 a wonderful ride report from the extraordinary Amy Subar, (she doesn’t just swim, ride, run . . )
Top of the podium - 2015 ITU World Triathlon Grand Final
Amy’s summary of her ride up Mt. Mitchell:
On September 4, 2020 my husband and I started what we thought would be an epic ride up Mt. Mitchell, the highest point in the eastern US, which is located off the Blue Ridge Parkway. in North Carolina. It was this website that got me interested in doing it. (I say, "me," because, before we came, my husband was quite adamant that he was NOT interested in doing this particular ride with me!):
It was a ride with echoes of other climbs we have done, such as Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park starting at Front Royal, however, the climbing was much more constant. It was more similar to Trailridge Rd in CO, but without the high altitude. In the 28 miles out, there were only 2.5 miles of descent (and let me say, those same miles of climbing on the way back were NOT welcome!) (Note: This website indicates that the climb is 24 miles but we could find no place to park at the starting point indicated (Lake Tahoma) so we had to park farther away. (at the intersection of Rt 80 and Rt 70) This added 4 more miles and a bit more climbing.)
First, let me say that the ride was beautiful, start to finish, especially along the Blue Ridge Parkway. There were spectacular mountain ridge vistas to enjoy while climbing. But as I said above, the climbing on this route basically never stops. That's tough, right? Although the website says that the average grade is 4%, there are many, many sections of 8-11% grades that made 4% seem easy. So, it's the relentlessness of it that gets you. My goal was to make it to the top, so, from the start, I just took it slow and easy. I sat in my saddle and cranked in easy gears. By the middle of the ride, that wasn't even a choice! I was nearly always in one of the easiest 3 gears. I also was trying to enjoy the ride, so I stopped a lot to take pictures and wait for my husband.
Oh, so, yeah, my husband who was NOT going to do the ride, decided to come with me that morning with no commitment to ride to the top. He had not been riding that much due to a bad back, but he was feeling better so he came even though his legs were fatigued from our 3 previous days of hiking and cycling in the area. He soldiered on and made it to around 3/4 of the way to the top but was clearly NOT HAVING FUN by then. He told me to go on to the top without him, which, at that point, was still 7 tough miles away. We planned to meet at one of the lookouts on the way down. So, I was off to finish the climb by myself. The distance up to the turn off of the Blue Ridge to Mt. Mitchell was more of the same but I was now getting pretty tired. I was also so close! After the turn, with a little more than 4 miles to the top, the first few miles came in at a gradient of 8-11%. This made me question whether I was going to make the final 2 miles to the top. It was windy and lonely (except for the cars passing me) -- I wished I had one of my cycling buddies with me! Thankfully, after those few miles, the gradient leveled a bit, and I had one truly easy mile for which I was incredibly grateful. But, no way was that to continue to the top. The last mile cranked up again to 8-9%.
So, you know the end of the story -- I made it to the top (yay!) where there was a jarring change of scenery and ambience: Gift shop, viewpoints, and crowds (though this was during the covid pandemic). Everyone else there had driven up, like on Mt. Washington in NH. I received many comments and enthusiasm from friendly folks who had seen me climbing up. There was a wedding up there and tourists, most wearing masks, taking in the spectacular views. I had climbed over 5,000 ft in 28 miles with 1,000 of them in the last 4 miles. My average speed up to that point was 9 mph. I had eaten a gel with caffeine around halfway up, and intended to eat a bar at the top, but when I reached in my pocket for it, I didn't have it! Forgotten! Bummer. At least the climbing was over. I'd just have to hope my husband had extra food.
I was SO looking forward to the descent! I checked my texts to see where my husband would be waiting for me on the way down. Fortunately, I had a jacket with me. It was windy and chilly at the top with some cloud cover. I'm a person who gets cold easily, so I was happy to have the jacket to put on. The initial 4+ mile descent down the Mt. Mitchell road to the Blue Ridge Parkway was not that much fun for me -- cold, windy, etc. My fingers were numb by the time I got to the Parkway. At that point, there was only more descending to do even though it was warmer. It wasn't until slogging up the 2 mile ascent (which came quickly) that I felt my fingers again even though the temperature was in the mid-70's. I soon met up with my husband, ate some of his energy bar, and we made our way down to the bottom. It was super fun and fast!
I hope that you have the opportunity to do this ride in the future or any ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The views were spectacular. I am eternally grateful that I am still able to do this kind of ride at the age of 64.