North Carolina’s Best Bike Trails
Blaze a trail that’s well travelled.
Ever wonder why some bicycles are made with as many as 27 gears? Two words: North Carolina.
The stunning variety of terrain here is quite simply a cyclist’s dream – no matter what kind of cyclist you are.
North Carolina offers scenic bike trails for cyclists of all skill levels
There are places in our mountains where, in the space of just a few minutes, you can cruise through several different climate zones – the equivalent of driving from North Carolina to Newfoundland.
Still other routes in our heartland and along our coast will make you feel like you’re journeying back in time.
With so many fun, scenic places to pedal, it was a daunting task to create a "top ten list" of bike trails. But here it is nevertheless, roughly ranked from flat, serene and easy 10th gear to steep, perilous and possibly heart attack inducing 1st gear.
So fill your water bottle, buckle on your helmet and get ready to have a blast.
10th Gear: New River Route
A flat, gentle route in the North Carolina mountains may seem like the ultimate oxymoron. But an ideal trail exists here nevertheless, alongside the south fork of the New River in Ashe County.
In fact, according to Judi Lawson Wallace’s terrific book Short Bike Rides in North Carolina, this trail following Railroad Grade Road (it literally used to be part of a rail route up to Abingdon, Virginia) is so level, locals joke that "it’s downhill both ways."
As you pedal along here, you’ll take in tranquil views of the New River – this time of year probably with people tubing or canoeing by – lush pastoral settings, and Christmas tree farms.
Before turning around, you’ll want to stop in at Todd General Store, stocked with merchandise that will take you back to the 1930s or 40s – plus 21st century refreshments.
9th Gear: Hatteras Island
While Todd General Store will return you to the earlier days of the 20th century, there are stretches on this route, which, if you use your imagination, will take you back even further – to the era of whaling vessels and pirate ships.
That’s because this 25-mile bike hike takes you along NC-12 (the only major road on Hatteras) miles of which are uninterrupted by a single house, billboard, or convenience store.
And so for long chunks of time, the only sounds you might hear are the cries of the seagulls, the whispering of the sea oats or the distant thundering of ocean breakers.
Your ultimate destination is the only high rise on the island: the historic Cape Hatteras lighthouse, built over 130 years ago to ward ships away from the treacherous Diamond Shoals, where more than 600 vessels have gone to their watery grave.
One word of advice, however, check in advance to see what direction the wind is blowing. That way, you can ride into the headwind while your legs are still fresh and sail home with the breeze at your back on your return.
8th Gear: Duck to Sanderling
While this ride is a bit hillier than the previous two, it’s an easy, fun one nevertheless – this time along a more northern portion of NC-12, where the shoulders and sidewalks are particularly biker friendly.
For most of the way, you’ll enjoy lovely views of Currituck Sound off to your left, but don’t pass up the opportunity to meander down some of the side streets to your right, as well. These will take you toward the ocean, as well as by many charming beach houses.
As you come into Sanderling, keep your eye out for the elegant Sanderling Inn to your right, where tea is usually served around 4 PM. And if you can swing it, try to stay in the vicinity until sunset, when, on many evenings, you can watch the moon rise over the ocean in the east while simultaneously watching the sun immerse itself in the Sound off to the west.
Since the distance between Duck and Sanderling is only about 5 miles, you may want to continue north up to Corolla for more sightseeing, where, among other landmarks, The Currituck Club boasts the Outer Banks’ finest golf course.
Again, remember if the wind is at your back on the way to Sanderling…well, you know.
7th Gear: Golf Country Tour
North Carolina’s Sandhills area is a land of towering longleaf pines, elegant homes and horse farms, and more than 40 golf courses – including eight courses at the world-famous Pinehurst Resort alone.
It so happens that the same sandy, rolling terrain and mild climate that made this area ideal for golf and horseback riding also makes it perfect for cycling.
Perhaps the best way to see the sights is to start out in Southern Pines. After tooling around this charming town, which originated as a health resort, you’ll want to get on Midland Road heading toward Pinehurst.
Once upon a time, this scenic byway was the train spur from Southern Pines to Pinehurst. So, of course, it was beautifully graded – and makes for smooth cruising.
Less than 2 miles from Southern Pines, you’ll pass Mid Pines on one side of the road, and its sister resort Pine Needles on the other. Both properties are owned and operated by the incomparable Peggy Kirk Bell and her extended family.
When you get to the traffic circle at about 5 miles, continue toward Pinehurst on Midland Road, and you’ll soon come to the Village District itself.
Pinehurst Village was laid out by the same architect who designed Central Park: Frederick Law Olmsted.
Be sure to follow the well-marked signs to the Pinehurst Hotel, one of the great resorts in all of America, and then over to Pinehurst Country Club, where you may want to stop for a moment and watch some of the locals playing croquet on the lawn.
6th Gear: Duke Forest
This route begins at historic Bennett Place, the spot where Union General William Tecomseh Sherman accepted the surrender of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, 17 days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Get on Bennett Memorial Road, then turn left on New Hope Church Road.
Judi Lawson Wallace writes: "Mt. Sinai Road and Whitfield Road skirt one section of Duke Forest (Korstian Division). This section contains over one thousand acres of wildlife and forest preserve. Over 10 miles of improved dirt roads and fire trails offer many hiking and biking opportunities. New Hope Creek flows east through the forest, providing numerous side trails and secluded picnic spots."
While you’re in this neck of the woods, you may also want to ride through the campus of Duke University and stop to smell the roses in Duke Gardens.
5th Gear: Hanging Rock
Remember when we mentioned routes that give you the sensation of time travel? This is one of those.
The following description from Short Bike Rides in North Carolina will give you something of the flavor: "As you start south on NC-8/89, the road climbs and twists around the side of the hills. It levels out a bit as you turn on Mountain Road. You’ll feel as though you’ve stepped back in time when you see the rustic log house on your right and the old log tobacco barns. In the first mile, you’ll have Flat Shoals Mountain on your left. Only a few houses break the forests that stretch along this part of the route. Enjoy the minimal traffic, but watch out for the curves, which aren’t always banked correctly for you to take them fast.
"The first payoff comes when you reach Sizemore Road and have a great view of Hanging Rock to the right. You can understand how it got its name when you see the masses of rock that appear to be hanging from the side of the mountain."
4th Gear: Linn Cove Viaduct
Pedaling along any part of the Blue Ridge Parkway is invariably a treat. But this portion of the Parkway, which dramatically snakes around mountainsides and seems to float magically above Linn Cove, is particularly heavenly.
As you begin the route at Julian Price Park, prepare yourself for a slow, gradual 7-mile ascent. The good news is that same stretch of road makes for an exhilarating, giggle-inducing descent to end your ride.
While you’re huffing and puffing your way up the slope, check out the distant peaks of Grandfather Mountain. You’ll find plenty of overlook pulloffs all along the way, in case you need to stop for air.
And among other things, you’ll pass the Moses Cone Manor building, which now houses the Parkway Craft Center.
But the coolest sensation is when you pass over the viaduct itself, one of America’s true engineering marvels – it feels almost like pedaling on air.
Your turnaround point on this route is Lost Cove Cliffs.
3rd Gear: Cashiers Tour
This route is relatively short (10 miles), but packs a major thigh burning and visual wallop.
To begin with, Cashiers happens to be perched atop a plateau which is encircled by the Nantahala National Forest, providing the area with awe-inspiring vistas at virtually every turn.
Judi Wallace describes the sights in the area this way: "Cashiers’ location on the Eastern Continental Divide at 3,487 feet, combined with the number of rivers flowing through the area, gives it many natural wonders at which to marvel…It has tall mountain peaks, deep valleys, many waterfalls, lush forests and mountain plants, and a serene setting."
Start your hike at Cashiers Commons on US 64, turn right when you get to NC-107. (See Ms. Wallace’s book for the rest of the directions.)
Get ready for heart-pounding climbs, hairpin turns and one of the most inspiring rides you’ll find anywhere.
2nd Gear: Tsali Trails – Nantahala National Forest
We’ve now ratcheted ourselves up into the realm of that special breed of cyclists – off-road enthusiasts (sometimes known as "gearheads").
As for the Tsali Trails, Timm Muth, fat-tire guru and author of Mountain Biking North Carolina describes them this way: "Tsali is the Autobahn of singletrack…Imagine 45 miles of smooth, undulating track that snakes along, high above [Fontana] lake’s edge flaring out into huge carved berms in the corners. First timers can ride Tsali and become enraptured by the sport…It’s the closest thing to flying available on two wheels."
The 45 miles Muth mentions is broken up into several loops – each with varying degrees of difficulty.
You may want to try the Right Loop first.
A $2.00 fee is charged to help maintain the quality of these wondrous trails.
1st Gear: Big Avery Loop – Pisgah National Forest
This grueling 12.9-mile route features ascents over at least eight water bars, up a series of hellish rock steps called Satan’s Staircase, a harrowing ride through a rhododendron tunnel, after which you hit a track so narrow, it’s not much wider than your tire – with 50 to 80-foot drops if you miss it – stunning views of Looking Glass Rock in the distance to egg you on, and more!
In his inimitable style, Timm Muth describes it this way:
"In some parts the trail is a smooth dirt highway; in other parts it’s frame-buckling, rocky madness and wheel-wide cliff ledges. There are climbs that an alpaca would struggle with and descents that will plaster a rictus of thrill and terror across your face. An imposing ride, this thing will humble you, thrill you, kiss you, maybe kill you. Pay the insurance premium, then go enjoy yourself."
As we said, North Carolina offers trails ideal for any kind of cyclist.
Just do us one favor: Choose wisely.
We want you to come back and enjoy our trails again and again.
added: December 23, 2008
updated: August 14, 2012
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