Big South Fork bike trails are world class
Most of America’s national parks don’t welcome cyclists. But at the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, mountain biking has surged to become the park’s third-most-popular usage type, behind hiking and horseback riding, and it’s quickly closing in on number two.
“When you’re out there on the Grand Gap Trail on the edge of the gorge and you can’t see anybody or anything, it’s just a different feeling,” Randy Conner, a professional trail-builder and past president of the Appalachian Bike Club. “These trails are just fun to ride.”
They’re so fun to ride, in fact, that the International Mountain Biking Association has awarded the Big South Fork its coveted “epic” rating. IMBA designates only six to eight locations around the world as epic each year, and the Big South Fork was America’s first national park to receive the rating.
“When IMBA designates something as an ‘epic ride,’ they’re telling people that it’s a destination,” says Big South Fork Bike Club president Joe Cross. “They aren’t saying, ‘Take your bike along; you might enjoy it.’ They’re saying, ‘You need to take a trip there and check it out.’”
According to Big South Fork superintendent Niki S. Nicholas, the popularity of mountain biking in the national park has surged since the IMBA’s epic designation was awarded. For people like Conner, who have been traveling to Big South Fork to pedal for decades, the quality of the trails here is no secret.
“When you’re riding on the edge of the Big South Fork River gorge and you have a 200-foot vertical drop with the trail just 10 feet away from it, you just don’t find that anywhere else,” he said.
There are literally hundreds of miles of trails within the BSF that are open to mountain bikes, since bicycles are allowed on almost all of the park’s equestrian trails. But there are five bicycle-specific trails, totaling 34 miles, that give the BSF its epic rating. They’re designed to be pedaled individually or together as one, and they keep bikers coming back to the BSF time after time.
Cross, a retired Oneida, Tenn. pharmacist, and his bike club have worked hand-in-hand with the National Park Service to identify and construct dozens of miles of bike trails in the park.
The five trails designated as epic include Collier Ridge, West Bandy, Duncan Hollow, Grand Gap and a portion of the John Muir Trail. Just by themselves, they represent the largest mountain bike trail mileage of any national park in the continental U.S. The only parks that come close are Florida’s Big Cypress National Reserve (30 miles of bike trails) and New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historic Park (27 miles).
Two of the trails — Grand Gap Loop (6.8 miles) and a portion of the John Muir Trail (7.0 miles, one direction) — are shared-use hiking trails. The other three are designated for bicycles.
There are other bicycle trails, as well — like the Chestnut Ridge Loop that incorporates another portion of the John Muir Trail, and the Kentucky Trail.
“Part of the allure of Big South Fork is that you can do some rides around the Bandy Creek Visitor Center and stay close, or you can go to areas where you’re pretty much isolated from the whole world,” Cross said.
And the trails are pretty much suitable for anyone.
“My wife loves these trails,” Conner said. “She rides them and she likes to bring her buddies up from Knoxville to ride.
“I tell people that you pretty much have to go out west somewhere to find the views that you’ll find here in the Big South Fork.”
Cheryl Cribbet, who owns and operates Cabins of Elk Run adjacent to Brimstone in Huntsville, says BSF is a must on every mountain biker’s bucket list.
“There aren’t many places where you can park and ride like you can here,” she said. “There are ridge lines, forests, creek crossings . . . it’s really quite diversified.”
Bike trails of the Big South Fork
The five trails rated “epic” by IMBA are all located in the vicinity of the Bandy Creek Visitor Center off S.R. 297 on the west side of the river gorge outside Oneida, Tenn.
Duncan Hollow Loop: Beginning at the visitor center, the trail begins and finishes on the Duncan Hollow Road. After 1.5 miles, the trail leaves the gravel roadway and turns into a single-track trail with some fun downhill sections and an easy stream crossing before climbing back to Duncan Hollow Road. The total distance is 5.3 miles, with 3.0 miles of gravel road and 2.3 miles of single track. Time allowance is 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes, depending on skill level.
Collier Ridge Loop: The trail begins at the visitor center and ends on West Bandy Creek Road. After 1.1 miles, the trail leaves the roadway and a single track begins on the left side of West Bandy Road. The single track section features creek crossings, jumps, sandstone climbs and drops, slalom sections through trees and fast downhill runs. After 1.8 miles of single track, the trail splits, allowing riders the choice of a novice or advanced section. The total distance is 8.0 miles with 3.6 miles of gravel and paved road and 4.4 miles of single track. Time allowance ranges from 45 minutes to an hour and 45 minutes, depending on skill level.
West Bandy Trail: The trail begins at the visitor center. Initially following West Bandy Creek Road, the trail departs the roadway on the right after 0.4 miles past the beginning of the Collier Ridge Loop. The single track section features creek crossings and short, steep sections. Riders can return to the starting point by following the West Bandy Creek Road. Many riders choose to pair Collier Ridge and West Bandy. Time allowance for just the West Bandy trail ranges from 20 minutes to 45 minutes, depending on skill level.
Grand Gap Loop: This trail is a 6.4-mile loop trail best ridden in a counter-clockwise direction. It is shared with hikers. The trail is mostly flat, smooth and single track ideal for beginner and intermediate riders. The trail travels along the cliff line overlooking the river. The start of the trail is located 3.8 miles from the visitor center by following Duncan Hollow Road and Alford Smith Road.
John Muir Trail: The section of the John Muir Trail between Grand Gap Loop and the edge of the ridge above Laurel Fork Creek is open to mountain bikers. The trail is mostly flat and single track, and runs parallel to the edge of the river gorge. Riders return to their vehicle by way of Duncan Hollow Road. Many riders choose to park in a gravel lot at the intersection of Duncan Hollow and Alford Smith roads to form a loop trail with either Grand Gap, John Muir, or both.
Chestnut Ridge: On the northwest side of the Big South Fork is the Chestnut Ridge Loop, which makes use of another section of the John Muir Trail for a fun ride to the John Muir Overlook above No Business Creek.
Road biking, too
Mountain biking isn’t the only game in town for cyclists.
Road biking is a form of recreation that is growing in popularity. Currently, work is ongoing to identify road bike routes around Oneida, Tenn. In the meantime, road bikers are particularly fond of S.R. 297, the two-lane highway that connects Oneida to the national park. And the Big South Fork welcomes cyclists on the shoulders of every paved road within the park.
For more information, contact the Scott County Visitor Center at 800-645-6905.
Need to rent a bike?
If you need to rent a bike for your visit to the Big South Fork, check out Borderland Expeditions (931-310-7771) or R.M. Brooks Store (423-628-2533). Neither business is endorsed by or affiliated with the Scott County Chamber of Commerce, but both are registered vendors through the National Park Service.