Ride Report: Cohutta Wilderness
“Time to go, meet me in 10”.
It was 6:30 AM when I got the text from Donald saying he was ready to head up to Cohutta. I wasn’t ready; nothing was packed. I quickly gathered some gear, threw it in a messenger bag and pedaled to Donald’s loft.
I’m the one with my shit not together, why isn’t he picking me up at my house in the van?
The clouds hung low as I wiped the sleep from my eyes on the short ride to his place. Donald greeted me already having loaded his bike and gear, threw my shit in the Sprinter and we quickly made our way out of Atlanta toward the Cohutta Wilderness.
On the way, we caught up on his Colorado Trail Race trip. He talked about the challenges of the terrain and elevation, and I started getting some pictures in my head of the mountainous trails I would be seeing shortly.
I wonder if some of these climbs will be pretty comparable to what Donald experienced?
Wondering to myself, I stared out the window at the dark cloud coverage and convinced myself it was going to rain on this ride. I dared to ask aloud.
“It’s not going to rain.”
Donald responded quickly and then segued back to the Colorado Trail and the dangers of being in a lightning storm on top of a barren peak.
After a little over an hour we were passing through the historic downtown Ellijay as folks were lining up for brunch. I was still hungry, even after a stop at QuikTrip for some fast bacon, egg and cheese croissants. I knew Ellijay pretty well from high school, during which I made numerous trips kayaking in these woods. This would be my first time biking them. The trail system we were going to ride was just a couple miles up the mountain from town, along gravel roads lined with signs saying to slow down to keep the dust down.
I’m not sure how that’s enforced. Seems silly, but the signs are government issue.
The Cohutta Wilderness consists of 35,268 acres of north Georgia’s mountainous Chattahoochee National Forest, making it the second largest wilderness area in the state. One part of the trail system, Bear Creek, is managed by the Boy Scouts of America, and you’ll often spot a pack hiking through the woods. Donald explained the terrain of the system we’d be connecting as being pretty well maintained with some fast descents, but also some long climbs with some technicality involved. A couple of months ago, I told him I wanted to bikepack this system and the remainder during a new route called the Cohutta Cat. This unloaded introduction, I surmised, was Donald’s way of coyly asking:
“So you really want to bike pack this bullshit?”
I unloaded my gear, strapped my DIY frame bag to my bike and stuffed it with some snacks and my Camelbak. As I changed into my kit, I heard yelling behind me.
Donald had realized he’d forgotten his jersey and was going to have to ride in a cotton shirt.
Now who’s unprepared?
The start had some quick downhill on some gravel back roads, which I hoped this might extend to a trend for most of the ride. My previous experience with trail rides and bikepacking hadn’t seen many steep climbs, being mostly confined to Florida and Atlanta-area mountain bike trails. Well, with the exception of one particularly disastrous bikepacking trip to Mt. Pisgah. Shortly after this downhill the trail took an upward turn for one long ascent to the top of the ridge. It wound slowly for several grueling miles until the treeline broke open to what would have been a gorgeous view – had it not been for the grey fog that had covered the peaks off in the distance. I snapped some pictures and saw some water droplets land on my camera screen.
This better not last, but at least the clouds are covering that brutal Georgia summer sun.
From the gravel road we turned into the start of Bear Creek Trail. Donald has mentioned that this trail was going to be rather quick with some downhills that even packed a few kickers. The climbs weren’t too difficult on Bear Creek, but after the long climb to start the day, they were starting to wear on me. These woods are gorgeous though. We have had some summer showers, and the Georgia Wood Ferns popped a bright green, lining a runway through the trees for us to carve and launch through.
It had yet to break 85 degrees, but some quick creek crossings coming down the mountain sure felt welcome after several miles. Nearing the end of Bear Creek, where it connects to Pinhoti 1, you pass by a rather large Gennett Poplar tree. Its popularity for photo ops is lost on Donald, who silently pointed it out as we flew past. I more or less missed the tree, only knowing it was there because of the group of bikers who had gathered in the middle of the trail.
We poured back onto the gravel road and started a short ascent to the beginning of P1. Donald remarked that this would be a good time to start cramming some food in my stomach, since he knows from previous rides I tend to get a little reckless late in the day from lack of energy. I ate some jerky, and we set off – immediately into another climb. Now things were getting steep, but I was starting to learn this typically led to an exhilarating and long fall through the forest and across some water. Also making these technical drops more perilous were some areas where the tail was blocked by foliage meaning you had to break through the leaves before being able to see what lay ahead.
I was starting to feel pretty good; the climbs weren’t beating me up. Then on one particularly steep punch up, I realized I couldn’t see Donald anywhere and figured he was probably a good 10 minutes ahead of me by this point. At the top, I passed by some other day bikers at the top gasping for breath.
“What took you so long man?!”
One of them teased through winded breaths. I feigned a soft chuckle before leaving them.
I wasn’t in the mood for jokes. After several minutes I met back up with Donald, who was sitting on a log.
“Have you been waiting long?”
“Eh.. yeah.” He shrugged.
The conversation turned to heavier topics as we made our way up another hill, and Donald stuck pretty close to me for most of the climb. As we crested and began to descend, he pulled ahead until we landed apart from each other on a bridge. As I was catching up, I saw him parked on the other side ringing his bell and began to wonder if he was getting bored of having to wait on me. Then as I started crossing he kicked off and kept pedaling, ringing his bell every second like a child entertaining himself. I pedaled up to him and laughed.
“What on earth are you doing with that bell! Scaring away a bear?!”
He pushed forward a little faster, breaking open a bit of distance between us.
Leaving P1 the trail ends in some double track with a steep face on your left. Now knowing there were wild beasts present, I prepared for a violent Drop Bear attack at the exit. Luckily we spilled out of P1 unharmed and into P2, which featured more of the familiar climbs my legs has gotten used to. As I thanked myself for skipping leg day the day before, P2 began to offer a bit of relief in the form of more fast drops down the mountain. Falling fast I noticed an increase in larger rocks and roots, making this portion fast, steep and technical. I started to feel like the ass end of my bike had bricks tied to flat tires and was noisily and uncomfortably slapping the hardtail all the way down. Maybe I was just getting exhausted and my technique for this sort of terrain was suffering, but I was getting ready to get back to the car and then home for a cold beer.
Just then, the trail began to flatten out and emptied down into the gravel road where we’d parked, and I realized we were done. As we pedaled slowly back to the car I heard the fast approach and the quick, deep, gruff voice of a four legged animal. Thoughts of the vicious Drop Bear stalking us for miles just to get the jump on us shot through my mind as I turned to see a large wolfhound chase and then quickly give up.
My heart rate doesn’t need a boost right now.
Back at the car, I gulped water and started taking off my sweat-soaked bib to put on something dry. I grew up hiking around the North Georgia wilderness as a kid, and later as a Boy Scout. I thought back to family camping trips and aspirations of hiking the Appalachian Trail. I knew Georgia had hills – and serious hills at that – but I was unprepared for riding them!
Certainly Donald’s plan to make me rethink a Cohutta Cat or Trans North Georgia bikepacking trip in the next couple weeks worked. I think I need a tad more exposure to this sort of ride, especially if I plan on strapping some 25-odd pounds to my bike. On the car ride home he talked about the numerous ways these trails can connect to one another, and we agreed to head back up there for some day trips to get my legs in shape.
I’ll revisit the Cohutta Cat for sure, but perhaps not as soon as I’d thought.