TELLICO PLAINS, TENNESSEE
The 41 mile mixed-surface Tellico Gorge/Bald River route circles the Bald River Wilderness east of Tellico Plains, Tennessee. The route starts and finishes on the Cherohala Skyway. It includes River Rd through the Tellico River Gorge and 18 miles of gravel through pristine federally protected forest.
Words like gorge, river and wilderness are clear indications of the nature of this route. The area is a delight for hikers, campers and anglers. There are many campgrounds along River Rd and opportunities for wild camping throughout the forest for those who want to make it a weekend.
The route can be ridden in either direction but is shown clockwise to take advantage of the relatively gentle uphill grade on the 19 miles of pavement through the Tellico River Gorge. It would be a sin to bomb this section and miss much of the scenery. Those who prefer a store stop later in the route may want to ride in the opposite direction.
Ridden clockwise, miles 19 through 36 consists of one long gravel sector with two notable climbs. An ascent over the shoulder of Sugar Mountain begins immediately after the turn onto gravel and is a warmup for the climb over the shoulder of Waucheesi Mountain.
The Sugar Mountain climb is the shorter and smoother of the two while the road over Waucheesi mountain isn’t as well maintained. Expect 4.7 miles of rough road surface west of of the Holly Flats Campground (mile 24.4). One rider described the descent as “treacherous gnar” while another described it as “Butt puckering”. Beautiful vistas are a consolation, or perhaps an excuse to take it slow or stop for a few photos on the way down.
Adversity will be long forgotten as you turn onto Wildcat Rd and begin the final three mile descent back into the Tellico River Gorge. The gravel is wide, smooth, hardpacked and breathtakingly fast. After some hoots and high-fives at the bottom, you can soft-pedal or paceline back to the start on pavement.
Hiking trails, gravel roads leading up into the hills and old logging roads beg to be explored all along the route. Bald River Rd passes between two pristine federally protected wilderness areas from mile 18.5 through mile 22 and there isn’t much evidence of human activity in this section apart from the gravel itself. Expect jaw dropping scenery in the Tellico Gorge, especially in early November when the leaves are turning. The river will be thundering after a period of heavy rain and you might even catch kayakers dropping off Bald River Falls. The gravel portion of the route features dense and moist hardwood forest with plentiful wildlife. There was a beaver dam right up against the road during the summer of 2020.
The route can be shortened to 31.3 miles by parking at the turnout on Cherohala Skyway as indicated on the map. If you have the legs, you may want to climb to 5000 foot high Whigg Meadow which is also indicated on the map. On a Saturday morning when the weather is nice you can expect to see many cyclists in the area, especially on pavement in the gorge.
Be sure to check the comments section below for any late breaking news or contributor updates to this route.
- Fall foliage typically peaks in early November.
- Water is plentiful along the route with the exception of the climbs over Sugar and Waucheesi Mountains. It will need to be filtered.
- The summit of Sugar Mountain is accessible via an old logging road to the left at mile 19.8 on the map. The access road to the Waucheesi Mountain summit will be on your left at mile 26.9 on the map. Waucheesi is steep!
- Park at the Cherohala Skyway Visitors Center in Tellico Plains.
- Parking at the turnout on Cherohala Skyway near the intersection of River Rd will shorten the route to a little over 31 miles.
- Green Cove Outfitters on River Rd is the only commercial establishment on the route. They have basic convenience store food and drink.
- Pit toilets can be found at several campgrounds along River Rd as well as at Holly Flats Campground on Bald River Rd.
We rode this clockwise on 10/2/21. It was a beautiful ride up through the gorge. Up until the steep climbs in the gravel sections, all the climbing was gradual and relatively easy. The second big climb beginning around mile 25 was particularly difficult due to thick loose gravel. We lost traction a few times on that portion. We did not venture on any of the side trails because hunters were out with their dogs that day, and we felt it was best to stay out of their way. It also looked like the road to the summit of Sugar Mountain was blocked by a fallen tree near the entrance to the road.
Gorgeous route! I did this today (06/05/2021) in the clockwise direction as suggested above and enjoyed it thoroughly. The fast gravel descent before finishing on River road was so much fun! That climb at mi 25/26 was a little rough since the gravel was thick and loose there, but it was over soon enough. The gravel was exciting and loose on the other side of that climb, but the amazing views made up for the slower descending speed! Definitely one of my favorite routes that I’ve done in the Cherokee National Forest.
It’s a better ride counter clockwise.
I’ve never done it that way but love to climb slowly through the gorge to look at things and then bomb the gravel at the end. 🙂
A couple of us rode this on 7/25/2020. The road on the climb up to Waucheesi looks like the forest service had carpet bombed it. The surface was heavily rutted and trees were strewn everywhere. The hope is that this is the early phase of some well needed maintenance for this road. Just be aware if you ride it, that there will be two miles of rough road after Holly Flats campground, at least until the Forest Service finishes whatever it is they are doing.