The adventurous and steep Cherohala Bald Buster route is set in the rugged Unicoi Mountains on the NC/TN border. This 34 mile mixed surface route visits mountaintop balds and descends 3000 feet on the paved Cherohala Skyway. The last mile will likely be hike-a-bike. Unique ecosystems, panoramic vistas and the opportunity to ride in a true alpine environment are some of the rewards for those willing to make the effort.
Almost everything about the Cherohala Bald Buster route is scaled up. The views are expansive. The valleys are deep. The size of the mountains are humbling. Don’t let the relatively short distances fool you. The route averages a whopping 157 feet/mile and climbing starts from the first pedal stroke. A few sections are are ridiculously steep. Hike-a-bike is inevitable. It’s all part of the fun.
You’ll start along the Cherohala Skyway which bisects the the sparsely populated Unicoi Mountains. The Mud Gap trailhead was chosen for convenience but alternate parking is available at numerous turnouts and overlooks all along the scenic road. Warmup will be quick as the route gains 1300 feet and visits three treeless “Balds” within the first six miles. The third bald, 5560 foot Huckleberry Knob, is as high as you can get in the Unicoi range. While there, look for a cross marking the grave of Andy Sherman who died of exposure on the mountaintop during the winter of 1899.
From the summit you will drop like a rock, loosing 3400 feet in the next twelve miles. The first portion leaves the the balds on doubletrack followed by the paved Cherohala Skyway where 1x riders will reach escape velocity. Plunging down the skyway takes some commitment knowing that every foot lost will be paid for with climbing later. The final portion of the descent is on Upper Santeetlah Rd where gravel starts in earnest.
Upper Santeetlah Rd is as tough as it is pretty. Sustained climbing averages above 6% with short sections hitting 12%. It seems to go on forever. Almost the entire 8 mile climb is along the Santeetlah Creek which originates adjacent to Huckleberry Knob 3000 feet above. The dense woods are a counterpoint to the open balds and paved descent earlier in the route. Direct sunlight penetrates the deep valley only at midday and temperatures can drop quickly in winter. The same lack of direct sunlight can be a delight in summer.
Don’t forget to look up as you climb! The Santeetlah Bluffs tower 1000 feet above you from mile 22 to 24. Some of the bluffs are old growth and the US Forest Service has designated it a Special Interest Area. Whigg Branch Rd (Forest Road 81C) climbs steeply past several gates to the top of the bluffs – turn left at mile 24.3 if you think you have the legs.
Cooked riders can bail out onto the Skyway from the top of Upper Santeetlah Rd. Doing so will omit the descent on North River Rd followed by the ridiculously steep yet incredibly beautiful climb to the fourth bald on the route, Whigg Meadow. It will also omit the 1.8 mile stroll along the all but unrideable Benton-MacKaye (Mud Gap) Trail. The trail is lined with thousands of Bee Balm flowers in summer and will deposit you right back at your car.
Keep in mind that the Cherohala Bald Buster route has no store stops or water sources apart from creeks and streams so self sufficiency will be required. Natural water sources are everywhere once you start climbing along the Santeetlah Creek so a filter might be your best bet. There are lots of outdoor activities in the area and the route would fit nicely into a long weekend in the mountains. The drive along the Cherohala Skyway is sublime and getting to the start is half the fun.
- Don't let the relatively short miles fool you. As of November 2020, the Cherohala Bald Buster route is the highest feet/mile published on SoutheastCyclingRoutes.com.
- A daybright blinky is a good idea for pave sectors on the Cherohala Skyway.
- Parking at the Mud Gap Trailhead is free. There is space for five cars and the lot might be full on summer weekends. Additional parking is available at multiple turnouts along the skyway.
- Several turnouts on the skyway have restrooms but there is no water or food on the route. Plan on self sufficiency.
- Creeks, streams and waterfalls are all over the place on the second half of the route but will require a filter.