As I drive south in the evening on Interstate 81, the foothills of the Smoky Mountains come into view. The sun is setting and fog settles in the distant mountains. The words of the infamous metal band Sleep repeat in my head: “Follow the smoke to the land filled with riffs”. This was my third time traveling to Tenessee in five months, and I was happy to follow the smoke (fog) again. When I arrived, I knew what awaited me weren’t thundering guitar riffs, but some of the best single-track trail systems east of the Mississippi.
After a good night’s sleep in the historic Carnegie Hotel in Johnson City, I woke up to the sound of a downpour. It was 6:30 a.m. and I had planned to meet locals Josh Collins and Logan Mooney at 9 a.m. Collins dismissed my concerns about muddy trails and reassured me that Tannery Knobs drains well and the weather has been unusually dry lately. Arriving at the trailhead for Tannery Knobs, Collins and Mooney looked towards the town as the fog lingered after the storm. Collins’ assessment of what the rain would do to the trails was spot on, and the heavy shale soil dispersed water quickly, leaving the trails sticky and fast.
Tannery Knobs may be lacking in mileage, but makes up for it with well-constructed and fun trails. Ranging from green to black diamond, there’s a little something about buttons for everyone. Topped with a Velosolutions pump track and located close to downtown, it’s easy for residents and visitors to take laps before or after work, or perhaps even during a lunch break. Warm-up laps on Breakfast Club prepared us for some of the flow and table jumps, and a purpose-built climbing trail via the chairlift kept the party pace cordial. The Posse’s Club offers some technical rock moves and drops for riders looking for a challenge, but Tannery Knobs is a perfect place for intermediate to expert level riders to let off steam.
From the Tannery Knobs parking lot, you can see Buffalo Mountain, the newest addition to Johnson City’s trail system. In order not to create controversy, let me clarify that there are two distinct Buffalo Mountains. Confusing? Well, it was, and even more so when I told a local about it during a lunch break. They were alarmed and told me that mountain biking was most definitely prohibited there. To clarify, I visited my morning riding buddy, Logan, at the local Trek store. He nodded, said it was a common mistake, and then pulled up the trail map on a computer to check out legit mountain bike trails. Unfortunately for me, the rain resumed, ruining any chances of riding in Buffalo or the trails near East State University.
I thanked Logan for the morning ride and hit the freeway en route to Knoxville. It was Sunday, so I was hoping to take shuttles through Knoxville Outdoor Tours to Baker’s Creek. On Sundays, Knoxville Outdoor Tours offers shuttle services to the top of Devil’s Racecourse for a limited time. Finally, it was Road Nationals weekend in Knoxville, and the entire cycling community was there to attend and enjoy the street parties in South Knoxville. I walked around to talk with people I had met last time in town to arrange a ride for the next day. Shaggy is a well-known trail builder whose work can now be found all over the United States, and we were hoping to walk through some of his newest additions to the Baker Creek and Iams Park trail systems. But again, the weather had other ideas.
The Knoxville Appalachian Mountain Bike Club has done an amazing and thorough job in the South Knoxville area. Baker Creek is just the tip of the iceberg, with the town boasting over 70 miles of multi-use trails. New trails continue to expand each year, and recent land acquisitions mean the addition of even more trails to the impressive collection. Having been on the trails in Knoxville a number of times, I can’t express enough how well the trail system is constructed. The equestrian community is one of the friendliest and most supportive you will ever encounter. Adding the paved pump track and jump line at the Baker Creek entrance is the perfect way to relax before a big day.
And after a big day of cycling, there are plenty of ideal dining options, including SoKno Tacos, South Coast Pizza, and my absolute favorite, Bistro au Bijou.
The rain spoiling the fun, I headed further south, hoping to find a dry trail. My destination was Cleveland, TN, a small industrial town that is also home to Lee University, located on the border of the Cherokee National Forest and the Ocoee River. With my eyes on the Tanasi trails just outside of Cleveland, I received a text from Les Warnock, the local SORBA chapter leader, letting me know that the Tanasi trails were probably not in very good shape. condition after the two days of rain. Instead, Les suggested I head out to the outskirts of Chattanooga to Raccoon Mountain, making sure the trails should work fine there.
Raccoon Mountain is along the Tennessee River and the main loop trail circles a reservoir. If you don’t notice along the way that the mountain doubles as a hydroelectric facility, trail names like Live Wire and High Voltage should reveal that. Parking at the base of the mountain at the boat location, runners take the Live Wire trail directly across the street. I rode counterclockwise around the mountain via Live Wire, which will have you doubting yourself on a hot summer afternoon. The climb goes on seemingly forever, but with some fun little respites and some technical climbing.
Driving in Raccoon is like a real backcountry trek, except you’re never far off the road. The trails are rough and rough, and it was honestly a refreshing outing with so many flow trails built everywhere. There are many scenic outcrops along this walk, with the best on the eastern shore; sure, you could drive there, but what’s the fun? The excitement meter is dialed down Laurel Point, Split Rock, and eventually ends with High Voltage. The loop is not for the faint of heart, and I’m sure the locals run shuttles here every day, but I can’t say enough good things about the commitment to the whole loop.
Back in Cleveland the next day, I caught up with Shannon Burke of Velo View Bike Tours and Tennessee Gravel to check out some of the back roads of the Cherokee National Forest. Secluded from traffic under the beautiful forest canopy, it’s a great alternative if a summer storm saturates the singletrack. Even if you only brought your trail bike, you’ll be glad you rode some of the steep and thick gravel descents. Although small, downtown Cleveland has plenty of places to eat and drink. For beer lovers, there’s Mash and Hops; for the gourmands, there is REAL; for vegetarians, I found a nice little Indian restaurant called Naan House.
East Tennessee continues to deliver from north to south of the state. It has become one of my favorite places to visit and ride. If you’re looking for a new place to get out on the trails, look no further.