Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Blue Ridge Ramble, Part Four: Roanoke, VA to Front Royal, VA

Day 11: Roanoke to Peaks of Otter, Virginia. Our day started with the first law of cycling: What goes down must come up. We had descended six miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway to our hotel. In the morning, that meant climbing back up all of that elevation we lost the night before. We spent an hour just getting back to the point where we could continue north. We left early, so at least it was relatively cool.

This was a short, pretty day of riding, which worked out well after the hard ride the previous day. After ten miles or so of pleasant, flat riding in the valley, we began the long climb up to Peaks of Otter. We were back in the mountains, it was cooler, and there was almost no traffic. We couldn't ask for better riding. We pulled into the camp store at Peaks of Otter. Our intent was to get ice cream and cold drinks before heading to the campground. Then the woman working there mentioned a coffee shop in the lodge, so we headed over there. The lodge was nice. And it is right on the lake. And thunderstorms were in the forecast. It didn't take long before I was checking on the availability and price of rooms. We never did make it to the campground! After checking in and unpacking, we went up to the bar to play cards. Michael wound up fixing the bartender's stereo, which earned him a free drink.
A bee on Daucus carota (Queen Anne's Lace)
Passing under one of the stone bridges north of Roanoke.
This was probably my favorite part of the ride that day. There aren't many sections of the parkway where you get views on both sides. The road through here was on top of the ridge, which gave me the feeling of riding on top of the world.
 A Monarch Butterfly on Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed)
Our first view of Peaks of Otter
Sunset at Peaks of Otter

Day 12: Peaks of Otter to Otter Creek Campground. We took our time getting out of the lodge in the morning because this was going to be another short day. We had to climb up over Apple Orchard Mountain, which is the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and then descend to the lowest point on the Parkway at the James River. We sort of expected the climb to be tough. Even though we had climbed halfway up it the day before, we still had seven miles to go. It turned out to be an entirely reasonable climb. Then we had a screaming 13 mile descent to the river. It seemed to go on forever, curving back and forth - so much fun. We actually saw a number of cyclists climbing it southbound. We took a long break at the James River Visitor Center for lunch before heading to Otter Creek Campground for the night.

Otter Creek Campground was almost deserted, but it was a nice, quiet place to stay for the night. It has a really abandoned feel. It used to have a restaurant and store, both of which are closed now due to budget cuts. The shuttered building sits on the parkway, the sidewalks covered in moss. There were only a couple of other parties in the campground (it was a weekday) and most of the parking places for the campsites were also covered in moss. The woman working in the office gave us freezie pops, which was pretty nice. That night storms blew through and it rained hard. Hard enough that we were getting ground splatter under the tent fly. We also discovered that our tent fly leaks in a few places. No one got a good night's rest that night.
 Getting ready to leave Peaks of Otter Lodge.
 Clematis viorna (Leatherflower) at the top of Apple Orchard Mountain.
 Looking northwest from the parkway.
 The James River
Our campsite at Otter Creek.
Otter Creek

Day 13: Otter Creek Campground to Waynesboro, Virgina. At 60 miles, this was another long day of riding with a fair amount of climbing. Until the last few miles, it was also one of the quietest. We sometimes rode for 45 minutes without seeing a car. This section of the parkway was my favorite in Virginia. The mountains are spectacular and I have hiked the Appalachian Trail along a large portion of this stretch. The heat wave abated a bit and we had some cloud cover, which was a nice change from the heat earlier in the week. We stopped for lunch at the Whetstone Ridge ranger station. The came out for a while, so we pulled out all of our wet camping gear and dried it out on the lawn. It looked like an outdoor gear store had exploded.

We made it to the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway late in the afternoon and took a few celebratory pictures before heading down highway 250 to our hotel.
Oak trees along the Blue Ridge Parkway near US 60.
Our bikes taking a break at Whetsone Ridge ranger station.
 Drying out gear in the sun.
The Tye River Valley between Three Ridges and The Priest (on the right). This was probably my favorite view in Virginia. I've hiked the mountains in the photo above and it is such a beautiful area. I've driven through here, but we didn't stop and I didn't really notice this particular view. Traveling by bicycle gives you the opportunity to see things at a different speed.
 Raven Rock Overlook.
 A cycling shoe shot at Raven Rock Overlook.
 Michael and I at mile 0 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Days 14 & 15: Shenandoah National Park. We were in familiar territory now and it felt a bit like coming home. We bike the north district of Skyline Drive all the time. We've done all 105 miles of Skyline Drive in one day. Of course, that was on light road bikes, not on loaded touring bikes. Heading north from Rockfish Gap, the climbing got a little easier, even though there was still plenty of it. North of Swift Run Gap, traffic increased and so did the number of impatient drivers. Pulling into the Big Meadows Wayside, the sheer number of people was overwhelming and the store felt like a madhouse after so much time further south. We camped at Big Meadows Campground. Just as we were getting ready to make dinner, a thunderstorm rolled in. We waited it out and were rewarded with a beautiful rainbow.

The next day was really a ride home. We headed north, stopping for espresso at Skyland and then lunch at Elkwallow Wayside. Heading north from Elkwallow was the last long climb of the trip: three miles up to the top of Hogback Mountain. At that point, there are only five miles of the remaining 21 that are uphill. We had done it. Michael and I took our time with the rest of the ride because vacation would be over once we rode through the north gate of the park.
 The sign on the bridge between the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive.
 Our bikes at one of the overlooks in the South District of Shenandoah National Park.
 We were riding a section of the road that is paralleled by the Appalachian Trail. I heard a hike shout, "Bear!" We stopped at the overlook just past that point and were lucky enough to see this guy in the woods.
 The rainbow after the storm at Big Meadows campground.
 Clouds in the valley west of the park.
Flowers in front of Old Rag Mountain at Pinnacles Overlook.
Finished! The final six mile descent was pretty incredible feeling.
630 miles!

Final thoughts: We could not have done this without the support of our friends. Many thanks to Anne for driving our car back from North Carolina and then, with Andy and Sandy, picking us up in Front Royal; to Tonya for bringing us our re-supply box, to Chad for running me around the city of Roanoke in search of a bike shop; and to Becky and Dale for feeding us after a hard day's ride.

We've taken a lot of amazing trips and this ranks up with the best of them. We trained hard for six months leading up to it and it paid off in a big way. We had a good dose of luck, too, in not having even so much as a flat tire.

I was impressed by how varied the scenery and terrain were along the way. I kind of expected that ahead of time, but watching the landscape slowly change as you pedal through it is pretty cool. I was also impressed by how considerate drivers were. Over the course of 630 miles, I can only think of a few cases of bad behavior. That's pretty good.

We made some really good decisions in planning this trip that made it a lot better. We kept all of our days under 66 miles. I can easily do a 100 mile day on my light road bike. A 60 mile day on a fully loaded bike in the mountains is a long day. We were tempted in early stages of the planning to put a longer day in there. I'm very glad we didn't. I am also glad we opted to do shorter days in North Carolina so we could see more. It was such a spectacular part of the ride.

My favorite day: Asheville to Mount Mitchell. It was so pretty and such a challenging, rewarding ride.

Michael's favorite day: Peaks of Otter to Otter Creek Campground because of the nice scenery, the long descent, and the nice campground.

My least favorite day: The day we rode into Roanoke. So hot. So very hot. And long. Did I mention hot?

Michael said he didn't have a least favorite day. He felt like all of his riding days were pretty good.

I could really get into this bike touring thing. I'm already thinking about what our next tour might be.


  1. Great 4 part trip report. I'm inspired to do it myself!

    1. Thank you! I would totally do it again, heat and all.