Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Lee County Ramble

Cross posted from The Chainring Report:

I grew up in Eastern Kentucky but I'm still fascinated with place names I come across on maps and road signs.  There's a Wheel Rim and a Wheel Wright.  Both seem to hearken back to a time before motor vehicles.  There are places like Vortex, Flat Mary, and Hell for Certain Creek.  Parch Corn Creek and Wolfpen seem to hint at stories long forgotten.

I like sharing my explorations because I feel like it is a way for the outside world to experience this rich landscape of human storytelling.  And when I can I like for my adventures to necessarily follow story threads across the terrain.

Ramblin' around Lee County

Recently it came to my attention that there's a viable connection between KY 11 near Zoe and the road up Hell Creek to the Miller Fork Recreational Preserve.  That connection is proximate to the eastern terminus of Caves Fork Road which allows access into the Big Sinking Creek drainage.  Without having to consult a map I realized a pretty cool, mostly dirt bicycle ride would be possible, and I wanted to check it out.

While I was familiar with the entire ride except the unnamed gravel road around the landfill and down into Hell Creek I had not ridden or even considered that as a loop until recently when the unnamed connection was brought to my attention.  If you know me well at all you’ll know the untested knowledge was eating away at the inside of my brain, and I had to get out on the ground and make the connection.  Over the weekend that’s exactly what I did.

What struck me is that despite being close to 40% paved this is a great gravel loop with potential for longer rides and lots of exploring.  It’s never terribly technical and it has a lot of cool scenery and interesting riding.  The worst part is the descent into Hell Creek and it’s a short hike-a-bike if you’re not comfortable skirting rocky ledges and ruts on steep terrain.  The rest is rideable and fun. 

I would recommend starting and finishing at the Park-N-Ride near the intersection of KY 11 and KY 498 and riding the loop clockwise.  The entire loop is 14.3 miles with a little over 1,100’ of gain.  

From the Park-N-Ride take KY 498 west to Hopewell (steep drive up to church) to Bald Rock Fork (t-instersection go right) and ride Bald Rock all the way out to Fixer Road (deep creek crossing).  Go straight on Fixer Rd. for 0.7 mile and turn right and cross Big Sinking Creek to pick up Caves Fork Road.  Take it all the way to the head of the valley and out to Ashland Camp Road and KY 11.  Cross 11 to the landfill, bear hard left onto the gravel road and follow it 0.8 miles to a road that splits off to the right and angles up.  Take this down into the valley and turn left below the steep descent and then keep bearing right out to Hell Creek Road.  Take Hell Creek Rd right and climb out to the west, picking up Old KY 11 and turn right on it which will take you back to the start at the Park-N-Ride.

Monday, July 25, 2016

To Tip the Scales

A year ago there wasn't enough purpose-built bike-optimized single track to entice even the most hardcore mountain bikers from their comfy suburban bike trails to the Red River Gorge area.  We're still a long way from making anyone's top ten riding destinations list.  But we will be there soon.

The Cumberland Plateau in Eastern Kentucky is a unique landscape.  Topped by the sandstone caprock of the Pottsville Escarpment the region is characterized by second growth forest on steep sideslopes with house-sized boulders and towering cliffs.  There's not much flat land, but there aren't long gradual climbs either.  Everything is severe; steep.

People that know say we could have the next Pisgah.  But the topography is different.  There are superficial similarities, but even the Appalachian culture is different in Kentucky than in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina.  We'll never have Pisgah in Eastern Kentucky.  But that's s good thing.

Nor will we have a Brown County, or a Moab, or Crested Butte.  That's perfectly okay.  Because what we will have will be our own.  It will be unique.  It will be a different user experience.  And that's key to success in a competing outdoor adventure market.

I hate to speak in economic terms, but I've accepted that you have to make the economic case to get results sometimes.  But first I'm going to make the emotional appeal.

Mountain bikers have access to 1,200 acres of prime Plateau land in northern Lee County, Kentucky.  No environmental studies are necessary.  There are no bureaucratic hoops to jump through.  There is only one other user group to work with and they are not in the area for trails (though we will compete for parking).  And this other user group owns the land outright and has invited us to come play.

Twelve hundred acres to develop with no red tape in Red River Gorge terrain.  Open season?  Not really.  I have had great difficulty in getting mountain bikers in the region to help build the trails.  "It's too far," they whine, though they'll drive an hour or more to Laurel Lake when Central Kentucky trails are too muddy to ride.  Twenty five years ago it was common to make that same hour drive from all over this part of the state to go to Cave Run.  They'll go to Brown County, race in distant states.  But Red River Gorge is "too far."

I call shenanigans.

Most "local" RRG rock climbers live in Lexy. They make frequent commutes to climb.  And the vast majority of those who have developed the hundreds of sport climbs (the infrastructure which put RRG on the map) have driven in from Louisville, Lexington, and Cincinnati with some coming from as far away as Indy and Columbus.  Their efforts made the Gorge a world class climbing destination.

It would take far less time and energy to do the same and make it a world class mountain biking destination.  The problem is mountain bikers don't want to help build the trails they ride.  I'm not going to make excuses.  There are no free lunches.  If you want to ride you need to help build and/or maintain.  If you're content with what you have then don't whine when it's not rideable or there are too many other trail users.  Don't complain that your local trails aren't long enough.  Don't cry when the trails are closed down for an event.  Or when a new road is coming through and wipes out a significant chunk of them.  Don't complain about gas prices for your road trips to ride.  Don't talk about being bored or not challenged or burned out.  In cruder terms: piss or get off the pot.

The economics are more straightforward.  More trails mean more tourism dollars.  Those are outside dollars which matter more to a local economy.  And those dollars are proven when you add more trails.  Any rural area can boost revenue by thoughtfully developing infrastructure and the means to effectively capture those tourist dollars.  You need hotels and restaurants for a hotel and restaurant tax to work.  But when you get the whole equation in place you will start making money for your community, your region, and your state.

I have a personal stake.  I grew up in this area.  I want to see these small Central Appalachian communities thrive.  And I love mountain biking.

I propose to make the Cumberland Plateau to mountain bikers what the Red River Gorge is to rock climbing.  All it takes is the minimal relocation of a relatively small amount of dirt, wood, and rock.  All it takes are a few able bodies guided by passion and vision.  

If you're interested in helping out email me directly at ascentionist@yahoo.com

Monday, May 23, 2016

Heartbreak in Flat Hollow

I rolled up to the car, speckled with a little mud, and played nonchalance as I dismounted the bike, leaned it up against the car, and started stripping off GPS, helmet, sunglasses, etc, etc.  The couple in the car next to me played nonchalance as well.  They were climbers.  And of course they weren’t going to ask me about mountain bike trails in the area.  But then I heard them conversing and heard European accents and knew for them seeing a mountain biker at a trailhead may not have been a novelty like it would be for so many Red River Gorge climbers.

I changed quick into some jeans and a t-shirt, grabbed a rake and Pulaski and headed back into Flat Hollow to work on clearing my newest brainchild: Holler Flats.  I mean for it to be a small flowy, humpy, skillsy, lollipop end to the creek section of the Flat Hollow Arch Trail.  I intend it to be a destination unto itself. 

See, I have failed in my goal in Flat Hollow.  I had intended for the Arch Trail to be easy.  It most definitely is not that.  Oh, the lower section is pretty easy.  We can knock down a couple of small humps and make it suitable for little kids even.  But the climb from the bottoms (the “flat” part of the drainage) up to the old oil road that accesses the view of the arch is not an never will be an easy ride. How do I know?  Now that all the cutting is finished I’ve ridden it four times.  Two of those were last night.  It’s finally dried out enough that my bike doesn’t get chunked up with freshly turned earth.

It started when my wife got home.  I knew she had a lot going on so I laid into the dishes that had accumulated the night before, hoping that if I could get the kitchen straightened up maybe we’d have time to walk or run or ride around.

When she got home she asked if I was okay.  I felt fine.  Felt darned productive as a matter of fact.  But she said I should go ride my bike in Flat Hollow.  I finished up the sink of dishes in front of me and geared up.

Half an hour later I was yanking The One from the MBDV and before you could say “one by” I was climbing up the gravel road to the top end of the old trail which I now call “Hillbilly Hayduke” after one of a singer songwriter friend’s obscure gems.  It was in great shape and I rode it all the way out, swung around my new little connector section and picked up FHAT (will need to berm the drop into the connector) and started cranking up the creek toward Flat Hollow Arch. 

Despite a little lingering mud everything rode well.  The creek crossings are holding up and my armoring is doing its job.  I need some more creek gravel in a few places.  But then I was at the bottom of the most recently constructed climbing section.  Its two switchbacks separated by long segments in between.  I purposefully stretched the trail out as far as I could and used two natural benches for turns.  Regardless the trail has ended up a lung buster. 

The first pass up I nailed the lower crux.  But by the time I reached the top of the steep stuff I had blown completely up.  I slipped off the bike, took off my helmet and sunglasses, and sat down on the side of the trail.  I never…NEVER stop the bike and sit down to rest.  When it was certain my heart wasn’t going to fail I got on and rode the last hundred yards to the road bench.  Then I finished out the loop on Fire on the Mountain and looped back onto the Arch Trail once again.  The second time I intended to ride out and back and check out the descent now that it was a bit drier than the other time I rode it after the cutting was finished.

The second time I flubbed the lower crux but managed to cruise the upper crux.  It’s a fitness thing for me.  Pure and simple.  But I’m not so out of shape that an “easy” trail would flat out shut me down twice in a day.  No, that climb section is as easy as we could have made it, but its still intermediate at best. 

After my 3.25 mile ride I was even more determined to rough in the Holler Flats loop I scouted the last time I was up there.  I changed into jeans after my ride so the nettles in the flats area wouldn’t burn me alive.  I raked a bit and then threw in some rough flagging to nail down an alignment.  I need to get a wheelbarrow up there.  My goal is to create a fun loop with whoop-de-dos and berms so that you can ride up the creek, do the loop a few times and ride back to the parking lot without feeling gypped.  I’m thinking “Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day” kinda ride with this.  And the arch climb will still be there for the more adventurous and cadiovascularly fit children. 

The flats loop is going to take a bunch of loads of creek gravel to make it rideable year round.  I think it’s going to be worth it though.  There are some natural dips and berms already.  That’s what drew me to the area to include into our growing trail system.

As I returned to the car and stowed my tools in the trunk and prepared to head out I was really satisfied.  Its been a lot of work to get the Flat Hollow Arch Trail built this past winter.  And there is still a lot of work left to finish Fire on the Mountain and complete the loop that we’ve been working on this past year, but in the end I think the Flat Hollow section and the remainder of the Bald Rock trail system (yet to be built) is going to be an amazing loop that will be even more satisfying to shoot up and ride after work.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Fixer Gravel Grinder Loop

I rode a good loop in the area recently.  Of course it was in epic conditions...

The Big Sinking/Little Sinking area (which includes Bald Rock Fork and all of PMRP) is a great place to explore and ride gravel county roads, dirt and gravel oil roads, and long forgotten logging and oil roads.

I pieced together a nearly 16 mile loop utilizing a four-ish mile paved section of the Sheltowee Trace, some dirt doubletrack, and gravel county roads.  Of course when I rode them there was 6-10 inches of snow on 2/3 of the route.

If you begin at the Flat Hollow Trailhead (in better conditions) you'll have to ride 1.3 miles west on Bald Rock Road to get to the loop I show in the map below.  This is indicated by the yellow star (Flat Hollow TH) and the short section of Bald Rock (blue line).

Once you gain Fixer Road you travel north until you reach Lairson Road on the left (I can't remember if it's signed "Lairson" or "Fixer-Leeco" but shows up as Lairson on Google Maps).  Take Lairson until you reach a lake from below its dam.  At this point you can either take Fixer-Leeco to the left for a more adventurous option or go right continuing on Lairson for a still scenic options but slightly less wet and difficult.  Once you gain KY 1036 on the ridge head left to Standing Rock where you pick up the Sheltowee Trace (paved, comes in from the right on Big Bend Road) and pass the Sun Oil Shop which is the trailhead for the Hollerwood (offroad) Park.  Sun Oil is a good alternate trailhead and it's where I began my recent ride.

Continue on 1036 until it drops into the valley, then turns to gravel, and then begins to climb.  At a hard right turn take the dirt road left (stay on Sheltowee and leave county maintained road) which is Little Sinking. 

The Sheltowee follows Little Sinking nearly to its mouth on Big Sinking and crosses Big Sinking Creek just upstream of the mouth of Little Sinking.  It immediately climbs out of the creek bottoms.

You leave the Sheltowee at the first left possible after the initial techy climb.  The Sheltowee continues south up a stout grave climb.  As a sidebar, if you continue up the Sheltowee (New Virginia Road) you will reach KY 52.  You can go left for Bear Track Grocery or right to get to Lago Linda (camping and amenities).

Make the left off of the Sheltowee and follow a nice doubletrack dirt road for about two and a half miles until you cross Big Sinking again.  After crossing Big Sinking follow it upstream until you meet Fixer Road at Bald Rock.  This is where you entered the loop if you approached from Flat Hollow.  Turn right and cross the creek again and retrace your ride to Flat Hollow.

From Flat Hollow this is nearly a 20 mile ride and that's without sampling any of the trails we have built or are working on!  This'll give you a nice backcountry experience despite a few houses along the way.  In the off season you won't see many people.  You may encounter some off-roaders in nicer weather.