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September 28, 2022

Two cyclists ride mountain bikes through a heavily wooded trail.

The adventure started before it even really began. As I was walking into my massage appointment on Wednesday, I got a text from Evan saying that they would be rolling into town the next day in the afternoon. I thought that was a bit strange, since our trip wasn’t supposed to start until the following Thursday. I inquired further and discovered that everyone on the trip but me was under the impression that it started in about 24 hours. At that point, I was called into the room for my massage, which turned out not to be as relaxing as I had hoped.

After my appointment, I delved a bit further into the issue of trip timing, but it was a moot point as 3 of the 4 people going on this adventure were already in motion for things to start the next day. Being the most flexible of the group, and the only one without kids at home, it wasn’t a game-ender, but it certainly set me scrambling. After all, I had yet to even decide what bike I was using, much less pack. I adjusted my full calendar and sent the dreaded “sorry, I double booked myself” texts to friends I had made plans with for that weekend. This trip took precedence, as we had pitched it to some sponsors and had a lot invested in the journey.

A van with several mountain bikes on a hitch rack is filling up with gas at a gas station.

I spent the rest of the day scrambling to prep my bike, pack camping gear, make arrangements at home, and so forth. I’m typically pretty dialed on my calendar but clearly here was the exception.

Aside from the frenzy of last-minute packing and rearranging my schedule, I was very much looking forward to this trip. Evan and I had been brainstorming it for quite some time, and I like the novelty of something different. In the past several years, we had made trips down to Brevard, NC to enjoy the trails in Pisgah National Forest and DuPont State Recreational Forest.

One of the things we love to do on our trips is plot and scheme about other kinds of adventures we could get into. Alongside riding awesome singletrack, we both have a love of bikepacking. We often lament about bikepacking on rugged trails is the unruliness of fully loaded bikes, and the fact that our usual bikepacking rigs are not necessarily designed for the rigors of technical riding. It’s just so much more fun to ride unencumbered on feisty downhills like Buckwheat Knob, Black Mountain and Pilot Rock!

A mountain biker rides down a set of urban concrete stairs
A mountain biker rides his bike off a brick retaining wall

That’s when we cooked up the idea of Enduropacking. The premise is simple: set up our beefy trail bikes to haul camping gear and do a rugged, trail-oriented bikepacking adventure. Doesn’t sound so novel, does it? Well, we added another twist to the logistics to suit our desires. Instead of hauling the gear all day and setting up camp at in the evenings, we would “shuttle” everything to camp first, stash it all away in the woods, and then shred runs down some of our favorite trails before returning to set up camp in the evening. Basically, we wanted to have our cake and to eat it.

It seemed like in the blink of an eye the crew was pulling up in front of my house. Joining Evan on the journey down from Marquette were Neil and Brent. The plan was to take a quick shred break, eat a good meal, and then continue the long drive down to Brevard. As we unloaded bikes and started chatting, we could feel the excitement brewing for this trip. Everyone was itching to get out of Dodge and enjoy some quality time in the woods.

A cyclist on a mountain bike banks a horizontal turn on a brick retaining wall.

Once the chatter and greetings subsided, we set out for a ride around town. Evan and Neil are originally from Grand Rapids and grew up shredding urban terrain. We went to some local favorites to hit drops, stairs, trails, and wall rides. Working our way through the variety of features helped get the juices flowing, and by the end of the ride the stoke was so high you’d have thought we just did a classic descent in Pisgah. After a short break for some grilled food and final packing, we were on our way.

Our original plan was to find a hotel to stay at somewhere along the way for a quality night’s rest. We started to do the math with our arrival time in mind and determined that if we were to hit our goal of riding in the early afternoon, we would have to minimize stopped time. Thankfully, with four perfectly capable drivers, we could rotate through into the wee hours before finally pulling off at a rest area to try and get a few hours of sleep. “Sleep” is a generous word for our stay at the rest area, as it was mostly restless tossing and turning. We stuck to our guns and arrived in Brevard around lunchtime, just as we had hoped. We had ambitious plans to climb from Brevard all the way up to Pilot Rock and descend back to a camp spot before dark. With this in mind, our stay at the local grocery co-op was minimal but fortuitous, as we ingested ample caffeine and food to reinvigorate our bodies for the journey ahead.

Several mountain bikes are lined up in the foreground on a suspension bridge over water.

Some old-fashioned bartering enabled us to park right at the bottom of Highway 276, which is one of the main access points for mountain biking in Pisgah. The heat of the day had fully descended upon us, making parking lot prep and packing a bit tougher than it ought to have been. The lack of sleep and long drive didn’t help us move any faster, but eventually we were off and pedaling. The goal for day one was to pedal our way up 276 and Avery Creek Road to Yellow Gap Road, where we would locate a suitable camp spot, drop the gear, then ride all the way to the top of Pilot Mountain and enjoy the awesome descent.

Our crew of four trail riding veterans would be the perfect blend for such an adventure and help to balance out each other’s styles during the more challenging parts of the trip. Our mountain bikes ran the gamut of setups; both Evan and Neil brought modern, slack hardtails with 140 mm suspension forks; Brent brought a shorter travel 120/100 mm XC bike; and I would be riding a 160/140 mm-travel enduro bike. Each would have their positive and negative points on a trip like this, and it would be fun to see which setup could be considered “ideal.”

A cyclist poses in the woods with a purple full suspension mountain bike with bikepacking gear
A cyclist poses in the woods with a loaded tan hardtail mountain bike
A cyclist poses in the woods with a black and yellow full suspension mountain bike with bikepacking gear
A cyclist poses in the woods with a tan mountain bike loaded with gear

I find that the first day is always slow going on a loaded bike tour, but factoring our big bikes into the equation, it was extra strenuous. Thankfully, we packed a few beers for the journey and decided that we would reward ourselves for the hard work at the top of Avery Creek Road. The wear and tear of the journey was beginning to show as we laughed at some not-so-funny quips about eating goo-filled gummy worms.

Pressing onward, the grade of the roads relented as we rejoined 276 to Yellow Gap Road. The higher elevation, combined with ample shade from the afternoon hours, was a welcome reprieve. Ideally, we wanted to camp near the bottom of Pilot Rock trail, and we found a suitable spot after some searching. Boy howdy, did it feel good to unload all that gear from the bikes and slim down to just the ride essentials! We stashed our gear carefully in the woods, powered down a snack and fluids, and set forth for the final push up to Pilot Rock.

A mountain biker descends down a large boulder at dusk
A mountain biker rides down a narrow, steep, and rocky trail

In the name of efficiency, I plotted the most direct route possible to Pilot Rock. In hindsight, that may have been a bit ambitious, as it condensed the elevation gain to much fewer miles. The first bit out of camp was decent with just a few tricky steep spots requiring some hike-a-bike. But the closer we got to upper Laurel Mountain trail and accessing Pilot Rock, the steeper the terrain became. Eventually, the “trail” was more of a washed-out gully hitting more than a 20% grade. It was arduous pushing — the kind where you take a quick breather after several steps. The good news was that we sure were covering that vertical gain quickly!

The lengthy travel and poor sleep were taking their toll on our group at this point. Some expressed displeasure, but only mildly so; it was more the silence that spoke volumes. By the time we reached the top, we had a scant hour of daylight left. The golden hues of light were fantastic, though, and we took a minute to hatch a plan for the descent while snacking and hydrating. Maybe it was the daylight, or the views, or the slight breeze, or the knowledge that we had nothing but descending back to camp, but the mood lightened, and a final flicker of energy emerged for the task at hand.

A group of three mountain bikers ride through a dimly lit wooded trail

Much of Pisgah riding feels a bit like being in a tunnel due to the large rhododendrons and heavy forest growth, but the high-elevation descents have an airier feel to them. The upper portion of Pilot Rock was a refreshing break from the dense forest riding we had done all afternoon to arrive at the high point. It felt amazing to open things up on the long-travel bike and feel it float through the chunky sections. We re-grouped at the exposed rock feature partway down to enjoy the view and session some lines through the tight switchbacks. We usually just blast down in one adrenaline-filled run, but we wanted to capture images of this trip along the way and play around a bit more than usual. We scouted some optional lines and made the most of what the terrain offered.

As we descended the trail became more closed in with rhododendrons and tree cover and started feeling like a chute. In all the excitement, I carried a bit too much speed into some switchbacks, blew a corner, and went “into the cabbage,” as they say. When you’re used to riding shorter-travel bikes, it’s easy to overrun the terrain on a long-travel enduro bike, as it just doesn’t feel like you’re going quite as fast.

A mountain biker aggressively rides through a trail covered in roots and shaded by trees
A mountain biker descends down a rocky trail on a full suspension bike

We covered the final section rapidly as daylight waned — hoots and hollers abounding — and all arrived safely at the bottom, which is always a win! We set about making camp quickly with the little afterglow that remained. We stoked a small fire to warm food, boil water and fend off biting insects, and poured some libations to lessen the aches of the day.

Everything seems easier on paper, and, so far, this trip was no different. Evan and I are alike in that we like to burn the candle at both ends, and sometimes that results in collateral damage. Complaints are hard to come by in a group such as ours, though. The conversation dimmed along with the fire. The stars and glow of the rare Blue Ghost Fireflies created a surreal environment when viewed through our tired eyes. One by one, we retired to our sleeping quarters to enjoy the deep sleep brought on only by sheer exhaustion.

A group of bikepackers sit around a campfire in the woods at night.
Matt Acker shown from behind rides his mountain bike on a wooded forest trail