Wayah Road option
Wayah Road is a popular connection for western Carolina riders that provides a nice, twisty ride between Franklin and Nantahala Gorge. I ride it fairly often and have been looking for some alternate routes that offer some dirt roads through the same area. Friday, I left out of Brevard early in the day, cutting up by Wolf Lake from Hwy. 64. Passing on by the turnoff to Charlies Creek (now there is an excellent ride!) I headed over to Cullowhee, stopping for a break at the Speedwell General Store. I wasn't sure whether I'd take the Elijay Road over the mountain to Franklin, or climb up the mountain to go through Highlands instead. At the last moment, I hung a right and rode across the Elijay Road - it let me avoid the traffic in Highlands and through the Cullasaja Gorge. Of course, I could have taken the Buck Creek bypass, but I was in a hurry to get past Franklin.
I passed by the turnoff to the Wayah Road and started the climb up to Winding Stairs Gap on Hwy. 64. That is my favorite stretch of Hwy. 64 - there are several spectacular overlooks that provide views back to the mountains further east, including those of the Pisgah Ledge, where the Parkway runs the ridges. The weather was perfect, clear and cool enough above 3000 feet to be comfortable with the liner in my jacket.
After passing Winding Stairs Gap, where the AT crosses Hwy. 64, the highway descends with wide, swooping turns down into a mountain valley. A few miles past the Gap, the Rainbow Springs dirt road heads north from the highway. I've been planning to ride that one for a while, and almost missed the turnoff. It's a narrow dirt road that sees little traffic. For the first few miles, the road passes through private land, with a bold stream running below the road through thick timber. It's a single lane, and in places is narrow enough that vehicles have to back up to allow others to pass. About 6 or 7 miles in, I passed a small collection of cabins and other private dwellings and soon after, entered into National Forest. The road got narrower, rougher, and had grass growing in the center of the lane. There were a lot of downed trees in the road, so there was no 4-wheeled traffic. I was able to squeeze between the trees and the bank and kept going. In places, it looked like I could toss a rock off the road and land it in Nantahala Lake, about 2,000 feet below. That's a stretch where you definitely don't want to wander over the edge - it's nearly vertical all the way down to the lake. The road continued to climb and descend across several steep ridges and then started dropping down into the valley where it intersects with the Wayah Road. I would guess that the Rainbow Springs road is about 15 miles or so in length and it offers a great dirt alternative to the Wayah Road between Franklin and Nantahala Lake.
I kept heading west on Wayah Road for a few miles until I reached the turnoff to the Winding Stairs Road. It heads north out of the valley, climbing up through a high mountain farming community with wide, sweeping turns. After a few miles, the road forks - I stayed to the right on the Winding Stairs Road as it turned to dirt and passed by a long narrow lake. When the road passes the dam, it gets much narrower and rougher. A couple of turns later it begins a steep plunge down into the Nantahala Gorge, about 2,000 feet below. There's a great overlook of the Gorge just as you start the descent - I stopped to talk to a rafting guide out for a ride on his KLR at the overlook - he was on his way to a big cookout that the Nantahala Outfitters was giving for their guides and former guides. I let him go on far enough ahead to let the dust settle and then headed on down the mountain. It's a tiny road with minimal maintenance, and in several spots, there was barely room for a car or pickup to get through. In places, the road had caved in, with drops of several hundred feet cut right into the road. You definitely want to watch the blind curves on that one - make a mistake and you wouldn't stop bouncing for a long, long time.
The road crosses a couple of tiny single lane bridges over the Nantahala River before hitting the highway through the Gorge and then it's back to heavy holiday traffic again. The Gorge was packed and there were so many rafters and kayakers on the river that they were having to line up to take turns going through the narrow sections. I often stop for lunch at the takeout downstream, but it was too crowded at the time. Instead, I opted for riding on over to Bryson City for some TexMex at Guayabitos Restaurant.
By then, I was ready to head on home, so I took the slab back past Whittier and Sylva to the Parkway. It felt good to get back up where it was cool again and there was very little traffic once I hit the Parkway.
I stopped at one of the overlooks near Mt. Hardy that overlook the Wolf Lake valley and kicked back in the grass to enjoy the late evening view. After dozing off and on for about an hour, I climbed back on the Vee and headed further east to Hwy. 276 and the drop back into the valley of the French Broad and home. Somebody had fallen off of the lower falls at Graveyard Fields and SAR was putting them into an ambulance as I rode past the packed parking lot at the Fields.
It ended up being about a 300 mile ride for the day, with a lot of little side road check-outs and a great new option for the Wayah Road.
That's a good one to consider if you want to add some dirt roads to your trips through that region.
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Don't you think that it's a ^%#$&# shame that Hunter S. Thompson wasn't an adventure rider? Imagine the ride reports...!