Peaks of Otter via Apple Orchard Mountain

Day 2 on the Blue Ridge parkway began with a breakfast of oatmeal then breaking down my camp at Otter Creek campground.  I had a 3 mile ride to the James River Visitor Center where I stopped to charge my cell phone while taking in the exhibits.  The James River Visitor Center tells the story behind the construction of the James River Canal and the Kanawha Canal that was begun in 1758 and not completed until 1851.  During those years the project encountered many difficulties that interrupted construction including the American Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, financial failings, and frequent flooding.  When completed there were 90 locks between Buchanan, VA and Richmond, VA.  A walkway underneath the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge leads visitors across the James River to the restored Battery Creek lock.  Eventually, rail travel proved more efficient in moving goods and the towpath was converted a railroad bed.

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Blue Ridge Parkway crossing the James River

The James River crossing is the lowest elevation on the Blue Ridge Parkway at 650 feet.  My journey this day was to reach the Peaks of Otter lodge 25 miles away.  Twenty-five miles might seem like a short day in the saddle but it included a climb from the James River to Apple Orchard Mountain at an elevation of 3,950 feet or a climb of 3,300 feet in 13 miles.  Let me tell you that was a beast of a climb.  I was introduced to this climb by a gradual grade for the first mile or two and I was able to manage speeds of 10 mph to 14 mph.  However, knowing the amount of climbing ahead of me I know the grade would steepen very soon and it did.  Most of the remaining climb averaged in the 6% to 8% range and my speed was a pedestrian 5 mph to 6 mph.  The longer I climbed the more my legs began to ache.  Finding a cadence and rhythm and keeping it was difficult to maintain.  Every now and then I would stand up to pedal to stretch my calves.  My first rest stop came about 5 miles into the climb.  I would stop for 5 minutes or so to grab a snack and hydrate.  As the climb wound up the mountain I would stop every mile or so. Even though the rest stops were short my legs felt refreshed as I got back on the road. However, that feeling only lasted for a quarter mile of climbing then my legs began to feel the burn again.  Overall, I think I stopped 7 times during the 13 mile climb.  The National Park Service has built guardrails out of large timbers along sections of the Parkway.  During two of my rest stops I laid down on a guardrail to rest and improve circulation to my legs.  I was so tired that I would lay very still and any time a vehicle passed by I made sure to more a hand, an arm or leg just a bit to let them know I was still alive.

The climb was taking a huge toll on my legs.  One mistake I made was not bringing enough water to stay hydrated. Two miles from the summit at Apple Orchard Mountain my calves began cramping and I was very low on water.  To prevent more severe cramping I dismounted the bike and walked the bike and trailer about three quarters of a mile before resuming the climb to the summit at Apple Orchard Mountain.IMG_0454

After reaching the summit of Apple Orchard Mountain you would think I would have taken some time to rest and enjoy the feat I just completed.   However, temperature at that elevation on this day was in the high 40’s and there was a brisk wind.  Add to that my clothes were wet from perspiration and I was cold and still had 12 miles to go to reach the Peaks of Otter lodge.  My wonderful wife made me a reservation at the lodge so I could get a good nights rest on a bed instead of  sleeping in a tent.  Over the remaining 12 miles the elevation dropped about 1,400 feet and was a mix of short climbs and longer downhills so I was able to coast a good bit and rest my legs.  I was glad to arrive after spending 5 hours in the saddle that day and having traveled 85 miles over the past two days.

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Peaks of Otter Lodge

Headed to the Blue Ridge Parkway

My bicycle trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway began in Fort Defiance, VA the second week of May 2016.  My wife, Marilyn, and I stopped to visit friends for a couple days and Marilyn was going to stay with them while I was riding.  On a clear day from our friend’s patio you can look east

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The Blue Ridge Mountains are blanketed in fog

and see Rockfish Gap on Afton Mountain which is the confluence of the southern end of the Skyline Drive and the northern entrance of the Blue Ridge Parkway.   The morning my trip was to begin I awoke to a cloudy sky and a crisp chill in the air.  From the patio I looked east and the mountains were shrouded in fog.  A weather system had FullSizeRendercreated a blanket of fog from the ridges of the Blue Ridge mountains eastward.  Undaunted, I had to go to Rockfish Gap hoping the fog would lift by the time we reached the parkway entrance.  As we ascended the mountain from Waynesboro, VA we entered a fog bank that was thick as pea soup.  It was obvious that beginning the ride in these conditions would be foolish and unsafe.  So we turned back to Waynesboro and went shopping (not my idea).

The next day was more of the same.  The weather system that created the foggy conditions had persisted for another day.   It was like I was in a shortened version of the movie “Groundhog Day”.  We had clear, sunny skies until you were near Rockfish Gap then thick fog just like the day before.  The only people we saw moving near the entrance to the parkway were hikers passing through on the Appalachian Trail. FullSizeRender(2)

To make the best of this situation I did get in several miles of riding each day along some back roads in Fort Defiance.  The roads offered small hills which I took advantage of to get some last minute leg work in before climbing the big “hills”.

The third day was the charm.  Clear, sunny skies over the Blue Ridge mountains.  So away I went.  Most experienced bicycle tourists will recommend that on the first day you should ride about half the distance you expect to average each day.  The route I mapped  averaged approximately 38 miles per day.  However, the first Blue Ridge Parkway ridesouthbound campground on the parkway, Otter Creek campground, was at Milepost 60.8.  I was in for a long day.  Around Milepost 38 I could see dark clouds forming to the west.  Within the next two miles I stopped to put on my rain suit just as the rain began to fall.  For the next 15 miles I rode in a steady rain as the temperature began to fall.  One thing I learned is you sweat going uphill and get chilled going downhill even when wearing a windbreaker.

The elevation at Rockfish Gap is 1,909 feet and the first ten miles are primarily uphill to Ravens Roost at 3,200 feet.  From there to Otter Creek campground the elevation varies from the highest point north of the James River at 3,334 feet and descends to the James River at 650 feet, the lowest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  So from Milepost 0 to the James River at Milepost 63 the total feet climbed was 4,802 feet.  I did cross the James River on the first day to reach a restaurant for dinner and acquire cell service to let my wife know I made it this far.

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My bike and trailer

To say I slept well that night is an understatement of epic proportions.  Even as the nighttime temperature dipped to 40 degrees I crawled into my one-person tent laid on top of my sleeping bag and my legs felt like they were floating.  I barely moved as I reflected on what I had accomplished.  Even during training over level terrain back home I had never ridden what actually totaled 69 miles in one day and 6.75 hours in the saddle.  Let alone 69 miles through mountains.  It was both exhausting and exhilarating.  This may not seem like a big deal to experienced touring cyclists but it was to this lowcountry senior.

If you thought biking 69 miles in the mountains in one day was a good day wait till I tell you what I faced on day two.