Trail Report: Tough Day on the Pinhoti

It has been a tough few weeks around here. But there have been happy moments as well. Our son turned seven. My wife and I celebrated 17 years of marriage. We are now at around a month before the Bel Monte Endurance Races. I had planned for and registered for the 50k race. As you may know, I’ve been battling knee issues, IT band issues, and other challenges while training. The brutally cold winter hasn’t helped me stay on track either. 

The Pinhoti Trail as it picks up at the Snake Creek Trailhead.
The Pinhoti Trail as it picks up at the Snake Creek Trailhead.

After a tough training run this weekend, I’ve decided to drop down to the 25k race at Bel Monte. It seems like a good idea to be safe, injury-free, and accomplish something. At the same time, I’d hate to make more work for the volunteers or cause another racer injury or duress trying to help me.

I hope that if the race goes well, it will be a springboard for a summer of strong training and a trail marathon in the early fall with maybe a 50k in the late fall.

At any rate, Saturday was a painful and humbling run on a beautiful trail with some wonderful weather. I was down in Dalton, GA where my in-laws live and had the chance to spend some time on the famed Pinhoti Trail. The Pinhoti is a trail that runs from Alabama into northwest Georgia and nearly connects to the Appalachian Trail. It’s not a complete wilderness trail as it cuts through some smaller towns including Dalton.

Blasted trees near Mill Creek Mountain.
Blasted trees near Mill Creek Mountain.

The section I tackled starts at a parking area and trailhead called Snake Creek Gap. Over the course of over 15 miles, the trail crests four peaks starting with Mill Creek Mountain, moving to Middle Mountain, then Hurricane Mountain, and finishing on the top of Dug Mountain. The whole section gives you about 2,500 feet of elevation gain. There are some decent views of the surrounding ridges and near Dug Mountain a few expansive views of Dalton.

Amazing views from the crest of Dug Mountain.
Amazing views from the crest of Dug Mountain.

It’s an extremely rocky trail with several challenging vertical sections that seem to eschew switchbacks in favor of stair-stepping large boulders. At one point, I was actually cursing the rocks. I was actually pointing and cursing rocks that seemed to jump up and snag my feet. It was one of the most mentally challenging runs I’ve had in recent memory. I just wanted to get off the mountain as fast as possible.

The trail is popular with bikers who must be highly skilled or else carry their bikes across some sections because it’s often just a pile of rocks. While the trail does provide its share of challenges, the trail is accessible enough for most hikers and is close to the surrounding communities making it a strong option for outdoors folks in north Georgia.

https://www.strava.com/activities/487471258/embed/f449a28d69870822e0fd18eb2a2b432878685c47

The rocky trail ultimately led me to the decision mentioned above as my ankles and feet just aren’t going to be ready for 50k of this. I hope that the next time we are visiting family, I can give the trail another shot and try to improve on a really tough day out.

Trail Report: Carvins Cove

This morning, I decided to do my long trail run at Carvin’s Cove up near Roanoke. It’s clear that the trails there are geared to mountain bikers more so than runners. There are lots of constant elevation changes with whoop-dee-dos and berms as well as hairpin turns. I’m sure that’s fun on a bike but those are momentum-killing features for trail runners.

Here’s a Strava rendering of the run.

https://www.strava.com/activities/432693321/embed/f113f71fbe7804677c1711d225f872a280d3fa90

After leaving the Bennett Springs parking lot, I started out on the Hi-Dee-Ho trail with the intention of turning off onto the Four Gorge trail but the trail markings are in a strange spot so I missed the turn. The Hi-Dee-Ho trail climbs up and up and up to Brushy Mountain Fire Road. I realized my mistake just at the foot of the hill but I decided to climb up it anyway. I had planned my route and it was about two miles short of my desired workout, 11.5 miles. This climb up and down Hi-Dee-Ho would add the two miles that I needed. It was a great choice because I was treated to views like the following.

The wonderful view as I climbed the Hi-Dee-Ho trail.
The wonderful view as I climbed the Hi-Dee-Ho trail.

I’m not a great or even good descender, probably due to fear of injury and existing weakness in my knees and ankles. So, you might notice that I don’t get the big pace bump that many folks do when descending hills. It was also made difficult because much of the trail was buried under intense leaf cover. Often, it was to my mid-calf or higher. You can see an example of it below.

My poor Altra Lone Peaks can barely see the sun under all those leaves.
My poor Altra Lone Peaks can barely see the sun under all those leaves.

After finally getting back down almost to where I started, I turned off onto the seemingly poorly named Four Gorge trail. I didn’t count but it seemed more like the Fourteen Gorge trail. This trail is absolutely beautiful but difficult to run. The trail picks way around over and across several gorges, or gulleys, challenging a runner with lots of turns and no consistent elevation. There’s always some climbing or descending going on. It was difficult for me to get a consistent pace going.

Now, about five or six miles into my run, I made my way to the Kerncliff trail which at this point winds back and forth under some big power lines. It’s here you can see the devastation to an ecosystem when power lines like this are installed. They appear to tear out all the existing vegetation and so lots of crowding of species that take advantage and maybe don’t fit well with the rest of the ecosystem that’s there already.

While the area was without its tree roots and ground cover, erosion begins and the Kerncliff trail shows some bad signs of this erosion especially around the intersection with the Jacob’s Drop trail. It’s sad to see because I suspect this could be ameliorated with some smart trail design or maintenance.

I eventually turned left onto the Comet trail which makes a steep climb and even steeper descent down to our only glimpse of Carvin’s Cove Reservoir. There is a boat dock on the opposite side of the reservoir from the trails I was on. There are quite a few stream crossings here. Along the way, I also found a guillotine tree that would be pretty scary for the cyclists using the trail.

This tree guillotine is a bit scary for cyclists on the trail.
This tree guillotine is a bit scary for cyclists on the trail.

After crossing a few streams and getting my Altra Lone Peaks soaking wet for the second weekend in a row, I moved onto the Tuck-A-Way and Enchanted Forest trails which got me back to another fire road called Happy Valley. Along the way, I was followed by a couple of deer that didn’t run away but just walked along occasionally looking up at me.

This deer had a friend with her and they were not afraid of me.
This deer had a friend with her and they were not afraid of me.

Happy Valley got me up to the Songbird trail which turns back toward the Bennett Springs parking lot where all this got started. It’s a gorgeous trail that hugs the side of the ridge opposite the valley from the ridge we were on top of at the top of Hi-Dee-Ho. The Songbird trail still has a bit of challenging sections but it’s much more consistent and even sports a special Holiday surprise.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas on the Songbird trail.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas on the Songbird trail.

I had originally planned on getting back to the parking lot via the Rattlin’ Run trail, which is somewhat new and isn’t even shown on the maps at the trailheads and parking lots at Carvin’s Cove. The Rattlin’ Run trail continues along the same path as Songbird which dips back down into the valley to meet up again with the Happy Valley fire road. When I got to the Rattlin’ Run/Songbird junction, I found this sign.

Decisions were made here.
Decisions were made here.

I only had about 1.5 miles to go to finish the run and I made a command decision to not tackle the double black diamond trail with a warning sign on those tired legs. I did walk a bit onto Rattlin’ Run and about 20 yards in I couldn’t even see where the trail went. Instead, I followed the Songbird trail down to Happy Valley and found the end of Carvin’s Cove Road where there’s a barn. Horses can use these trails and there were a lot of trailers and trucks parked there. My wife is a horse rider so I was excited to discover this new spot for her to come ride her horses.

I had a pretty easy one mile run on Carvin’s Cove Road to get me back to the parking lot where I was extremely happy to see my car get something to eat that wasn’t a Gu.

While the run was slower than I’d like with more walking and stopping than I typically do, it was likely a good training run helping me practice dealing with some mental adversity and some challenging trail conditions. I’m not planning my next run to be at Carvin’s Cove but I’ll come back before all my training is done and see what I can do. It’s great having such resources this close to home and I want to make sure I take advantage of them.