Sassafras Mountain and Caesars Head
For our family vacation this year we decided to drive to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It would be a long, sixteen plus hour drive with four kids so we considered options for a place to stop along the way. I knew that there was some great riding in the Blue Ridge mountains and although it was a bit out of the way, I was able to work it into the itinerary 🙂
I’d heard a lot about Caesars Head and noticed that it was only about 20 km from Sassafras Mountain, so I planned a route that would include them both and hopefully get me back on the road to Myrtle Beach by noon. We spent the night in Easley, which was in easy riding distance of both climbs, and also close to Anderson, where my family would visit Newspring Church while I was on the bike. (We love Perry Noble!) In order to shorten up the ride and save time, we arranged that Carrie would drive back from Anderson and pick me up at the Pumpkintown Mountain restaurant near the bottom of Caesars Head… a total ride of about 110 km.
On Sunday morning I had breakfast with my family at the motel before setting out a bit later than planned. It was raining steadily but the temperature at least was very comfortable, averaging about 20 Celsius. I had downloaded the route to my Garmin and was following the turn by turn directions. It should only have taken about an hour to ride about 32 km to the base of Sassafras Mountain, but before I even got out of Easley, there seemed to be a glitch in the GPS data and no matter which way I went, I couldn’t get back on course. I restarted the route on my Garmin with no success. After wasting too much time, I decided to bite the bullet and turn on data roaming on my iPhone so that I could access a map and get back on my way.
There was very little traffic on the roads on a Sunday morning and it was a nice area for riding. Everything was so green and the distant mountains were shrouded in mist. I finally reached the start of my first climb and was greeted by a sign that said the road was closed. I really didn’t have any other options, so decided to go for it and hope that I could make it through, even if I had to get off the bike and portage. Thankfully I would turn off before the obstruction and the ride to the top of Sassafras would be as smooth as it can get, with newly paved surfaces on the road.
Sassafras Mountain is the highest point in South Carolina at 1083 m. It was a long climb… almost 20 km, but was broken up into two segments with a downhill stretch about halfway up. On paper it looked pretty tame. According to Strava it was a Cat 1 with a gain of 717 m and an average grade of less than 4%. All I can say is that this turned out to be quite misleading and the low average grade was probably affected by the downhill and flat sections on the way up. The start of the climb was a steady 7 – 9% before easing off and descending. At this point I was feeling good and got lulled into a sense of false security. Then the grade started to get really tough. There were a couple of uncomfortably long sections in the 18-22% range and I was wishing for a compact crank at times. I found it to be quite a challenge… more difficult than Caesars Head… and I was at my limit at times. Thankfully there was some respite after the hardest part as it flattened out again for a while. Then it probably averaged about 8% for the last 4.5 km.
It took me a little over an hour to reach the top. Wow! That was the biggest hill I’d ever ridden up. It felt pretty good too, but Chimney Top Gap will always strike a little fear in my soul : )
It was wet and foggy and there wasn’t much of a view from where the parking lot was located at the end of the road. I didn’t have time to sightsee either, so I just turned around and headed back down. The road surface was freshly paved and really nice, but I was very wary about the hairpin turns and the wet conditions… especially since there were places on the road where I could see the oily film from the fresh asphalt. I had no doubt in my mind that I could hit 100 km/hr on the steep sections. Normally I enjoy a fast descent, but today I didn’t want to take any risks. My family was expecting me at the rendezvous. I rode down like a wee girl.
Once at the bottom, it was about 20 km along Highway 11 to Caesars Head. According to Strava, this climb is a Cat 2 with a gain of 619 m and an average grade of 6%. I was behind schedule and it was around 11:30 am when I reached the Pumpkintown Mountain. I was supposed to meet Carrie at noon. She wasn’t there yet so I kept going, knowing that I would be late. I figured I could do the 10.5 km climb in less than 45 minutes. Then I would call or text her when I got to the top to let her know that I was on my way. It shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes to descend.
This climb was completely different than Sassafras, which varied so much in grade and effort required. There is not much respite as the ascent to Caesars Head is a steady and relentless uphill haul for 10.5 km. There were a couple of really short spurts where it ramped up to 15 or 16%, but overall the grade was much more constant. I didn’t need to use my 28 tooth cog, and for the most part I could stay in the saddle and tap out a steady rhythm. It definitely required a considerable effort to maintain pace and my legs were definitely burning, but it didn’t hurt like the walls on Sassafras. It took me almost 40 minutes to reach the top. There were times along the way when I would look at my Garmin and wonder “Are we there yet?” … I could kinda relate to my kids better now as they asked that question a lot during the long drive. I tried to call my wife and let her know that I made it, and was on my way back, but I couldn’t get a signal. As usual, I didn’t have time to check out the view and just turned around and went back down. The roads here were mostly dry and I felt more comfortable, especially since there was no real vertical sections. The descent was cool. I was having so much fun I missed my turn back to highway 11.
I finally reached the restaurant after 12:30 and Carrie was very relieved to see me alive and in one piece : ) I was soaking wet. Fortunately there was a giant foam pumpkin out front of the Pumpkintown Mountain Opry that made a good change room! Once in dry clothes, I grabbed a cappuccino and got back on the road to Myrtle Beach for a nice family vacation.
Getting a little taste of the mountains has definitely left me wanting more. Can’t wait to do that again!