Bike Destinations: Georgia On Our Minds

Ellijay’s deep south riding wonderland

When Mike Palmeri, the unofficial mountain biking greeter of Ellijay, Georgia, invited the Mountain Bike Action wrecking crew to sample the riding in his area, we jumped at the opportunity. Leaving the bone dry, dusty trails of the parched Southwest for a chance to ride the lush green trails of the Southeast was a no brainer.

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Accessibility: Ellijay is 30 miles south of Georgia’s northern border, near the point where Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia collide. Chattanooga, Tennessee’s, CHA Airport is the closest major airport at 70 miles out, but direct flights are limited (unless you live in Detroit, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, or Orlando). You are better off flying to Atlanta, Georgia, and making the 78-mile drive to Ellijay.

Driving distances to the town of Ellijay are:

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78 miles from Atlanta, Georgia
152 miles from Asheville, North Carolina
184 miles from Birmingham, Alabama
257 miles from Columbia, South Carolina
260 miles from Charlotte, North Carolina
408 miles from Memphis, Tennessee
516 miles from Orlando, Florida
848 miles from New York City, New York
2198 miles from Los Angeles, California

Maps: The Ellijay area offers an amazing number of riding opportunities. We highly recommend using the book, “Off The Beaten Track North Georgia” by Jim Parham to plan your riding. Ellijay’s Cartecay River Bike Shop is your other source for area maps and trail information.

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The ringleader: Mike Palmeri (in green, bottom right) has no trouble finding friends to go riding with. Four of these riders came up from southern Florida to join us on our rides. Mike owns the Cartecay Bike Shop in Ellijay.

Bikes: Short-travel trail bikes and 29er hardtails will handle the majority of trail conditions that we sampled. There are a few 3- to 5-mile singletrack climbs that definitely require low gearing.

The Trails

Spectacular! The place is loaded with fun and flowy singletrack with mostly reasonable climbs and fast descents. Trails are beginner friendly but far from boring for expert riders. Extensive tree coverage provides shade and deflection of the rain. These are the greenest, lushest forests we have ever had the pleasure to ride in (beating out Oregon’s King-Castle Trail for the honor). In the cooler months of fall, the trees shed their leaves to let the sun warm the trails.

It’s the price of progress that most of the huge, old-growth trees in the area were clear-cut for lumber needs in the last century, leaving new and younger trees growing up in their place. One exception was a huge, 400-year old tree called the Gennett Poplar. It is on the Bear Creek Trail and has a trunk 18 feet in circumference at its base. It was spared from the loggers, leaving a living example of how magnificent the trees were in this part of the country in centuries past.

The good news is that the younger trees are growing thick and fast, and the trail network is expanding as well. The locals are building more trails all the time, and the government is encouraging the expansion. These are some of the trails we got to sample.

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Pinhoti 3: The Pinhoti Trail is broken into five sections. Each section can be ridden as a separate ride. Gravel road crossings separate the five sections. Our hosts took us to the third section of the trail, known locally as P-3. We started with a shuttle up to the mountain lookout near the P-3 trailhead and found ourselves on a beautiful singletrack winding through the forest. The trail snakes back and forth and around the mountain with leaf-covered berms and red clay switchbacks. There were a few 3- to 5-minute climbs that stretched out our group, but the riding was first rate and lots of fun. The locals usually start the Pinhotis from Bear Creek or the Mulberry Gap Mountain Bike Getaway.

Amadahy Trail: This is a gorgeous, 4-mile loop that runs next to Carter’s Lake–a large man-made lake nestled in the mountains outside Ellijay with a huge earthen dam at one end. The lake is 500 feet deep and has many finger-like coves cutting in and out of the surrounding hills. The trail, which was built by local mountain bikers, is just a few yards from the shoreline, and it’s an absolute beauty. There are 2 miles of beautifully sculpted, fun and flowing singletrack, and then 2 more miles of wider trail that finish the ride. Even that part is good, with spectacular views of the lake and surrounding hills. There are no buildings anywhere in sight. You might wish that the trail were longer, but with such spectacular scenery and fun riding, you can circle it three or four times and never get tired of its beauty. There are some climbs on the trail that will eventually take their toll, so when you finally do get tired, you might want to do some fishing in the lake. A 36-pound striped bass was recently caught there, so bring your pole. The Amadahy trail system is 12 miles west of Ellijay off of Georgia State Hwy 282. Make a left turn onto Woodring Branch Road and the trailhead is 3 miles on your right.

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Scenic beauty: Built in 2006, the Amadahy Trail is the newest edition of trails to the Carters Lake area. The 3.5-mile trail is both fun and beautiful, with not a single building in sight.

Bear Creek Trail: Shuttle up Forest Service Road 68 for 25 minutes. The top has a lookout point where you can see for 70 miles on a clear day. Take off on a long, fun, sweepy downhill with a number of easily rideable stream crossings. This is the trail where you will see the surviving Gennett Poplar tree. The next section has moist, twisty, bermy trails that throw lots of little rock and root jumps at you.

Stanley Gap: We rode this trail our first day of riding in Georgia. Park at a game station lot and an 18-minute logging road ride gets you to the trailhead. The 5-mile singletrack climb was broken up nicely into climbing and recovery sections instead of a steady grind. The trail is on the sunny side of the mountain but semi-shaded by the trees.

The climb was worth the work, because we were rewarded with a fast and flowy descent through the trees. This is a good, long, training-ride trail if you’re looking to boost your daily mileage.

River Loop, Red and White: This trail is 5 miles east of Ellijay on Hwy 52. It is claimed to be the oldest mountain bike trail in the Southeast. It offers 6 miles of hardcore fun with 792 feet of climbing. Right out of the parking lot, ride downhill through a field of bright yellow wildflowers. Then come to a fun, soft, steep and rooty singletrack that snakes around the trees for 3 minutes and down to the Cartecay River.

From there, roll alongside the river, jumping off roots and small rocks. The trail twists through the trees and crosses a series of small streams. To get back to the parking lot, there is a solid 5-minute, challenging climb over small exposed roots. The trail throws everything at you, with super-tight singletrack, old-school style.

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Down by the river: The River Loop is claimed to be the oldest mountain bike trail in Georgia. It’s just under four miles long, but it’s a trail you won’t forget, with beautiful wildflowers, a technical descent, lush green ferns, a few stream crossings, and a heartbursting climb back to the trailhead.

Bike shops: Ellijay’s Cartecay River Bike Shop is a full-service, well-stocked bike shop that should be able to attend to any mechanical emergencies you might have on your trip. They carry Norco, Rocky Mountain, Santa Cruz, Jamis and Borealis bikes. They also offer bike rentals, group rides, local trail books and helpful trail advice. They can be reached at 706-635-2453.

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Main man: Mike Palmeri is the heart and soul of the Ellijay mountain bike community, as well as the owner of Ellijay’s Cartecay Bike Shop.

Weather: Georgia’s mountainous north is consistently cooler than other places in the state. Ellijay sits at 1280 feet, while the nearby mountains climb to as high as 4700 feet. Temperatures in the summer usually climb into the mid-to-upper 80s in the afternoon in Ellijay, with lows in the 60s at night.

During January and February, afternoon highs are usually around 50 degrees with low temperatures near 30 degrees. Annual snowfall averages about 4 inches a year, so if you are coming from a distance, it is best to skip the winter months.

We visited Ellijay in late spring and were welcomed with perfectly beautiful weather. We found overnight lows in the 50s and daytime highs in the 70s and low 80s. Under the trees on the mountain bike trails, however, the temperatures seemed like they stayed in the low 70s most of the time. The conditions really couldn’t have been much better.

The area averages 62 inches of rainfall a year, so you need to plan for that on your trip. The well-designed trails and extensive tree coverage manage the rainfall very well.

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Stream crossings aplenty: There are plenty of stream crossings in these mountains, but all of the ones we encountered were shallow enough to cross without a problem.

Lodging: Ellijay has several hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. We stayed in Valhalla Cabin, high in the mountains, about 15 minutes from the center of town. We highly recommend this beautiful place with cabins that include Internet service, two bedrooms and a loft sleeping area, a kitchen, a living room, and a hot tub on the porch. All great amenities, but what trumped it all were the amazing views overlooking the nearby mountains. The cabin sleeps six and costs $125 a night. There are four cabins on the property. Contact them at (404) 3140-8454.

Another lodging option nearby is the Mulberry Gap Mountain Bike Getaway. It offers a great network of trails just outside your cabin door. If that doesn’t convince you, they serve three delicious home-cooked meals each day in their dining area to fuel you for your rides. It costs $83 a night per person, with breakfast and dinner included. Call them at (706) 698-2865.

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Eats: The South takes pride in its home cooking for good reason. Southern fried chicken, biscuits-and-gravy, grits and “sweet tea” are some of the southern specialties that can be found in the area’s restaurants.

We recommend Ellijay’s Corner Stone Café, BigUns Barbeque and Cider Ridge.

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Travel advisory: Sunscreen and bug spray need to be in your travel kit. Ride with plenty of water and food if you are doing the long-distance trails, because you will be out there for a while with very little contact with the outside world. Pack a bottle of Tecnu to combat the poison ivy.

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Capital Idea: Georgia is committed to turning the northern part of its state into a modern-day mountain biking paradise. The riders are working with land managers to build more trails and doing it with the blessings of the local, county and state governments. To prove that commitment, back in 2008, Georgia legislators voted to name Gilmer County, of which Ellijay is the county seat, “The Mountain Biking Capital of Georgia.” The motion was carried. Now, head to the trails.

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