Two hours north of Atlanta, in the folds of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Mulberry Gap Mountain Bike Get-A-Way is stirring to life with the scent of morning coffee. As the day's first light filters through stands of Eastern hemlock, heads poke out of tents. A dog barks. Bleary-eyed riders stumble out of rustic one-room cabins built along a stream. Bikes lean against every gear-strewn porch.
But the day doesn't really begin until breakfast in 'the barn,' a gathering spot with Wi-Fi, a foosball table and a chandelier engineered from bike wheels and Christmas lights (left from a wedding). The family who runs this place heaves casseroles of home fries on the buffet, and the aroma of bacon is so thick you can practically lick the air.
Be warned: No matter how hard you hammer the climbs, no matter how many 4,000-calorie rides you log, no matter how much your Strava ride-elevation profile resembles a seismograph, you will gain weight here. Not just because you're in a region where barbecue is as religious an experience as an all-night tent revival. Not only because mac 'n cheese, fried pickles and cornbread count as vegetables here. The real reason a waist is a terrible thing to mind at Mulberry Gap?
Ginny Taylor Bixler, co-founder and head cook.
More precisely: Ginny's beef brisket, cornbread and from-scratch pasta sauce and hand-patted meatballs. Also: her smoked pork butt, baked beans (her grandmother's recipe) and hedonistic breakfasts of waffles and pancakes, bacon and sausage.
Ginny feeds the 46 or so mountain bikers who, on a busy weekend, fill the mountain-bike B&B she co-founded with her partner, Diane Kepley, in 2006. Luckily, Ginny once cooked for a ski lodge, so she knows how to feed a crowd.
And that is just one of the serendipitous reasons that led two retired moms from Florida-and now their grown son and daughter, a young married couple-to create, quite by accident, the most hospitable mountain-bike getaway on either side of the Mississippi.
MIND THE GAP
Mulberry Gap is a mountain-bike base camp, the hero-dirt version of a slopeside ski lodge, with hot showers, cabins, a dining hall and ride-in, ride-out access to the Pinhoti Trail, a 140-mile IMBA Epic, which snakes through the 750,000-acre Chattahoochee National Forest. It is rustic and remote, a refreshing throwback from the groomed and buffed machine-cut trails in vogue today. The climbs are cruel and the downhills can be technical-rocky, loose and wet.
How the Pinhoti became the Peach State's centerpiece trail is, like Mulberry Gap, a story of serendipity. The trail's founder, Mike Leonard, was 17 when he spread a map on his lap and drew a pencil line connecting the Talladega National Forest in Alabama to the southern terminus of the Appalachain Trail, which lies on Springer Mountain in Georgia's Chattahoochee. At that time, around 1970, mountain biking did not exist.
When Leonard started working in earnest on making his dream trail real in the 1980s, the U.S. Forest Service in Alabama was already on it. But while Alabama embraced the Pinhoti, Georgia's hiking community had other priorities-namely, the Appalachian Trail and the Benton MacKaye. Leonard struggled for Georgian support.
"I began meeting with people, and some of them were mountain bikers," Leonard says. "Someone said, 'Why don't we make the Pinhoti a multi-use trail?' I said, 'Great idea!' So the Pinhoti in Georgia became a mountain-bike trail right from the start." The Pinhoti remains hiking-only in Alabama, but Georgia's stretch is open to tires. As for Leonard: "I'm still not a mountain biker. I like to move through the woods and mountains slowly."
The most popular ride from Mulberry Gap-regulars call it 'Bearhoti'-starts with a 5-mile fire road climb to the trailhead of Bear Creek, a descent that crashes through streams and clamors down raw, unpolished singletrack that evokes the spirit of East Coast downhill. Pinhoti 1 and 2 deliver playful frolics through tight trees and open shade, hard earned with tough and technical climbs.
The Brutal Loop extends Bearhoti into a 40-mile loop with 7,400 feet of climbing, starting with a 13-mile unrelenting gravel grind to the top of Mountaintown Creek, where a steep grade punctuated with water bars can launch riders or eat them for lunch. Expect to get your feet wet-not all of the 21 stream crossings are rideable.
"If you want old-school, backcountry, challenging trail, this is it," says Mike Palmeri, owner of Cartecay River Bicycle Shop in Ellijay. "You are out there. It's no joke. You'd better be in shape and you'd better be packing food and water."
There several days worth of ride-in-ride-out options, including more sections of the Pinhoti, as well as Fort Mountain State Park, where the 15 miles of trail are "so hard-core, they'll wear you out," Palmeri says. In Ellijay, the River Loop, the Red and White Loop and the Boy Scout Loop offer short, intermediate rides nearer to civilization.
Beyond that, great trailheads lie within a half-day's drive in any direction. An hour south: Blanket's Creek and Rope Mill. An hour southwest: Snake Creek Gap, course of the famous winter time trials. An hour and change northwest: Chattanooga's Raccoon Mountain, Enterprise and Five Points. Two hours northeast: North Carolina's Tsali. Three hours southwest: Coldwater Mountain in Anniston, Alabama.
BEFORE THE BIKE
The riding alone is worth the trip, but you'll remember the off-bike benefits most. Like storytelling with new friends around a fire pit. Or soaking in stream-side hot tubs shaded by tall trees. And the food, of course (though you'll cuss that bacon on the climbs). But most of all, the people.
The creators of this mountain biker's Shangri-La didn't know much about mountain biking when they created it. Two Florida families seeking a mountain retreat, they found a private equestrian camp for sale. Kate and Andrew-high-school sweethearts still in college at the time-were into riding ATVs and saw a future in these hills. Their mothers saw a business opportunity.
Ginny and Diane opened it as a B&B for outdoorsy folks. They didn't realize their proximity to the trails until "the mountain bikers just kept showing up," Kate says. Then Georgia endurance racer Eddie O'Dea took Andrew on his first mountain-bike ride-a 40- mile soul-crusher. "I could hardly stand up," Andrew says, but he was hooked. He taught Kate during weekends home from college. When they graduated, they joined the family business.
They added a bike wash, shuttle service (for a small fee), guides and special events, including women's clinics, weddings and group retreats. The National Interscholastic Cycling League trained Georgia and Tennessee coaches here and Georgia-based Maxxis Tires held its first summit to showcase both tires and hospitality. Now Mulberry Gap caters exclusively to fat-tire guests.
"The mountain bikers adopted us," Kate says. "Now we're their home away from home."
RIDE MULBERRY GAP
EAT | Guests are served a home-cooked breakfast and dinner each day (lunch available, for a fee, with prior notice). Vegetarian or special dietary requests can be accommodated with advance notice. In Ellijay (13 miles from camp), find local microbrews and great burgers at River Street Tavern, Andouille sausage platters at Cajun Depot, great coffee and kale and quinoa salads at The Martyn House.
STAY | Cabins vary in size, sleep two to six, and have bunk or queen beds (linens included), air conditioning and heat. Rates include two home-cooked meals a day and range from $85 to $105 per adult, per night, depending on cabin choice. Camping rates vary between $15-$18 per person, with additional cost for meals. Hot showers in communal bathhouses. Free amenities include fire pits, hot tubs and Wi-Fi. Pets welcome (add $10/night). For purchase on property: beer, wine, snacks, firewood, bike repair parts and laundry ($8/load). Shuttles $5-$35, depending on location and drive time. mulberrygap.com
TRAILS | Find trail descriptions, maps, and some GPX files at mulberrygap.com. Visit Ellijay's Cartecay Bicycle Shop for beta on new trails and ask for owner Mike Palmeri, who sometimes gives visitors a tour of the trails. Cartecaybikes.com