Appalachian Gravel Growler
217 Mi.(349 KM)
% Rideable (time)
Western North Carolina is renowned for its ever-scenic Appalachian Mountains, where unending layers of the Blue Ridge take on a hundred hues as they disappear into the horizon. It’s also known for its picturesque forest service and gravel roads that spiral deep into the hills. Nestled within this beautiful swath of the oldest mountain range in the world is Asheville, aka “Beer City, USA,” as well as several other towns and communities that collectively make up one of the top craft beer destinations in the United States.
We designed the Appalachian Gravel Growler to stitch together the best of these breweries using the most scenic and sought-after gravel roads that western North Carolina has to offer. The result is a varied 4-6 day bikepacking route that’s made up of not only gravel and beer, but several stretches of approachable singletrack, gated forest roads, an epic segment along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and bike paths and greenways to navigate the urban areas.
On a rainy Friday in late October, I set out with Joe Cruz and Daniel Golden (Search and State) to ride this route in full. The Appalachian Gravel Growler has been long in the works, with several sections scouted prior to this ride, but this was the first complete through-ride. The route was conceived as a sister route to Vermont’s Green Mountain Gravel Growler, and both are designed specifically for drop-bar/gravel bikes. Two of us rode the new 2019 Salsa Warbird with 47mm road plus tires. I’d consider this bike the perfect tool for the job. That said, just about any bike will do. The route is made up of 46% gravel (some primitive), 6% singletrack, 43% paved backroads, and 5% dedicated/carless bike paths (with more to be added based on bikeways that are currently in the works). Even though there is a bit of pavement on the route, it is fast, so the large majority of time on route is spent on gravel and singletrack. As such, we’d recommend a 38mm tire designed for mixed terrain, at minimum. 650b x 47mm seems to be the sweet spot.
We awarded the Appalachian Gravel Growler a 6 out of 10 in difficulty. This rating is based largely on the amount of climbing involved in the route. Finishing the ride in five days requires just under 5,000 feet of climbing per day, for which a solid level of fitness is mandatory. Generally speaking, there’s not too much technical riding, save for a short (but steep) descent through a power line cut. Part of that section requires a brief hike-a-bike due to the steep and rocky terrain. There are also two singletrack segments that are rooty at times, and one of them has a couple stream crossings. Otherwise, the route is pretty straightforward, with plenty of resupply along the way. While most of the paved sections are on lesser-used backroads, beware that there are a few short stints on roadways that may have moderate traffic at times, so wear bright clothes and bring lights.
The Appalachian Gravel Growler is a point-to-point route. This was a necessity, both to integrate the best breweries that are within three major locations, and to feature the best gravel riding in the area without having to unnecessarily force added miles and extra paved roads. For a full description of the breweries, as well as our choice of beers, click on the Trail Notes tab below. As far as the logistics to begin and end the route, you can either book a shuttle to the route’s start in Morganton (two shuttle companies are listed under Must Know) or arrange your own transportation.
Many thanks to Search and State for keeping us warm and dry, Salsa Cycles for loaning us a pair of 650b Warbirds—stay tuned for a review—and Joe Cruz for making beer notebooks (and taking studious notes). And, to the seven breweries we toured: Fonta Flora, Zillicoah, Burial Beer, Hi-Wire, Wicked Weed, New Belgium, and Oskar Blues. Cheers!
- Bucketlist gravel roads that include Maple Sally, Pineola Road, Old 105, Curtis Creek Road, FSR 5000, Yellow Gap Road, and 475B.
- Several bits of singletrack and lesser-ridden forest roads to keep things interesting.
- A chance to taste some of the best beers on the planet from innovative brewers such as Fonta Flora, Burial, and Zillacoah.
- A flight of barrel aged beer with lunch at Wicked Weed.
- Tapping into craft beer history at legendary breweries like New Belgium and Oskar Blues.
- One of the most beautiful stretches on the Blue Ridge Parkway around Mount Mitchell and Craggy Gardens.
- Views of the Blue Ridge all along the route.
- Exploring all that Asheville and Brevard have to offer.
- Depending on your timing, you can tie some bikefishing, swimming, or leaf-peeping into the trip.
- We’ve structured the pace of the route to allow for most of a day spent visiting breweries and grabbing some good meals in Asheville. It wouldn’t be out of the question to spend a whole day and overnight there.
- Hypothetically, this route is rideable all year long, but the Blue Ridge Parkway is closed to automobiles once the cold sets in (usually in mid-November to February/March) and isn’t plowed or salted. As such, beware of ice. There are many springs and waterfalls that can produce streams of water on the roadway. These can become treacherous, and even deadly when icy due to the high speed potential. Check closures here.
- The weather in the southeast is completely unpredictable. While there may be stretches in January-February where temps are mild and pleasant, it could also be below freezing with sleet and snow. The absolute best times to ride are April-May and September-October, but even those shoulder seasons can be a bit uncertain.
- Bring your rain gear. Pisgah National Forest has no shortage of annual rainfall.
- Asheville has a major airport with discounted airfare through Allegiant Air.
- This is a point-to-point route, but there are plenty of shuttle options. There are two companies we can recommend, whose prices range from $75 and up. Try Trails n Ales NC and Looking Glass Mountain Guides.
- Need to rent (or buy) bikepacking bags? Rockgeist, an Asheville bagmaker rents and sells bags. The full-frame bag on my Warbird shown in several of these photos was made by Rockgeist. And, they are on route (see map near Zillicoah).
- There are two bike shops at the beginning and end of the route that we recommend. If you need any bikepacking supples, both stock a few things. In Morganton, check out Overmountain Cycles, right next to Fonta Flora; Overmountain carries Salsa, Jamis, and Kona and rents bikes, as well. In Brevard, The Hub Pisgah is the spot for bikes, gear, and beer… as well as parking if you need to leave a car (make sure to ask Sam, TJ, or Rusty, and tell them we sent you).
- Plenty of established campsites exist along the route. We marked a few on the map.
- There are also pay campgrounds on route, some of which have showers and other facilities.
- There is no shortage of hotels and motels in all shapes and sizes in Morganton, near Linville Gorge, and in Asheville and Brevard.
- Asheville also has a hostel with camping—Bon Paul and Sharky’s—see map for details.
- Although all are not marked on the map, there are tons of roadside campsites in the area along 1206 (Yellow Gap Road). There are also a few up high along 475B.
- There are plenty of convenience stores on route. We marked most of the strategic spots on the map.
- There are also restaurants and diners scattered in a couple of places, although most are at the beginning and end, as well as in Asheville, which has a burgeoning foodie scene.
- Additionally, there is no shortage of filterable water—springs, creeks, rivers, etc. That said, we completed the route without needing the filter, as most convenience stores, campgrounds, and breweries have spigots or faucets to fill up.
- Recommended eats in Asheville include the Wicked Weed Brew Pub, lunch at White Duck Taco, Taco Billy for a hearty breakfast, Chai Pani for some Indian street food, Salsa’s for a huge meal with a Central American influence, and Cucina24 or Limones if you really want to splurge.
- Additional breweries that we didn’t visit (but come recommended) include Hillman Beer, The Wedge, and Ecusta (in Brevard). And, if you have time, check out Sierra Nevada’s massive complex before or after the ride.
- Also, don’t miss a stop at the Hub in Brevard, a great taproom in a bike shop (open until 6:00 pm most days).
Here is the Appalachian Gravel Growler by brewery and beer. Joe (JC) and I (LW) each picked one beer from every brewery we visited. Although we list opening hours, we recommend checking before your departure as these are subject to change.
The Appalachian Gravel Growler starts in downtown Morganton at Fonta Flora, a tasteful and creative brewery that places emphasis on seasonal ingredients and brings a Belgian inspiration to its beer. Timing the start might be a little tricky as their taproom is only open Sun 12:00-7:00 pm, Mon-Wed 5:00-9:00 pm, and Thurs-Sat 5:00-10:00 pm. A Sunday start might be perfect; otherwise, you might consider arriving in Morganton the evening prior to departure to get the full experience. If not, you can also get their cans from a couple different bottle shops in Morganton (https://fontaflora.com/beer-finder/).
(LW) Rewilding (Brett IPA) – 6.5%
This was one of several amazing beers from Fonta Flora that made it really hard to pick a favorite. But, I love names, and hoppy wild ales, so this one stuck. Rewilding is a 100% Brettanomyces India Pale Ale mashed with barley from Riverbend Malt House in Asheville. It pours hazy orange and features a perfectly hoppy, tropical, fruit-forward flavor with an extra dry and crisp finish. Better yet, proceeds from the sale of Rewilding go to the Jason William Hunt foundation, a non-profit wilderness organization dedicated to “helping at-risk teens learn to believe in themselves.”
(JC) Beets, Rhymes, and Life (Saison) – 6%
This is brewed with local beets to give it a cheery red cast and the definite flavor of that earthy taproot. Well into my 20s I hated beets— “tastes like dirt!”—but then something happened and now I just can’t get enough of them. This beer was my underdog favorite at Fonta Flora. I loved it on the nose and front end of the palate, and then it just got better with a mild sourness and medium bubbles. I carried a can in the frame bag and drank it outside that night by headlamp; the freezing rain and shivering couldn’t wipe the smile from my face.
Zillicoah Beer Company is relatively new in the Asheville beer scene. However, it’s already made a name for itself, and thus came highly recommended as a stop by several other veteran brewers. Founded by several area brewers, including the head brewer at Hi-Wire, Jonathan Parks, the brewery is located on a large plot along the French Broad River in Woodfin, NC. Zillicoah specializes in open-fermented farmhouse ales and lagers. It did not disappoint as our first stop when we dropped into the Asheville area. In addition, the Taqueria Munoz food truck is on site and shares the same hours: Mon-Fri 2:00-10:00 pm, Sat 12:00-10:00 pm, Sun 12:00-8:00 pm.
(LW) Citrine Dream (Hoppy Farmhouse Ale) – 6.4%
I’m a big fan of hoppy barrel aged beers, and I believe this was one of the best I’ve tried to date. The Hoppy Farmhouse Ale is the first in Zillicoah’s Citrine Dream series. It has a dry finish with a really complex intermingling of flavors. It features Strata and Mosaic hops that adds a dry, hoppy, and crisp edge to the dank and funky undertones of the brett.
(JC) Foudre Biere (Brewed in collaboration with Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, Virginia) – 7.7%
Zillicoah was for me the sleeper brewery of this trip. I’d never heard of it and they’re relatively new. Somehow, they’ve stormed into the lead group, as if some kind of prodigy. This foudre was flat out excellent: an initial kick on the tongue, fizzy, very sour with a buttery fragrance throughout. There’s a beer or two that would end up eclipsing this one by the end of the trip, but it was close. Let me also give a nod to the Helles (4.7%). Amazing. Do not miss this brewery, and time it so that you grab something at the food truck.
Burial Beer was our favorite stop on the singletrack-oriented Appalachian Beer Trail, and maintains this standing for this route as well. Burial is known for resurrecting old styles of beer and adding their own creative signature using quality, interesting ingredients. Their taplist changes frequently and they are regularly introducing new brews. Beers such as The Rosary, Slaughtered Fates, and Decree of The Goddess have names as complex as their flavor profiles. Recently, Burial has been delving into the world of small maltsters and creating truly interesting lagers, such as Vibrant Feedback, a complex rustic lager made in collaboration with Jackie O’s Brewing and Haus Malts. The facility in Asheville’s South Slope offers plenty of interesting “metal” decor, an outside seating area, as well as an in-house restaurant. Taproom hours are Mon-Fri 2:00-10:00 pm, Sat-Sun 12:00-10:00 pm. The kitchen serves from a menu designed by Brian Canipelli, owner of Cucina 24 and a James Beard Nominee. It’s open Wed-Sun, serving a very Asheville-centric Jazz Brunch every Sunday morning.
(LW) Surf Wax (West Coast IPA) – 6.8%
With a quote on the can taken directly from Point Break, it’s hard to resist the charm of this beer. That aside, Surf Wax has been one of my favorite IPAs for a while now. I basically buy it whenever I can find it—mostly post-ride at The Hub in Pisgah. With an excellent blend of Citra, Mosaic, Columbus, and Centennial hops, Surf Wax has a beautifully crisp profile, perfect for a post-ride libation. Via con dios.
(JC) Degree of the Goddess (Petite Saison) – 3.8%
I don’t know where to start with accolades for Burial. The black metal beer names and narratives? (One of the cans intones, “Here reside the amalgamated bastards of thought, the tattered remains of contempt, and the evocative burst of pure bliss.”) The taproom that somehow combines cozy menace with whimsy? Tim Gormley’s encyclopedic knowledge of the history of beer? David Paul Seymour’s [https://www.instagram.com/davidpaulseymour] can art? Every beer I tried here was exemplary. I’m going to go against the grain and admit that my favorite in the moment was this petite saison, low enough in alcohol to drink all day, and I definitely wanted to. It’s light and round with flowers and a tartness at the end. In a different context of just sitting to drink excellent beer, I’d be thrilled to grab more Hawkbill American IPA (6%).
“Hops are a wicked and pernicious weed,” stated Henry VIII to protest independent brewers who made their own “untaxed beer” during the 16th century. Wicked Weed, whose name comes from this quote, is an innovative brewery that’s renowned for its cutting edge barrel-aged sours and big, hoppy ales. Started in 2011, it grew fast and was bought by Anheuser-Busch in 2017. While some locals were up in arms over this merger, Wicked Weed remained true to its roots and independant in its creative brewing processes. As we can attest, its beers remain incredible. A beer tour in the area wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the Brew Pub and/or the Funkatorium, the East Coast’s first taproom solely dedicated to sour and funky beer. Hours at the brewpub are Mon-Wed 11:30 am – 11:00 pm, Thurs 11:30 am – 11:00 pm, Fri-Sat 11:30 am – 1:00 am, Sun 12:00-11:00 pm. The Funkatorium runs from Mon-Wed 2:00-10:00pm, Thurs 2:00 pm – 12:00 am, Fri-Sat 12:00 pm – 12:00 am, Sun 11:00 am – 10:00 pm.
(LW) Translucent (Double IPA) – 8.7%
An excellent double IPA featuring Vic Secret and Citra hops. Wicked Weed used a yeast strain called London Fog in this one, as well as a new whirlpooling technique during the brewing process. Translucent is a fresh, juicy, hazy, double IPA that is smooth on the palate for an easy drinking, subdued bitterness. Watch out, this one will sneak up on you.
(JC) Recurrant (Sour Wild Ale) – 7.7%
I feel like I live far enough away from Asheville not to be bothered by the fact that Wicked Weed was bought by AB. Their beer is titanic, and if AB’s distribution means that I can get it at Whole Foods in Manhattan, I’m all for it. Recurrant is dry and tart and heads in the direction of a European country wine that echoes the oak barrels it started its life in. The black currants are always present, but there are layers here. This one is ridiculous, and in the conversation for the best beer on the route.
Hi-Wire is another brewery that came recommended by Tim Gormley at Burial, as well as the folks at Fonta Flora. That simply goes to show how in sync and collaborative the brewers in this region are. Hi-Wire has three sides to its story. First is their medium to large scale canned beers, such as Hop Circus, their flagship IPA. Second is their barrel-aged sour and wild ales (bottled in large artisan bottles and on tap when possible). And third is their specialty beers series. We were keen to try them all and were most impressed by the sours. They have two facilities, the larger of which, “The Big Top,” is slightly off route by a mile, but well worth a visit. The smaller, original South Slope location is a little more intimate. Its hours are: Mon-Thurs 4:00-11:00 pm, Fri 2:00 pm – 1:00 am, Sat 12:00 pm -1:00 am, Sun 1:00-10:00 pm.
(LW) Vintage Sour Ale (Sour) – 8.11%
The latest sour that Hi-Wire had on tap for their Sour and Wild Ale Program was the foeder-aged Vintage Sour Ale with Black Tea and Peaches. We had several beers at once, but this one stood out based on the interesting combination of flavors. The subtle bitterness of black tea juxtaposed with the sweet and tartness of peach made for a memorable tasting.
(JC) Blueberry Basil (Wild Ale) – 6%
The blueberry and basil flavors strangely work terrifically together to create a kind of flowery background to this ale. There’s a sharpness that’s fun when the glass gets close to your nose. I felt like during so much of this trip I was digging the sours, so the sweetness of this one took some concentration and warming up to. On a hot day at a picnic, this would be just the thing.
As many folks my age will agree, Fat Tire might just be the grandfather of all craft beer. While it may not seem ultra-creative or special now, there was a time when you could only get it in Colorado. At the time, it was a momentous treat that usually accompanied a visit to the Rocky Mountain State. It was those small-batch, local ideals that started the craft beer revolution in the first place. Fast forward a couple decades and New Belgium opened an incredible facility on the banks of the French Broad River in Asheville. The Asheville brewery produces most of New Belgium’s beers that are distributed on the East Coast. In addition, the facility features a nice outdoor space, taproom, tours, and conveniently for us, a nice location right on the bike path. The New Belgium brewery is a must-see, so make sure to arrange a tour in advance. It’s free! Hours are Mon-Sat 11:00 am – 8:00 pm, Sun 11:30 am – 8:00 pm.
(LW) La Folie (Flanders Oud Bruin) – 7%
I’ve long been a fan of La Folie, from the first time I had it at “Clips of Faith,” New Belgium’s independent short film festival in Charlotte, NC. This wood-aged, sour brown spends one to three years in big oak barrels, known as foeders. Although technically a sour brown ale, it has a nice deep red cherry taste that’s reminiscent of a flanders red, and is refreshingly tart.
(JC) Carnie Blood (Golden Sour) – 7.7%
Carnie Blood is very sour but smooth at the same time. It’s not particularly bubbly, so the drinking experience is direct and achieves a kind of homemade wine vibe. I loved the strong hibiscus tones. This was something of a tie with the Le Terroir dry hopped sour, which almost implied a port.
Similar to New Belgium, Oskar Blues played a major role in the history of craft beer as a whole. In short, they started the canned craft beer movement. They were also one of the first breweries to open up in these parts—in December of 2012—so we decided it was appropriate to end this route at their brewery in Brevard, NC. The facility features an outdoor patio bar, a taproom open daily, free tours of the brewery, and the Oskar Blues CHUBwagon food truck. They host local and regional bands five nights a week, too. The taproom is open Mon-Thurs 12:00-9:00 pm, Fri-Sat 12:00-10:00 pm, Sun 12:00-8:00 pm. Tours are at 4:00 pm daily, with additional tours Fri-Sun at 2:00, 3:00, and 5:00 pm.
(LW) Can-O-Bliss (IPA) – 7.2%
Even though Oskar Blues is merely a hop, skip, and a jump from my house, this was the first time I tried Can-O-Bliss. I was immediately impressed, as I am generally a fan of dry/citrus IPAs. This “cannabis-themed” beer is also packaged in 12oz cans. As Joe put it, “wildflower aroma, medium body with a full mouth feel, citrus flavors, and very front of palate taste.”
(JC) Rum Death by Coconut (Black Ale) – 10.8% (!)
This is a full mouth experience: coconut, obviously, but also hints of port and desert flowers, plus a serious rum alcohol final kick. I don’t normally go for beers that seem to be a novelty, but this one was so interesting and serious that it won me over. If you’re more in the mood for something that is less esoteric, Can-o-Bliss is an excellent juicy IPA, as recommended above.