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Eastern Mountain 'Wheeling - Tennessee/North Carolina Expedition

Posted in Events on September 23, 2016
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Spring season in the Southeast is always a good time for a wheeling adventure. The cold, sleet, and ice have cleared. Then comes warmer temperatures and spring rains. For us, it was time to hit the trails again and do some exploring. But this wasn't a simple day trip but a weeklong adventure with 13 rigs that would cover nearly 800 miles.

Though many in the group had travelled hundreds of miles to get here, we stamped Seneca, South Carolina, as the start of our week. The group, known as the Florida Adventure Rigs, was vehicularly diverse. Each in the group drove the entire trip and carried all the gear needed to camp each night while we ventured from place to place.

On Day One, we dropped into Southeast Overland, a 4WD shop run by Steve Springs. Southeast Overland specialize most in outfitting rigs for overlanding and the kind of camping and wheeling trip we were on. Some in our group picked up recovery equipment in hopes it would stave off the need for vehicle extraction on this trip, but that remained to be seen.

On Day Two we were deep in Adventure Off Road Park in south-central Tennessee. We covered green and blue-rated trails. Matt Simpson ascends one of the hills in his mildly modified ’96 4Runner.

We hit the highway and in a matter of hours had been through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee, ending near the small town of South Pittsburgh, Tennessee. Here lies Adventure Off Road Park (AOP), a 500-acre tract of land situated in the mountains of south-central Tennessee. Though relatively small in size, the owners are making good use of the land to provide a wide variety of trails.

We dropped tents in a large grassy area within AOP and played on the trails for the next day or so. The fee-to-play park offers easy, moderate, and difficult trails, and we tried some of each. Despite heavy rains before we got there, we were treated to nearly clear skies and awesome weather.

We played on elevation changes in the lush woods and found water crossings in the low areas. The terrain was a combination of loose dirt and rocky outcroppings. For those looking for fairly extreme challenges, they were there to be had. We had many days ahead of us and a lot more miles in our adventure, so we had fun but didn't push our mechanical limits against the trails.

Day Three found us moving again as we travelled north towards Jamestown, Tennessee, and the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, which spans nearly 120,000 acres along the beautiful Cumberland Plateau. We found our next camping spot at Bandy Creek Campground. This area offers all kinds of outdoor activities in the forest and on the waterways. If you're also into canoeing or kayaking, you'll find even more fun here.

Our local dirt destination was Pickett State Forest. We explored deep into the wooded trails, finding some substantial mud in places. Again, it didn't pour on us, but the trails were well soaked from previous rains. We found some challenging climbs and rock ledges, accompanied by some truly scenic views.

Rising on Day Five, we checked over our rigs, broke camp, and then jumped back on pavement heading east. Near Sharps Chapel lies one of the last operating auto ferries in eastern Tennessee. The Helms Ferry was constructed in 1936 to transport local residents between the small communities scattered along the Powell River. We made the crossing in several trips and enjoyed nostalgic passage as a small tugboat chugged the rusty barge across the water.

Following the backroads of Tennessee, we skirted Knoxville and crossed the Tennessee River, headed to Jeepism. Born by seven-slot addicts, Jeepism is a quaint Jeep-centric shop selling accessories and equipment to like-minded outdoor adventurers. The Jeepers in our group indulged here and all of us enjoyed the short stop.

Just down the highway is the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. We spent time exploring this area, spotting deer, turkey, bears, and other wildlife on the small backroads. As we explored, we turned onto Parson Branch. It's marked as a primitive road with 4WD recommended, but it was a dirt road in our book. However, it was dripping with vibrant scenery, and we didn't have a single regret making this forest trek.

We popped out of the wet forest onto Highway 129 just a bit north of Deals Gap and in the middle of the Tail of the Dragon, a twisty piece of pavement that throws out 318 curves in just 11 miles. It's a popular spot for motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts, so we got fairly odd looks when we rolled down the serpent in 13 4WDs in all shapes and sizes.

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It was still Day Five, and we were trying to find our way near Murphy, North Carolina. We headed up a mountain, then around a mountain. It rained, and we went down a mountain. Those that wander, are not lost. It rained some more and we took longer than expected to get to our evening destination. Again, we were not lost. We pulled in after dark, but the host at Crawford's Campground was cordial and welcomed us. We'd camped here before and can certainly recommend this place if you're visiting the area.

After a long day, we were met with clearing skies and another comfortable evening. The conversation at the campfire was enthusiastic as we recounted all we had seen and done that day. On the next day, morning would break and we were up for another day in the dirt. It was here we would seek out our second private park, Durhamtown Tellico in western North Carolina. This area lost a lot of 4WD traffic when the popular Upper Tellico OHV area was closed in 2009. Local businesses suffered for some years. Now Durhamtown is trying to change that since it opened up about a year before we arrived.

We headed into the 3,000-acre Durhamtown park after checking in and struck out on the Plane Crash Trail. The route is a shelf trail for much of its distance, skirting a mountainside and then climbing higher on the Ridge Trail to Buzzard's Roost Overlook for a grand view of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. Winding through the park, we stopped for the short hike into Mulky Falls, where water tumbles 40 feet off a cliff.

Continuing to the far end of the park, we found The Bowl, a challenging rockcrawling play area comprised of large rock outcroppings and huge slabs. We played here, attempting what we dared and managed to leave without carnage. We explored other routes in the park while working our way back to the entrance. The terrain was diverse, offering something for every skill level. This concluded a fun Day Six.

On Day Seven, we awoke to realize our adventure was coming to a solemn close and it was near time to part ways to head for home. We all agreed it had been an awesome week of camaraderie and 4WD adventure. We'll do it again.

So You Wanna Overland?
Completing a trip such as this may not be an easy task, but it can be very rewarding. It takes a good bit of planning to do a trip of this length with this number of rigs, however, and none of our trip was prerun save for some Internet mapping. As such, everyone knew we were treading new ground, so route mistakes and back-tracking could likely happen. We just all went with the flow of the day.

Drivers are often tempted to try hard obstacles that challenge their skills and the mechanical limits of their rig. Being prudent and knowing when to back down is important. Spare parts, extra fuel, and tools are needed either individually or spread across the group. You will need to keep your vehicle running its own power for the whole of the trip.

The group can decide on the level of camping comfort needed, whether that be a week of remote, dry camping versus luxurious private campgrounds,or something in between. We made periodic, coordinated stops to refuel and restock perishables every few days.

Every day was not about wheeling all day. We had plenty of time in the dirt but also took some scenic byways and stopped at interesting sites along the way. If this sounds fun, then plan your own adventure!

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