Adventure to the starting line: A cruise to Harkers Island and exploring Cape Lookout
The American Trail Race (ATR) offers some of the most stunning landscapes I’ve had the pleasure of riding through, scenes I’m excited to enjoy again in just 2.5 months! With this year’s start quickly approaching, I’ve ramped up my route review, using pictures from the last time I participated to help jog my memory.
As I work my way through each section, I’ll share some of that beautiful scenery and a bit of intel for future explorers of the route. This installment shares my journey to the starting line, which was an adventure in itself.
But first, some context for those unfamiliar with the ATR or bikepack racing 😀
The ATR is a 5,000-mile mountain bike race from Cape Lookout National Seashore—located on the barrier islands of the Outer Banks of North Carolina—to the gorgeous oceanside town of Port Orford, Oregon. The 2017 race was the inaugural event.
The track is 85% off road (primarily gravel with a few sandy stretches) and most of the paved portions are in North Carolina and Tennessee. The total elevation gain for the route is ~342,000 feet.
This is a self-supported bikepacking race, meaning cyclists must carry their own gear, food, and water on their bikes. Participants are also responsible for maintaining their bikes when not in proximity to a bike shop, which are few and far between on routes like the ATR.
There are no checkpoints or minimum speed for this race. Once the clock starts, it runs nonstop and it’s up to each person how much time (s)he wants to ride each day to finish the course as quickly as possible. For sleep, one typically pulls off the road to find a camping spot, but might get a hotel if passing through a town at the right hour. The ATR is a particularly remote route, so even people who prefer to sleep indoors will likely spend several nights camping. I like stealth camping since it’s free, and in 2017 I stayed in a hotel just 2 nights out of 46.
The ATR passes through diverse landscapes that have their own distinct beauty and challenges. For example, North Carolina and Tennessee take riders through the gorgeous Great Smoky Mountains, while providing enough humidity to guarantee they don’t experience the simple joy of wearing dry clothing for at least a week, and Utah provides desert vistas of beautifully-contrasted red and brown mesas, but the long exposed climbs offer little in the way of shade or water.
This type of racing provides an extended vacation during which you can push your mental and physical limits, binge listen to your favorite podcasts, sample the finest gas-station foods, and sing loudly into the woods—free from the risk of embarrassment due to song choice or tone deafness, because there’s no one around to hear you.
In search of such thrills, I head to the starting line…
Pre-ride to Harkers Island
Because the race starts on a barrier island, participants must take a ferry from the mainland to Cape Lookout the day before the race. Here they enjoy an evening of beach camping with the other racers. The next morning at 7:00 a.m., the race clock starts when a ferry picks up the racers to take them back to the main shore.
This unconventional start gives racers the opportunity to spend the first 7 miles of the race enjoying a calm ride to the mainland, maybe spotting the wild horses that live on the adjacent island along the way. So, my first order of business upon landing in NC was to get my bike together and head to Harkers Island to catch my ferry.
A couple of days before the start of the race, I flew into Jacksonville, NC, which put me about 85 miles from the ferry. This gave me the opportunity to slowly ride to the coast while doing a final gear check.
The first evening I stayed in a hotel where I’d had my bike shipped a few days prior. I claimed it from the front desk, reassembled it, and was happy to find that the bike made it through shipping unscathed. My helmet, on the other hand…
The next morning I set out, fueled by the exhilaration of knowing I was free to just be in nature for a few weeks. It felt so good to inhale and smell the pines rather than exhaust. Being so close to the coast, I had plenty of time to stop occasionally to lounge under the canopy, and to enjoy riding at a leisurely pace of 40 miles/day while mentally preparing for the 100+ miles/day I’d need to cover during the race.
It started raining early that evening, so I found a comfy spot in the woods to put up my rainfly. I quickly realized how creative I would have to be to make a good camping spot in the woods of NC, as they are full of thick, thorn-covered vines that come at your clothing and tires from all directions.
As dusk closed in, I was treated to a lovely show of lightening bugs floating around me while I listened to the rain fall gently through the trees. I laid there and watched the storms roll by, lights and phone off, no distractions. Just nature’s show and my thoughts.
In the morning, I woke up to the gentle roll of thunder as the last storm passed by in the distance. One night in the woods of NC and I was already feeling the start of a mental reset.
When the rain stopped, I continued my cruise toward the beach, passing several wildflower fields and interesting old buildings along the way.
Arriving at Harkers, I found a nice park where I enjoyed the cool breeze coming off the water and watched seagulls carve loops through the sky. In the distance, the intermittent flash of light from the Diamond Lady lighthouse indicated where I would be heading the next morning.
I set out to explore the island and found a fantastic little trail system behind the visitor center. The trails wind through the maritime forest and pass by a couple of piers and access points for the beach.
One offshoot led me to the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center, which houses the region’s largest collection of duck decoys and has wonderful exhibits detailing the history of the island. Behind the center, an interpretive trail circles Willow Pond, a pretty place where egrets, blue herons, and several types of ducks hang out. After another spin through the woods, I rode back to shore just in time for a beautiful sunset.
While waiting for the ferry the next morning, I met David and Loreto Garcia, who had come over from Spain to race the ATR on a tandem bike. It was so much fun to talk gear and game plans with others who were about to set out on this journey. Their positive vibes and excitement about the race were infectious, and the reality that by this time tomorrow we’d be several miles down the road, officially in race mode, set in.
We arrived at Cape Lookout a couple of hours before our group meeting with Billy Rice, one of the race organizers, so we dropped our bikes near the visitor center and took a tour of the Diamond Lady. Lucky for us, admission was free that day as we’d arrived at the end of the off season 😀
The lighthouse was built in 1859 and was dubbed the Diamond Lady when it was painted with its black-and-white diamond daymark in 1873. This daymark differentiates the lighthouse from others in the regions while providing directionality: a horizontal line drawn through the center of a white diamond points in an east-west direction, and a line through a black diamond points north-south.
After the lighthouse tour, I roamed the beach for a bit before heading to the meeting to get to know the rest of the riders.
Knowing we’d be up at the crack of dawn, I went to bed far earlier than I would have liked and by some miracle slept a bit despite the excitement. Before I knew it, alarms were ringing, we were stuffing gear into our bags and food into our faces, and in a whirl, we were off!
Next stop on my photo tour of the 2017 ATR: Outrunning storms, overcoming mechanicals, and enjoying the sights in North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas 😀