Recommended Routes: Croatan National Forest
The world of gravel cycling is exploding. More and more people are venturing beyond the tarmac in search of quieter, safer roads, exploring the world around them in the process. But if you’ve never ridden gravel before, it can be hard to find the perfect trails and roads to explore this burgeoning discipline of the sport.
Enter our Recommended Routes series. In partnership with Continental, we’ve pulled together a bunch of the best gravel cycling routes around the USA. Stay posted for future episodes in the weeks and months to come. And head to Trailforks to see the routes themselves.
Words and photos by Brett Rothmeyer
My introduction to the Croatan National Forest was through a chance meeting while assisting on a shoot at the Alpine Loop Gran Fondo in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Stationed at the finish line, capturing participants as they completed the challenging route, I encountered a man with a robust beard, eyes hollow from having dumped all of his energy into the pedals. I politely asked to take his photo. We exchanged nods as I went back to work and he to replenish calories.
A few days later, after seeing the image, Matt Hawkins introduced himself to me via social media and invited me to shoot his new event, The Croatan Buck Fifty, a 150-mile (241 km) gravel race through the Croatan.
A few miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean beach communities of Emerald Isle, North Carolina, the Croatan National Forest sits in secret from seasonal beachgoers. Covering nearly 160,000 acres, the forest of pines and cedar hosts a network of dirt roads, trails, and off-road vehicle routes for visitors and residents to explore. For local cyclists, the Croatan has become a haven away from the buzzing cars and tractor-trailers of State Route 58.
When Hawkins moved from the mountains of Virginia to Cedar Point, North Carolina, in the middle of the ’00s, he was hopeful there would still be good cycling routes near his new home. While the quiet side- and neighborhood streets of Emerald Isle and adjacent beach communities sufficed to get out on the bike away from the main roadways, they didn’t satisfy the absence of the secluded mountain roads of Virginia.
Determined to make the most of his new home, Hawkins pulled up some local maps and began scanning cycling apps and GPS files to see what more the area had to offer. A big swath of green revealed that there was indeed much more to Cedar Point than just four-lane commercial strips and the uninviting Route 58.
Hawkins began his forays into the Croatan Forest with his map and a hope. Soon he started linking roads together, creating loops, and eventually meeting other riders looking for the same thing he was.
The group rides grew in numbers with locals and Marines from the nearby Le Jeune base. It wasn’t long before there were organized circuit races, time trials, and team relay events in the forest. In the years that followed, Hawkins would create the Ridge Supply apparel brand. The Ridge Supply font pays tribute to the local soldiers; the design pays tribute to his beloved Blue Mountains. Eventually he opened a physical storefront for Ridge Supply to operate out of. The location has become a hub for all things cycling in Cedar Point and the Croatan.
After three years of visiting the Croatan, I had done everything but put bike tires to dirt. I have hung out of car windows, run through cornfields, and gone nuts to butt on Honda Ruckus, traveling way too fast down its pothole-riddled lanes. But a proper bike ride had eluded me. With the northeast’s spring being as fickle as can be this year and two shots of the COVID-19 vaccination in my arm, it was time to squeeze in some saddle time in the Croatan.
Along the way, I picked up Cynthia Frazier, a longtime friend of Matt Hawkins and a member of the Velocio Exploro cycling team. Together we would rendezvous with Hawkins, and locals Burke Gardener, Peter McKinney, and Sam Bell at the Ridge Supply storefront for a Friday evening ride into the forest. Our ride would take us on a bit of a highlight reel of the Croatan Buck Fifty route.
There was a gentle breeze greeting us from the Atlantic as we rolled out, navigating sidewalks and neighborhood streets, avoiding as much of the main roads as possible until we hurried west on 58. It had been almost two years since I had pedaled in a paceline with any urgency; the formalities came back quickly as one car after the next rocketed past. “Right turn!” signaled a collective sigh of relief as we entered the first forest road.
The roads of the Croatan are an interesting mix of sand, gravel, clay, and dust. The county would regularly grade and re-stone the forest roads, but they have suffered neglect as of late. Compounded by wet weather and locals in 4x4s, sections of the road are altered with deep ruts at their worse and a maze of potholes at their best. Even during a social group ride such as ours, one has to be on high alert; the sun brightens the dusty white roads making it hard to spot holes that will jar the spine and rattle the teeth. One look at your riding mates to crack a joke and “blammo!” Following a wheel through the mosaic of potholes is a risky test of trust in your riding partners.
That is not to say that there are no smooth-rolling sections; it just takes a bit of searching the shoulder or crown of the road to find the line. With almost no elevation change, this little game of mousetrap on bikes (the smooth line being the cheese, of course) separates the Croatan from a scenic bike path.
We scurried through the dappled evening light amongst the tall pines, the wind creating a soothing song as it passed through the branches thick with needles. In the winter and spring, the forest service will often conduct controlled burns to manage the invasive undergrowth leaving the lanes haunted by lingering smoke. The few road signs the forest possesses are aerated by buckshot and rusted from the humidity; the spent 12-gauge shells sprinkled here and there are evidence to what caused the alterations.
We crossed train tracks from an era long gone; I am often charmed by the south, not the ghosts of its tumultuous past, but of its scenery. The tin roofs rusting, dilapidated wooden barns along the roadside adorned with hand-painted signs, as if we are riding through a Faulkner novel.
Many of the roads of the Croatan are officially nameless and numbered, but the locals have done an excellent job of providing nicknames. A few quick rights and lefts kept us on course until we eventually skirted along some pavement to the long straight gravel section of Black Swamp Rd.
Perhaps the most maintained of all the roads, Black Swamp leads to a parking area for Croatan visitors and a pivotal point of the Buck Fifty racecourse. It is here that riders will enter the ever-brutal Savage Rd. Aptly named for its massive puddles and mud bogs Savage Rd is often unforgiving on race day. For an authentic Croatan experience Savage Rd is a must. As our group consisted of entirely Buck Fifty finishers, excluding me, the consensus was that they had enough of Savage Rd for the time being.
While we cut out the lollipop portion of the course, I highly encourage any visitors to follow the original Buck Fifty route. The 50-mile (80 km) out and back from the Carteret County Speedway out to Savage Rd is a fantastic few hours on the bike. In recent years the Buck Fifty, in cooperation with local landowners, has re-routed the original course to avoid having a steady stream of riders on Route 58. It is important to note that the updated route takes participants onto private property and should be avoided except for the day of the event.
With daylight burning and the prospect of fresh wood-fired pizza from Pizza Forno waiting for us back at Ridge Supply, we alternated between conversation and race pace towards dinner. On warmer days, a ride ending at the beach for a quick dip in the ocean is a fine carrot to chase as well.
The Croatan gives riders the option between every-day and epic-style rides. Whether you are looking to sneak out in the early morning on a family beach vacation for a quick spin or in the mood for an all-day exploration, the Croatan has it all. Don’t hesitate to visit Mr. Hawkins at the Ridge Supply to get you pointed in the right direction.
What you need to know
While technically in the south, Cedar Point, NC can get quite cold during the winter despite its beach vacation vibes. Temperatures average between 50 and 70 ºF (10-21 ºC) in the spring months and 65 to 90 (18-32 ºC) in the summer.
The Croatan hosts several different habitats for birds of all varieties, as well as a large number of black bear, alligators, deer, snakes and rodents. If you’re lucky you may even spot a bald eagle. For the real science nerds the forest also hosts a variety of carnivorous plants to keep the bugs at bay.
Bike shops and repairs
The Bicycle Gallery, a few miles inland in the town of Jacksonville, has a full-service shop staffed by skilled professionals. The shelves are stocked with components and accessories if you are in need.
Tire selection is really going to be the most important part of your equipment selection. With surfaces varying from hard-packed to loose sand and mud, a tire like the Continental Terra Speed will keep you rolling fast and holding traction in the loose corners. Extra water is essential as well. Once you are out on the roads of the Croatan there are no rest stops or gas stations.
As mentioned above the wood-fired pies from Pizza Forno are a delicious way to finish a ride. If pizza is not your thing and you’re looking for something a little more formal, Olea Mediterranean Kitchen has some big plates, and gyros. The Swansboro Food & Beverage Co. has some great vegetarian options and if you are looking for some local brews hit up Harrikas Brew Haus.
The best bang for your buck is the original Croatan Buck Fifty route. If you’re looking for some local lines don’t hesitate to reach out to or stop by Ridge Supply to see about group rides or other routes in the area.
A day at the beach. With Emerald Isle just over the bridge, a nice relaxing afternoon soaking up the sun and swimming in the Atlantic is a fine way to wind down after a long ride.
Take in a race at the Carteret County Speedway. While the racetrack has been the start and finish line for the Buck Fifty, it hosts regular motorsport racing. Check in with the Speedway for scheduling and don’t forget your earplugs.