There is a growing interest within the bicycle touring community in mini-tours lasting less than 24 hours. Known as S24Os (for Sub-24 hour Overnight), a term coined by legendary bicycle builder Grant Petersen, these mini-tours require less of a commitment in time, gear and money than do longer tours.
S24Os are also a great way for beginners to sample the lifestyle before making the investment in a touring bicycle and all the associated gear. Of all the tours I’ve done, from self supported multi-week trips to weekend excursions, quick overnighters are my favorite.
Last spring, determined to sleep at a higher altitude, I left the wife, kids and dog behind and snuck out the backdoor for a quick over-nighter. I pushed my car down the driveway so no one would hear me leave.
To make this a true S24O (less than 24 hours), I drove to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and started my mini-tour. The center sits in a beautiful valley just inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is one mile from the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It features a brand new history museum, a re-creation of an old mountain homestead and offers a good selection of trail maps and guidebooks. Just two miles north of Cherokee, this is a very popular entrance to the GSMNP, so expect traffic during the tourist season.
Once on the BRP it’s a steady climb up, up, up through a forest with a thick growth of bright green leaves. Life seems to ooze from everything this time of year in the mountains. Wildflowers, moss, ferns and wild mint sprout from every crack in the granite boulders, which themselves seem to be sprouting from the ground.
Trees compete for every spare patch of earth and some have decided to grow themselves in some pretty improbable places. The Oconaluftee Valley sits at 2,000 feet above sea level, so with 3,280 feet of climbing ahead, I find a comfortable gear and prepare my mind for a few hours of monotonous spinning.
A handful of dark and damp tunnels lie between the tail end of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Mile High campground, my destination for the night. Mile High is a commercial campground atop Soco Mountain, just off the narrow strip of asphalt and greenery belonging to the Parkway.
Far enough off the beaten path to avoid being a “ghetto campground,” it is one of my favorite places. The campground has been around for more than a few years and it’s showing some age, but that just adds to the appeal. Some of the sites teeter on an almost cliff-like ledge overlooking the Smokies. Sunsets viewed from here are unforgettable. After the sun slips behind the jagged horizon, I enjoy a twig fire before crawling into my hammock tent.
Hammock sleeping is a unique experience, but once you get the hang of it (ahem), you’ll pity common ground dwellers with their blowup mattresses and fluffy pillows. Well, pity or envy. Either way, you will definitely have a firm opinion one way or the other. Personally, I love the way the wind gently rocks the hammock. And when it comes time to strike camp, a hammock packs down to the size of a Nalgene water bottle.
The next morning, I brew up a stout mug of “cowboy coffee” and breakfast myself on a granola bar before rolling off the summit. There are three routes off Soco. Back along the Parkway towards the Qualla Boundary (Cherokee Indian Reservation), climb up and over Waterrock Knob and descend into Balsam Gap, or ride the graveled Heintooga Road which takes you through a portion of the GSMNP and back into Cherokee.
I chose to return the way I came and enjoy a fast swoop down the mountain on the BRP. What took about two hours to ascend the day before lasted only minutes and deposited me back in the Oconaluftee Valley.
Mini-tours like this can be done on almost any bicycle and with some basic equipment. I would encourage anyone doing their first S24O to resist the urge to buy any new equipment right away. Just design your tour around what you already have. You can camp, spend the night at a friend’s house, or stay in a hotel. Whatever you like, it’s your tour, you’re in charge. The important thing is that you’re exploring a little bit of the world on your bicycle.
Jack Moore is an avid bicycle tourist and lifelong cyclist. He maintains The Velo Hobo, a website dedicated to ultralight and unencumbered touring. He and his wife Raquel host other bicycle tourists as they pass through our area.