This article is brought to you in partnership with Continental. Follow the link to learn more about our sponsored content policy.
The gravel bike world is exploding. More and more people are venturing beyond the tarmac in search of quieter and safer roads, exploring the world around them. But if you’ve never ridden gravel before, it can be difficult to find the perfect trails and roads to explore this burgeoning discipline.
Enter our series of recommended routes. In partnership with Continental, we’ve put together a collection of the best gravel biking routes in the United States. Stay tuned for upcoming episodes in the weeks and months to come. And head to Trailforks to see the routes themselves.
Texts and photos by Brett Rothmeyer
My introduction to the Croatan National Forest came through a chance encounter while attending a shoot at the Alpine Loop Gran Fondo in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Stationed at the finish line, capturing the participants as they completed the difficult course, I met a man with a sturdy beard, his eyes hollow from having drained all his energy into the pedals. I politely asked to take his picture. We exchanged nods as I and he headed back to work to stock up on 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 ) across Croatan.
A few miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean beach communities of Emerald Isle, North Carolina, Croatan National Forest is hidden from seasonal sunbathers. Covering nearly 160,000 acres, the pine and cedar forest is home to a network of dirt roads, trails and all-terrain vehicle routes for visitors and residents to explore. For local cyclists, the Croatan has become a refuge from the buzz of cars and tractor-trailers of State Route 58.
When Hawkins moved from the mountains of Virginia to Cedar Point, North Carolina in the mid-2000s, he hoped there would still be good bike trails near his new home. While Emerald Isle’s quiet side and neighborhood streets and adjacent beach communities were enough to get your bikes off the main roads, they didn’t satisfy the absence of Virginia’s isolated mountain roads.
Determined to make the most of his new home, Hawkins pulled out some local maps and started scanning cycling apps and GPS files to see what more the area had to offer. A large swath of green revealed that there was indeed much more to Cedar Point than just four-lane commercial strips and the unappealing Route 58.
Hawkins began his forays into Croatan Forest with his map and a hope. Soon he started connecting roads, creating loops and meeting other bikers looking for the same thing as him.
Group hikes have multiplied with locals and Marines from nearby Le Jeune base. It wasn’t long before circuit races, time trials and team relays were organized in the forest. In the years that followed, Hawkins created the clothing brand Ridge Supply. Ridge Supply Police Honor Local Soldiers; the design pays homage to his beloved Blue Mountains. Eventually, he opened a physical storefront for Ridge Supply. The location has become a hub for all things Cedar Point and Croatan cycling.
After three years of visiting Croatan, I had done everything but put dirt bike tires on. I trailed out of car windows, raced through cornfields, and went Honda Ruckus mad, traveling way too fast through its pothole-riddled lanes. But a real bike ride had eluded me. With the northeast spring as temperamental as it gets this year and two COVID-19 shots in my arm, it was time to spend some time in the saddle in the Croatan.
Along the way, I picked up Cynthia Frazier, a longtime friend of Matt Hawkins and member of the Velocio Exploro cycling team. Together we would meet Hawkins and locals Burke Gardener, Peter McKinney and Sam Bell at the Ridge Supply storefront for a Friday night ride through the woods. Our ride would take us on a bit of a high point reel of the Croatan Buck Fifty route.
There was a gentle breeze greeting us from the Atlantic as we rode, navigating the neighborhood sidewalks and streets, avoiding the main roads as much as possible until we rushed west on the 58. It had been almost two years since I had pedaled in a rhythm line with any urgency; formalities quickly returned as one car after another zoomed by. “Right turn!” reported a collective sigh of relief as we entered the first forest road.
The roads of Croatan are an interesting mix of sand, gravel, clay and dust. The county was regularly grading and re-grading logging roads, but they have been neglected lately. Compounded by wet weather and locals in 4x4s, sections of the road are altered with deep ruts at their worst and a maze of potholes at their best. Even on a social group hike like ours, you have to be on high alert; the sun lights up the dusty white roads, making it hard to spot the spine-shattering, tooth-grinding holes. One look at your fellow travelers to crack a joke and “blammo!” Following a wheel through the patchwork of potholes is a risky test of trust in your driving partners.
That’s not to say there aren’t smooth sections; just look a bit for the shoulder or the top of the road to find the line. With almost no elevation change, this little game of bike mousetrap (the smooth line being the cheese, of course) separates the Croatan from a scenic bike trail.
We rushed through the dappled evening light among the tall pines, the wind creating a soothing song as it passed through the thick needle-like branches. In winter and spring, the Forest Service often conducts controlled burns to manage encroaching undergrowth leaving lanes haunted by lingering smoke. The few road signs that the forest has are airy with buckshot and rusty with humidity; the spent 12 gauge shells sprinkled here and there is evidence of what caused the tampering.
We walked through train tracks from a long gone era; I am often charmed by the south, not the ghosts of its tumultuous past, but its landscapes. The rusting tin roofs, the dilapidated wooden barns along the road adorned with hand-painted signs, as if we were browsing through a Faulkner novel.
Many roads in Croatan are officially unnamed and numbered, but locals have done a great job providing nicknames. A few quick rights and lefts kept us on track until we finally rounded a sidewalk to the long straight gravel section of Black Swamp Rd.
Perhaps the most maintained of all roads, Black Swamp leads to a parking area for Croatian visitors and a focal point of the Buck Fifty Racecourse. This is where runners will enter the always brutal Savage Rd. Aptly named for its massive puddles and mud swamps, Savage Rd is often unforgiving on race day. For an authentic Croatian experience, Savage Rd is a must. As our group was made up entirely of Buck Fifty finishers, excluding me, the consensus was that they had had enough of Savage Rd for now.
While we remove the lollipop portion of the route, I strongly encourage all visitors to follow Buck Fifty’s original route. The 50 miles (80 km) round trip from Carteret County Speedway to Savage Rd is a fantastic couple of hours on the bike. In recent years, the Buck Fifty, in cooperation with local landowners, has rerouted the original route to avoid having a constant flow of runners on Route 58. It is important to note that the updated route takes participants onto private property and should be avoided. except on the day of the event.
With daylight and the prospect of a fresh wood-fired pizza from Pizza Forno waiting for us at Ridge Supply, we alternated between conversation and the pace of running to dinner. On warmer days, a ride ending at the beach for a quick dip in the ocean is also a nice carrot to hunt.
The Croatan offers cyclists the choice between daily and epic rides. Whether you’re looking to sneak in early morning on a family beach vacation for a quick spin or fancy a day of exploration, the Croatan has it all. Feel free to visit Mr. Hawkins at the Ridge Supply to point you in the right direction.
What do you want to know
While technically in the south, Cedar Point, North Carolina can get quite chilly during the winter despite its beach vacation vibe. Average temperatures are between 50 and 70 ºF (10-21 ºC) in spring and between 65 and 90 (18-32 ºC) in summer.
Croatan is home to several different habitats for birds of all varieties, as well as large numbers of black bears, alligators, deer, snakes and rodents. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a bald eagle. For true science enthusiasts, the forest is also home to a variety of carnivorous plants to ward off insects.
Bike shops and repairs
The Bicycle Gallery, a few miles inland from the city of Jacksonville, has a full-service store staffed by trained professionals. Shelves are stocked with components and accessories if you need them.
Tire selection is really going to be the most important part of your equipment selection. With surfaces ranging from hard sand to loose sand and mud, a tire like the Continental Terra Speed will have you rolling fast and retaining traction in loose corners. Additional water is also essential. Once you are on the roads of Croatan, there are no rest stops or gas stations.
As mentioned above, Pizza Forno’s wood-fired pies are a delicious way to end a stroll. If pizza isn’t your thing and you’re looking for something a little more formal, Olea Mediterranean Kitchen offers big plates and gyros. The Swansboro Food & Beverage Co. has great vegetarian options and if you’re looking for local brews, head to Harrikas Brew Haus.
The best value for money is the original Croatan Buck Fifty route. If you are looking for local lines, feel free to contact or stop by Ridge Supply for group rides or other routes in the area.
A day at the beach. With Emerald Isle just across the bridge, a lovely lazy afternoon soaking up the sun and swimming in the Atlantic is a great way to unwind after a long ride.
Catch a race at Carteret County Speedway. While the circuit was the start and finish line for the Buck Fifty, it regularly hosts motorsport races. Check with the Speedway for lineup and don’t forget your earplugs.