My digs for the week: The Swamp Rabbit Inn, located in downtown Travelers Rest and just off of the heralded Swamp Rabbit Trail.
For the first time in the rich and storied history of this series (See: hyperbolic), there isn't a singular focus on any specific city for this particular story. I spent a week in a town called Travelers Rest, South Carolina, a community of roughly 5,000 souls located in Greenville County. Travelers Rest is about 10 miles directly north of the county's namesake city, Greenville. While Greenville itself holds the Palmetto State's 6th largest population, its surrounding metropolitan area is the state's largest. Greenville is just 1 of 10 total counties that make up the westernmost part of South Carolina known as the Upstate, which as it turns out, is where you'll find a staggering amount of really good trails, along with some really cool people to ride them with.
I arrived at The Swamp Rabbit Inn, located in downtown Travelers Rest, in the early afternoon on a sunny and warm late-February day. I chose to spend a few weeks in the southeast to collect some images and stories with the hope that I could get away from the sporadic and wintry behavior of my home in Pennsylvania, and land in a place with much more reliable weather and trail conditions. Average temperatures for this part of the world this time of year are typically between the mid 50's and low 60's (that's fahrenheit for fans of the metric system). In fact, throughout the year average highs never dip below 50 degrees. Only 2 of my 7 total days in town saw average temperatures. The rest, much to my delight, were well above.
South Carolina is shaped a bit like a cheese wedge. This is the view of the rest of the state from the sharp end of the cheddar.
Liberty Bridge spans Falls Park in downtown Greenville.
It's good to know your place in the world.
While Greenville functions as the area's primary urban center, Travelers Rest is a much quainter and quieter town compared to its neighbor to the south. Travelers Rest gets its name from being a common resting point for weary travelers in the early 19th century who needed a place to wait out winter in the North Carolina mountains before continuing their journey north. While the town itself doesn't have a whole lot in the way of singletrack and mountain bike trails, it does have one of the east coast's premier mountain bike skills areas, located in Gateway Park. From my dwellings, it was a pleasant five minute pedal down the Swamp Rabbit Trail, the region's preeminent greenway, past several coffee shops, restaurants, and retail stores, to Gateway. The 16-acre county park is home to a number of features, including a pump track, a PBJ flow line (a point-to-point track with pumps, berms, and jumps), several rhythm sections, a cross country loop, and a handful of wooden drops and features. A 30-45 minute jaunt through the park would prove to be a perfect complement to my morning routine while in town, along with a cup of coffee and any one of the dangerously tasty southern breakfast options.
Gateway Park in Travelers Rest has a lovely PB&J track, which could go very well with your morning routine.
"Gateway Park has been really well received," Kelly McRae tells me. "Almost too well received when you think about people coming and riding the track with mopeds or R.C. cars. There’s some educating involved with the general population. The SORBA population looks at the park is knows exactly what to do with it. The general population sees the PB&J track, and wants to take their moped on it with their toddler hanging off of the back. But it’s nice that it’s a public park and not a private park you have to pay to get into. Some people have said it’s one of the best skills parks anywhere on the east coast."
Kelly McRae manages the bike shop at Sunrift Adventures in Travelers Rest.
Sunrift's backyard butts up against the 16-acre Gateway Park skills area.
Kelly is the bike shop manager of Sunrift Adventures, an outdoor store that sits at the northern entrance to the park. Kelly has been managing the cycling operations at the shop for 4 years now, and was also co-president of Upstate S.O.R.B.A. (Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association), the region's primary mountain bike advocacy voice, in 2015. I decided to poke my head in and say hi and check things out during one of my daily commutes to the PB&J track.
"Upstate SORBA is chartered to cover a huge area," Kelly tells me when I ask about the identity of the organization. "The 7-county region we’re responsible for is insanely large. The chapter was put together quite a while ago, before there were this many people living in the Upstate, and this many riders riding here. One of the bigger challenges it’s been acutely facing in recent years is learning how to grow the chapter enough to have trail workers and builders to support what is now a really large mountain bike community. When I was secretary and president, one of my biggest focuses was on outreach. I wanted to try and get people interested and involved. I wanted people to know what the chapter was doing and where we were building."
The sheer size of the Upstate brings with it a diverse array of riding opportunities. From the cross country paradise of Croft State Park in Spartanburg, to the venerable Paris Mountain in Greenville, to the surprisingly dynamic trails surround Lake Issaqueena in Clemson, and of course with North Carolina a stone's throw away, Pisgah and Dupont play a major role in the mountain bike culture of the Upstate. In fact, Travelers Rest and Greenville are both closer to the amazing and yet somehow largely unheralded trails of Dupont State Forest than Asheville, North Carolina is. The point being that there is a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of riders who want to cover it on their bikes. While Upstate SORBA isn't the only show in town as far as mountain bike advocacy goes, they're certainly the biggest and the most capable.
Issaqueena Forest in nearby Clemson has a bevy of trails, including a surprisingly fun DH track built and maintained by The Clemson freeride club.
Spartanburg has some really fun XC networks, and just north of Greenville County lies Dupont State Forest, which serves as a weekend jaunt for many who call the Upstate home.
Bergen Khare is one of the country's fast junior downhillers, and owes much of his success to this corner of the east coast.
"I was involved with SORBA first as their secretary," Kelly remarks as the shop prepares to open for the day. "I wrote a lot of letters and did some outreach type of things. Jarret was finishing his second year as president of Upstate SORBA, which was a position that was really only intended to be a one-year job. The more energy you put into it, the more you realized that it should only be a year at a time. Jarret worked really hard for two years straight, and Marty Daigle and I became co-presidents after that because neither of us were confident that we could devote the time needed individually."
Kelly's point is that real mountain bike advocacy presents a sizeable workload by most standards, and certainly when considering that the work is being done on a purely volunteer basis. As she alluded during our pre-operating hours chat at the bike shop: Jarret Peek knows this well. Jarret is a self-employed low voltage contractor. His job entails handling home automation and I.T. work. He also puts part-time hours in at Blue Mountain Revival Timing, and owns a Sport Ident enduro timing system, which he uses for a longstanding gravity event at Paris Mountain, in addition to timing responsibilities for Neko Mulally's Southeast Downhill Series. Jarret is a very busy man. For two years, he held the position as president of the Upstate SORBA board, which often meant in addition to his 60 hour work weeks, he was on the hook for 20+ hours per week dedicated to Upstate SORBA. Jarret's passion and dedication to his community is a big reason why I'm there in the first place, and during our drive back from a day spent riding some glorious singletrack along the edges of Greenville County, I was able to pick his brain a bit to get a better understanding of the history of this place.
These old forests are full of secrets and surprises.
"I got my start in Upstate SORBA by being the squeaky wheel," Jarret says as we drive down the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains towards Travelers Rest. "I got involved because I felt like there was a disconnect in our community. We had a gravity oriented group of riders, and another group who just wanted to spend some time in the woods riding bikes, and they just weren’t really connecting. At that point, I began to ask questions (to SORBA) like 'What are you guys doing for me?' and 'What are you guys doing for the trails around here?'. So then I began to get more and more involved and showed up for more meetings. One day I was told that if I wanted to be a voice, then I need to step up and take action. It was time to put up or shut up. I could keep showing up to meetings and bitch about everything, or I could do something about it. I began to work closely with the president and vice president of the board at that time, and we brought back the downhill race back to Paris Mountain in 2011. We took the money that we raised from the downhill race and revamped the trails at Paris. We needed to set the precedent of becoming much more proactive in getting trails built properly."
Jarret Peek has become synonymous with Paris Mountain and all of its goodies.
Jarret's drive to bring better trail design to the region was certainly not in vain. Places like Paris Mountain offer up a diverse set of singletrack options; from fast and flowy, to fast and technical, to slow and technical. Just north of Paris Mountain is Pleasant Ridge, offering beautiful singletrack networks with punchy up and downs, off camber sections, and plenty of rocks and roots. A growing number of smaller trail networks are popping up all over the Upstate as well, meaning there's an increasing likelihood that good singletrack is just a short pedal away. Jarret and others here recognize that the immense potential for this area has yet to be fully realized as well.
"Paris Mountain is kind of the hub for Greenville," he says. "Issaqueena is that for the Anderson County area. Those are lake trails, with some punchy climbs, lots of roots and some loam in areas. You have Croft and Duncan Park in Spartanburg. There’s a lot of room to grow around here. You have highway 11 and the Blue Ridge corridor that goes right through here. That would be an equivalent to Pisgah for that area. There's an 11-mile singletrack descent there just waiting for us. It's really rocky with some amazing granite slabs."
Jen Nielsen drops into some fun just outside Spartanburg
The aforementioned Spartanburg and Clemson regions also play major roles in the identity of Upstate Mountain biking, but that doesn't necessarily mean Upstate SORBA is solely responsible for the trails found there. While S.A.M.B.A. (Spartanburg Area Mountain Bike Association) was absorbed into Upstate SORBA for use of its 501c3 status and resources, it began independently and maintains much of that independence today. The trails there don't feature a great deal of elevation relief, but the dirt is top notch, and they certainly don't shy away from utilizing whatever natural features and resources are available there. Issaqueena in Clemson is home to upwards of 70 miles of singletrack. It lives in an experimental forest owned by Clemson University, and features loads of lakeside singletrack, some proper loam in areas, and even a dual slalom and short but fun DH track.
Issaqueena is home to more than 70 miles of singletrack in an experimental forest owned by Clemson University.
Clemson's freeride team is responsible for the upkeep of the DH and slalom tracks in Issaqueena.
"Clemson is really kind of a sleeper town for mountain bikers," Eric Nielsen tells me as we gear up for a tour of Issaqueena. Eric runs a shop in Clemson called South Paw Cycles, and spends as much time as he can riding alongside his wife Jen. "We have 50 miles of trail on one side of town, and another 20 on the other. Plus we have a dual slalom course and a downhill track. It’s well supported by the University and the outdoor clubs. It doesn’t get a ton of publicity, but we get a lot of people who will come down from Brevard whenever they get snowed in. It’s definitely a gem."
"Clemson as a whole is isolated in general. SORBA has some representatives down here who do a lot of good, but there’s also a group called the G.C.M.B.C., or the Greater Clemson Mountain Bike Club. They’re the ones who do the vast majority of the trail work down here. They work well with SORBA, but it’s a pretty tight-knit group of them who take care of these trails. They do work with the University. All of the trail work is completely volunteer."
Eric Nielsen charging hard off the clock.
Eric Hamann leads the charge through Croft State Park.
"In my first year a lot of the Upstate SORBA board members were retired professionals, so they had a bit more time to deal with the mountain bike community," Jarret notes. "It’s one of those things that when you get into a nonprofit board position, you need to determine who has the most time to be proactive with the responsibilities. I think it’s natural to assume that someone who is retired has all of the time in the world to handle it, but in reality, they have been working their whole lives. They deserve some time to just chill out."
He's telling me about the need for fresh ideas, and the continued evolution of trail and mountain bike advocacy; which is in short supply for much of the world. Not the case in the Upstate. "Over the past couple of years, we have had our current president Eric Hamann move into town from Ohio. He is coming from a huge community as far as cycling goes. Philip Thomas, who is now our VP, is young with a brand new baby. Cat Owensby is the women’s outreach coordinator for Upstate SORBA. They are all just so passionate. They love it, and they’re wanting to make a difference. Those three are really reviving the sense of community here. We have this new blood on the board, and they’re bringing all of these ideas to the table and we’re all now working towards the same goal. They’re bringing a lot of fun back into things here."
Eric and Philip are bringing plenty of energy and ambition to the Upstate SORBA board in their new roles as President and Vice President respectively.
Cat Owensby has been cultivating a growing community of women on mountain bikes for the region.
My last evening in town began at the LeMans indoor go kart track going wheel to wheel with some Upstate's finest, before a dinner and farewell hugs. Before heading back to my apartment, Eric invited Philip and I over to his place to continue the discussion about their roles within Upstate SORBA, and their goals for the future of the region.
"When last year’s president and vice president were looking to step down," Eric Hamann tells me between sips of bourbon. "I felt all of the heads turn towards us."
Eric, an engineer at GE and the current president of Upstate SORBA, moved to the region from Ohio upon graduating from college in 2014. "I felt that I could bring good energy to SORBA. I was certainly hesitant to step up, being so new to the area. I think that this first year will see a lot of learning on my part in how to lead an advocacy organization. No one really stepped up to it, and Philip and I both received some votes of confidence from everyone. I saw potential to hopefully inspire others to lead some fun projects in the area. Cat, for example, told us that she wants to lead ladies rides, and now she’s absolutely killing it. Because the Upstate is such a big area, we have a lot of room for people with good ideas to bring those to the table in any capacity. I want to bring those kinds of people together."
A couple of Upstate's finest Jays chase some late light at Dupont State Forest.
Rhododendron tunnels are a common sight in this part of the southeast.
Eric's close friend and vice president, Philip Thomas, is a South Carolina native, but has only been in the Upstate for just a few years longer than Eric. Philip and his wife are relatively new parents and represent the growing contingent of energetic young professionals who are looking to help shape recreational opportunities in Greenville County. "I think personal motivations are several," he says to me as I decline a glass of whatever burnt spirit he and Eric are enjoying. "But I have been extremely motivated by what other cities are able to do with their mountain bike cultures. It’s cool to see how successful they have been. They are not only showing success in terms of creating a tourism draw as a mountain bike destination, but places like Bentonville and Knoxville are making it a way of life for their communities. If I can be a part of that kind of change here in Greenville; creating a culture of trails and mountain biking, I want to be a part of that."
While Dupont might be on the other side of the SC/NC state lines, Upstate SORBA performs regular trail work days here, which is fitting as they consider it a part of their home despite the different zip code.
While the Upstate is general has no shortage of green space ready for trail implementations, its largest population center does. It's one of the big challenges Eric, Phillip, and the rest of the area's mountain bikers are looking to address moving forward. "Greenville is in an interesting position compared to places in West Virginia, or Virgina, or northern Georgia, where the populations are sparse and the green space is large. Our population continues to grow, but our green spaces aren’t. So it’s on us now as mountain bikers to be proactive and reach out to the powers that be, and insist on occupying places that maybe aren’t really being used for anything."
Enter the Swamp Rabbit Trail. The Greenville Health System Swamp Rabbit Trail is a 20-mile long multi-use rail trail in Greenville County, South Carolina, that follows the route of a former railroad that had been nicknamed after the indigenous swamp rabbit. Yes, it's paved. And yes, I think it might prove to be one of the area's largest assets for the growing mountain bike population.
The future of the Upstate are about to engage in a short pedal fest at Pleasant Ridge, just a few miles south of Dupont in South Carolina.
"The whole idea came about when we were notified by The Rails to Trails Conservancy," Ty Houck explains. "That this rail corridor was up for sale. The company that owned it had filed for abandonment. We had never done a greenway system, but there are obviously plenty around the country, so community leaders went and visited these places to see what kind of success they were having and how best to employ them here. Not just from a recreational standpoint, but from a connectivity and health and wellness standpoint as well. We pulled the rail and began like every other trail of this sort."
Ask anyone who rides bikes in the region, and they'll list Ty as one of the area's greatest voices for the future of mountain biking.
Paris Mountain stands watch over downtown Travelers Rest.
Ty is the "Director of Greenways, Natural and Historic Resources for Greenville County Parks and Recreation and Tourism", a lengthy titled position he has held for 8 years with the county. Prior to that, he spent 12 years with the South Carolina State Park Service, finishing his career there as Park Manager for Paris Mountain. Ty's position at Paris Mountain combined with his love of mountain biking proved to be a major resource for the region, and his current role might prove to be even more valuable. He and I are discussing this over lunch at one of the Swamp Rabbit Trail's greatest success stories, the Swamp Rabbit Cafe.
The Swamp Rabbit Cafe is one of the many Swamp Rabbit Trail success stories. Prior to the construction of the trail, this space was occupied by a transient population, and an albino salamander. Now there are 6 businesses that share this parking lot, and the owners of the cafe are expanding.
"When I came onto the program, I saw that we weren’t going to have the budget for some of the less exciting features like parking lots and bathroom facilities. So I went to several businesses that line the trail, like here at the Swamp Rabbit Cafe, and asked if they’d be willing to partner with us and allow trail users to use their current restrooms. That has allowed for the trail to become a part of the fabric of this community and not just a government project. The economic impact these businesses have seen has been significant as well. This agreement alone saved us $2.5 million in construction costs. With this network, we now have generations coming through who will never know Greenville without the Swamp Rabbit Trail. My own 7-year-old knows that when we’re going downtown, we’re using the trail. That’s the norm for her. It’s less intimidating when you see all walks of life using it as well. "
The stretch of greenway between Greenville and TR might be the best thing to happen to the mountain bike community here in a long time, which says a lot for a paved path.
So not only has the trail helped to demystify cycling for much of the area's population, it has become a tangible economic commodity for the county. That's really good news for cyclists, both on and off of the pavement.
"For four years, we conducted an impact study at Furman University. It was fairly in depth, and was based on the S.O.P.A.R.C. model, which is the 'systematic observation of park and recreation in communities'. It’s a modeled way of calculating how people are utilizing recreational opportunities across the country. We found that while we have a population of 460,000 people in Greenville County, we have 501,000 Swamp Rabbit Trail users every year. We found that 18-25% of the users are from outside the county, so that’s tourism revenue. Basically, each year the trail is generating $6.7 million in tourism revenue. That’s pretty awesome for a trail that cost $2 million to build."
Expect plenty of ear-to-ear fun in the Upstate.
I came to South Carolina looking for some warmer temperatures and good trails. The temps and trails as it turns out, were really warm and really good. I left l truly impressed with not only the quality of the riding and of the people here but of the willingness to continue to move the needle for mountain biking going forward. The people here have done a fantastic job utilizing human and natural resources, and don't appear to be interested at all in scaling back their ambitions.
"I think that the Upstate has so much potential," Phillip Thomas tells me as he enjoys the last few sips of bourbon from his rocks glass. "The green space in and around Greenville is at a minimal, but the Upstate, in general, has a ton of it. So much so, that it could begin to draw visitors from our weekend spots here. And as someone who has to live their life, raise a family, and earn a living, there are a ton of job opportunities here. There’s culture, good food, music, and a lot of things to do off of the bike. It’s a big reason why I’m here."