This one’s for all the new off-road riders, or riders new to this area, because I don’t think there is anyone around here who doesn’t already know about Coal Creek/Windrock Mountain. For those of you who don’t, let me tell you that this is, without a doubt, one of the premier riding areas in the eastern United States, and we are blessed to have it in our back yard.
The main trailhead is located about 15 miles outside of Knoxville, near Oliver Springs. The entire area is over 72,000 acres. Owned by The Coal Creek Company, the land is dotted with active gas wells, operating coal mines, and is crossed by 160+ miles of Jeep roads and ATV trails. You can see the mountain (and its famous windmills) as you travel toward Oak Ridge on Pellissippi Parkway, and you can see the other end of the area on your left as you drive up Interstate 75 past Lake City.
If you enjoy riding in this area you can thank the Windrock ATV club. Years ago the owners of the property, then called Coal Creek Mining and Manufacturing, were contemplating closing the area to off-highway vehicle (OHV) use, when the ATV club came to them with the proposal of volunteering to manage it. This was really the beginning of its popularity explosion. The club marked and maintained the trails, and even sold the permits. Today, the Windrock ATV club is still extremely active, and the spring and fall rides that they host draw thousands of riders each year.
When you purchase your permit, be sure to shell out a few more bucks for the most current map. The maps of the area are an absolute necessity if you are planning on traveling more than a few miles from the parking lot, which I can guarantee you will. This area is rugged, and while you may know the direction you want to go, you might need to go in a different direction to get there. (Does that make any sense?). The point I’m trying to make is, the trails don’t go in a straight line.
Every trail is numbered and clearly marked at each intersection. The trails are also rated by difficulty. One thing you must learn, a trail that is moderate for most people can be near-impossible for a new rider, and a trail that is easy when it’s dry can be a grease-covered skating rink when it’s wet. Plan your rides accordingly.
The trails closest to the trailhead tend to be very hard-packed, and sometimes very rocky since they get so much use. Generally speaking, the further you get away from the parking lot the better the trails get. There are some very tight single-track motorcycle-only trails on the northern side of Highway 116, but you’ll need to get with someone who knows where they are to find them. They aren’t on the map.
If you park at the main trailhead just outside of Oliver Springs, you will start out on either a paved road (P1) or a large dirt trail (#2). Both of these will lead you up to a gravel road (G1) that travels almost the entire length of the mountain. From here you have several options of what types of trails you want to ride. If you do get on something that is a little more than you bargained for, you can always turn around and go back. Most of the trails make some type of loop or tie into another trail that does. The main gravel road through the property (G1) is a good ride for dual-sport bikes, and can be used as a shortcut from Oliver Springs to Lake City.
Longtime riders have learned something else about the trails at Coal Creek: They can change over time. Sometimes the trails change suddenly and dramatically, such as when they bring in a bulldozer to re-route a section. Trails can also change for the worse, or better, because of a large amount of ATV traffic. There have been times when I rode down a trail that I hadn’t been on in several months, and I couldn’t recognize it. Big ATVs and side-by-sides (such as Rhinos, Rangers, and Razors) can really pack down a trail, or they can really wallow one out. They are also great for getting those pesky loose rocks out of the way. Just be aware that the trail may be either easier or more difficult than it was the last time you rode it.
Also remember that you are not the only person on the mountain, and the trails are NOT one-way. On more than one occasion I’ve been in what I thought was the middle of nowhere, only to meet another bike or ATV coming the opposite direction. Meeting another bike is bad enough, but meeting a rapidly traveling sport ATV will really get your attention. Just be careful. I always keep my headlight on just for this reason.
Permits for the Coal Creek Riding Area are $17 for a daily permit, $33 for two days, $44 for three days, $55 for four days, and $88 for an annual permit. Permits can be purchased at the Snack Shack at the main trailhead, the Exxon Station in Oliver Springs, and at the Windrock Park Campground on Windrock Road.
Some people complain about the cost of an annual permit, and that has to be about the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Let’s see, 72 THOUSAND acres of private land with marked and mapped trails, and it’s open for riding 365 days a year... yeah, I think $88 a year is a deal.
Russ Townsend has been riding on and off road motorcycles for over 25 years. He has been active in promoting new legislation for OHV users, is a lifetime AMA member, former racer, and current Secretary of the Volunteer Riders dirt-bike club.