Tucked into the far western reaches of North Carolina where the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Nantahala National Forest give way to the rugged terrain of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Tsali Recreation Area is home to 40-plus miles of purpose nationally renowned mountain biking trails that draw riders from all over the country. Not only are the trails here fun, flowy and fast, but the scenery they provide is unparalleled, looking out over the blue waters of Lake Fontana into the wild woodlands of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“We’re really lucky to have some of the best trails in the state right here in our backyard,” says Diane Cutler of Bryson City Bicycles in downtown Bryson City—a quaint outdoor mecca situated just 12 miles from the Tsali trail system.
Diane is an avid mountain biker herself who rides Tsali frequently, but more often than not she can be found in her Bryson City shop renting out high end bikes for surprisingly reasonable prices and dishing out some of her hard-earned knowledge to Tsali newcomers.
“The trail system in Tsali consists of four excellent loops which contain some of the the flowiest hard packed singletrack you’ll find in Western North Carolina,” she says. “It makes for a fast, fun ride and is accessible to intermediate and more adventurous beginner riders.”
The four intermediate to moderate loops that make up the Tsali Recreation Area are the Thompson Loop, Mouse Branch Loop, Left Loop and Right Loop.
The multi-use trails are enjoyed by mountain bikers, trail runners, hikers, and horseback riders with an alternating schedule that keeps horses and bikes on separate trails each day. Trails are best described as fast, flowy, hard-packed singletrack and three of the four loops offer a stunning overlook of Lake Fontana and the surrounding Smoky Mountains. The trails are maintained by the local Nantahala Area SORBA.
Left and Right Loops
While all of the trails in the Tsali Recreation Area are great for mountain biking, the Left and Right Loops are undoubtedly the more scenic of the four loops.
Left Loop, which totals 13.9 miles in length, is usually ridden clockwise from the trailhead. It starts the rider off with a descent towards Lake Fontana. Once you reach the lake, passing the remains of an old homesite along the way, the trail will continue to hug its banks for a while offering great views of the reservoir below. Eventually you will arrive at the trail for Cliff Overlook, which is well worth the climb as it offers even better views of Fontana and Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the north.One you’ve taken in the view from Cliff Overlook, you can either hop on the County Line Road— which divides the Left and Right Loops—and head back toward the trailhead or, if you’re feeling ambitious, continue on to the Right Loop Trail. If you opt to go this route, you’ll meander along the opposite side of the peninsula for several more miles before ending up back at the trailhead where you started. Those taking on the Right Loop Trail should consider making a detour up to the Windy Gap Overlook.
Thompson and Mouse Branch Loops
Shorter than the Right and Left Loop trails, Mouse Branch and Thompson Loop each have their own unique draw. Thompson is the mildest trail of the system and is loved for its smooth flow while Mouse Branch offers a rough and tumble overlook loop. Those who combine the two loops can expect a 16 mile ride with something in the neighborhood of 1,800 feet of elevation gain and descent. Like the Left and Right Loops, Mouse Branch Overlook offers another great vista which gazes out upon the lake toward Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
IMPORTANT NOTE TO MOUNTAIN BIKERS: Tsali trail use routes alternate with horse back riders, meaning that when the Left and Right Loops are open the mountain bikers, the Mouse and Thompson Branch Loops will be open only to equestrians and vise versa. If you’re unsure of which trail is open to mountain bikers on any given day, give Bryson City Bicycles a call.
Where to Stay
If you’re looking to make your trip to Tsali a multi-day adventure you’re in luck. There is great little campground right next door to the trail with 42 first come, first serve sites for tents, trailers and RVs. Snag a spot here, and you’ll be able to ride straight to the trailhead from the comfort of your campsite.
If camping isn’t your style, there are ample lodging options in nearby Bryson City from cabin rentals and hotels to Air BnBs and traditional bed and breakfasts.
The Tsali Recreation Area is named for a Cherokee man who once called the valley home. During the forced removal of the Cherokee from their beloved ancestral homelands, which took place during the tenure of U.S. President Andrew Jackson, a Cherokee man name Tsali was taken captive like so many others and led on a march that would ultimately become the Trail of Tears. Tsali, however, managed to overtake his captors, agents of the U.S. government, with help from his fellow detainees, and fled into the hills and valleys that are now buried deep below the surface of Lake Fontana. Click here for a more in depth look at the legend of Tsali.