Perched high above Fontana Lake, I rest on my bike for a moment to gaze at spectacular views through the pines across the shimmering water and the Great Smoky Mountains beyond.
I’m cycling the Left Loop at Tsali Recreation Area near Bryson City, N.C., and this experience alone is worth the 650-mile drive from Pennsylvania.
I spend two days along the 40 miles of trail in this nationally renowned mecca for mountain bikers on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s some of the best single -track riding in the Eastern United States. I especially enjoy the 12-mile Left Loop that undulates through quiet coves as it traces the hilly arms of the Tsali [pronounced SAH-lee] peninsula then out to breezy points where a tiny island sits decorated with an American flag and pontoon boats moor with fishermen trying their luck.
The Tsali Peninsula contains four main loop trails and several connectors. It juts into an 11,000-acre man-made Fontana Lake like an extended hand. Fontana Dam, which was built by the Tennessee Valley Authority during the 1940s, created the lake. This dam was part of the war effort to provide power to the nearby aluminum manufacturing plant that made wartime materials
The Tsali Recreation Area lies within the Cheoah Ranger District of the Nantahala National Forest (half in Graham County and half in Swain County) and is comprised of 120,000 acres. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park lies along Tsali’s northern border and the Nantahala National Forest lies to the south.
I take a break from cycling at the viewpoint on the peninsula’s tip. Across the deep blue water is the historic area of Almond. Today, there is a peaceful and unassuming boat marina. But back in 1838, it was the sight of Fort Lindsey, where the Cherokee people were brought to a stockade before leaving their homeland on a forced march to Oklahoma known as the Trail of Tears.
There are multiple creek crossings on this loop. I have a choice to charge right through, cross a makeshift bridge, negotiate rocks, or simply get off and walk. These trail features create fresh mud streaks on my back.
The trails in Tsali are fast, hard-packed singletrack, rated from “easy” to “moderate.” Cyclists share the trails with hikers and horseback riders. The U.S. Forest Service alternates trail use on any given day, so bikers do not have to collide with horses. Trail names and days of the week are posted on a permanent sign at the trailhead. There are always two loops for everyone to ride, and they are color-coded and marked with mileage posts. Remember to exercise caution when speeding around turns. Mid-week is preferable for solace, no matter the season. A day trail user fee of $2 (collected at the trailhead kiosk) contributes towards maintenance.
This trail system has been so successful that trail managers in states from as far away as Florida and California have used it as a model. With its natural beauty and plentiful mix of challenging trails to choose from, it’s no wonder Tsali is rated as one of the Top Ten Best Places to Cycle in the United States.
Dave Garrett comes to Tsali almost weekly to ride. It’s his home course.
“There are more challenging, technical places to ride like Pisgah National Forest,” he says, “but the Tsali trails are fast and pure fun.”
Garrett puts 100 miles a month on his mountain bike and comes here in every season.
“Trail conditions are excellent, especially when you consider how much use the trails get,” Garrett explains. “Even after a windstorm, crews are out here right away. I’ve never had a problem with horse traffic. All the user groups get along fine.”
Justin Coile, another Tsali rider, drives up from Tampa, Fla., every few months to ride. His favorite loop is the Left because of the exceptional views and multiple trail miles along the lakeshore.
“You just have to be careful when crossing some of those sloping cliffs,” he says.
Crowds have never bothered him, even when there are 30 to 40 vehicles in the lot.
“In 20 miles of trail, bikes get pretty stretched out,” Coile says.
And as far as trail conditions go, he too finds them excellent.
“The occasional puddle or dip or any obstacle is all part of the mountain biking experience,” he adds. “The climbs are short and you just have to prepare for the them. Get in the right gear beforehand.”
Spring and fall are the best seasons to visit Tsali. Summer temps can soar and the trails can get crowded. But then you have a good excuse to go for a dip in the cool waters of Fontana Lake.
Tsali is in such good shape because District Ranger Steve Lohr makes it a habit to cycle the trails a few times a week, looking for blow-downs and programming their location into his GPS. Then trail and fire crews head out with a chainsaw to clear up the mess. Encroaching brush is still a problem, so sometimes the recreation area brings in help. A trail building school in conjunction with the International Mountain Biking Association and coordinated with the whitewater rafting operation Nantahala Outdoor Center successfully recruited 35 trail workers. Federal dollars from the national Stimulus Act have also been earmarked to address major drainage issues along the trails.
Mountain biking events are often held at the Tsali Recreation Area. Scott Haas, the operations assistant ranger at Tsali, says there are five to seven mountain biking events held each year at Tsali, with up to 400 mountain bikers utilizing the trail for each race. Staggered starting times help to thin out the congested race packs.
“Most of the events take place on the outer sides of the Left and Right Loops, so even during a big race, there are still trails for the visiting leisure cyclist to ride,” Haas says.
Coordinating the events is not a hassle for Haas because groups are responsible for an operational plan, coordinating vendors, and liability insurance.
“Lots of up front work is involved, but the day of the race, everything goes smoothly,” Haas says.
He’s trying to organize these same groups for regular trail maintenance. Besides equestrians, bikers and hikers, hunters share the peninsula. Spring gobbler season brings the most traffic, but deer and grouse hunters also enjoy the wilderness areas.
These groups are kept aware of occasional controlled burns as part of national forest management practices. The fires are carried on annually somewhere on the Tsali peninsula, and every area is burned every 4 to 5 years. Trails are generally closed for a few hours when the burns occur.
“This has greatly improved habitat for wildlife,” Lohr declares, “and more grouse inhabit this area than any place in the Cheoah Ranger District.”
One added benefit of multi-day riding at Tsali is the accompanying campground. Operated by the Forest Service on an honor system, the site allows you to roll right out of your tent site and access all the trails on the peninsula. You never have to load your bike on your car rack to go for a ride. There are 42 first-come, first-serve sites for tents, RV’s and trailers. No hook-ups are provided, but hot showers and flushable toilets are available. The camping fee is $15 per night, and the campground is open from Apr. 1-Oct. 31.
On my second day at Tsali, I ride the 8.7-mile Mouse Loop. The land is drier, more acidic. Racing through blueberry bushes and rhododendron, glossy with sunlight, I pass a standing stone chimney that was part of an historic home dating to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It’s one of several remaining ruins on the peninsula. Apple trees struggle to thrive. They are remnants of a large orchard that once existed here. After the land became a national forest, residents moved out.
The first settlements here date back 10,000 years to the Archaic Period. Smaller group of nomadic people traveled some of the same routes and trails that cyclists ride today at Tsali. The Cherokee lived closer to the drowned creeks that miraculously emerge when the water is drained every summer to create hydropower. You can literally jump across the original streambeds and the land of the Cherokee begins to look somewhat like the way it once was.
In the late 1980’s the area became a recreation site. The current network of trails was created in the early 1990’s. The campground was rebuilt in 2000, and the recreation site has been active ever since.
After dinner one night at the campground, I decide to walk part of the Thompson Loop. Hikers are allowed to travel any of the Tsali trails on any given day. I spot pink nodding trillium with translucent petals like dragonfly wings. Giant, 16-inch long piliated woodpeckers hammer at the dead pines, sounding like machine guns or rotating helicopter propellers.
These small gifts of the forest may go unnoticed when you are on a bicycle, concentrating on where to steer your tires around an obstruction. Something gets lost in exchange for the speed, so it’s important to stop often enough on your ride to soak in the world of Tsali.
How Tsali Got its Name
The Tsali Recreation Area was named in honor of Tsali, a Cherokee man who gave his life to help others, according to Rodney Snedecker, an archeologist and tribal liaison for the National Forests in North Carolina. Snedecker has been studying western North Carolina for more than 25 years.
According to one version of the story about Tsali, the Cherokee were being rounded up as part of a forced expulsion from their native lands in the 1830s. During this time, a Cherokee baby fell and died after his mother was hurried along by a U.S. Army soldier. While defending the baby and mother, Tsali was said to have killed the Army soldier. Avoiding arrest, Tsali fled into the mountains and took refuge there with his family.
The US Army knew that finding all of the hiding natives (a number thought to 3,000 to 5,000 Cherokee) was close to impossible. So they settled on Tsali and coaxed him out with a promise. If he offered up his life, the rest of the Cherokee would be allowed to remain in their ancestral home. Tsali volunteered to emerge as a sacrifice for his people, but he, his brother, and his two oldest sons were all shot and killed by the U.S. military as a result.
Today, Tsali’s descendents live in and around their ancestral lands, the Qualla Boundary. Some of the Cherokee who endured the long march to Oklahoma eventually returned to the surrounding area of Fontana Lake and live in the community along with Tsali’s people. Many of their original villages are buried beneath the lake.
- Carry a first aid kit.
- Wear a helmet, eye protection, and gloves.
- When going around turns, anticipate someone coming from the opposite direction.
- Maintain control of your speed at all times.
- Communicate your presence when approaching other cyclists and hikers. Be courteous as you share the trails with others. Those on bikes need to yield right of way to equestrians.
- When approaching someone on horseback, dismount and let them past.
- Stay on the trail and do not take short cuts.
- In wet weather, choose forest roads instead of the Tsali trails.
Cheoah Ranger District
1070 Massey Branch Road, Robbinsville, N.C. 28771. 828.479.6431. www.cs.unca.edu/nfsnel
- From Asheville, NC: Take I-40 West to U.S. 19/74 (exit 27). Stay on U.S. 74 West to NC 28 West. Turn right for 5 miles. Look for sign.
- From Knoxville, TN: Take U.S. 129 South through Maryville. Stay on until Deals Gap. Left onto NC 28. Sign is 25 miles on left.
- From Bryson City, NC: Take U.S.19 South for 9 miles to NC 28. Turn right on NC 28 and go for 5 miles.