As I get out of my truck and start to put on my gear, I feel excited. I love to ride my mountain bike, and Tsali is a fantastic place to ride. A grin from ear to ear, a quickening of my pulse, and the early stages of an adrenalin rush fill me. I grab my helmet, hydration pack, gloves, and pull my trusty steed out of the bed of the truck and finish my preparations. The weather today is perfect, which is to say that it isn’t raining.
I jump on my bike and head out on Left Loop, my favorite of the four. Within moments I am on the trail snaking along the terrain. The rush of the breeze as I gain speed fills my ears. Peace overcomes me as I ride. Whatever is troubling me is whisked off my shoulders as I fly along. I forge a quick bond between the bike and the trail; the contact patch of my tire on the earth serving to link my soul with nature. I come over a little rise in the trail and there is the lake, a beautiful but abrupt change in the scenery where water meets dirt. Left Loop traces the water’s edge for quite a long time, never far from view for the first four miles.
Tsali recreation area is a peninsula of land owned by the US Forest Service located along Highway 28 on the border of Graham and Swain Counties. The area juts out into Lake Fontana and as you look north everything you see across the lake is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Tsali (SA lee), the T is silent in the Cherokee tongue, takes its name from a great Cherokee Indian chief who willingly sacrificed his life to spare the lives of many of his people during the 1830s in the great Cherokee roundup that preceded the Trail of Tears march.
As I round a bend, Left Loop offers the first of a handful of creek crossings, none of which are more than an inch or two deep. A brisk splash on the legs can be invigorating. The trail sports roots and ruts and rocks, but none so much as to ruin the ride; just little reminders to choose your line wisely and offer a bit of a challenge. It’s beautiful out here. On the edge of the trail something rustles in the leaves. A squirrel? A grouse? A fox? A bear? Quickly, I speed by and guess that it must be a squirrel, but it could have been anything.
There are four trails at Tsali, which encompass 42 miles of riding bliss. All four trails are intermediate in difficulty. Riders should have bicycle handling skills and a decent level of fitness. The trails have a healthy dose of uphill and downhill sections, nothing too steep, but having a good skill base will help make the day more enjoyable. Right Loop, Left Loop, Mouse Branch, and Thompson Loop are the four trails and they are all fun, flowing single track trails, wide enough for only one rider. The trails accommodate bicycling traffic and horse traffic on different days. Please review the signs posted at the Tsali trailhead so you know which days to ride which trails. All four trails have suggested routes of travel. Please ride the trails in the correct directions and on the correct days. A head on collision with a horse or another rider is no fun.
Around the next bend is a bit of climb. Not short nor steep, but a nice, steady climb that puts the burn to the legs. I’m out of the saddle to get a bit more leverage, watching the lake disappear from view as I climb inland. The trees change here; they’re much taller and the underbrush is thin because of the thick canopy. In winter you can see a long way, but in summer the green glow of leaves is pervasive. As I climb, I slow a bit just taking a moment to look at the drainage of the creek, the result of an ice age long ago that cleaved these mountains. The Appalachians were once the tallest mountain range in the world; time has worn them down to a more manageable size for a bike.
At the top of this pull, I stop to catch my breath. Another amazing view. Trees in every direction. Just a well worn path on the ground, a golden hue to the soil as it guides me along. Since every uphill leads to a downhill, this is where the fun begins. Bombing down the path, swerving in and out of the trees, the scenery takes on a very different visage. My vision becomes tunnel-like, more of a blur as I pick up speed. I allow the bike’s suspension to do its job; I just bend my knees and elbows and allow the bike some freedom, enjoying the rush I have rightly earned by pedaling up that hill. I remember to slide my weight backward to get my weight over the back tire to help with braking. At the bottom, there is a little bridge to cross. A quick right turn and it’s back out of the saddle again, climbing up to another ridge line. The forest opens a little more here, and a deer jumps off the trail and freezes, trying to figure out what the heck I am. The tail goes up, a white mast as she bounds off to safety.
The trails intersect here. Do I go right or left? Just what did Robert Frost say? Had he been here? Left or right? How much more do my legs have? Aw heck, left it is.
Trails are open year-round.
Mouse Branch: Total Distance 7.2 miles. Direction: Clockwise Bike Use: Tues, Thur, Sat
Thompson Loop: Distance 7.4 miles. Direction: Counter clockwise Bike Use: Tues, Thur, Sat
Right Loop: Distance 11.2 miles. Direction: Counter clockwise Bike Use: Mon, Wed, Fri, Sun
Left Loop: Distance 11.9 miles. Direction: Clockwise Bike Use: Mon, Wed, Fri, Sun