Come ride Tsali, again for the first time!

The popular Tsali Recreation Area has long been a top destination for mountain biking in Western North Carolina, and even the entire eastern US. Containing nearly 40 miles of trails in a system with four excellent loops, it has been rated as one of the top 10 places to ride in the USA. The area is located on a hilly peninsula reaching into beautiful Fontana Lake, at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains. The four long main trails at Tsali wind along the lake shore and onto the wooded, steep interior ridges. There are several connector trails, gravel roads and extension trails that give a few more options for rides besides the main loops. Three designated overlooks along the trails provide sweeping views of Fontana Lake with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the other side. The trails are fast, hardpacked singletrack, and they’re extremely well designed and well used. Trails alternate use between mountain bikers and horseback riders on different days; two will always be open to mountain biking. There is a $2.00 trail use fee for one day.

Tsali’s jumping off point is the end of FR 1286, where the trailhead, campground, and boat launch are located. See below for directions to the trailhead.

“Tsali” is the name of a Cherokee Indian man who gave his life so that some of his people could stay in the Great Smoky Mountains region. In 1838, during the US government-ordered removal of the Cherokee nation to Oklahoma, Tsali and several others managed to escape the brutality and hide in the mountains. In an agreement to let some of the Cherokee stay, he, his oldest son, and his brother-in-law volunteered themselves as sacrifices for their people. They were executed and buried a community that is now under the waters of Fontana Lake. Tsali was survived by his wife and youngest son. They, and over 1000 others who had hidden in the mountains, returned to their homes and were finally allowed to remain. Generations later, their descendents form the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian, some of whom live on the Qualla Boundary reservation in the town of Cherokee and in the surrounding region today.

Tsali can indeed be quite crowded on summer weekends. In fact, a lot of locals will tell you it’s just too crowded to even ride here. Don’t let this deter you, however, if you can only visit on a weekend. The parking lot will probably be pretty full. But actually finding a place to park is usually not a problem unless there’s an event such as a race going on. While on the trails, you might encounter other riders frequently – so keep that in mind as you pick up speed. Despite this, the trails are hardly ever so crowded that you can’t find seclusion. On a recent Sunday hike on Left Loop, I walked 2.5 miles without seeing a single mountain biker, though the parking lot was nearly full. Even on the most crowded days, you can often ride for miles without seeing anyone else. To avoid the crowds entirely, try to visit during the week.

Yes, hiking is allowed on all the trails on any day – but bring your bike unless you want to roast in the hot sun like I did in August 2007 without the breeze you get as you cruise down the trail on two wheels. It bears mentioning that the trails at Tsali can be open and sunny. The area is also at a relatively low elevation, and large clearcuts along with open, treeless expanses along the rocky lake shore can make for some truly miserable heat during the summer. Bring plenty of water here and watch for signs of heat exhaustion. If you’re like me, you won’t be able to resist a dip in cold, clear Fontana Lake at some point during or after your ride.

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