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Trying to pick the 5 “best” mountain bike trails in Western North Carolina (WNC) is kind of like trying to pick the 5 best $5,000 mountain bikes. They’re all amazing, but they’re all just a little bit different. So while I’m picking these trails because I think they’re really great and may in fact be the best, I’m also choosing these specific trails in an effort to portray the incredible diversity of the mountain biking opportunities available in WNC.

5. Sugar Mountain

Sugar Mountain

Photo Credit: Goo. Rider: Unknown.

If you are coming from the south in an effort to find lift-serviced downhill mountain biking, Sugar Mountain is the first spot that you’ll find. While the resort doesn’t offer an expansive trail network or a jump park, it does have one full top-to-bottom trail packed with more rocks, roots, drops, steeps, and more rocks than you can shake a broken derailleur at! During my first visit to Sugar Mountain, I rode the trails non-stop for the entire 5 or 6 hours that the lift ran. While the trails may be few, the ones they do have are seriously fun! If you live north of North Carolina, though, there are probably some much better options available within a reasonable distance. But for those of us in the South, Sugar Mountain is a great asset.

4. Bent Creek

Bent Creek

Photo Credit: ositoking.

I have not yet ridden this trail, but based on all the information I’ve gleaned from guidebooks, the listing here on Singletracks, and friends of mine that live in Asheville just a stone’s throw from the trailhead, Bent Creek is worth a trip! Based on my conversations with locals, the trails are apparently much, much tamer than the trails in Pisgah proper, and are even less technical than those found in Dupont. However, that doesn’t detract from the beauty of this trail system as a whole. There are climbs and descents to be found all over the place, and by all accounts the trails are well-built and narrow.

Bent Creek is designed as a tightly wound “trail system” with concentric loops, making it easy to do anything from a short 5-mile ride to a pieced-together all-day epic. Either way, you’re rarely far from the trailhead. For some people, this could be a welcome relief from the epic-quality singletrack in the rest of Pisgah National Forest that seems to take you deep into the heart of nowhere, completely removed from the constraints of civilization… and the safety of it. Riding a trail system such as Bent Creek requires much less overall commitment. Add in the benefits of a lake and campground and you have a classic mountain biking destination fit for you and the buddies, or you and the family.

3. Tsali

Tsali Singletrack

Photo Credit: Goo.

View of Fontana Lake

Photo Credit: Goo.

According to mtbikewnc.com, “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.” Historically, Tsali has been one of the great mountain bike destinations of the Southeast. I have spoken with several Georgia locals who can remember back to a time when mountain biking in the state was sparse, and that if a rider wanted to find true singletrack they would have to make the pilgrimage up to Tsali. Thankfully that is no longer the case, but Tsali continues to be a classic destination for mountain bikers from all over the Southeast, and from all over the nation.

Tsali’s popularity is due to the incredible undulating flow of its smooth trails, and the breathtaking views that it provides of Fontana Lake from several different vantage points. In many ways, Tsali is the antithesis to almost all of the other trails in Western North Carolina. Pisgah, Dupont, and many other areas are renowned for the technical challenge found within their forested borders. Tsali’s trails are renowned for exactly the opposite!

2. Black Mountain

Black Mountain

Photo Credit: Goo.

As Timm Muth, the author of the North Carolina Falcon guide book, says, “Simply put, this is one of the top three descents in (Pisgah National Forest). It should be on the “A” list for any rider who requires an enormous dose of heartbreak, challenge, and adrenaline.” I know Timm personally, and he has done every single ride in his guide book, so I’ll take his word for it!

Black Mountain is full of quintessential Pisgah singletrack: incredibly steep climbs filled with drops, roots, and rocks like you’d never believe, followed by descents that are just as steep and just as gnarly. Black Mountain is no exception to this rule, and it is an intense 10-mile ride! Starting at ground zero, the trail climbs up and over Hickory Knob, back down the other side a bit, and then rockets straight into the sky to the top of Black Mountain. At the top, turn around, drop your saddle, and bomb back down! Highlights include tons of drops, crazy gnar, jumps, and 8-foot tall berms.

If you’ve been looking at this list closely, you’ve noticed that Black Mountain is the only trail listed that resides in the Pisgah National Forest (barring the Bent Creek trail system). There are literally hundreds of miles of trail in Pisgah, and if you took almost any one of them and placed it in one of the nearby states, it would make a top 5 list such as this with ease. As you can imagine, picking out the “best trail” is difficult at best and arbitrary at worst; in any case I think Black Mountain does a good job of standing as a representative of the entire forest!

1. Dupont State Forest

Dupont State Forest

Photo Credit: Goo.

Putting “Dupont State Forest” in first place is a little bit of a cheap shot, as there are over 80 miles of trails available in the forest. The various trails contain steep slickrock, flowy singletrack in the trees, scenic waterfalls, jumps, rocky technical sections, steep climbs, rhododendron tunnels, and more. I have not explored every single one of the trails yet, but so far the trail combination that includes the most slickrock is easily my favorite. In fact, it may be one of the best trails I’ve ever ridden… ever. This East Coast slickrock experience is not to be missed!

Have you ridden in WNC? What’s your favorite trail?

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# Comments

  • trek7k

    Dupont and Tsali are great; I haven’t made it to Sugar Mountain but it sounds like a fun day.

    I’m also a big fan of the fast, flowy stuff at Jackrabbit Mountain (just north of the GA border). Kitsuma is a fun loop too with easy access off I-40 just east of Asheville. Like you said, so much variety, it’s hard to narrow the list down to just 5 trails!

  • dgaddis

    I’ve heard a lot about Tsali….but I’m not really jonesing to ride it. I’m sure it’s fun, but it seems like it’s very very similar to FATS, which is local to me. If I’m going to drive a few hours to ride I want to ride something different.

    I have ridden Black Mtn, and it was awesome! We climbed a FS road to get to the descent and it kicked my butt. But the DH was totally worth it.

  • Goo

    @Jeff, Yes, so many great trails! Jackrabbit is great, but I just couldn’t squeeze it in the top 5. I’ve only been there once, but I’m itching to go back! Kitsuma is on my to-ride list, but I’ve heard that the trail over there is in bad shape after some “maintenance” last year. I still want to check it out for myself, though.

    @dgaddis, Tsali is definitely similar to FATS, but with much more elevation change and much, much better views! If you decide to head up that way, there are other trails in the area such as Fontana Village that offer more technical challenge. But if you haven’t been to Dupont… there’s a reason I stuck that in the #1 slot! 😀

  • seenvic

    Tsali…meh. I doubt Tsali would make my top 20 in WNC. Tsali would be awesome if it was at 1000 feet above sea level. But it is a relatively flat trail in the mountains.

    Laurel Mountain, Pilot Rock, Squirrel Gap….hell yea.

    I have no doubt that DuPont either already has or will soon surpass Pisgah as the main destination for riders going to WNC. DuPont’s staff has actively managed and improved their trails over the last 10 years. Pisgah’s trail have become more hardcore, more eroded, more difficult in that same time period.

    DuPont is awesome, for sure.

  • Gronckle

    Nice List! I would Rank Dupont 1st as well. that eastern slickrock is crazy fun… I live very close to Sugar mtn, but have yet to ride those trails, I haven’t heard good things – basically gnarly downhill drainage ditches with little real singletrack, but maybe its time I gave it a try…
    Havent hit black mtn yet either, but I vow to change that very soon.

  • snowboy76

    Awesome list! Have been bookmarking these for future trips.

    Seeing as we are doing the “best of” trail lists, is there a chance there will be a similar one for Minnesota anytime soon?

    You have to ride Cuyuna. Just saying… http://youtu.be/ArgOpWLdy_Q

  • Goo

    @seenvic, I threw Tsali in there to show the diversity of riding in the state. In truth, you really could fill the entire top 5 list with trails from just Pisgah and Dupont! Thanks for the notes on the changes that have taken place in regards to those two areas… It’ll be interesting to see how things progress in the future!

    @Gronckle, Sugar Mountain is definitely full-blooded DH… that’s why I threw it in here! 😀 I’d recommend 6″ of travel as a bare minimum, although I’m sure it is possible to make it down it on a hardtail if you’ve got mad skills. I might even be able to do it, I just might endo a half dozen times!

  • Goo

    @snowboy76, I don’t think any of us on the blog team have spent enough time riding in MN to feel like a true authority. I’ve ridden one or two trails there, but not enough to qualify me to write such a post. Although if you have spent enough time riding in the area and feel confident writing about it, PM trek7k and he might be interested in having you guest post!

  • EZ-E

    I know you have to draw the line somewhere, but maybe a Top 10 list would’ve allowed some latitude!

    I would say Kitsuma is a definite “add” to that list…there have been some recent trailwork efforts out there in the Fall of 2010, so I’m looking forward to getting back out and hoping they didn’t ‘dumb down’ the switchback climb or great descent!

    Another trail complex I would have to add to this list is the Kerr Scott Reservoir…
    Black Mountain, The OVT, and especially the latest Warrior Creek trail – while it is at the doorstep of the higher elevations, it definitely has all of the components that make an excellent mountain singletrack offering.

    I love Tsali and if you’ve ridden all of the loops out there, I don’t know if I could give it the completely ‘tame’ tag. I have definitely experienced the sweet diversity of some challenging climbs, >25mph descents, technical sections, and breathtaking views while riding Tsali.
    One more thing I appreciate about Tsali, I am pretty confident when I make the commitment to drive there – I won’t be disappointed or frustrated with closed or mistreated sections of trail, having to hike my bike, or a lack of good directions on the trail – something that I have experienced at Sugar, DuPont, Kitsuma, and Bent Creek. I find my way and don’t mind exploring and wandering a bit, but there are some moments when your riding experience can get dampened with trying to figure out where you are or where you’re going more than focusing on just enjoying the trail.

    Thanks for compiling the list!

  • Goo

    @EZ-E, It was my pleasure. Good points about Tsali… thanks for sharing.

    Yeah, a top 10 list may have been more fitting, but this does highlight the beauty of the comments section… everyone can add their opinion! 😉

  • darrinw2001

    i have a MTB trip planned in August staying in Sky Valley GA, but we plan on hitting Dupont, Tsali, Jack Rabbit, and Tanasi. I have been to Ellijay and FATS, but never the above mentioned trails. We may have to add Bent Creek to the list… Great write-up and I am really looking forward to this trip now!

  • Stamps

    OK….first off, you’ve gotta ditch both Sugar and Tsali on this top 5 list. Sorry but Sugar is a joke as far as lift access mtbing goes. I still can’t believe NC hasn’t caught up with the rest of the ski resorts around the world who are diversifying into summer sports. You have to go to Snowshoe in WV if you want legit lift access riding. And as for Tsali…. well 15 years ago it was a great trail network but its sorely outdated by today’s standards…

    You could take anything in Pisgah and it would blow away both Sugar and Tsali. I’m surprised that no one has mentioned the Wilson’s Creek area with its numerous redonkulous shuttle rides. And Kitzuma like others have mentioned is a sweet ride, especially linked with the infamous Heartbreak Ridge. Also like one of the posts said above, Kerr Scott Res with Dark Mtn, OVT, and Warrior Creek is a definite top 5.

    Kerr Scott has been slowly developing into a premier destination for MTB. Beginning with Dark Mtn, then OVT, and culminating in Warrior Creek, the trail building has evolved into master level design. Anyone who’s riden FATS will know what to expect: Super flowy new-school IMBA trail design.

    Not trying to disrespect the original poster but this list needs refinement…

  • CRASHOLE

    I have had the oppertunity to ride carvin’s cove in Roanoke, VA recently. Being from Florida i haven’t experienced much climbing or extended downhill rides. I wonder if the trails in WNC have the same type of trails as carvin’s cove. I rode the guantlet which seemed to have a 2000 foot elevation change top to bottom. Do any of the trails in WNC have those kind of elevation changes. I know the terrain is there but I haven’t read of those kind of trails in NC. I’m looking forward to living in Asheville area one day and wonder if these kind of trails existed here. I am also looking forward to learning to climb these same trails. Have any of you rode at carvin’s cove? if so what in WNC would be simliar to that? and how would you rank it to the WNC trails?

  • Goo

    @Darrinw2001, If you have time, give it a shot!

    @Stamps, thanks for the feedback, and for listing those trails! Like I said above, we could have easily filled an entire top 5 list from just Pisgah and Dupont National Forests… but that wouldn’t have been much fun, would it?

    @Crashole, According to the GPS map and elevation profile posted here on ST.com, even going from the bottom to the top of Carvin’s cove is only about a 1000 foot climb, and the longest continuous climb looks to be only about 800 feet.. According to my guidebook and maps, Black Mountain, the trail listed above, has a net elevation gain of over 2,000 feet in a short 5.6 miles, with the gross gain being about 250′ more than that.

    In short, almost every trail in Pisgah will be tougher than Carvin’s cove. Heck, most of the trails in Pisgah are tougher than most of the trails anywhere else.

    Having not ridden Carvin’s myself, but going on what some of my friends have told me and videos they have posted, Bent Creek just outside of Asheville may be more what you’re looking for.

  • CRASHOLE

    I pulled out my trail map and wouldn’t you believe this florida boy believed when you got to the bottom of the mountain you were at sea level. From my map it looks to be about 900 feet (the guantlet). Either way it was so much fun to ride down. I’m heading for Robbinsville, NC this summer and will be going to Tsali for sure so my wife can ride as well. I will have check out bent creek too. If all those trails are better than Carvin’s cove I can’t wait!

  • bikecowboy

    Crashole, if you make to Bent Creek make sure you climb up Ingles Field Gap trail and ride down Greenslick. It’s a blast. Also, if you are going to be in Robbinsville try to take a trip west through Andrews and Murphy over to the Ocoee Whitewater Center at Ducktown, Tn and ride some of the trails there. They are pretty good.

  • beckyh

    I have ridden all but Black Mtn. I ride Bent Creek the most because it is closest to me. It is very diverse and trail maintenance is great. I love DuPont. The slickrock is aweome. Sugar Mtn. was just ok. I just read an article in the Asheville Citizen Times about a new trail system at Beech Mtn. It is in the area of where the Land of Oz used to be many years ago. You can still see parts of the yellow brick road and the witches castle. Right now I think it is only 8 or 9 miles long, but will eventually be much longer. Also to check out is a newly developed trail system in the Nantahala Nat. Forest which is near Tsali. It is as I recall a 25mile network of trails. I plan on checking these places out soon. Tsali is worth a 3 hour ride to get to! Then check out NOC to get info on the new trails in the Nantahala. If you go to Tsali plan to camp and take your canoe/kayak too. Access to the lake is very close.

  • Goo

    @beckyh, What trail system are you talking about in Nantahala? I’ve been by the NOC within the last month, and word on the street is that they are planning on seriously expanding Flint Ridge into a full-fledged trail system. Is that what you’re talking about?

    As of now, they haven’t really begun construction. The only thing that has changed since I first hear about these plans last fall is that an old black diamond DH run has been reopened… but they definitely have some plans to secure some serious backing for their trails!

  • Casey_Anderson

    Tsali is still a lot of fun, but FATS is a more refined version of the same idea (multiple loops with lots of flow). Bent Creek is very good, too, but Dupont has improved over the past couple of years and would be my first choice in the Carolinas (especially because it is not nearly as out of the way as Tsali or FATS). You can’t beat the miles and miles of different trail options together with proximity to Asheville, which has a whole bunch of good restaurants and other stuff to do when you are not on the bike.

    • mtbgreg1

      Fats isn’t in WNC #justsayin

      But I agree that it is way fun!

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