The Tsali Recreation area is legendary among mountain bikers across the country. Well, legendary in the sense that there is a mountain bike named after if (The Litespeed Tsali). But beyond the 40 miles or so of singletrack located on Fontana Lake in western North Carolina, there are several other scenic gut busting rides that you can take to round out a perfect mountain biking road trip.
Most serious bikers that live within a 400-mile radius of the park have certainly heard about Tsali and a good number may have actually ridden here. Tsali boasts 4 singletrack trails and numerous campsites located on a peninsula that stretches its fingers out into beautiful Fontana Lake. The singletrack here is pristinely maintained and is some of the smoothest, fastest trail you will ever ride. The trails here have relatively little elevation change and typically stick close to the shoreline of the lake.
The trails at Tsali are operated on a shared schedule between bike and horse traffic. This eliminates the worry of spooking a horse as you come around a blind curve at 20 mph. The Thompson and Mouse Branch Loops are open Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, while the Left and Right Loops are open on the days in between. Be sure to stay at least two days so you can check out both sets of trails.
The Thompson and Mouse Branch Loops are located on the west side of the recreation area and offer slightly shorter loops than the Left and Right Loop trails. The Thompson Loop makes a fairly steep ascent in the first half of the ride (if you ride clockwise) and offers great views at the top. A good bit of this loop travels through a cleared area that can be very hot in the summer. The Mouse Branch Loop offers similar features but with more shaded sections, especially on the descent back to the campground.
The Left and Right Loops at Tsali are the main attractions for most riders. These Loops are each over 12 miles long (when ridden separately), and can be combined to make a nice 20-mile or so loop. These trails share County Line Road, which is actually a forest road-type wide trail that services both trails. These loops contain diverse riding conditions from steep ascents, stream crossings and ridings, rocky exposed areas, grassy fields, and of course, densely forested areas. The Right Loop also offers a side trip to the point of a peninsula that extends into the lake. This lollipop loop contains some good climbs, some fast descents, and a fat dose of the patented Tsali aura. These two loops really are the best that Tsali has to offer and fortunately for us, they are the ones open to mountain bikers 4 days a week.
So, you’ve ridden all the trails at Tsali but you’re still looking for some sweet trails to check out in the area. While none of the following trails offer much in the way of singletrack, they are all scenic and fun rides that you can check out after you’ve burned up the Tsali trails.
Several rides can be found on Wayah Rd., close to the “put-in” for most Nantahala River rafting trips. Old River Road is a ride that takes you on a gravel road up towards Lake Nantahala, the source of the Nantahala River. This has a nice gradual climb since it follows the river and is an extremely beautiful ride in the summer. Plus, once you get to the top, it’s a nice fast ride back down to your car. Winding Stairs is a route that takes you on part of the River Trail, a paved path that parallels the Nantahala. The route takes a steep climb up Winding Stairs Road, a gravel road aptly named for the steepness and number of sharp turns. The road takes you past a lake and turns to pavement near the top. From here it’s a fast ride down the road back to your car. This is a very scenic ride that is well worth the climbing.
Heading in the opposite direction from Tsali, the Stecoah Gap trail is another great out and back that lets you get the climbing out of the way at the beginning. This trail starts at an intersection with the Appalachian Trail and heads up an overgrown doubletrack to the top of the mountain. The four-mile trail only goes up about 600 feet so this is a fairly gradual climb. A very secluded trail that is well worth your time.
Of course there are many other rides and trails that can be found in the area. Fontana Village offers singletrack that is open to bikers in the morning and horses in the afternoon. Swinging Bridge is a route that will take you across a rickety swinging bridge and along a lazy river with slight elevation change. You can probably come up with your own routes by combining just a few of the many scenic dirt roads that wind through the area.
If you’ve never been to Tsali, obviously you have to go. If you have been, check out some of the more obscure rides mentioned above. While none of these rides can live up to the magnificent trails at Tsali (heck, very few trails anywhere can compare), you can at least pretend you’re a local for a couple of days.