Mountain Bike Races/Events
The Icycle is a race of near legendary fame, hosted at Fontana Village every year in early January. The cross-country portion held during the day is always grueling, with snow and ice often added into the already formidable mix of rocks, roots, and steeps. But the downhill portion, which includes a scorching run down Turkey Chute, drops nearly 1,000 feet in just over 1 mile. And get this–the race is held at night! If you’ve ever risked life and limb running the steep drops, gullies, and jumps at speed during the day, you’ll appreciate how freakin’ crazy it is to even suggest running it in the pitch black with a bouncing flashlight strapped to your noggin.
I’ve raced the Icycle in the snow, sleet, and rain. Hell, one year it was 8 degrees, with a hard wind howling up the trail, and still the race went on. I’m not saying it’s all that fun; I’m not even saying it’s all that smart. But if you can survive the Icycle, you can ride, in my book.
The Knobscorcher has been a perennial springtime race at Tsali for over 20 years, and is part of the SERC race series. It’s a tough, long course along fast, twisty singletrack with a couple of respectable climbs thrown in. One lap at Tsali is fun; three laps is insufferable pain. But if it was easy, everyone would do it, right?
12 Hours of Tsali
The 12 Hours of Tsali has become a favorite endurance race in the region, usually held in June. Even at night, Tsali isn’t that tough of a ride, but the trail is narrow in spots, and it’s really freakin’ dark out there when your light gives out. Oh, and the bears are out munching blueberries in June, so don’t stop for a potty break after sundown.
Places to Stay or Camp
Every little town out this way has some standard lodging options, and there are plenty of small B&Bs, as it’s a tourism economy. But if you’re coming to ride, I do have some recommendations. My favorite spot of all time is Fontana Village, mostly because you can ride right out your front door and be at any one of 5 trailheads in under 5 minutes. When you add in the options of two pools, several eating spots, a bar, disc golf, mini-golf, an ice cream shop, it really makes for a fine, multi-day riding weekend. Falling Waters Yurts and Skyridge Yurts both offer some cozy glamping opportunities. The Fryemont Inn in Bryson City is a great option if you’d rather have a drink on the veranda in the evenings.
Camping in the Nantahala National Forest is easy, as you’re allowed to set up camp just about anywhere, as long as you’re 100’ away from any streams. Of course, that means you’ve got to be up for digging your own latrine and whatnot.
Panthertown Valley is wide open for camping, and there are a number of established group sites as well as a huge, open A-frame shelter just below Big Green Mountain. But if you’re more comfortable staying in an established campground with bathrooms and such, you’ve also got tons of options.
Jackrabbit has its own campground just a mile away from the trailhead. Tsali recently renovated their campground, which is 50 feet from the trailhead, and it’s probably your lowest cost option. Turkey Creek campground is a popular alternative if the Tsali campground is packed in the high season. There’s a big KOA campground in Cherokee, and a really nice forest service campground along Deep Creek just above Bryson City. You can also do a Google search and find 50 or more small, private campgrounds throughout western NC.
Motion Makers is my local shop here in Sylva, and they have always taken great care of me and my bikes. If the shop doesn’t have something in their Sylva store, they’ll drive it in from Asheville. Owner Kent Cranford has been in the bike industry forever, and knows just about everything. My favorite wrenches, Larry and Marlo, understand that old geezers get nostalgic and protective over our 26ers, and that we don’t want to drop eight grand on a new bike that might outlive us!
Bryson City Bikes
My old friends Andy and Dianne left the city to follow their dreams, and ended up living in paradise with a bike shop. Bryson City Bikes offers everything including parts, repairs, rentals, and new bikes. They’re also huge biking advocates for the region, serving with the local bike clubs, driving trail maintenance efforts, helping at every race, and generally working their asses off for the rest of us. Thanks, you two; I know y’all put in a boatload of work. Bryson City Bikes, as implied, is located in downtown Bryson City, right by the river.
Started by some local riders and wrenches who wanted a bike shop and a pub of their own, Tsali Cycles is the perfect combination. At their shop in Bryson City, you can buy some parts, get a wheel trued, and have a fine brown ale at the same time. On the right night, you might even grab a beer-yoga class in the back room while you’re waiting on that wheel. The pub portion requires you buy a $1 membership card, which gains you access to whatever libations are for sale that day – typically all western NC brews and wines. Tsali Cycles is owned and staffed by good-natured folks who enjoy giving advice and swapping stories, and who happen to be very cool to ride with as well. The shop sponsors weekly rides at Fire Mountain and Tsali, and there’s usually an impromptu cookout and brews afterwards.
In case you’re not in the know on this, western North Carolina is craft beer heaven. Yeah, Asheville is Beer City USA, with their 26 brew pubs and all. But as you travel further west into the Nantahala National Forest, there seem to be even more microbrewers per capita out here than in Asheville! Seriously–stop in almost any small town out here, and they’ve got a brew pub or three serving up some fine, malty beverages.
In Sylva, you can relax on the deck at Innovation Brewing, or check out the new Balsam Falls Brewing Company on Main Street. After venturing to Tsali, you can swing by the Nantahala Brewing Company or Mountain Layers Brewing in Bryson City, or swing by Tsali Cycles to imbibe and recount your day. And if you’re riding at Jackrabbit or Hanging Dog, be sure to stop in at the Hayesville Brewing Company for tasty brews and incredible eats afterwards.
Other Things to Do and See
Rivers and Lakes
Beyond mountain biking, the recreation options in the Nantahala National Forest are near boundless. The Nantahala River has been used for a number of world-class whitewater competitions, and there are several paddling and rafting outfitters located within the Nantahala Gorge for cold-water adventures. The Tuckaseegee River offers more casual float trips, while the frosty waters of Deep Creek are renowned as the best tubing run of the summer.
For fishing enthusiasts, the national forest is a paradise; nearly every creek is trout habitat, and Jackson County offers free guides for their 15-stop trout fishing trail. Five major lakes–Fontana, Chatuge, Glenville, Hiawassee, and Nantahala–and countless smaller ones provide even more fishing opportunities, along with room for boating and water skiing.
If you’re up for a hike, some of the highest peaks in the entire Appalachian range fall within the Nantahala National Forest, and many of them are easily accessible. The Appalachian Trail, the Mountains-to-Sea trail, and many other footpaths thread the ridgetops, linking the entire region together. The number of waterfalls that can be found throughout the forest is mind-blowing, and you could easily spend an entire week (or more) just walking them all down. For true forest lovers, I highly recommend a visit to see the giant poplar trees found in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, the last stand of virgin hardwoods in the East.
If you need a mellow day, there are plenty of relaxing activities available. You can watch the elk herds grazing in the evenings in Maggie Valley or Cherokee, or at the Cattaloochee Ranch. You can hear a concert or maybe win some money at either of the Cherokee Harrah’s casinos. Or for a true taste of mountain music, catch some local bluegrass or Americana at any number of pubs, public greens, libraries, or community centers.
For spectacular long-range views, take a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, or the lesser-known (but possibly even more scenic) Cherohala Skyway. To feed your archeological interests, stop by the Judaculla Rock to see petroglyphs that predate the Cherokee people by thousands of years. If either art or renewable energy is your thing, then stop in at the Green Energy Park in Dillsboro. Artisans there use gas from an old landfill, waste vegetable oil, and waste wood to fuel glassblowing furnaces, ceramic kilns, and blacksmithing forges. The facility is open for tours, classes, and gallery sales, Wednesday through Saturday.
In all, the Nantahala National Forest has something for everyone. So if you’re looking for a chill biking vacation (rather than, say, six days of thrashing through Pisgah) in a gorgeous temperate rainforest, come on out to the Big Woods of the Nantahala National Forest. Just plan to stay a while.