While there are no mountain biking trails within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you will find some great nearby options including one of the top spots in the country. The Tsali (SAH-lee) Recreation Area in Nantahala National Forest is a top destination for mountain biking in North Carolina and eastern USA. 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 country. It's about 80 miles west of Asheville. In Cherokee, try out the new Fire Mountain Trail with 10 more miles to explore.
Tsali is located on a hilly peninsula reaching into beautiful Fontana Lake, across the lake from the Great Smoky Mountains. The nearest town is Bryson City, home to bike shops downtown with rentals and supplies, Nantahala Brewing and a good variety of restaurants for post ride recovery.
The four long main trails at Tsali wind along the lakeshore and onto the wooded, steep interior ridgelines, and many connector trails, gravel roads and extension trails make rides at Tsali even longer, more scenic, and more fun! Three main 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 trail use fee for one day (honor system, bring cash), but Tsali is well worth two bucks!
Find color trail maps at every trail intersection to help with navigation and emergency response. In addition to a “You Are Here” designation, each map has a unique number that can be used by rescue and Forest Service personnel to pinpoint location.
- The Right Loop, rated moderately difficult, offers 13.9 miles of single track, with shorter 4- and 8-mile loops possible.
- The Left Loop, rated moderately difficult, is 11.9 miles of single track with views toward the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Fontana Lake.
- The Mouse Branch Trail, rated moderately difficult, is 8.7 miles of single track and includes old logging roads.
- The Thompson Loop, rated moderately difficult, is 7.3 miles of single track.
Hikers may explore the trails on any day (but we recommend hiking elsewhere since you'll have to look out for bikes and horses), but mountain bikers and horseback riders are kept separated by alternating days on the trails. Many signs are posted with the schedule.
Open early April through October, the Tsali Campground offers 42 campsites on a first-come, first-served basis. Many sites accommodate small RVs, but no hookups are available. Each campsite has a picnic table, fire ring and lantern post. Accessible flush toilets, hot showers and drinking water are available. Campers pay fees at the campground fee station.
Tsali's jumping off point is the end of FR 1286, where the trailhead, campground, and boat launch are located. Tsali can be quite crowded on summer weekends. This means the parking lot will probably be pretty full. Don't let this deter you from riding here, however. Finding a place to park is 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. Even on the most crowded days, you can often ride for miles without seeing anyone else. To avoid the crowds, try to visit during the week. Tsali's Left and Right Loop trails can be combined to make a great, but difficult, 18-mile ride.
Directions to Tsali
From Asheville, take I-40 West to Exit 27 (allow 1.5 hours to drive the 80 miles). Follow Highway 74 past Bryson City (Great Smoky Mountains Expressway) to intersection with NC 28 North. Follow NC 28 North about 3 miles to the sign for the Tsali Recreation Area; turn right. Follow this paved road to the campground and trailhead parking lot; park in the lot signed "Riders Park and Pay Here." Download the National Forest Service Tsali Guide.
Fire Mountain Trails, Cherokee
This 10.5-mile network of trails is multiuse for mountain biking, hiking and running was built in 2017. The trail system is split into three main trails that are divided by difficulty level for beginners, intermediate and advanced. The trailhead is located about 100 yards from the Oconaluftee Indian Village and shares a parking lot.
See our Asheville Mountain Biking Guide for more options.