‘Flowy’ trails, scenery draw cyclists to Tsali

Richard Conley of Sylva (left) and Rob Conklin of Asheville ride Tsali Recreation Area during the “12 Hours of Tsali” mountain bike endurance race last Saturday in Western North Carolina.
Richard Conley of Sylva (left) and Rob Conklin of Asheville ride Tsali Recreation Area during the “12 Hours of Tsali” mountain bike endurance race last Saturday in Western North Carolina. Photo by Jack Horan

Singletrack meets the Smokies at the Tsali Recreation Area.

Tsali’s mountain bike trails draw knobby-tired cyclists who ride four loops totaling 42 miles in mountainous Western North Carolina.

Super scenery comes with the pedaling. Riders emerge periodically from the leafy canopy for postcard views of Fontana Lake and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The most common word that bikers use to describe Tsali is “flowy.” As in trails that let riders glide smoothly through sun-dappled forest, span rocks and rills and flow over moderate hills.

“The trails are fast and flowy,” said Jennie Wyderko, 26, of Cullowhee, who said she rides Tsali at least once a month.

Wyderko was one of 140 mountain bikers who competed last Saturday in the “12 Hours of Tsali” endurance races that ran 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Cyclists raced in three-hour, six-hour, nine-hour or 12-hour classes, team and solo, for fastest cumulative times.

Race promoter David Berger of Ocala, Fla., characterized Tsali as a “kind of a legacy trail. It’s one of the oldest and more popular trails in the Eastern U.S.”

Tsali (pronounced Sah-lee) has earned a reputation as a top destination. Outside magazine in 2015 listed Tsali as one of its “10 Great American Mountain Biking Trails.”

“The 8.7-mile Mouse Branch is the most technical of the four (loops), with more loose rocks and the occasional step-up and logs to negotiate,” the magazine noted, “while the adjacent Thompson Loop hugs the shoreline and provides what’s probably the best lake vista in the park.”

Along with Mouse Branch and Thompson Loop (7.3 miles) are Right Loop (13.9 miles) and Left Loop (11.9 miles). An estimated 8,000 bikers ride Tsali annually, according to Heath Emmons of the Cheoah Ranger District of the Nantahala National Forest.

International tourists seek out Tsali for the mostly singletrack cross-country cruises. “We’ve gotten customers from 28 countries who rent bikes from us to ride Tsali,” said Diane Cutler of Bryson City Bicycles, with most recent visitors from Austria, Mexico and Uganda.

Both bicyclists and horse riders use the trails but on alternate days. Mouse Branch, for example, is open to bikers on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; horse riders own the trail Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Joshua Burris, 40, of Waynesville has ridden Tsali for 10 years. “I think it’s one of the best groomed and flowing courses around here. It’s an absolute blast to ride,” he said, before wheeling off to complete another lap for his team.

A member of Team Strider, Richard Conley, 30, of Sylva, paused after completing his fourth lap of Mouse Branch.

“Tsali’s a lot more flowy,” Conley said. “You can keep your momentum up. It’s a lot of fun. Rolls a good bit. Left Loop is my favorite. I really like the Overlook Loop (part of Mouse Branch). It’s got a fun descent on the back of it. The descents aren’t too long and the climbs aren’t too long either.”

Is Tsali suitable for newbies to the sport? Definitely, Conley said. “Tsali’s a great place to cut your teeth on mountain biking.”

Jack Horan of Charlotte is author of “Where Nature Reigns/The Wilderness Areas of the Southern Appalachians.”

Want to go?

Tsali Recreation Area is about 75 miles west of Asheville off N.C. 28. Named for a 19th Century Cherokee Indian leader, Tsali is part of the Nantahala National Forest. Amenities include rest rooms, bike-washing station, 42-site campground and parking. Cyclists and horse riders pay a $2 day use fee. For more information, see www.fs.usda.gov/nfsnc and put “tsali” in the search window.