Finding Flow On the Tsali Loops in North Carolina

Landscape photo of singletrack mountain bike trail next to scenic lake in Tsali Recreation Area in North Carolina

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When I was first putting together my guide on all the IMBA Epic Mountain Bike Trails, for some reason the Tsali Loops in North Carolina caught my eye. Beautiful lake views, fast and flowy singletrack, a relatively remote and rugged setting? Sign me up! I’m always a sucker for big days in the saddle with the promise of world-class riding.

Now, after having mountain biked the full Tsali trail system, I can say that it does not disappoint.

The views are stunning and the riding, while not challenging or technical in the least, is a pleasant mix of mellow pedaling, some punchy climbs, and fast flowy descents.

Before you head out to the Tsali Trail System, though, there are some important things you need to know including trail fees, the horse/bike schedule to keep the peace, and which Tsali trails to ride.

In this post, I cover everything you need to know about making the most of your two-wheeled escapades out to the Tsali Recreation Area in western North Carolina.

Getting to Tsali Recreation Area

Tsali Recreation Area is located in the Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina.

It’s quite remote and not really located near any big town or city. The closest town is Bryson City, which is about 20 minutes east.

The closest cities are Knoxville, Tennessee (2 hours north) and Asheville, North Carolina (1.5 hours east).

Becky standing behind Juliana Joplin mountain bike at scenic overlook onto Fontana Lake in Tsali Recreation Area in North Carolina
The overlooks at Tsali are worth the trek out there!

Where does the name ‘Tsali’ come from?

Before I dive into the mountain biking at Tsali, I think it’s important to learn about the (cruel) history of Tsali Recreation Area and where the name comes from.

Tsali is named after a Cherokee Indian man who was executed in 1838 after refusing to leave his home in what are now called the Great Smoky Mountains.

In 1838, the United States government forced the Cherokee people to leave their homes in the southeastern United States and move to Oklahoma. This forced relocation, known as the Trail of Tears, resulted in the deaths of thousands of Cherokee people.

Tsali was one of the Cherokee who refused to leave their homes. He and his family hid in the mountains, but they were eventually captured by the U.S. Army. Tsali was executed, along with his son and brother-in-law for trying to stay in his homeland.

Important Things to Know

Mountain biking at Tsali Recreation Area is awesome, but there are a few things to know before hitting the trails:

  • There is a horse/bike schedule: Because the Tsali Loops are so popular with horses and mountain bikers, management has created a schedule to dictate when each group can use the trails. See the schedule below for more information.
  • Trail user fee: There is a $2/per person trail user fee that must be paid at the parking area. This money goes back into the trail systems, so you’re only hurting other trail users if you don’t pay it.
  • Not all loops are created equal: I dive more into the trails and what to expect before, but know that the Right Loop and Left Loop are the ‘best’ loops.
  • E-bikes are allowed: I think? There were no “no e-bikes” signs and I saw at least one person riding an electric bike, so I’m assuming they are allowed.

The Tsali Trail User Schedule

To keep the peace between mountain bikers and equestrians (and to keep everyone alive…) there is a horse/mountain biker schedule that trails users need to adhere to.

The schedule is based on days of the week and months of the year (click to enlarge):

I arrived on a Sunday in May, so I could ride Mouse Branch and Thomspon Loops, but then I had to wait until Tuesday to ride the Right and Left Loops.

This schedule is here for a reason. Please respect it and don’t mountain bike the trails on a “horse” day.

Trail sign at Tsali trail complex in North Carolina showing the trail schedule for bikes and horses broken into months and days of the week
This is the schedule for the Mouse Branch and Thompson Loops. There’s another trail sign for the Left and Right loops

Mountain biking at Tsali

The mountain bike trails at Tsali are classic singletrack that have been around for decades.

Over the past few years, a ton of work has been done on these trails (namely the Left and Right Loops) and they are a super fun destination for any avid mountain biker.

Trail breakdown

There are four main loops in the Tsali Recreation Area with a few shorter ‘bonus’ loops. Here’s what I thought about all of them:

  • Thompson Loop: My least favorite loop. It’s kind of monotonous with no great flow and annoying climbs.
  • Mouse Branch: More interesting and better routed than Thompson Loop. The Overlook Loop is a must!
  • Left Loop: Fast, flowy, and fun with beautiful stretches right along the lake. The Cliff Overlook spur is worth it, especially if you don’t do Mouse Branch.
  • Right Loop: Also fast, flowy, and fun with a bit more of a backcountry feel. The Overlook Loop on this one is ok… there’s no real vista point. The Mouse Branch Overlook is much better.

Tsali Trail Maps

Route recommendation

>> Tsali Loops – Left & Right

The two most popular loops at Tsali are the Left and Right Loops.

You can ride them as one big 19-mile day as this route suggests, or you can break them into two (slightly shorter) loops by taking County Line Road (this road has a steep beginning, but it mellows out after about a .4 mile)

  • Route difficulty: Intermediate
  • Mileage: 19 miles
  • Route type: Loop
  • E-bikes? Yes
  • Elevation gain/loss: 1,801 ft
  • Map/GPS: TrailForks

Route directions: Tsali Trailhead Parking > Right Loop > Overlook Loop (optional) > Right Loop > Cliff Overlook > Left Loop

Route notes: 19 miles may sound like a lot for a mountain bike ride (or maybe not!) but I found that these trails flow really well and 19 miles went by quickly.

There’s not a ton of elevation gain for that mileage, so if you’re in decent shape, you should be fine.

Do less: If 19 miles is a bit much, you can split the Left and Right loops into two days by taking the Country Line Road back to the parking area. This will make each loop roughly 11-13 miles each.

Keep in mind that you can’t ride the left/right loops two days in a row because of the trail schedule. You’ll need to wait a day (which you could use to ride the Thompson and/or Mouse Branch Loops).

What about Thompson Loop and Mouse Branch?

If you’re staying for a few days, you can ride the Thompson and Mouse Branch Loops as a second route.

I didn’t love Thompson Loop and Mouse Branch was ok. However, the lookout on Mouse Branch Overlook is spectacular!

Tsali Campground

There is a first-come-first-serve campground located just a short distance from the Tsali trailhead.

The campground has 42 sites with picnic tables and first pits. There are showers, bathrooms, and potable water. Camping per night is $20.

There is limited cell service in the campground, but you can walk up to the parking area for a better signal.

Best time to visit

I rode the Tsali Loops in mid-May and it was perfect. The temps were a delightful 60’s, spring flowers were blooming, there were no bugs, and I mostly had the trails to myself. I’d say April-May are prime months to visit.

I suspect fall (September-October) would be a good time to visit as well for cool temperatures and a bit of fall foliage.

Summers can get really hot and humid and winter can be cold and snowy.

Trail lined with flowering bushes and lush greenery in Tsali Recreation Area in North Carolina
I rode the Tsali Loops in mid-May and it was perfect!

Other things to do around Tsali Recreation Area

Want to stay awhile? There are lots of other great things to do around Tsali aside from mountain biking.

Here are a few ideas if you want to make a longer trip of it:

  • Book a tour with NOC: Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) offers a variety of outdoor recreation tours from nearby Bryson City. Choose from whitewater rafting, zip-lining, guided mountain biking tours, and more.
  • Get out on the water: Tsali is situated right on the banks of Fontana Lake and there are tons of ways to enjoy the water. If you don’t have your own watercraft, Fontana Village Resort & Marina offers pontoon boat rentals, canoes, kayaks, and SUPs.
  • Hike the Appalachian Trail: Maybe not all of it… but the Appalachian Trail does pass just south of Tsali.
Switchback in singletrack trail in Tsali recreation area in North Carolina surrounded by lush forest

Final thoughts

I really enjoyed exploring and riding the trails at Tsali Recreation Area. Mouse Branch and Thompson Loops were meh, but Left and Right Loops were fast, flowy, and fun with great views out over Lake Fontana.

Before you plan your trip, though, remember that the trails have a user schedule to coordinate with horseback riders, so be sure to check the schedule before you go.

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