Tsali - Left and Right Loops Ride
From Bryson City, NC, follow US 19/74 (Great Smoky Mountains Expressway) to intersection with NC 28 north. Follow NC 28 north about 3 miles to sign for the Tsali Recreation Area; turn right. Follow this to the campground and trailhead parking lot; park in the lot signed "Riders Park and Pay Here."
Tsali's Left and Right Loop trails each use County Line Road, a gravel road which is becoming doubletrack in places, to return to the parking area. But they can be combined without the road to make a fantastic "outer" loop on just their singletrack portions. You can ride it in either direction, but I have ridden it both ways and prefer to go clockwise to hit the best downhills. This description assumes travel clockwise.
First pay the (small) trail use fee and pick up a trail permit. Ride past the bike washing station and make an immediate left onto the Left Loop trail. This is a very short climb that soon levels out and goes back downhill. At the intersection with the gravel road (which is County Line Road), ride straight across and pick up the Left Loop trail again on the other side. The trail immediately becomes tight singletrack and it quickly descends on a great downhill section (a taste of things to come!). After a few more short climbs and descents, you will ride into a cove, pass an old chimney, and then begin following the lakeshore.
The next several miles are all rolling singletrack along the lakeshore, with a few creek crossings, many banked curves, and a few relatively technical spots (though never extremely so). It dips into cove after cove, then emerges near the lake again. The trail will eventually round a ridge that extends out into the lake and disappears. Depending on the water level, the ridge either forms a long peninsula or two small, rocky islands. Beyond the ridge, the trail begins a long, gradual uphill climb. The climb is mostly on sidehill tread. It is not steep and and you can keep going fast, with banked turns.
The trail gets a little steeper just before it passes over a low summit, which is a well used resting spot. A particularly steep, fast downhill section follows. It bottoms out and immediately begins up another another short, relatively steep climb (keep your speed up and avoid some climbing!). Another steep downhill follows, with several jumps. This levels out some, passes through some beautiful mountainside forest scenery, and then heads downhill yet again (though not quite as steeply as on the last drop).
At the bottom of this downhill, the trail turns uphill into a cove. It commences a very muddy creekside climb. The trail will edge across the creek and get considerably steeper. It goes round a switchback left, and continues to climb, but not as steeply. It then becomes a rolling cruiser taking you to an intersection: a trail comes in from the right and behind you. It's the connector back to the Right Loop trail, which can be used to skip the Overlook Loop. You may not even notice it, which is OK - just continue straight. The intersection is signed, like all intersections at Tsali.
Left Loop ends and you are now on the Overlook Loop. This is a steady climb to the top of the ridge and the overlook. When you get to a right-hand switchback, it means means you're almost there! The climb is all worth it, though, as you ride out onto the overlook and see the incredible view of the Great Smoky Mountains with Fontana Lake hundreds of feet below in the foreground. Continue on past the overlook onto a twisty downhill with a couple of technical, rocky areas and descending turns. The next section of trail is uphill.
The next intersection you'll encounter is a 4-way which feels a bit backwards since the trail names are all relative. The Right Loop trail is to your left, County Line Road is straight ahead, and Left Loop is to your right. Continuing straight would take you to the parking lot. Turning right would take you back onto the left loop, to the intersection you passed before the Overlook Loop. But to continue this ride, make a left here onto Right Loop trail.
You get more of the same type of great trail immediately. A fast, winding descent will be followed up with a ride along a creek. As you go, watch as the forest changes from cool, moist hemlock-rhododendron coves, to open meadows and clearcuts, to lush hardwood forests, to hot, dry ridgelines. The descent is followed by rolling sections of trail, where there are some very narrow spots.
You'll reach another intersection, with the outermost connector trail back up to County Line Road (Right Loop Connector 2 on our maps). Make a left to stay on Right Loop. You'll then eventually undertake a climb up a steep-ish section of trail.
This climb takes you to the intersection with the out-and-back trail to the Windy Gap "overlook". Though the overlook is not that great, the trail is a bit more technical than most of Tsali and it's fun. If you're up for some more mileage, this trail is worthwhile - take a left and take either direction at the fork, then return to this intersection.
Continue along Right loop for some more up and down riding. Stay on Right Loop at any intersections, which should be signed, barring vandalism. The trail will eventually commit to a significant climb, but get ready - after that, it goes into a long, gradual, screaming fast downhill and emerges near the lakeshore. This downhill is one of the highlights of the entire ride. At over a mile long - and just steep enough so you can go as fast as you really want - it will surely get your adrenaline pumping, with banked curves, sidehill sections, rocky sections, dips and straight-aways. Sadly, the downhill ends, but it's at a creek crossing for a nice technical finish.
There is one more long but gradual climb (on which you can keep in the middle/big rings) as you watch the milepost signs count down to your destination. The Right Loop will emerge right back at the parking area to conclude the ride.
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Here's an interactive GPS map of this ride. Green highlight indicates the route followed by this ride within the trail network. Only the trails and points of interest along the ride, and those in the immediate vicinity, are interactive. For expanded maps, see this ride's Trailhead area.
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