Mountain Biking the Tsali Recreation Area

The popular Tsali Recreation Area has long been considered a top destination for mountain biking in Western North Carolina, and even the entire eastern US. 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 USA. The area is located on a hilly peninsula reaching into beautiful Fontana Lake, at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains.

The four long main trails at Tsali wind along the lake shore and onto the wooded, steep interior ridges. There are several connector trails, gravel roads and extension trails that give a few more options for rides besides the main loops. Three designated 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 $2.00 trail use fee for one day.

Tsali's jumping off point is the end of FS 1286, where the trailhead, campground, and boat launch are located. See below for directions to the trailhead.


"Tsali" is the name of a Cherokee Indian man who gave his life so that some of his people could stay in the Great Smoky Mountains region. In 1838, during the US government-ordered removal of the Cherokee nation to Oklahoma, Tsali and several others managed to escape the brutality and hide in the mountains. In an agreement to let some of the Cherokee stay, he, his oldest son, and his brother-in-law volunteered themselves as sacrifices for their people. They were executed and buried a community that is now under the waters of Fontana Lake. Tsali was survived by his wife and youngest son. They, and over 1000 others who had hidden in the mountains, returned to their homes and were finally allowed to remain. Generations later, their descendents form the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian, some of whom live on the Qualla Boundary reservation in the town of Cherokee and in the surrounding region today.


Tsali can indeed be quite crowded on summer weekends. In fact, a lot of locals will tell you it's just too crowded to even ride here. Don't let this deter you, however, if you can only visit on a weekend. The parking lot will probably be pretty full. But actually finding a place to park is usually 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 with a full parking lot, you can often ride for miles without seeing anyone else. To avoid the crowds entirely, try to visit during the week.


It seems to get unusually hot for the Mountain region during the summer at Tsali. Yes, hiking is allowed on all the trails on any day - but bring your bike unless you want to roast in the hot sun like I did in August 2007. Without the breeze you get as you cruise down the trail on two wheels, you start to remember that you're in the South. The area is at a relatively low elevation, compared to nearby sites like Pisgah. It bears mentioning that the trails at Tsali can be open and sunny, and large clearcuts along with open, treeless expanses along the rocky lake shore can make for some truly miserable heat during the summer. Bring plenty of water here and watch for signs of heat exhaustion. If you're like me, you won't be able to resist a dip in cold, clear Fontana Lake at some point during or after your ride.

Camping and Lodging at Tsali

Public Campgrounds

The Tsali Campground is a public campground operated by the Nantahala National Forest's Cheoah Ranger District. Open from April thru October, it is located directly next to the trailhead. There are sites in a nice forest by a stream as well as open, sunny sites in a meadow. This campground has 41 shady, graveled, level sites, and there's hot showers and flush toilets. Drinking water is also provided. Smaller RV's will fit in some sites and are welcome but there are no electrical/water hookups. Sites are $15 per night. Payment is done on the honor system at a self-pay station, so you'll want to have your pass ready for when the friendly ranger comes around the next morning to check that you paid. Best of all, you can pick up your bike and ride straight out of your campsite onto the trails!

Backcountry camping is also allowed anywhere on National Forest lands, for free, except in designated wildlife fields. Also, no camping within 500 feet of a road or parking lot.

Private Campgrounds

Rolling Thunder River Company
Provides white water rafting and camping in the Tsali area.

Tumbling Waters Campground
Located on beautiful Panther Creek, Tumbling Waters Campground and Trout Farm is a restful, quiet retreat for families, white water rafters, mountain bikers and fishermen. Only a 5 minute drive from Tsali, this is a great place to stay, offering grassy sites with full hook-ups, a recently remodeled bathhouse, picnic tables, fire rings, ice, laundry facilities, and a dumping station. Volleyball, basketball, horseshoes, and a trout fishing pond are all located at the campground. Click their name to see their website with more information.

Turkey Creek Campground
Just 5 minutes from Tsali on NC 28 is a hotel and this private campground, for those who would like a few more amenities. The campground has full electrical and water hook-ups for RV's, shady sites, clean restrooms with hot showers, and very reasonable rates (actually cheaper than the Tsali campground for one person tent camping). Click their name for a link to their website, with a fantastic aerial picture of their mountain location.


Freeman's Motel and Cottages
Located just three miles east of Tsali on NC Highway 28, Freeman's Motel and Cottages offers reasonably priced motel rooms as well as a variety of cabins, suitable for individuals or groups of up to ten people. All rooms are clean and comfortable with heat, air conditioning, TV, towels and linens. All cabins are also fully furnished with fireplaces, kitchens, porches and barbecue grills. Facilities include a pool, large playing field, outdoor grills and picnic tables, laundromat, and bike wash-down area.

A Mountain Memory
We're offering you a romantic Smoky Mountain 2 bedroom, 2 bath, honeymoon rental cabin with a hot tub close to the Nantahala River. We're just one mile from the Nantahala River and just 18 miles from the Tsali Recreation Area. We're also a convenient distance from white water rafting, kayaking, the Nantahala Outdoor Center, the Appalachian Trail, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, Lake Fontana and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!

Kathy's Deep Creek Hideaway
Western North Carolina 2 bedroom, 2 bath 2 story log cabin rental next to the Deep Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Numerous trailheads are just minutes from the cabin. The Tsali Trails are about 20 minutes away. Our cabin can sleep 6, has central heat and air, satellite TV, dvd, hot tub, washer & dryer, and a fully equipped kitchen with microwave and dishwasher. We have a gas log fireplace, gas and charcoal grill on the porch and comes complete with towels & linens. High Speed wireless internet is also available. We are pet friendly (no breed or size restriction) and have a gated porch to keep the furkids in. Our cabin is very "Homey" and "Comfortable" as some of our guests have called it. Located up in the hills near Deep Creek it is easily accessible by car and secluded enough to give you privacy. Checkout our website and our many online galleries!

Laurel Creek Cabin
Located only 10 minutes from Tsali, this is the perfect mountain-biking getaway. After a long day on the trails, cool off with a swim in Lake Fontana (a quick 5-minute walk from cabin). Laurel Creek Cabin sits on 5 secluded acres surrounded by National Forest Service Land. Enjoy the rustic charm & beautiful knotty pine interior. Relax in the cool summer evenings, or take in the autumn colors, by sitting on the large screened-in porch. Conveniently located 10 minutes from Nantahala Outdoor Center, Appalachian Trail access & many other popular tourist destinations.
For more info: (850) 386-7229.

Riverbend Lodging
Located near Tsali in Bryson City, this motel is at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains and the beautiful Tuckaseigee River flows alongside the property. They offer 11 rooms with AC and cable TV and one cottage rental which sleeps up to 6 and has the same furnishings.

Smoky Mountain Retreat
Located approximately 6 miles from Tsali, we have 4 hand-crafted log homes. One will accommodate 10 guests; one 14; and 2 will accommodate 16 each. Homes are completely furnished with all amenities. We also have the Mountain Place which will accommodate 14 guests and the Brick Annex which will accommodate 8 guests. They have the same amenities offered in the log cabins.

Other places of lodging can be found at the nearby resort town of Fontana Village, located on NC 28 close to the Fontana Dam, and in the towns of Bryson City and Cherokee.

To request that your place of lodging be listed on this page, please contact us

Directions to the Tsali Trailhead

See the WNC Area Map for the location of Bryson City and Tsali. From Bryson City, NC, follow US 19/74 (Great Smoky Mountains Expressway) to intersection with NC 28 north. Follow NC 28 north (a 4-lane highway) about 3 miles to the top of the hill and a sign for the Tsali Recreation Area; turn right. Follow the paved road to the campground and trailhead parking lot; park in the lot signed "Bikers Park and Pay Here."