Tsali Trails. Some of the Oldest Trails in the Southeast By Lisa
It's always fun to ditch work early on a Friday, pack up the rad van and hit the road, caravan style, with great friends for a weekend of mountain biking.
Saturday morning we set out on the single tracks of Tsali Recreational Trails, some of the oldest single track in the Southeast. These trails have an old school feel but with a little more flow and they did not disappoint. Saturday direction is Mouse Branch and Thompson Loop trails for bikers and the Mouse Branch trail leads you to awesome views of Fontana Lake. Rhododendron thickets and huge towering pines dot the trails. There wasn't much not to love about these trails. We were warned though that they get a little overgrowth during this time of year, and that is true, but who can complain about ripping through a field of ferns? It was breathtaking and I was smiling too hard to care about an occasional leaf slap.
After a few stops to regroup, stare at the beautiful views of the lake, refuel and chat about the trails and how much fun we were having, we took off for the Thompson Loop. This trail met us with a little more climbing into some really fun flowy sections, dense overgrowth, thickets, multiple creek crossings and the last turn left to the finish was some of the gnarliest, loose, rutted out, rocky, super fast descents I have done in a while and it was freaking awesome. It was one of those sections that threw it at you so quickly, you didn't have time to “overthink” it, you just had to trust your bike to do its thing...roll through it! I trusted my bike and let momentum be my friend and I can't remember smiling so much through a technical descent. What a great day on the bike! Another great thing about riding in the mountains is most likely there is a cold stream to soak those tired muscles in afterwards.
Luckily we got to do it all again on Sunday at another trail system. Fire Mountain is a newer trail system in the Great Smoky Mountains near Cherokee commissioned by the Tribal Council and funded with grants and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. It shares parking facilities with the Oconaluftee Indian Village. We were advised to take the Uktena trail up which is an advanced to expert skills trail. Boy was that tough... the blind curves, roots and rock gardens going up are no joke. It's also about a 2.5 mile steep climb to the lookout tower. The trail is also multi-directional which I am NOT a fan of with the fast blind curves on a steep descent. Our pay-off was hitting Spearfinger and if you come off this trail without a big goofy smile on your face, you need to go get on your road bike and stay there. My husband, the Roadie loved this trail! Spearfinger is packed full of good old fast flowy single track with endless tabletops that will catapult you to whatever height you dare to take, huge berms and lots of hoots and hollers. My only regret is cutting it short to get back up Uktena for Kessel Run.
Stopping long enough for a quick recovery from the climb, we set off down Kessel Run as it is supposedly the crème de la crème of the trails at Fire Mountain. I loved Kessel Run in it's entirety. It's a downhill only section that dumps you straight onto a massive rock garden before ramping up the speed through huge flowy fast berms, tabletops and an epic sky bridge that whips you back around to the single track. Take those berms too fast and you may be clawing your way back up the mountain side trying to find your bike. These trails are single track hugging the sides of mountains, so don't get too rad.
After a few weeks of crazy work schedules and busy life stuff, it was great to unwind with friends, put my skills to the test, learn some new ones and see exactly where my comfort zone ended. Mountain biking is definitely soul cleansing, forcing you to be in the moment and I for one appreciate being able to experience this on a bike!