Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tsali: Thompson Loop, Bryson City, North Carolina

Getting There
Head West 8 miles from Bryson City, North Carolina on Hwy. 74. Hang a write on NC 28 and go about 3.5 miles past Freeman’s Motel. The turn off onto the Tsali road will be on the right with a sign. Head down that road about a mile and a half, and there will be big signs for the parking lots (on your left).


The Route
From the mountain bike parking lot, head back out the entrance of the lot, down the hill a little ways, and ride around the gate and down the gravel road. Shortly you’ll pass the end of the Thompson loop on your left. Keep climbing all the way to the top of the road (about a half a mile). Follow the signs that say “Intended path of travel.” At the top of road the Thompson Loop singletrack will head off to the left. After you hop on the trail, there is zero navigating for the next 7 miles until you return to the road. Once you end up on the gravel road again, either turn right to go back to the parking lot, or turn left and climb back up to catch Mouse Branch. Total distance for the Thompson Loop is about 8 miles.


Navigational Resources
Timm Muth has written an awesome guidebook with detailed statistics and directions.  It includes almost all of the worth-while trails in North Carolina, and features a big section on the Tsali trails.  If you're planning on spending a lot of time in NC, this is a great investment!






The maps that I have come to live by are all a part of the National Geographic Trails Illustrated series.  Easy to read, almost always up to date, tear resistant and water proof, these maps are designed to ride in your Camelback months on end! #784 contains the Tsali Trail System:







All About the Trail
I have heard so much excited chatter and hype about the trails of Tsali. I’ve also been told that the two best trails are the Right and Left loops, which were closed on Saturday when I was there. However, the Thompson Loop was sufficient evidence to convince me that all of the hype and popularity surrounding Tsali is completely justified: these trails are incredible!

The Thompson Loop trail begins by rolling through some dense forest with thick rhododendron on either side of the trail. Right from the get-go, the quality of the singletrack is supremely evident. The trail is nice and narrow, the climbs pass beneath your tires effortlessly, and the descents and turns are euphoric to ride!

Indeed, the flow of these trails is what makes Tsali so famous, and the Thompson Loop adds to that fame. Many of the turns are wonderfully bermed up, but even those that aren’t are not too sharp to hinder one’s momentum.

After only a mile or two the trail emerges from the thick rhododendron and runs above the shores of Fontana Lake’s ocean-blue waters. At one point there is even a rope swing begging you to take a break and wash off the sweat in Fontana's cool waters. Despite the sweat, I was having so much fun on the trail that I couldn’t bring myself to stop!

Towards the middle of the loop, the trail really does start to climb. Still, this singletrack was well designed, and the climbs are not difficult in any sense of the word. I could tell that I was climbing, but I just wanted to stomp the pedals and power up the moderate grades!

After rolling up and along the top of the ridge, I knew that we had to lose a significant amount of elevation to get back down to the trailhead. Oh, I wish every mountain bike ride ended like this! The descent came right at the end, and came on fast and furious! There was no up-down-up-down, rather it was all flowy, high-speed descent (with one small flat spot) for about a mile back to the finish. I haven’t had that much fun on my mountain bike in a very long time! Jems such as that one mile of trail at the end of the Thompson Loop are what mountain biking is all about, and are what draw me to explore new trails!


Bottom Line
These are the most Colorado-esque trails that I’ve ridden east of the Rockies. I will be back for more!

Additional Information
  • There's a $2 per person fee for riding the trails.  
  • The Thompson Loop is open to mountain bikers on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
  • Camping is available in the adjacent Tsali Campground.  Primitive sights start at $15 a night, but there are facilities with running water, flush toilets, and hot showers.

All the Tsali Trails

2 comments:

Timm,  September 23, 2010 at 9:08 AM  

Greg,
Once you finish Thompson, try to find someone willing to drive a shuttle for a bit, and you can hit that fine downhill again. Head out the access road like you're leaving, but keep an eye out on the right. About 1/2 mile from the top, you'll see the gated entrance for a forest service road on the right. Jump back on your bike and head it for about 1 mile; you'll come out at the T-intersection at the top of Thompson, just before that awesome downhill starts. Then just start grinning and dive back into it, as many times as your shuttle driver will allow. enjoy!!
Timm

Greg September 23, 2010 at 5:26 PM  

Hey Timm, Thanks for the tip! That would be an awesome day. That downhill is SO good: flowy, fast, and descends consistently pretty much the whole time. Now if only I could talk my wife into driving the shuttle. Hmm....

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Greg Heil is the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com. He's been writing and publishing online since before blogging existed.

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Mountain biking, plain and simple. Trail reviews, ride reports, and philosophical musings induced by delirium from grinding up way too many vertical feet.

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