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Trail Biking in the NC Great Smoky Mountains

Welcome to the extreme sports Big Leagues! Extreme skiers flock to Colorado and radical mountain-climbers race to Wyoming, but if your extreme hobby is riding “knobbies”, the NC Great Smoky Mountains is fast becoming your Holy Grail!

The variety of mountain-biking trails here is so diverse, no two rides are ever the same. Some tracks are suitable for families and novices, but, really, this precipitous terrain is the epitome of adrenaline-pumping action that will have you questioning your sanity.

All-Terrain Trails for YEW!

Tsali Recreation Area with its 40 miles of off-road biking at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains is the Mack Daddy of all-terrain riding experiences. Skirting crystal-clear Fontana Lake with 4 loops of hard-packed, single tracks, Tsali Recreation Area delivers on the thrills.

Rated as a Top-Ten 10 place to ride in the U.S, Tsali was recently added to the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) Epics list of “what many mountain bikers live for and make travel plans around: immersive rides that are technically and physically challenging, beautiful to behold and worthy of celebration.” Trail distances vary by loop and fall into the 7.3- to 13.9-mile range.

Single tracks feature rousing berms, bumps and jumps, and steep drops and gullies, made all the more thrilling at night (!) during January’s Icycle Race through snow and ice, including a 1000-foot, mile-long drop down the “Turkey Shoot.” June’s infamous 12-Hour Tsali Bike Race is another grueling adventure but rewards you with a refreshing dip in crystalline Fontana Lake at the finish.

The Fire Mountain Trails are revered as some of the “flowiest” trails in the Great Smoky Mountains and on the East Coast. With seamless corners and features, the trails rocket you down the side of the mountain on your “knobbies,” through rock gardens, blinds, quick elevations, and tables requiring you to keep your head in the game and your bike on the path.

Topping your Ride B4 You Die list is Skilly (formerly Kate’s Wave) in the Fire Mountain Trail System. Updated in 2020, Skilly is designed for advanced terrain skills and only you most advanced shredders should attempt this black-diamond run with tons of jumps, two 4-foot boardwalk drops, a wooden wallride, and a wooden Lily Pad Gap double at the finish. (If you don’t get the “Yew!” reference in the subtitle, this is out of your league.)

If not all your crew can hack Skilly, even with optional ride-arounds, they can still “steez” on the Spearfinger and Waya Trails among others. Even beginners can enjoy the scenic 3-mile, out-and-back, relatively flat track along the Oconaluftee River Trail that also allows dogs.

(Insider Tip: With its trailhead sharing the Oconaluftee Indian Village parking lot in Cherokee, NC, Fire Mountain is a multi-use trail system that also welcomes hikers and horses, so check daily schedules to ensure you get the most from your time.

mountain bikers in the Great Smoky Mountains of NC
Photo Courtesy Swain County TDA / Chamber of Commerce.

Off-Road Trails for Amateurs

Jackrabbit Mountain Trail along Lake Chatuga in Clay County took 5 years to construct using both professional and volunteer labor and the results are incredible. With 14 miles of a machine-constructed, single-track looped design, off-road bikers of all levels can work on their skills. And there’s no doubt legit “shredders” were involved in this design; Jackrabbit Mountain Trail actually offers “stacked” or successive loops, allowing more advanced riders to peel off onto side trails that require a higher skill set, like Burrell Cove, and longer stamina, like Central Loop. Someone knew what they were doing here!

Newbie and intermediate all-terrain bikers have numerous other breathtaking trail choices through the steep, deep forests of the Great Smoky Mountains in NC surrounded by wildlife and cool, glassy lakes. Santeetlah Recreation Center Trails near Robbinsville, NC follow several open and graded forest roads for a 15-mile trek, but shorter out-and-back options offer a perfect place to practice your hobby.

Be sure to check out Piney Knob Bike Trails in Murphy, NC for 12 miles of easy to intermediate riding, although the system’s 3.3-mile Rhodo Coaster Trail is arguably a pretty gnarly challenge. Panthertown Valley is also notable for breezy off-road biking trails, but its Blackrock Trail is no joke! This 2-mile power trip is designed to deliver max adrenaline. And for its natural magnificence and history, you shouldn’t miss the local 8.75-mile portion of the Mountain-To-Sea Trail out of Highlands, NC, eventually ending at the Outer Banks on the NC coast. Biking even a small part of this iconic trail gets a bucket-list checkmark.

Just 5 miles northwest of Murphy, NC is the Ramsey Bluff Bike Trail System at the Hanging Dog Campground. It’s an 8-mile labyrinth of connected loops, allowing an interesting variety of combinations for repeat visitors to explore. Known for being the most “under-utilized” bike trail system in the NC Smoky Mountains, this is the place to embrace your solitude as you scream down the mountain, looking God in the eye, and rejoicing that the NC Great Smoky Mountains has chosen to elevate the sport of all-terrain biking to king of these mountains.

More Slick than Knobby? (Road VS. Off-Road Biking)

If your jam is more Slick (smooth-treaded street tires) than Knobby (rugged, all-terrain-gripping tires) the Great Smoky Mountains have some very cool rides for you.

Biking the Blue Ridge Parkway

Because the Blue Ridge Parkway was constructed for motor vehicles, cycling is not the first activity to come to mind when planning your trip. There are no bike lanes on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and, for safety’s sake, the Parkway’s cycling regulations should be followed. However, you will be more than challenged to keep your eyes on the road when surrounded by such pristine and majestic mountain vistas and exhilarated by the tight curves and steep descents. For more information about the cycling regulations, as well as some valuable information about the elevations to expect, visit the National Park website.

Biking the Cherohala Skyway

The Cherohala Skyway is a manageable 40-mile-long, paved, 2-lane roadway that crosses through the Nantahala National Forest in southwest NC near Robbinsville and into the Cherokee National Forest in TN. Taking part of its name from each of these national forests, the Skyway and is a can’t miss destination for road cyclers who crave crisp mountain air and ridge after ridge of immense natural splendor. Besides, it took 34 years to plan and build so worth some of your time. Read more about this designated National Scenic Byway at the Cherohala Skyway.

All-Terrain Biking in North Carolina: Service, Sales and Rental

We’ve got a friendly biking community in the Smoky Mountains. When you come mountain biking in North Carolina, make sure you visit one of our great bike shops for advice on trails and gear.

The friendly folks at the NOC Bike Shop in Bryson City or Smoky Mountain Bicycles in Franklin will be more than happy to help you experience the fun of biking in North Carolina. Bike sales, bike service, and bike rentals are available at both locations.

Planning Your Two-Wheeling Trail Ride in North Carolina

The hardest part of your vacation biking in North Carolina will be fitting in all the other fun activities you’ll want to do. In addition to cycling, the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina offer opportunities for tons of fun in the water.

Go whitewater rafting, tubing, fishing, canoeing, or boating with one of our local outfitters. And for mountain bikers who are also avid kayakers, come to the Nantahala Gorge and kayak the same waters that hosted the ultimate whitewater competition in 2013, the ICF Canoe Freestyle World Championships.

Smoky Mountain Host wants you to have the best vacation all-terrain biking in North Carolina. Begin planning your trip using our free travel guide. Download our PDForder online, or call 1-800-432-4678 to request Your North Carolina Smokies Guide.

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