Winter hiking at Tsali

Tsali Recreation Area in the Nantahala National Forest is well-known for its mountain biking and equestrian trails, but it can also be a great off-season hiking destination. Four loop trails totaling nearly 40 miles occupy an area along the shores of Fontana Lake, which forms part of the southern boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The area (pronounced SAH-lee) is named after a Cherokee man who escaped the removal of 1838 and was executed, along with a son and brother-in-law, when he surrendered so that the rest of his family would be allowed to stay.

With a total of 13.9 miles, two connector trails provide 4.5- and 8-mile options. To avoid conflict between horses and bikes, the trails alternate uses on different days, with two trails being open to bikes and two to horses on any given day. Hikers may use any trail on any day, but it is recommended using a trail designated for horses, as it will probably be less crowded. For the Right Loop from December through April, that’s Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. There is a $2 fee per person for trail use.

A third option is to do an out-and-back hike up the County Line Road section, taking the second connector trail and then the Windy Gap Trail to the point, making an approximately 6.5-mile round-trip hike.

Along the way, the trail passes through different areas of the primarily deciduous forest where one or another of a variety of understory plants would predominate. These include hill cane, mountain laurel, American holly, rhododendron and others.

Fontana Lake, with 240 miles of shoreline, is impounded by the tallest dam in the eastern U.S. The water level tends to be lowered significantly during the winter, leaving bare a wide and steep shore.

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