Surrounded by 6,000-foot peaks in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cataloochee Valley is one of the loveliest early settlements in Western North Carolina. While the 19th century churches, homes and school are a charming site, there’s an even bigger secret — the several herds of elk released to the valley in 2001.
Elk were once abundant in the southern Appalachian Mountains, but due to over-hunting and loss of habitat, they slowly disappeared.
The experimental release of elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park began with the introduction of 52 elk between 2001 and 2002. Now there are more than 140 elk roaming throughout the park. Cataloochee Valley is one of the best places to view these graceful animals because of its remoteness and open grassy fields. — MH
More Info: Located near I-40 about 20 minutes north of Waynesville, N.C. on Cove Creek Rd. Visit: nps.gov/grsm
Tsali Recreation Area
Challenging. That might be the best word to describe the nearly 40 miles of bike trails located in the Tsali Recreation Area just northwest of Robbinsville, N.C., in the Nantahala National Forest.
“Tsali” is the name of a Cherokee Indian that sacrificed his life so that his people could stay in the serene Great Smoky Mountains during the Trail of Tears.
In 1838, the U.S. government ordered all of the Cherokees in North Carolina to move west to Oklahoma. However, Tsali and his people managed to stay and hide in the mountains. When they were found, an agreement was made to let the people stay if sacrifices were made. Tsali and several of his family members courageously sacrificed themselves and were buried under what is now known as Fontana Lake in the middle of Tsali Recreation Area.
A four-loop trail system with many other interlocking trails comprises this little piece of mountain biker’s heaven.
But this recreation area doesn’t only cater to avid bikers. Tsali’s trails are open to hikers and horseback riders as well. Because mountain bikers and horseback riders are the primary trail users, trails are alternated to keep the two separated.
The four main trails — Right Loop, Left Loop, Mouse Branch Loop and Thompson Loop — wind along Fontana Lake at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains. The trails are hard-packed with a fast-paced flowing feel. Take a break from the vigorous ride through the trails to stop at one of the three designated overlooks featuring views of the lake.
Forest management has worked to ensure that wildlife remains at Tsali. In the grassy openings along Fontana Lake and in the pine and hardwood forests, trail riders might see wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, ruffed grouse, rabbits, songbirds and butterflies.
After a long, hard day of biking or horseback riding, fall back into your cozy tent anywhere on the National Forest lands. If you prefer the comfort of an RV, Tsali’s public campgrounds, located directly next to the trailhead, are equipped with 41 graveled level sites, hot showers, flushable toilets and drinking water.
Day passes for mountain bikers are a mere $2, and official campsites are $15 a night. The perk? Wake up in the morning feeling fresh from a great night’s sleep deep in the Nantahala, hop on your bike and do it all over again! — MH
More Info: 30 minutes southwest of Cherokee, N.C. on Hwy 28. Look for Tsali Campground Rd. after reaching Lake Fontana. Visit fs.usda.gov