Spanning the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park sees more than 12 million visitors every year. They come for waterfall hikes and mountain views, to get a taste of the great outdoors. I go for another reason: adventure.
I grew up a few hours away and I’ve hiked hundreds of miles in the park, visited at least two dozen waterfalls, seen bear and elk – and crowds of visitors. So when I go to the Smokies now, it’s to places the throngs haven’t found yet. Today, that’s where I am: straddling the saddle of a mountain bike looking down at Cherokee, North Carolina from the top of the Kessel Run, a hardcore mountain bike trail that’s part of the Fire Mountain Trail System.
Yesterday, I rode the Tsali Recreation Area Trail System near Bryson City, getting reacquainted with mountain bikes and downhill rides. I worked the looping trails, going from retired logging roads to downhill runs to roads, building up my confidence as each loop increased in difficulty, technicality, and the size of the run. Now, I’m here at the top of the biggest run around.
I take off my sunglasses to wipe the sweat away and to take an unfiltered look at the wildflowers growing in riots nearby. The ride up contributed to my sweat, but my nerves have added just as much. I take a long drink from my water bottle and run through the decision I have to make: ride the Kessel Run or admit defeat.
It’s been like this the last few times I’ve come to the Smoky Mountains. I blend my adventure, balancing a relaxing day with a knuckle-whitening, adrenaline-pumping afternoon. One day, I float down Deep Creek in an innertube, lounging, swimming in the few deep pools, and relishing the cool water. The next day, I’m at Nantahala Outdoor Center boarding a bus bound for the French Broad River and an afternoon of rafting Class II and III rapids. There are big Class IV and V rapids nearby, but I’m not ready for that.
This trip has been the same, so before I headed to Fire Mountain, before I rode Tsali, I went to Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the park’s most-visited places.
Here, an 11mi (18km) loop road circles a valley once thick with cabins and farms, now home to black bears and hordes of white-tailed deer. I avoided the crowds by showing up early on a Saturday morning when the loop road is closed to cars (Cades Cove is closed to cars every Wednesday and Saturday until 10am from May through September). That ride – flat, paved, placid – is about as far away from Fire Mountain’s Kessel Run as you can get.
But now I really do have to decide: Kessel Run or an afternoon of fly fishing the Oconaluftee River? Another sip from my water bottle. Another look at the mountain peaks around, at the dirt and wood track leading downhill, at the glittering ribbon of the Oconaluftee River below.
I picture myself hip-deep in the river, fly rod waving overhead, and it’s settled. There’s no quicker way down than the Kessel Run, though. I know I’ll be donning my waders in less than 12 parsecs.
In addition to campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are plenty of places to stay in Bryson City and Cherokee. Campgrounds cater to tents and RVs, and there’s glamping in yurts and vintage trailers, rustic cabins throughout the area, and even the high-roller suites of Cherokee’s casino hotel. I switch it up, going for the big sky views of a mountaintop campsite one trip, and chic Airstream glamping next.
Bike rentals are available through several outfitters, depending on where you’re riding. In Cades Cove, the Cades Cove Camp Store has a fleet of bikes available for those car-free mornings. For mountain bikes, try outfitters in Bryson City. And for whitewater rafting on tame or wild water, stop by Nantahala Outdoor Center to book a trip.
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