Think back to the first time you learned to ride a bike. Do you remember the taste of freedom, the wind whistling in your ears, the sense of adventure around every corner? We believe biking in the Smoky Mountains will rekindle those childhood memories while creating new ones with family and loved ones.
Biking in the Smoky Mountains offers adventures for every level of cyclist. Serious mountain bikers will find plenty of challenges, while leisurely cyclists will be pleased to know that there are easier trails to explore.
We will examine some top ride spots in the Smoky Mountains. Each route will have a link showing its location and what you can expect regarding climbing. Although most of the trails we will examine are short, it's still wise to “plan for the worst and hope for the best.” With that in mind, we suggest you carry a spare inner tube and pump (or CO2 system) and a small first aid kit. If you plan to ride all day, be sure you pack some snacks and water bottles.
Our list begins with easy rides and ends with one for the serious mountain biker.
Located near the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg, the Gatlinburg Trail is a National Park trail consisting of compacted dirt and is relatively flat. The trail is 1.3 miles long, and although it doesn't loop, you can do an out-and-back to log about 3 miles. The trail follows the Little Pigeon River and ducks into the forest, making for some spectacular views. You will also see chimneys and foundation remains from old settlements. Keep in mind that joggers, hikers, and walkers (some with pets) may also be on the trail.
Townsend Historical Trail
Suppose you prefer to be close to civilization and the amenities that come with it. In that case, the Townsend Historical Trail is for you. This paved bike path follows Hwy US 321 in Townsend, Tennessee, and offers plenty of scenic beauty, restaurants, and hotels. If you pick up the free brochure “Shadows of the Past” from the Smoky Mountain Visitors Center, you can learn about the history you'll see on your trek. You can also pop into the Little River Railroad/Lumber Museum for a free, self-guided tour. The trail is about 5-miles long, has a few short hills, and at times follows the Little River. The Townsend Historical Trail is a popular route so use caution when passing cyclists, walkers, and pet owners.
Oconaluftee River Trail
The Oconaluftee River Trail is part of the National Park and starts at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. The 1.6-mile trail meanders to the edge of Cherokee, North Carolina, and is very popular with joggers, hikers, and pet owners. There are a few small hills but nothing too steep or daunting. The dense forest offers shade in the summer, while the surrounding hills serve as a wind block in colder climates. Elk frequent the area, so keep a sharp eye out and have your camera or phone ready!
This popular ride is also part of the National Park Service. It is an 11-mile paved loop with a few climbs. Bike rentals are available, and a general store has snacks and beverages. Check out our in-depth review of cycling Cades Cove for more details.
Greenbrier is a valley of the Smoky Mountains National Park that's off the beaten path, making it ideal for cyclists. Greenbrier Road is off Hwy 32, about 6-miles east of Gatlinburg, and you can park at the Ranger Station. In spring, Greenbrier has a bounty of flowers, and the scenery is gorgeous all year. You will be sharing the road with cars, but typically traffic is light. The minute you hop on your bike, you will start to climb, so make sure your fit enough to ride. The good news is that the return trip is all downhill. The first mile is pavement, and the rest is gravel. At the 3-mile mark, the road forks. To the left is Ramsey Prong Road that dead-ends at the Ramsey Cascades Trailhead around mile 4.5. The right fork is Porters Creek Scenic Loop that leads to the Porters Creek Trailhead at the 4-mile mark. The National Park Service doesn't allow bikes on these trails, so if you want to go exploring, you'll have to do so on foot.
Tsali Recreation Area
If you are a serious mountain biker looking for a challenge, you need to visit the Tsali Recreation Area. It is a top destination on the east coast for mountain bikers and is one of the top ten places to ride in the US. There are 40-miles of trails in a system that offers a variety of loops. Some follow Fontana Lake's shoreline, while others shoot up the steep ridges of this hilly peninsula. Here is the Tsali-Left Loop if you'd like to see what you'll be facing. The Tsali Recreation Area allows horseback riders on certain days but always dedicates several loops just for mountain bikers. There is a one-day fee of $2.00, and because this is a popular spot to ride, you can expect crowds. Even so, riders comment that it's rare to be in a congested area because there are so many loop options. Here's another tip: because this is at a lower elevation, temperatures are hotter than higher in the Smoky Mountains. Bring plenty of water and snacks.
So grab your bike, your gear, and try one of these bike trails. Your inner child will thank you!