by Eric J Wallace
Cruising the cultural district of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Reservation feels like taking a time machine to an era before the country became sensitive to flagrantly monetizing images of Native American life.
Passing down Tsali Boulevard I spot the long and lovely Oconaluftee Island Park and its namesake river, a little outdoor amphitheater that hosts “storytelling events and bonfires,” a strip of kitschy Cherokee-themed shops that advertise leather goods, hand-woven baskets, animal sculptures, moccasins and the like.
There’s a museum with a big totem pole out front. Boardwalk platforms feature educational opportunities led by historical interpreters donning drums, headdresses and ceremonial garb. A “Gem Mine” implores visitors to stop in and pan for gold and rubies.
I hang a left onto Drama Road and climb toward the high green peaks of the Smoky Mountains. After passing a theater that specializes in tribal plays and a living history village – complete with campfires, wigwams, garden plots and longhouses – I find myself in a parking lot just beyond the village, where I encounter something unexpected: A group of 25 mountain bikers decked out in their full regalia: compression shorts, racing jerseys, bike shoes, cycling glasses, gloves and helmets – their ensembles color-matched to high-end dual-suspension rigs (the cheapest of which I’d price at about $2,000).
Though I’ve come to Cherokee to ride the tribe’s first official MTB bike park at Fire Mountain, I admit I expected to practically be alone. “You think this is busy?” says 32-year-old Patrick Taylor, who lives in the neighboring town of Sylva and frequents the park. “I’ll bet this lot was full by 7 a.m. When I got here at 8, there were like 50 cars.”
A few parking spots down, a quartet of 40-somethings sit in lawn chairs before the open hatch of a newish Subaru Forester. Up from Greenville, S.C., they’ve driven more than 100 miles. Though the system is just 10.5 miles long, and free, they assure me it’s worth the haul.
“We’ve been coming up and camping for the weekend about every six weeks,” says Chrissie King, 41. Using Cherokee as a base camp, the foursome explores trails in the Nantahala National Forest as well. “Fire Mountain’s a killer ride, people in Cherokee are super friendly, and it’s freaking beautiful here,” says King’s husband, Tom, 45. “I’ve ridden almost everywhere and, to me, what makes this spot so special is how it balances convenience with hard-hitting rides.”
This kind of enthusiastic response was what the tribe hoped for when, in the spring of 2017, it spent $250,000 installing the trails at Fire Mountain. They brought in the professional trail-building crew Trail Dynamics and asked it to build a destination-worthy bike park suitable for riders of all ages and skill levels.
Originally the goal was to give locals another option for outdoor recreation and entice Western North Carolina mountain bikers to visit. But the trails have become much more than that.
“We never imagined they’d get so popular so fast,” says Chief Richard Sneed. “That parking lot pretty much stays full from April to November. People are coming from all over the Southeast to ride this thing. It’s been so successful, we’re expediting plans to install a second system that will be at least as big – if not larger than – Fire Mountain.”
And that’s just the beginning. If Sneed has his way, a decade from now, Cherokee will be the Southeast’s top non-resort destination for mountain bikers.
Unlike most officially designated “Bike Parks,” Fire Mountain is a do-it-yourself affair. There is no chairlift or shuttle service; reaching the top requires two miles of uphill pedaling and, if you’re not in top shape, some occasional pushing.
Luckily, the climb is gorgeous. The winding switchbacks of the Uktena Trail are punctuated by stands of towering oaks, rhododendron thickets, gurgling mountain streams, mossy boulders, nifty wooden bridges and almost omnipresent views of the Smoky Mountains.
With an average 5 percent grade, the ascent is demanding but manageable.
Compared to the stuff I’m used to riding in Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson National Forest, this is like velvety red carpet. The trails are perfectly manicured with none of the rain-carved ruts that plague so much of Appalachia.
After reaching the 2,927-foot summit, I find the spot where the park’s three expert rides converge. Joining a short queue of riders, I wait my turn for a go at Kessel Run, the system’s premier black-diamondlevel attraction. At 2 miles long, the one-way double-track route features nearly 2,000 feet of vertical descent and grades as steep as 16 percent, well above the 10 percent required to be considered pro level.
Dropping into the smooth wide trail, I pick up a ton of speed and blast down a long quick straightaway toward a tabletop jump. I hit the ramp and glide through the air, landing smoothly on the descent.
Careening into the first berm – a high, banked curve scooped out of the mountainside – I surf the dirt curl like a pipeline, whipping the bike low-high-low, going almost horizontal and cannonballing out with nearly as much speed as I came in with. I proceed through a section of tabletops, whoops, wild 10-foot berms carved into sloping ravines, and a huge wooden corkscrew winding over a lower trail. When I reach the bottom, my adrenaline is roaring.
By the time the rain comes, I’ve ridden Kessel five times and taken a downhill stab at both Spearfinger (2.2 miles) and Uktena. The latter are exemplary singletrack options and a bit more technical – occasional rocky areas to traverse, some quick rhythmic switchbacks, a few creek crossings, and so on. But nothing beats the Kessel’s rollercoaster thrills.
Chief Sneed says the bike trail is the biggest thing that’s happened in Cherokee since it opened a casino. And its success has shifted how they think about tourism. In fact, Jeremy Hyatt, the tribe’s secretary of operations, says Fire Mountain is sparking a kind of quiet economic revolution.
“A new bike shop and outdoor store opened in June of 2018 and just about all of our local businesses have reported seeing a boost,” he says. Bikers stay in campgrounds or hotels, dine at local eateries and wander into shops or museums. Better still, they ask about other outdoor activities, like tubing and kayaking on the Oconaluftee River, fishing for trout, horseback riding in the national park, and so on. “Folks visit with their riding buddies, take a look around and realize how unique this place is,” Hyatt says. “Next thing you know, they’re planning a vacation for the entire family.”
Before, tribal leaders regarded ecotourism with skepticism.
They worried visitors would trash the area’s natural resources. This left much of the river and the tribe’s 56,000 acres off limits. But the bikers’ etiquette has been a revelation. Namely, that ecotourists tend to respect the land and follow a policy of no-trace-left-behind.
“Suddenly, we’re making plans to put in dozens of miles of biking trails and open wilderness areas to hiking and camping,” Sneed says. A trout hatchery is in the works, the upper and lower Oconaluftee will soon be opened to kayakers, and there’s discussion about an adventure park with ziplines, climbing walls and rope courses. “Members are seeing ecotourism as a way to build an economy that’s in keeping with our tribal values,” he adds. “On a basic level, it’s inviting people to connect with the land in a way that’s meaningful and significant, which is something the Cherokees have been doing for thousands of years.”