Most people have heard about the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive which highlight the Blue Ridge Mountains from just outside Washington D.C., all the way down past Asheville, N.C. No one would disagree that these are among the great scenic drives in the world. However, the reality is that it takes a long time to drive the entirety of either one and they are apt to be very crowded during the peak spring and fall seasons.
If you are short on time or just looking for something a little less crowded then you can’t beat the Cherohala Skyway which connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to Robbinsville, N.C. It’s less than 40 miles long, but climbs from 860 feet at Tellico to over a mile high at the state boundary. Along the way there are many, many places to stop for a short or long hike, canoe on Indian Boundary Lake or visit Bald River and Baby Falls, each of which is spectacular in their own right. If your interest is in history there are numerous interpretive panels along the route detailing the history of the area from the Cherokees through to the restoration work of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression.
I didn’t know about the Cherohala Skyway until meeting with a tourism rep for the attraction at the 2016 North American Travel Journalists Association conference in Oxnard, California. Looking over the map of the skyway laid out in front of me I knew I had to see and drive it in person which I did in mid-May on the way back to Canada from Florida.
The Cherohala Skyway is a relatively new highway. It was opened only in 1996 and cost $100 million to build, but the investment was quickly rewarded with recognition as a National Scenic Byway. It lies entirely on lands owned by the Federal Government in two National Forests, the Cherokee in Tennessee and the Nantahala in North Carolina. The name is a combination of both. Although it can be driven in as little as one and a half to two hours, plan to spend the better part of a day to really appreciate the beauty of this drive.
The starting point is the Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center in Tellico Plains, Tennessee that describes itself as “The Little Town with a Big Back Yard”. It’s one of those historic trail towns that draws a wide range of outdoor enthusiast’s eager to kayak, hike, fish or bike the natural wonder that is the Great Smoky Mountains. At the Visitor Center you can plan your day with the help of a very detailed map of the Skyway and environs, pick up some locally made products and learn about the black bears that you will be sharing the woods with. Instead of killing and mounting real black bears this place has created life size replicas from textiles. The mother bear just might be the biggest teddy bear in the world.
Just across the way from the Visitor Center is the Charles Hall Museum which houses an interesting series of collections including firearms, Indian artifacts, phonographs, cameras, Avon bottles and toy tractors. It’s free and you’re bound to find something of interest.
The first part of the Skyway follows the course of the Tellico River which is clear and shallow and apparently loaded with trout. There are many places where you can stop and get down to the riverbank to look for them. The highlight of the Skyway is a six-mile detour to Bald River Falls which you come upon quite suddenly as you round a bend. It is literally right beside the road and at 100 feet tall is pretty impressive. A little further on is Baby Falls which is much smaller, but very beautiful as well. Further on there are several campgrounds should one want to spend the night in these marvelous woodlands where there are literally fifty shades of green.
Back on the main road the Skyway starts climbing and the views get more and more spectacular. Odds are good that you will drive into the clouds and then emerge on the other side. You can definitely see why these are called the Great Smoky Mountains as the valleys far below are shrouded in fog. From here on the driving is a real pleasure with turn after turn and many look offs. This is why the Skyway is so popular with motorcyclists and if you’re not on a bike you’ll certainly encounter lots of folks who are.
A short distance off the main road is Indian Boundary Lake where you can launch a canoe or kayak, go for a swim or ride a bike around the trail that circles the lake. It’s also the jumping off point for Citico Creek Wilderness which has an unsurfaced suitable for SUV’s and other high clearance vehicles. There is a campground on the lake with some really lovely campsites.
Between Indian Boundary Lake and the end of the Skyway there are many areas where trailheads begin and there is a chance to hike to the summit of some of the nearby peaks or just enjoy the view from one of the picnic areas. Several stops have interpretive panels that explain the history of the area. One tells the good news story of how the Civilian Conservation Core arrived in the area in the 1930’s after it had been completely logged and erosion was threatening to destroy what was left of the rivers and streams. It is almost impossible to believe that what you see today is entirely based on reclamation efforts and comforting to know that it will never be destroyed again.
Another stop tells a story without a happy ending. Strewn along a short path to an overlook are the huge carcasses of dead American chestnut trees that once dominated this forest until nearly all were wiped out by a fungal blight in the early 1900’s. Despite the fact that these trees have been dead for probably over a hundred years, their wood is so hard and resistant that they have not rotted. It’s actually quite moving to just look at them in their fallen splendor.
The Cherohala Skyway ends quite abruptly on the North Carolina side with a flurry of billboards and you realize that there have been no bothersome commercial distractions on the Skyway. Still the remaining drive into Robbinsville is also very scenic and interesting as it passes huge Lake Santeetlah at a number of points.
If the Cherohala Skyway has peaked your interest in more of these type of exhilarating drives, check out 105 mile Moonshiner 28 or the ultra-curvy Tail of the Dragon which are both nearby.
During my stay in Tellico Plains I found very good value staying at the Lodge at Tellico just on the edge of town. It is constructed entirely from logs and offers modern amenities in a woodsy setting.
For more information on the Cherolala Skyway visit www.cherohala.org.