A Road Less Traveled -- Driving the Cherohala Skyway
Even though it is just over forty miles long, the Cherohala Skyway is one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in the southeastern part of the country. A little “Blue Ridge Parkway,” the Cherohala Skyway straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina and connects Tellico Plains in East Tennessee to Robbinsville in the western part of North Carolina. This 40 mile two-lane blacktop ribbon of highway passes crystal-clear rivers and lakes and climbs to elevations of 5300 feet and offers travelers breathtaking scenic overlooks.
The name “Cherohala” was derived from the names of the two national forests that the skyway passes through -- the Tennessee section is the Cherokee National Forest and the North Carolina section is the Nantahala. So combining the “CHERO” (Cherokee) and the “HALA” (Nantahala) the result was the "CHEROHALA.”
There are many interesting points and side trips along the Cherohala Skyway. Of special interest to campers is the Indian Boundary Campground on the Tennessee side in the Cherokee National Forest. The Indian Boundary Campground is maintained by the forest service and offers one hundred campsites. Take Forest Service Road 345 near mile marker 14. Indian Boundary Campground would be an excellent base for exploring the Cherohala or just a great place to relax and literally get away from it all.
On the Tennessee side a worthwhile side trip is to Bald River Falls. This waterfall is about a five-mile drive on Forest Service Road 210 near the 5-mile marker. The road is gravel but is well maintained and it follows the Bald River. Trout fishing is popular on this stretch of the river. The waterfall is beside the road and is worth the scenic drive. Bald River Falls is a cascade of one hundred feet and can be enjoyed and photographed from the roadway.
The Skyway has abundant pullouts and overlooks from which to enjoy the spectacular scenery of the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests. At the Skyway’s beginning in Tellico Plains the elevation is 920 feet. From there it rises to its highest point of 5390 feet at the Santeetlah Overlook on the North Carolina side. Grand vistas of the forests and distant lakes and rivers make stopping always scenic and worthwhile. At Lake View (elevation 3360 Feet) Tellico Lake along the Tennessee River is seen in the distant. At the Tennessee-North Carolina state line the elevation is 4490 feet at Beech Gap.
On the North Carolina side there are several overlooks from which the visitor can take leisurely strolls while enjoying the scenery. Several trailheads are located at pullouts and overlooks along the Skyway. At Spirit Ridge (elevation 4950 feet) take a short hike of three-tenths of a mile through a hardwood forest to a breathtaking view of the byway and the surrounding mountains. At the Hooper Bald Trailhead (elevation 5290 feet) a quarter-mile hike leads to Hooper Bald, near which is the site of an old hunting preserve. Several exotic species, such as the Russian boar, were imported to this preserve in the early 1900’s.
The last ten miles of the Skyway makes its descent toward Robbinsville. Along the way there are still breathtaking vistas of the mountain slopes, the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and Santeetlah Lake below.
At the end of the Cherohala Skyway on the North Carolina side at Santeetlah Gap (elevation is 2660 feet) the traveler can take Highway 1127 to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Named in honor the World War I veteran and poet, this wilderness area of 3800 acres is one of the last remaining stands of virgin hardwood timber in the Appalachians. Kilmer was killed in action during the War and was best remembered for his poem “Trees.” There is a two-mile loop-hiking trail that winds beneath great trees. The Memorial Forest is part of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness and can only be enjoyed on foot.
Although the Cherohala Skyway is only about forty miles in length, the scenery is breathtaking. Sometimes called the “Little Blue Ridge Parkway,” the skyway has landscapes to rival those of the Parkway. There are sufficient activities for side trips to make this drive more than just a day trip.
To Get There
To get to the Skyway and Tellico Plains, Tennessee, use Exit 49 on Interstate 75 at Athens. Follow Highway 30 east to Highway 39, which leads into Tellico Plains. Tellico Plains is about twenty miles from the Interstate. The Robbinsville, North Carolina, beginning of the Cherohala Skyway is accessible from US 74/19 through Bryson City or from Interstate 40. From the interstate take Exit 27, which is Highway 74/23. At the junction of US 74 and US 129 take 129 to Robbinsville. The junction is about sixty miles from the Interstate 40 exit.
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