Road Trip: Cherohala Skyway, Tennessee and North Carolina
Follow a mile-high ridge in the Unicoi Mountains for amazing views of mountains, foliage, and waterfalls.
Crossing the Tennessee–North Carolina border and the crest of the Great Smoky Mountains, this 42-mile (68-kilometer) long byway climbs to a mile (1.6 kilometers) above sea level. It winds through forests of hardwoods and evergreens on the way from Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to Robbinsville, North Carolina.
The Cherohala Skyway (Tennessee State Hwy. 165 and North Carolina 143) links two small towns and follows a mile (1.6-kilometer) high ridge in the Unicoi Mountains. Designated a National Scenic Byway shortly after it opened in 1996, the skyway is the costliest road in North Carolina. It took more than three decades and $100 million to build, but many say the views along the route are worth it. You can complete the drive in as little as two to three hours, but take your time. This route was built for sightseeing. The highway clings to four peaks over 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) in elevation and nine peaks above 4,000 feet (1,219 meters), offering—when the often-fickle weather permits—amazing views of mountains, foliage, and waterfalls. The Cherohala Skyway climbs high into the Smoky Mountain air, ascending from an elevation of just over 930 feet (283 meters) near Tellico Plains to 5,390 feet (1,643 meters) at the road's highest point, the Santeetlah Overlook. Nearly half of the elevation change comes in the ten-mile (16-kilometer) stretch after Tennessee–North Carolina state line.
Start in Tellico Plains
In the quiet town of Tellico Plains, stop at the Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center (225 Cherohala Skyway, tel. 1 423 253 8010; www.cherohala.org) for maps and information. Before you leave Tellico Plains, top off your tank and pack a picnic—you'll find no gas stations or restaurants on this route.
Cherokee National Forest
You'll be passing through Cherokee National Forest (tel. 1 423 476 9700; www.fs.fed.us/r8/cherokee), which offers several recreational opportunities. Tennessee's only national forest, Cherokee contains more than 600 miles (966 kilometers) of hiking trails, including a section of the famous Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Once devastated by logging but protected since 1911, the woodlands are home to 262 species of birds, 154 species of fish, 55 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 43 species of mammals.
Bald River Falls
At the start of the drive you'll be following the Tellico River through mixed forest. This section of the Tellico is popular with trout fishermen and white-water enthusiasts. After five miles (eight kilometers), take a six-mile (ten-kilometer) side trip on State Route 210 to see 100-foot (30-meter) Bald River Falls. Enjoy a picnic at the falls or find your own private spot somewhere along the adjacent hiking trails. Be advised that parking at the falls is limited, but some additional parking can be found at the campsite about a quarter mile up the road.
Indian Boundary Campground
On Cty. Rd. 165 the scenery gets better with every mile. Thirteen miles (21 kilometers) from Tellico Plains is the turn to the Cherokee National Forest's Indian Boundary Campground, on Boundary Lake. The campground is set among hardwoods and pine and offers different types of camping, from sites with electrical hookups and a modern bathhouse to rustic sites with outdoor showers and fire rings.
Nantahala National Forest
Not far beyond the Indian Boundary Campground, you enter North Carolina, where the highway name changes to N.C. 143. Here you enter the Nantahala National Forest (tel. 1 828 479 6431; http://www.fs.usda.gov). Recreational opportunities abound, from hiking, fishing, and camping to white-water rafting on the Nantahala River. Commerical outfitters offer a variety of guided water activities.
The road continues to rise, with panoramas of the Great Smokies from scenic overlooks along the way. The high point is the picnic spot at 5,390-foot (1,643-meter) Santeetlah Overlook. From the overlook, travelers can gaze across mountaintops rolling for seven miles (11 kilometers) to the Tennessee state line. The panorama takes in the Appalachian Mountains and the Snowbird, Slickrock, and Joyce Kilmer forests. Even the distant mountains of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are visible from here.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest
Perhaps the most famous spot along the skyway is Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. This magnificent woodland honors the poet who wrote the well-known line, "I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree." After you descend through Shute Cove (3,550 feet/1082 meters) and Hooper Cove (3,100 feet/945 meters), the road intersects with N.C. 134, which takes you on a two-mile (three-kilometer) side trip to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Among the lovely trees are 400-year-old stands of poplar and hemlock. The old-growth forest erupts in color every fall, reportedly the skyway's busiest season, but even then this scenic road is far less traveled than the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway.
The best times to drive the skyway are spring through fall. There are numerous photo overlooks and picnic areas along the route. The only services are Forest Service campgrounds. For general information about the route, see www.cherohala.org. For local weather conditions, see www.weather.com.
—Text by Michael Ray Taylor, adapted from National Geographic Traveler