Savor the views on a road trip through eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina

Take the high road, discovering small mountain towns and Cherokee history along the way
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Illustrated map by Steven Stankiewicz

Eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina are home to some of the highest elevations in the eastern United States, rising more than 6,000 feet above sea level in some parts. The region’s relative inaccessibility long discouraged large-scale development, protecting both the pristine landscape and the handful of tiny towns that took root here in the nineteenth century. Today, the area attracts lovers of history, who come to ride the vintage railways, experience the pace and charms of small-town life, and learn about the Cherokee Indians who have called the land home for centuries. It’s a favorite destination for outdoor enthusiasts who hike and bike its steep trails and brave its rushing rivers. The high-altitude, heavily forested realm also beckons to adventurers of another stripe: motorcyclists and sports-car drivers looking to push the envelope on some of the nation’s most scenic and challenging roadways.

Newfound Gap
Newfound Gap

Photo courtesy of Bryson City/Swain County NC Chamber of Commerce

Among the most popular drives? The forty-three-mile Cherohala Skyway, a $100 million scenic byway that took thirty years to build and traverses two national forests: the Cherokee and the Nantahala (which lend the route its name). It takes motorists from Tellico Plains in the Tennessee backcountry to Robbinsville, North Carolina, the jumping-off point for the Tail of the Dragon, an eleven-mile stretch of US 129 boasting 318 curves. From Robbinsville, drivers continue on through the towns of Bryson City and Cherokee to the southern entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where they can rest and refuel—or press on along a popular stretch of US 441 through the heart of the park.

While these roads—winding around ancient mountains and rivers, past glittering lakes, soaring pines, and old-growth stands of poplars—may be the main attraction, there are plenty of sights along the way worth pulling off to explore. These include Robbinsville’s Cheoah Dam, from which Harrison Ford’s character leapt in The Fugitive, and the banks of the Oconaluftee River in Cherokee, where elk are often spotted fording the rolling waters.

Downtown Bryson City

Photo courtesy of Bryson City/Swain County NC Chamber of Commerce

Charles Hall Museum
Opened in 2003, this museum showcases the many collections of local historian and former Tellico Plains mayor Charles Hall. While the institution prides itself on those artifacts that tell the story of the town and illuminate the culture of the Southern Appalachians—from arrowheads to a moonshine still—it’s the seemingly random collections of Americana that will most delight visitors. In one section, Edison open-horn phonographs sit alongside 1930s cathedral radios and early transistor models from the 1950s. In another, a glass case holds hundreds of vintage Avon perfume bottles in the shapes of dogs, model cars, chess pieces. There are also dozens of typewriters and cameras, scores of toy tractors and fire engines, and—lining an entire wall—an arsenal of firearms, from muskets to machine guns. 

Historic Tapoco Lodge

Photo courtesy of Historic Tapoco Lodge

Historic Tapoco Lodge
In 1930, following the construction of dams along the Little Tennessee and Cheoah rivers, the Aluminum Company of America constructed this stately redbrick Colonial Revival lodge to house its workers and guests in the remote area outside Robbinsville. Sixty-five years later, the historic property and its seven circa-1935 hillside cabins began welcoming the public. Guests spend their days driving the nearby Tail of the Dragon or checking out the Cheoah Dam, less than a mile up the road. As evening falls, bikers and hikers congregate around bonfires to roast marshmallows or head to the expansive riverfront terrace for local brews and rainbow trout topped with caramelized onions, smoky bacon, and pecan butter.

Wehrloom Honey

Photo courtesy of Wehrloom Honey

Wehrloom Honey
A honeybee visits more than 2,000 flowers a day, and it takes 800 bees their entire lives to produce one pound of honey. Learn still more about the fascinating lives of honeybees and sample the fruits of their tireless labor at this Robbinsville bee farm and specialty grocery. Begin your visit at the hilltop hives, where you can peek through glass to see the insects’ buzzing domiciles. Then head to the shop by way of the Pollinator Path, lined by a variety of native blooming plants, and stock up on beeswax lip balm and moisturizers, as well as jars of honey (try the dark, rich Appalachian Mountain). And be sure to step inside the small on-site meadery for a pint of one of the five housemade meads on tap; the Dry County Dry (with a whopping 11.4 ABV) is the most popular.

The Hub

Photo courtesy of The Hub

The Hub
Refuel at this service station turned restaurant, a favorite rest stop for visiting road warriors. Snag a booth in the fifties-themed dining room with checkerboard floors and 45s hung from the ceiling or, for open-air dining, head to the adjacent circa-1920s barn. (You can also opt for the simple picnic tables out back overlooking Santeetlah Creek.) The not-to-miss menu item is the Peachy Cuban sandwich, a twist on the classic, featuring hickory-smoked pulled pork and peach preserves. But the meatloaf, available as a plate or a sandwich and topped with a secret ketchup-honey sauce, is a close second. Don’t leave before snapping a photo with the vintage gas pumps out front.

The Bistro at The Everett Hotel

Photo courtesy of The Everett Hotel

The Everett Hotel
Occupying the 1908 Bryson City Bank building, this plush nine-room boutique hotel began as a coffee shop, wine bar, and crepery in 2010. Three years later, the owners expanded into a full-service restaurant, and in 2015, they began welcoming overnight guests. At this beautifully restored property in the heart of Bryson City, expect to rub elbows with locals, who pack the cozy, wood-paneled dining room and bar for dishes such as cornmeal-crusted trout, bone-in pork chop, and meatloaf made with beef, bison, lamb, and pork sausage. The menu of classic cocktails with a North Carolina mountain twist includes a blackberry mojito and a honeysuckle margarita. After dinner, head up to the rooftop terrace to catch the sunset or gaze at the stars; thick throws and a purring fire pit keep the cool night air at bay.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Photo courtesy of Bryson City/Swain County NC Chamber of Commerce

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Step inside the historic Bryson City Depot and book passage on the railroad’s Great American Rails-N-Trails Narration Car for a steam excursion across the countryside. During the two-hour trip to neighboring Dillsboro, a guide portraying Horace Kephart, an early twentieth-century travel writer considered one of the fathers of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, shares stories of life in the mountains and hollows of Western North Carolina. Upon your return to the depot, stop by the adjacent model train museum, which showcases more than 7,000 engines, cars, and accessories, as well as an enormous operating layout featuring a five-foot waterfall and six engines running on more than a mile of track.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Begin your visit to Cherokee, home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, at this award-winning museum, which combines ancient artifacts and artwork with modern technology to tell the story of the Cherokee across thousands of years. See ancient myths and legends brought to life in the Story Lodge, discover the secrets of medicinal plants from a holographic medicine man, and follow the forced relocation of the tribe from these mountains in an immersive exhibit on the Trail of Tears. A new exhibit, Renewal of the Ancient: Cherokee Millennial Artists, caps the self-guided tour and presents contemporary works ranging from basketry and pottery to photography and 3D printing.

Oconaluftee Indian Village

Photo courtesy of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Destination Marketing Organization

Oconaluftee Indian Village
Situated in the forest and cut through by small streams, this village recreates life in a circa-1760 Cherokee town, with contemporary Cherokee people demonstrating the traditions of their ancestors. Follow your guide on an hour-plus walk past work areas and dwellings, stopping to talk with villagers as they weave belts and blankets, create beadwork, make tools and weapons, and craft baskets and pottery. At your final stop, the ceremonial square, the Cherokee perform a number of sacred dances—the bear, the bison, the groundhog, and the quail—regarded by the tribe as prayers to the Creator. If you’re visiting between June and August, don’t miss the nightly performance of Unto These Hills. Celebrating its seventieth season, this outdoor drama, the second-oldest in the country, tells the story of the Cherokee from the arrival of Europeans through the Trail of Tears.

Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual

Photo courtesy of Visit Cherokee NC

Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual
Founded in 1946, Qualla is the oldest American Indian cooperative in the United States, preserving generations-old techniques and craft traditions. Its 350-plus members produce a wide range of authentic pieces, each with a tag identifying the object and its maker, as well as the materials and dyes used. Peruse white oak purse baskets and delicate vases woven with honeysuckle vines. You’ll also find cloth dolls, beaded necklaces, and a host of carved figures—cherrywood deer, buckeye squirrels, pinewood snails, and walnut bears. In addition to the large retail space, Qualla maintains a permanent gallery showcasing the finest examples of these crafts and recounting the history of tribal arts and crafts through the twentieth century.

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Southbound.

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