From Cherohala Skyway to
Smoky Mountains National Park
NC Rte. 143 meets US Hwy. 129 just north of Robbinsville. If you're headed to the eastern entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you can either continue on Rte. 143 to Rte. 28, or take US 129 southeast. Both routes eventually run into US 19/74, which will then lead you up to Cherokee and the park entrance. I chose to take 129 to 19/74, in order to drive through the beautiful Nantahala Gorge.
In Robbinsville, you'll find a few gas stations and convenience stores--a welcome sight after spending a couple of hours on the Cherohala Skyway. You'll also spot an authentic old "See Rock City" barn by the side of the road.
Nantahala River Gorge
Highway 129 meets up with US 19/74 after dropping down into the Nantahala River Gorge. From there, the road winds along with the river, at the bottom of the valley.
The Nantahala is popular with white-water rafters, and you'll probably pass a few busses hauling people and rafts upstream. But if you're just passing through, be sure to park at one of the roadside areas and spend a few minutes walking along the riverside.
At Cherokee, US Hwy. 19/74 meet US Hwy. 441, which will take you into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
There are two types of towns bordering Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There's the in-your-face, touristy chaos of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge (featuring the out-of-control gaudy glitz that puts Orlando to shame), then there's Cherokee, a tourist town that time almost forgot. The pace is much slower on the east side of the park. Instead of chain hotels and franchise fast food, mom 'n pop motels and restaurants with neon signs still line Cherokee's main drag (US 441). Don't be mistaken--the focus is still tourism, except here it whispers instead of screams.
The biggest draw in Cherokee is something that would be tough to commercialize: a slow, relaxing float down the Oconaluftee River. The wide, calm stream runs right beside US 441, and on a hot day you'll see hundreds of people splashing and relaxing. A note: the above picture was taken a mile or two from the most popular tubing area, that's why it's not quite as crowded.
I think the Smoky Mountain Gold & Ruby Mine provides a good example of the kind of small, independently-owned tourist attractions you'll find in Cherokee.
One of America's best drives, the Blue Ridge Parkway, begins just north of Cherokee. In its first few miles, it cuts through the Eastern Cherokee Indian Reservation, a 100-square-mile plot of land that's home to more than 13,000 Cherokees. They're the descendants of the Native Americans who managed to hide out, or hold onto their property in the 1830's, when the government forced many Cherokees to relocate to Oklahoma. You can visit their Nation online, here.
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