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Experience the Wonder and Beauty of the Cherohala Skyway This Fall

Thursday, September 28th, 2023 | Uncategorized | No Comments

By Joseph Rose

Back in 1996, Tennessee got a brand new highway, in the form of the beautiful, scenic Cherohala Skyway. At roughly 43 miles long, the Skyway took a whopping thirty-four years to make and cost over $100 million. But if you’ve driven down it, you know it was worth every penny. The Skyway winds through the forests of the Unaka Mountains and the Tennessee River Valley, with gorgeous vistas, beautiful hiking trails, and mile-high overlooks along the way. If you haven’t gone before, you have to experience it for yourself.

Often referred to as one of Tennessee’s best kept secrets, particularly among motorcycling and scenic driving circles, the Skyway connects two verdant national parks: the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. In fact, its name is derived from both those national forests, with the “chero” from Cherokee, and the “hala” from Nantahala. Starting in Tellico Plains and running all the way to Robbinsville, North Carolina, the Skyway takes about two hours to drive and offers breathtaking views of the Smoky Mountains as well as parts of the southern Appalachian National Forest few people get to see.

If you’re planning a trip along the Cherohala Skyway, there’s a few things you just have to check out along the way. First off is the Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center at the very start of the Skyway in Tellico Plains, where you can find fun souvenirs, updates on local driving conditions, food, free maps of the road ahead, and, most importantly, bathrooms. You’ll probably want to take advantage of the bathrooms at least, since driving the Skyway takes about two hours to complete, with only a few signs of civilization or rest stops along the way. Additionally, the cell phone coverage is limited, so those maps will be helpful as well. But along the way, the Skyway is practically teeming with opportunities for hiking, camping, kayaking, canoeing, bird watching, picnicking, and places just to sit back and take in the gorgeous scenic views around you.

With fifteen scenic overlooks, stunning vistas of up to a mile in elevation, and beautiful views of the local foliage, it’s no wonder that you’ll see vehicles of all shapes and sizes: ranging from bicycles, to motorcycles, to sportscars, to motorhomes. Not to mention everything in between. Just be aware that the Skyway sweeps up and down through the hills and mountains, with its elevation ranging from 800 feet to 5400, with a few fairly steep slopes along the way.

If you want to experience all this for yourself, you’re in luck! Though the Skyway has been closed for some time due to damage from flooding earlier in the year, it’s going to reopen any day now (if it hasn’t already by the time you’re reading this). That’s perfect timing, since fall is one of the best times to visit the Cherohala Skyway.

Not only is the weather spectacular, with perfect temperatures, limited rainfall, and plenty of cool breezes to keep your experience as pleasant as possible, but you’ll also get to take in the beautiful autumn foliage. Driving through forests and valleys while all the colors are changing is an unforgettable experience. You’ll be surrounded by vistas of red and gold leaves as far as the eye can see, along with soaring hills, and plunging valleys throughout the entirety of your two-hour journey. The leaves in the upper elevations change first, usually around September, and the changing fall colors spread down into the lower elevations all the way into November. So, no matter what time you go during the autumn, you’ll find a gorgeous view waiting for you.

Along the way, there are plenty of activities and stops that you’re sure to love: At the start of the Skyway on the Tennessee side is the Tellico Grains Bakery, where you can pick up some food for the trip (they’ve even got wood-fired pizza if you’re in the mood). Then take in the sparkling Bald River Falls, either from the comfort of your car or during a relaxing hike along the trail of the same name. A local favorite is swimming in the lake at the Indian Boundary Recreation area, so long as you don’t mind there being a bit of a crowd. Then there’s the Huckleberry Knob Trail at a head-spinning elevation of over one mile above sea level, where you’re sure to find some incredible views. If you’re in the mood to take in the beauty of God’s creation in nature, you might want to check out the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, where you’ll find old-growth hardwood trees, some of which are more than 400 years old.

And that doesn’t even cover the campgrounds near the Indian Boundary Recreation Area in Tennessee or the Horse Cove campground nearer to Robbinsville, or all the scenic vistas and overlooks, or any of the other wonder’s you’ll experience on your journey along the Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway. Words don’t even do it justice. You just have to experience it for yourself.

Joseph Rose is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to East Tennessee’s Mountain Views. Joseph can be reached at pyrose17@gmail.com. (photo by Kalley Cook)

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