Cherohala Skyway – NC
- DesignationNational Scenic Byway (1998)
- Intrinsic QualitiesScenic
- LocationNC, TN
- Length18 of 41 total miles
The Skyway offers the cultural heritage of the Cherokee tribe and early settlers in a grand forest environment in the Appalachian Mountains. Enjoy mile-high vistas and brilliant fall foliage, as well as great hiking opportunities and picnic spots in magnificent and seldom-seen portions of the southern Appalachian National Forests.
Story of the Byway
The Cherohala Skyway may be the only National Scenic Byway that resulted from a joke. In the 1950s, someone made a joke about the only roads between North Carolina and Tennessee being old wagon trails. That started an annual wagon trail ride, which gave rise to the idea for a highway that would run along the crest of the Unicoi Mountains from Robbinsville, N.C., to Tellico, Tenn. After 40 years and at a cost of $100 million, the 43-mile Cherohala Skyway was finished. It has become a popular scenic drive as it rises from 2,660 feet to 5,390 feet in just over 10 miles along the North Carolina side. This mini Blue Ridge Parkway combines with the nearby Dragon at Deals Gap and the Parkway itself to make an amazing driving trip through Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. The Cherohala Skyway is named for the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests, which line each side of the road. It is known for its long sweeping corners, scenic views, and picnic and hiking opportunities. Popular stops along and near the Skyway include Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, Santeetlah Lake and many Cherokee sites.
Looking for ridge after ridge of forested mountainside with sweeping mountain views as far as the eyes can see; abundant and unobstructed scenic overlooks around every corner; world class hiking trails, refreshing waterfalls and scenic overlooks; a road featured as one of Discovery Channel’s Top 10 Motorcycle Rides in North America Some call it the “best kept secret.” We call it The Cherohala Skyway – experience it for yourself.
The Cherohala Skyway was completed in the fall of 1996 after planning and construction for some thirty-four years. It was North Carolina’s most expensive scenic highway carrying a price tag of $100,000,000. It winds up over 5,400 foot mountains for 18 miles in North Carolina and descends another 23 miles into the deeply forested back country of Tennessee. The road crosses through the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests thus the name “Cherohala”. The Skyway is becoming well known in motorcycling and sports car circles for it’s long, sweeping corners, scenic views, cool summer breezes, fall colors, and winter vistas. There is little evidence of civilization from views that rival or surpass any from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The byway offers a respite from the hot North Carolina summers. Up on the mountain ridges, it is often cool and cloudy, even in the summer months, which create a dramatic backdrop for these beloved mountains. The mile-high ride is always a new and unforgettable experience.
This byway in particular is known for its fall colors. Peak colors typically occur during the last two weeks in October, but that is dependent upon fall temperatures and in particular, the first frost date. The color change begins at higher elevations where you see the earliest changes in late September, and continue all the way into mid-November at the lower elevations. The Sourwood and Dogwood trees are the first to turn red early in the season. Next are the Tulip Poplars which turn yellow, but then quickly turn brown. Peak leaf season brings in the red, orange, and yellow of the Maples and the bright yellow of the Birches. Oaks and Sweetgums finish up the season with purple, orange, and red. Fall wildflowers on the Cherohala Skyway provide a beautiful display of colors starting in September up to the first frost in early October.
Start on NC 143 at Robbinsville, NC, and continue on NC 143 until the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. The byway then becomes TN 165. Continue on this route through the Cherokee National Forest until the end of the Skyway at Tellico Plains, TN.
Points of Interest
Nantahala National Forest
the Nantahala encompasses 531,148 acres with elevations ranging from 5,800 feet at Lone Bald in Jackson County to 1,200 feet in Cherokee County along Hiwassee River. The Forest is divided into three Districts, Cheoah in Robbinsville, NC, Tusquitee in Murphy, NC, and the Nantahala in Franklin, NC. All district names come from the Cherokee language. "Nantahala" is a Cherokee word meaning "land of the noon day sun," a fitting name for the Nantahala Gorge, where the sun only reaches to the valley floor at midday.
Wolf General Store & Cafe
Wolf Creek Cafe is a local's secret! Stop by for Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner. No time to sit and eat?
Cherohala Visitor Center
A fully interpretive center providing regional information on the Cherohala Skyway and South Appalachian Mountains. The Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center in Tellico Plains is a "must stop" before starting up the Skyway. Stop by for free maps, Skyway driving conditions and local area souvenirs and gifts.
Outdoors at the Cherohala Skyway
At the North Carolina side, begin at Santeetlah Gap. Be sure to fill up on food and gas before you get to the byway because there will be no opportunities to do so along the 43 miles of the byway. Wind through the mountains on North Carolina Route 143 with ridge after ridge of forested mountainside and sweeping mountain views. In the fall, keep an eye out for the brilliant fall colors and the wildflowers along the byway.
As you continue your drive, stop by the Hooper Cove picnic area or the Shute Cove picnic area and vista for more excellent views of the mountains.
Stop by one of the many unobstructed scenic overlooks for some picturesque views. Take a hike to Huckleberry Knob, the highest point in the Cheoah Ranger District of the Nantahala National Forest at 5,560 ft. elevation. Alternatively, hike up to Hooper Bald near mile 8, a one mile round trip. Near mile 10, the Spirit Ridge Trail offers views for everyone with it’s 3/10 one way paved, ADA-compliant trail.
Be sure to stop at the Santeetlah Overlook, the highest point on the Skyway at 5,390-ft. with picnic tables. You will soon reach Stratton Ridge, which has a picnic area and restrooms. From here, you can access the Benton MacKaye Trail, a great place to hike.
From here, continue along the byway into the Tennessee portion, where you will find another 23 miles of fun!
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