The Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway is the Hope Diamond of the east Tennessee/western North Carolina area for bikers, hikers and automobile tourists alike. Located near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s known as America’s $100 Million Highway. If, like me, you ride a motorcycle, it’s a 43-mile slice of heaven-on-earth, especially in the fall!
Since I live in Knoxville, my husband and I hop on the Skyway not far from Tellico Plains, Tennessee and ride it all the way to its termination near Robbinsville, North Carolina. The Tellico River winds along beside us at the beginning of the trek as the cool mountain breeze cuts through my hair. More than once I’ve had the “good-to-be-alive” feeling as the tree canopy overhead sent an occasional lazy leaf to the ground ahead of our bike. Motorcycle organizations routinely recognize the Cherohala Skyway as one of the “Best Bike Routes” in the United States, but you will enjoy it immensely regardless of your mode of transportation.
Taking over 38 years to construct with a cost of over one hundred million dollars, the Cherohala Skyway provides a truly unique, paved path for nature lovers from all over the world. As a result, the visitor gets the distinct feeling that they’ve entered an alternate universe, infinitely peaceful and completely disconnected from the strife of the rest of the world. At least that’s the feeling I get as I inhale that glorious mountain air. It’s easy to forget the morning’s international news headlines, or the work project that you just can’t get your head around. It’s also easy to imagine that there was once a simpler world, one in which people took their living from the land, and enjoyed a full day in the open expanse of nature.
The Cherohala Skyway, which gets its name from the two national forests it winds through, the Cherokee National Forest and the Nantahala National Forest, gradually climbs to an elevation of 5,400 feet above sea level. Along the way to this summit near the Tennessee/North Carolina line, the visitor is treated to sweeping mountain vistas. Numerous overlooks provide photo opportunities par excellence. INSIDER TIP: We go there often during peak tourist season in the Smokies, when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove and from Gatlinburg to Clingman’s Dome and points beyond is so glutted with traffic that the going is very slow. There is never a crowd on the Skyway, and the views are just as majestic. The peace and quiet of the Skyway is exceptionally calming and the fall color at certain elevations in October can be vividly stunning! Also, for dining we often enjoy a Beach Burger from the Tellico Plains Drive-In or anything from the Tellico Grains Bakery!
Hikers can enjoy a wonderful dual experience on the Cherohala Skyway. In addition to drinking in the magnificent views from the roadway, they can access trails directly from the numerous overlooks. In the lower elevations of the Skyway, you’ll find a beautiful opportunity for a family-oriented hike and/or picnic at Indian Boundary. From Tellico Plains, turn off the Skyway at Forestry Road 345. Follow the signs into the Indian Boundary Recreation Area and walk the 3.2 mile trail around the lake. It’s easy and fun!
Another enduring favorite in the lower elevations is the Bald River Trail. Simply take a right on River Road (Forestry Road 210) off the Skyway (if approaching from Tellico Plains). Several miles in you’ll see the magnificent waterfall at the trailhead. Bald River Falls are roaring nearly year-round (except in the heart of winter, when they will offer a stunning ice display). A bit more than eight miles round-trip, this trail follows the Bald River, is quite scenic, but not for beginners. I’ve done the first bit of this trail with a light snow falling, the trees around me laced with snow. It was magical.
If you’d like another waterfall experience, but with a shorter trail, approximately eighteen miles from the Skyway’s inception near Tellico Plains, look for the Rattlesnake Rock West pull-off. Here you’ll find the Falls Branch Trail (#87). This 2.6 -mile round-trip adventure includes a 70-foot waterfall and beautiful forest environs. Though it’s not an overly long walk, it does get somewhat steep near the falls. The trail moves along what was once a roadbed, but does have limited signage.
Among the many other hiking opportunities accessible from the Cherohala Skyway you’ll find a section of the very famous Benton MacKaye Trail. Take the Mud Gap trailhead from the Cherohala Skyway (near mile post 3 in North Carolina) to Whigg Meadow, a 1.7 mile walk (one way). You’ll be able to say you took a portion of the famous Benton MacKaye trek, which is a nearly 300-mile trail through three states and over a long section of tough Appalachian mountain terrain. The views from Whigg Meadow of the surrounding mountains are truly spectacular.
Weather on the Cherohala Skyway can turn nippy year-round, especially in the higher elevations. Layers are recommended for bikers and hikers. We’ve started out in short sleeves in Tellico Plains and ended up in jackets and gloves at the top many times! For even the shortest and easiest of hikes, take plenty of water and snacks. Don’t forget your camera!
For more information, visit the Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center or call 423-253-8010. The Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center is located in Tellico Plains, Tennessee and is open Monday – Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Laurie Crater Battles – journalist, writer, hiker, biker, mom, wife, animal and coffee lover who makes her home in west Knoxville.