A Road Trip Story
A Road Trip Story
Stretching across the mountains between Tennessee and North Carolina, the 41-mile Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway winds and twists around mountain peaks and scenic overlooks a mile above sea level. Ascending about 4,500′ it’s easy to see why this is called the Skyway, especially when clouds cover the highest points and cut visibility down to a mere dozen feet, making you feel as though you are driving through the sky. Along with a gorgeous hidden waterfall, a beach on a lake with a breathtaking mountain vista, and several hiking trails, the Cherohala Skyway is one of the best road trips you probably didn’t know about. Yet.
One of the attractions of the Cherohala Skyway is that it’s a bit remote, but that doesn’t mean it is inaccessible. Still, there is a trick to getting there and one particular route to get the best experience.
The best direction to drive the Skyway is eastbound starting in Tellico Plains for one very simple but important reason: that is where the only visitor center is located. Robbinsville does not have a visitor center, for the Skyway or the town, so if this is your first visit you’ll want to start on the other end.
On the Tennessee end drive Interstate 75 and take Exit 60 toward Madisonville. Continue along Highway 68 through Sweetwater and Madisonville to Tellico Plains. This highway is four lane and an easy drive, taking about thirty minutes.
On the North Carolina end drive Interstate 40 and take Exit 27 onto the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway (Highway 74). This will remain a four-lane divided highway until just past Bryson City. Turn onto the two-lane Highway 28 and then Highway 143 into Robbinsville. You’ll know when you enter town when you come to a T-intersection at a traffic light. Turn right and continue along Highway 143 (Tapoco Road) through the small town until you see the highway turn left (there is a sign pointing toward the Cherohala Skyway). From here it is a leisure drive along a very curvy two-lane highway to the beginning of the Skyway. The total drive from I-40 to this end of the Skyway is 80 miles and takes about an hour and a half.
Begin the 41-mile road trip in Tellico Plains for the best experience.
Begin the 41-mile road trip in Tellico Plains for the best experience.
The Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center always has a friendly staff eager to help you plan an adventure on the Skyway. They have a giant print map free for you to take along your drive that lays out all the scenic overlooks, hiking trails, and points of interest along the 41-mile drive. The visitor center also sells gift items like clothing and dinnerware features the Skyway logo and name.
Next door the Charles Hall Museum features an amazing collection of vintage photography, historical artifacts from the region, and a large gun collection. The museum was curated by Charles Hall, a former mayor of Tellico Plains. It offers a great glimpse into local history.
If you want to grab something to eat before starting the drive on the Skyway head over to the Tellico Plains Bakery or start heading out of town to find the Tellico Beach Drive-In, an iconic place everyone needs to visit in Tellico Plains. Grab a cooked-to-order meal (I highly recommend the thick onion rings and creamy milkshakes) then enjoy the view of the river from a picnic table.
The Cherohala Skyway officially begins after passing the last private residence along the Tellico River. The two-lane road crosses the river once and then you’ll see the Tellico River Scenic Overlook on the right, the first of twenty-six overlooks and parking areas on the Skyway.
About three miles from the edge of town is River Road. Turn on River Road and drive for six miles to find the gorgeous Bald River Falls. The 100′ tall waterfall is just a couple hundred feet away from the bridge that spans the river, offering a fantastic place to view this waterfall without any strenuous hiking. When the waterfall is churning at full capacity the mist from the falls will dampen your face (and camera gear, making it notoriously difficult to capture a long exposure photo).
Just around the next corner is Baby Falls. This smaller 8′ tall waterfall on the Tellico River is a popular place for kayakers to take an adventurous plunge. The small parking area near the top of the falls has a few parking spaces, privy, and picnic tables on the waterfront.
The Indian Boundary Lake Recreation Area is perhaps the best hidden secret along the Cherohala Skyway. The recreation area includes a large lake, beach, swimming area, hiking and biking trails, and campground.
Even if you’re just passing through on a weekend road trip the view from the beach of the long chain of mountains along which the Cherohala Skyway passes is something you don’t want to miss. If you’re up for a little adventure try hiking a section of the 3.2-mile lake loop trail. If you’re up for a little more adventure there is a changing room at the beach.
The 87-site campground is spread across 3 loops and surrounded by a thick forest. While all the loops are “equal” I felt Loop A was had the best, and most secluded, campsites. A camp store, located on Loop B, sold limited groceries, camper gear, repair equipment, and fishing supplies. They did, however, have a very large section of “super moist cakes” and candles just in case it happens to be someone’s birthday.
The Indian Boundary Lake Recreation Area is the best place to spend a few nights while exploring the Cherohala Skyway. It also happens to be the only developed campground on the Skyway, though there are a few primitive campsites along the way.
The Turkey Creek Overlook offers the most fantastic view of any scenic overlook along the Cherohala Skyway. Located just 15.6 miles from Tellico Plains and 3.8 miles from the Indian Boundary Campground, the overlook is quick and easy to access. It also happens to be my favorite on the Skyway.
The large parking lot has room for dozens of vehicles, including campers and RVs if you are heading toward/leaving from the campground. There is a nice privy to one end and a few picnic tables.
The overlook features a sweeping 180-degree view looking mostly northwest across the flat lands of Tennessee beyond the Appalachian Mountains. It’s a great place to catch a sunset almost year-round and even better for watching passing summer thunderstorms.
The Lake View Scenic Overlook has a more narrow view, but you can just make out the lake at the Indian Boundary Lake Recreation Area far below the overlook. The overlook has a limited 150-degree view looking north to northeast so you don’t really get sunrise or sunset views from here. The large parking area has plenty of room for large vehicles.
This small overlook with an equally small parking area features a nice view with something unique on the Skyway: the outline of a foundation of a former structure. The view looking the south long the mountain chain is pretty spectacular, especially in the late evening when warm sunlight splashes across the mountains.
The West Rattlesnake Rock parking area is the trailhead for the 2.2-mile Falls Branch Trail. This moderately strenuous trail travels along a ridge before descending about 500′ in elevation to a waterfall on Falls Branch. The cascading waterfall tumbles down several rocky facades in a dense forested area. The roundtrip hike takes about 2-3 hours.
The Stratton Ridge Picnic Area is the largest picnic area on the Cherohala Skyway with dozens of tables spread across a small field in a cove. There is a large privy to one side making this a great place to stop with the family and enjoy a meal.
Mudd Gap is a small parking area allowing day hikers and overnight backpackers to access the Benton MacKaye Trail. The 300-mile trail stretches across the Appalachian Mountains from Blue Ridge, GA to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is an alternative to hiking the Appalachian Trail and frequently a trial run for people hoping to complete a thru-hike on the AT.
Locally this section of the Benton MacKaye Trail is called the Mudd Gap Trail. The 3.3-mile roundtrip hike skirts around the edge of a mountain peak to Whigg Meadow. The hike only has an elevation change of about 600′ so the hike is relatively easy and takes about 4 hours to complete.
There are primitive campsites along the Benton MacKaye Trail within a few miles of Mudd Gap. From this point it is 127 miles to the northern end in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and 160 miles to the southern end in Blue Ridge, GA.
As the name implies the Big Junction Scenic Overlook features a big view of the mountains, but unfortunately one I have never been able to see for myself. I’ve been to this scenic overlook seven times over two years and only ever seen fog and clouds literally on the road.
The parking area is very small with only enough room for maybe three passenger cars at a time. It’s more of a pull-off than a parking lot. At this altitude the Cherohala Skyway is frequently swallowed in clouds from passing storms. It can be fun to see, but frustrating at the same time.
At 5,390′ the Santeetlah Scenic Overlook is the highest overlook on the Cherohala Skyway. At this point visitors will have ascended 4,530′ from Tellico Plains and 2,730′ from Robbinsville.
There isn’t much of a view from this overlook, but there is a large parking area with three picnic tables so at least you can say you enjoyed a meal from the highest overlook on the Skyway.
This small parking area is the trailhead for the Huckleberry Knob Trail. It’s a 2.2-mile roundtrip hike to the bald summit of Huckleberry Knob. At 5,545′ above sea level it is the highest point along the Cherohala Skyway. With only a 344′ elevation change along the trail it is an easy hike that takes about 2 hours to complete.
The Shute Cove Scenic Overlook offers one of the best views for handicap travelers on the Cherohala Skyway. While the main overlook is up a short flight of stairs to a wooden platform, there is a view along a short paved trail for those who can’t climb the stairs. The view looking to the north across the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness Area is pretty spectacular.
If you start this road trip in North Carolina the Cherohala Skyway Info Kiosk will be invaluable. The covered kiosk has a large map of the Skyway, information about various points and features, and frequently has paper maps to take with you. It will at least help you get to Tellico Plains where you can visit the Cherohala Skyway Visitors Center.