Three Days on the Cherohala Skyway

Written by Jason Barnette
Posted on February 13, 2018

From my perch atop a stone wall I watched a towering summer thunderstorm move across the horizon. Bands of rain swept across the dark landscape beneath the equally dark clouds. My hopes for seeing a brilliant sunset were quickly washing away. But I decided to stay here and enjoy the peace and quiet of the Cherohala Skyway. I’m glad I did because about ten minutes later I was treated to a stunning sight.

The Cherohala National Scenic Byway is a 43-mile two-lane scenic road between Robbinsville, North Carolina and Tellico Plains, Tennessee. It is a Blue Ridge Parkway-esque type road with scenic overlooks, hiking trails, and beautiful mountain views. But unlike the Parkway, which is maintained by the National Park Service, the Skyway is maintained by the National Forestry Service.

A partial double rainbow forms during sunset at the Turkey Creek Overlook on the Cherohala Skyway in North Carolina on Monday, July 3, 2017. Copyright 2017 Jason Barnette

This beautiful rainbow was waiting for me my first day on the Cherohala Skyway for a three day trip. It only got better from here.

The lure of the Skyway was the combination of breathtaking views from manicured overlooks and the thrill of realizing I had the entire place to myself. Even on the Fourth of July it was possible to go hours at a time without seeing or hearing another vehicle pass by. Instead the silence of nature surrounded me like a fine pair of noise cancelling headphones; the occasional chirping bird stood out like a lighthouse on a dark shore.

Bikers love the Skyway. I saw more bikers during my three days than any other type of vehicle. With curving roads and changes in elevation that at 45 miles per hour would give the best rollercoaster a run for its money it was easy to see why. I would have thought the engineers could have found at least one place for a straight stretch of highway but that just wasn’t in the cards. Beginning at just 860′ above sea level in Tellico Plains the Skyway ascended the southern Appalachian Mountains cresting at 5,390′. No wonder it’s called the Skyway.

The beach on Indian Boundary Lake on the Cherohala Skyway in North Carolina on Tuesday, July 4, 2017. Copyright 2017 Jason Barnette

The beach at Indian Boundary Lake has this stunning view of the mountains that contrasts sharply with the flat horizon you find at the ocean.

Along those curvy roads many hidden treasures await discovery. And by hidden I really do mean hidden. I started at the North Carolina end of the Skyway and drove the entire length straight through so I could go to the Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center in Tellico Plains, Tennessee. I picked up a large paper map with details on all the scenic overlooks, hiking trails, and those hidden treasures. Of course later I discovered this website with a very nice map I could have downloaded to my tablet to take with me in the first place.

One of those hidden treasures was the Indian Boundary Recreation Area. Just a couple miles off the Skyway along a forestry service road the recreation area includes an excellent campground, general store, beach, and hiking trails surrounding the pristine Indian Boundary Lake. It’s not often I come across large lakes without equally large motor boat and jet ski traffic, but that’s exactly what I found here. I spent a few hours one sunny day laying on the sandy beach and occasionally sliding into the chilly lake. Other people kayaked or canoed, some just splashed around, and others snoozed on floats tethered to each other.

Bald River Falls on the Cherohala Skyway in North Carolina on Tuesday, July 4, 2017. Copyright 2017 Jason Barnette

The Bald River Falls is just a couple hundred feet from the bridge. On days like this a slight breeze will blow mist from the falls onto your face, providing just the right amount of comfort on those hot summer days.

My favorite hidden treasure is the thunderous Bald River Falls. It’s located about three miles off the Skyway along Forestry Road 210. The first time I drove out there along the narrow, curvy road it felt like it took an hour but I think it was only about fifteen minutes. There were no signs counting down the distance to the falls so I had no idea how far I had to go. I should have known I was arriving when I saw a bridge ahead covered with people and barely enough room for cars. Halfway across the bridge I caught my first sight of the magnificent waterfall and it instantly became one of my favorites.

Amazing sunset view from the Turkey Creek Overlook on the Cherohala Skyway in North Carolina on Tuesday, July 4, 2017. Copyright 2017 Jason Barnette

This sunset beamed through a thunderstorm at the Turkey Creek Overlook. Can you see why this is my favorite overlook on the Skyway?

The scenic overlooks come in different shapes, sizes, amenities, and opportunities. Some of the overlooks have stone walls with uninterrupted views of the landscape below, while others offer shaded areas for a family picnic. A few have restrooms that are a step above a privy but not quite the Ritz Carlton. All of them have one thing in common, though: an opportunity to get outside under the sun and do something.

The Santeetlah Overlook is the highest point of the Skyway at 5,390′. I’m sure it has an amazing view and the Big Junction Overlook just around the bend in the Skyway is supposed to have the best. But thus far every time I have been at that elevation all I’ve been able to see is the fog covering the mountain. It’s a beautiful fog, though, not like the mist Stephen King fondly wrote about. I will just have to keep coming back until someday I’m able to enjoy these views on a clear day.

My favorite overlook is the one I think has the best view: Turkey Creek Overlook. With a northwesterly view I could just catch a glimpse of Indian Boundary Lake to the far right along an otherwise low-lying area beyond the Appalachians. It was a great place to watch summer sunsets or, as happened to me several times during my three days on the Skyway, watch thunderstorms move across the landscape.

One of those days I arrived early, set up my camera gear, and watched from a perch atop the stone wall as a massive thunderstorm moved across the landscape toward the sun. The dark clouds blotted out the sunlight and I was left in disappointment. But since I was already there I figured I might as well stick around for a bit and enjoy the evening. I was glad I did; ten minutes later the setting sun beamed through the edges of the thunderstorm for one of the most stunning sunsets I had ever seen.

The Shute Cove Overlook on the Cherohala Skyway in North Carolina on Wednesday, July 5, 2017. Copyright 2017 Jason Barnette

There are a few trails to gorgeous overlooks, but this one is handicap ready with a paved area just for wheelchairs with a nice view of the mountains.

I didn’t do too much hiking and to be honest there isn’t much hiking to be found along the Skyway. The 300-mile Benton MacKaye Trail crosses at the Unicoi Gap parking area and offers a great chance for day hiking or overnight trips. My favorite trail I’ve hiked so far is the Huckleberry Knob Trail. The 2.5-mile round trip hike follows an old forestry road so it’s a pretty easy hike. The knob is a bald spot with stunning panorama views of the local Unicoi Mountains. At 5,560′ it’s higher than the Skyway and the highest point in the Nantahala National Forest.

Needless to say each night I was exhausted. Short day hikes, breathtaking sunsets, and hours spent just driving from one scenic overlook to the next tends to wear a person out. Fortunately all I had to do was make it back to the campground at Indian Boundary. It was the Forth of July so I was relegated to the overflow campground, which wasn’t too bad, but I met a friendly retired couple who invited me to an evening at their massive RV along Loop A in the campground. It was secluded, quiet, with that comfortable kind of mountain chilliness in the air just after the sun disappears for the day.

With a crackling fire, all the ingredients for smores, and some local moonshine I picked up in Georgia, we were set for evening of storytelling about our adventures and laughter at the embarrassing moments we had encountered. The chirping choir of nature provided the perfect soundtrack to our entertainment. It was the best possible end to an amazing day on the Cherohala Skyway, and I got to do this for three wonderful nights in the summer of 2017.

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