10 Terrific Reasons to Spend Your Vacation in the Cherokee National Forest
From breathtaking vistas at Unaka Mountain Overlook and Buck Bald to hidden coves, scenic drives, hundreds of miles of tumbling streams, dazzling mountain lakes, options for exploring the 650,000-acre Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee’s largest tract of public land, seem endless.
The Cherokee National Forest, located in the Appalachian mountains of East Tennessee, is divided into northern and southern sections by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The forest has cold-water trout streams, waterfalls, whitewater rivers, gorgeous lakes, 30 developed campgrounds with more primitive, dispersed camping outside campgrounds, scenic drives, overlooks and 600 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails that include 150 miles and some of the prettiest sections of the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail.
Here are some ideas for where to go and what to do when you get there:
- South Holston Lake east of Bristol is known for boating, fishing, water skiing, swimming and 30 miles of horseback riding trails along Holston Mountain. Jacob’s Creek and Little Oak Recreation Areas provide lakeside camping.
- Watauga Lake, east of Elizabethton, is one of Tennessee’s prettiest lakes with deep, clear water and steep, heavily forested slopes. Recreational boating, swimming, water skiing, picnicking and fishing for lake trout, walleye, rainbow trout and smallmouth bass top the to-do list here. There’s shoreline camping at Cardens Bluff and the Appalachian Trail passes nearby.
- In an area known for mountain vistas, the view from Unaka Overlook and the grassy balds at the Beauty Spot outside Erwin are well worth the drive if you have a high clearance vehicle. Once the road becomes gravel and the switchbacks get steeper, the magic begins.
- Camping is available at Horse Creek Recreation Area off Hwy 107 between Greenville and Jonesborough. The creek is just right for wading, hardwoods surround the shady campsites and a rustic picnic pavilion built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s is a pretty sight to see.
- The small, family-friendly campground at Paint Creek outside Greeneville is very pleasant and the creek is stocked with trout in season. Paint Creek Corridor, or Forest Road No. 41, parallels Paint Creek for five miles between the campground and the French Broad River. Along the way you’ll pass waterfalls, a warm water fishing pond and hiking trails.
- Cherohala Skyway, a 43-mile National Scenic Byway with amazing views like the 90-foot Bald River Falls that’s a gorgeous drive-by waterfall and beautiful Indian Boundary Lake and campground are near Tellico Plains. The Tellico River is an outstanding trout fishery.
- Buck Bald is a lovely peaceful spot near Coker Creek, the site of a gold rush during the 1820s. Most of the mining ended by 1860 but you can try your luck after checking the regulations of Cherokee National Forest.
- Big Frog Mountain offers about 35 miles of backcountry trails and one of the more unusual activities, snorkeling. Turns out the Conasauga River, listed among the “100 Best Trout Streams in the Country” by Trout Unlimited, offers exceptional underwater fish viewing. Pitch your tent at Sylco or Tumbling Creek Campground.
- The Hiwassee River is a family-friendly spot to enjoy fishing, kayaking, canoeing and tubing on its calmer sections. It also has sections with Class II and III rapids used as a training ground for the Tennessee Scenic River Association’s canoe and kayak school. Hikers enjoy the 21-mile John Muir National Recreational Trail. Camp at Quinn Springs Campground located near the river on TN 30 or the nearby state tent campground at Gee Creek.
- Take it up several notches on the Ocoee River with miles of Class III-IV rapids on one of the best whitewater rivers in the south. The area is also known for mountain biking on the 30-mile Tanasi Trail complex. Camp at Chilhowee Recreation Area, Parksville or Thunder Rock Campgrounds.