Mile-High Ride on Cherohala Skyway
As the days grow cooler and red and bronze colors slip into hardwood forests, we think about taking a drive purely for the scenery. In East Tennessee, the most spectacular drive may be the Cherohala Skyway.
The 43-mile route from Tellico Plains climbs into the mountains of the Cherokee National Forest and enters North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest. Motorists enjoy a “feast for the eyes” as colors grow more vivid and they ascend to 5,400 feet. The panorama of mountain ranges resplendent with brilliant yellow, copper, orange and purple justifies the motor route’s designation as a National Scenic Byway.
Tellico Plains, pop. about 850, serves as the gateway to the Cherohala Skyway. You may want to buy picnic supplies and fill up your tank here because no restaurants or gas stations are located along the route. Tellico Grains Bakery on Depot Street sells delicious pastries and sandwiches. The town has craft shops, antique and cafes. The Charles Hall Museum has historical photos and 6,000 artifacts, including Native American relics and mementos from the days of logging operations in the Tellico River Basin.
The visitor’s center in Tellico Plains gives a good introduction to the area’s recreational opportunities. Hikers descend on this section of the Southern Appalachians known as the Unicoi Mountains. They like to follow a 2.5-mile section of an ancient Indian trail that became a commercial wagon road called the Unicoi Turnpike in the early days of European settlement. The Cherokee town Telliquah preceded Tellico Plains; traces of their settlement remain.
The Tellico River is a favorite among fly fishermen and river runners. When water levels are high, the river offers Class III, IV and V rapids in the upper stretches of the gorge. Cascades form deep pools — perfect swimming holes. Tubing, kayaking and canoeing are popular warm weather pastimes. Fly-fishermen try their luck for brown, rainbow and brook trout in the cool, clean waters.
State Highway 165 runs alongside the Tellico River, so a motorist’s introduction to the Cherohala Skyway is one with views of rushing water. As the journey moves on, you will see amazing views of multi-hued foliage as you round the curves of four peaks over 5,000 feet in elevation and nine peaks above 4,000 feet. This roadway cost $100 million and required 34 years to build. The Charles Hall Bridge, one of the highest major bridges in the Southeast (4,000-foot elevation), is named after Tellico Plains’ long-serving mayor who dedicated many years to the construction. The Skyway was completed in 1996 and quickly became a pleasure route for motorcyclists and other drivers.
You don’t want to be in a hurry because the two-lane offers many pullouts, kiosks, overlooks and picnic areas as it carries you to Robbinsville, N.C. If conditions are clear, you can see the Cumberland Mountain Plateau to the western horizon. You may consider taking a side trip to 100-foot-tall Bald River Falls along Forest Service Road 210. Indian Boundary Campground is situated on Boundary Lake. The balds along the Unicoi Crest feature dwarfed trees, shrubs and tall grasses.
Santeetlah Overlook is a phenomenally beautiful picnic spot at 5,390 feet. From here you have views of Snowbird, Slickrock and Joyce Kilmer Forests, and if visibility is favorable, Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Hiking trails spanning 150 miles fan from the roadway. Horseback riders have 31 miles of trails.
If you’ve already experienced the Cherohola and you’re looking for another scenic byway, try East Tennessee Crossing. This 83 mile trek starts in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, crosses Clinch Mountain, and takes you by the historic moonshining spot, Thunder Road.
Is there a spot along the skyway you particularly like? Let me know and I’ll pass it along.