Cherokee, North Carolina is best known for its thriving Cherokee Native American community, unique art and crafts made by tribal members of the Cherokee, and of course, the tribe-owned Harrah’s Casino.
If you caught my last post about Cherokee History in Vonore, you already know I have been on a mission to explore the Cherokee part of my Irish-Cherokee maternal ancestry. Luckily I live right in the midst of former and current Cherokee territory, and many sites of significance are within half of a day’s drive.
Within 30 minutes I can be deep in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and in less than two hours I can be inside the the city of Cherokee proper.
My song for this entry is a bit different than the usual genres, but A Tribe Called Red is a fascinating musical cooperative of Native/Indigenous artists and activists that you can read more about here.
Taking the scenic route to Cherokee through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, seeing the Chimney Tops and Newfound Gap. and winding your way through the land of this tribe is as much of a vital part of the experience as being in the capital city.
Along 441 South, you will also see the Oconoluftee Visitors Center, Mountain Farm Museum, and Mingus Mill, which I have written about before.
Clingman’s Dome and access to the Blue Ridge Parkway connect to this route, though I haven’t yet made it to Clingman’s myself.
The Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill are fun stops in any season. Check out this blog to learn more about these sites!
I have hopped onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, “America’s Favourite Drive” and longest linear park, at various mile markers over the years and the view is astounding.
A favourite detour of mine is Big Witch Gap. Take a left from 441 South onto the Blue Ridge Parkway South Terminus at Mile Post 461.9, right before you roll into Cherokee.
Within just 7.5 miles of this mile post you can see the Oconaluftee River Overlook, Raven Fork Overlook, Ballhoot Scar Overlook, Sherril Cove Tunnel, Rattlesnake Mountain Tunnel, Thomas Divide Overlook, and finally reach Big Witch Overlook and Tunnel.
Obviously we come here to take witchy photos and cackle like the big heathens we are before turning back around and going where we are meant to, but you could also continue along the BRP from this starting point until it ends in Waynesboro, Virginia.
Alternately you can reach Mingo Falls from the access point near the South Terminus, which I plan to document on a cooler day. I found this video on Youtube that shows its beauty.
We entered the city of Cherokee by the Reservation and the Saunooke Village, one of Cherokee’s main centers for shopping, souvenirs, and tourist attractions.
This area has bull riding, golf, laser tag, river rafting, and restaurants, plus you can buy fudge, leather works, beaded accessories, woven crafts, decorative items, clothing, moccasins, jewelry, and other authentic items made by the Cherokee tribe.
Downtown Cherokee is run down, though perhaps in a kitschy and nostalgic way. Short, squatty buildings are falling apart, dirty, in disrepair, covered in cracked paint, miscellaneous damage, and there are a lot of dangling, faded signs.
However, if you are a fan of neon and vintage signs, this is the place for you. Most of the dilapidated family-owned hotels/motels from way back are closed or repurposed, but their towering neon signs still stand.
This video I found on Youtube explores quite a few neon signs in the area.
In its heyday, Cherokee was the place to go, to pick up some culture cred and try something considered exotic back in those days.
There is a certain charm to it still, but the exteriors do not lead on to the wonderful art inside and talents on display inside.
Throughout many years of travel, I have come to develop a love for cities with bear mascots- Berlin, Moscow, Gatlinburg, Knoxville, and Cherokee.
Or maybe I just love those cities and the bears have grown on me. In Cherokee they are ENORMOUS, unlike the more life-sized ones elsewhere.
It was a bright, hot, humid day but this page has a directory of each one with much better photos.
The Oconaluftee River flows right through downtown Cherokee, so tubing and fishing are popular activities here.
On the other end of town, the Oconaluftee pours into the Little Tennessee River and Fontana Lake. We checked out some of the teepees and tents in various campgrounds as we followed the water into Bryson City.
The Cherokee Reservation is more of a memorial site, as part of the greater Cherokee territory in the land trust called the Qualla Boundary.
After the devastatingly cruel Indian Removal Act, which many of you may know as the Trail of Tears, some Cherokee Indians were able to purchase their land back from the government and work toward becoming the sovereign nation they are today.
These individuals are called the Eastern Band of Cherokee, a separate tribe from the larger hub of Cherokee who remained in Okalahoma.
Check out this video to learn about the Trail of Tears:
One of the most famous Cherokee tribe members is the actor Will Rogers, who was born and raised in Oklahoma on Cherokee Nation territory. The Story of Will Rogers is a biographical film about his life “as told by his wife” and includes one of my favourite lines:
“There’s going to be a party. I’m going home to change my pants right now”
Speaking of parties, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort is party central in this town. Its 21-floor hotel, spa, arcade, and restaurants form the glitzy shell around this gambling pearl.
Gambling has never interested me much, but I used to love when my family would stay at Grand Casino Biloxi on the way to visit our family in New Orleans, or when my Uncle took us to his favourite casino there.
My friends and I used to spend hours walking around and people watching.
Nearby is Grounded, a coffeehouse and cafe. From the outside it looks drab, but the inside is lovely and they have a torturous menu of sandwiches, wraps, soups, and a full coffee bar.
I could not resist the house specialty, The Grounded, made with blueberry, toffee, and caramel. Please do yourself a favour and look at their photos!
Other places of interest in Cherokee include the historical drama Unto These Hills in an outdoor theatre, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and the Cherokee Welcome Center which has live demonstrations and historical presentations.
Even after a few visits now, I know there is a lot more to it that I have not seen yet. As much as I would love to go inside and explore these places,
COVID-19 has really put a damper on going indoors or talking to locals. Check back soon for additional info once it is safe to visit more extensively.
Bonus: This Youtube video tutorial to learn some basic Cherokee language:
Have a few hours to spare? Follow me to the Cherokee’s first Mothertown village, Kituwah, then to Bryson City (blog in progress). Don’t forget to subscribe!
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