One of my favourite drives for viewing fall leaves in East Tennessee is the Cherohala Skyway, a National Scenic Byway that runs between Tellico Plains, TN and Robbinsville, NC.
The tiny 1.6 square mile town of Tellico Plains currently has less than 1,000 residents in what used to be the Cherokee settlement of Great Tellico.
This land is flush with Cherokee and Muscogee history and runs along the Tellico River to the Unicoi and Appalachian Mountains.
Your first stop in Tellico Plains should be at the Charles Hall Museum & Heritage Center,
Hall’s incredible legacy and collection of town memorabilia, photos, weapons, artifacts, musical instruments, household items, pottery, art, and more have created an enormous compendium of Monroe County and Cherokee history.
Live music and dobro performances, food vendors, antique farm equipment and demonstrations, horse wagon and hay rides, games and other activities filled the day.
I just stopped by briefly this year, as I have been many times before.
Outside the museum, other spots to visit in Tellico Plains include the Bears Den Café, Tellicafé, Tellico Grains Bakery (below), Trout Mountain Coffeehouse & Inn, Tellico Outfitters, Stone Cottage Shops & Gardens, and The Bookshelf (also below).
The tiny downtown area has a few cute shops and some interesting almost-but-not-quite Alpine architecture, like it sits waiting for someone to come and finish the renovation.
A small memorial in the hardware store parking lot honours locals who served, and many who were lost, in various wars.
Learn more about Tellico Village and the rest of Monroe County’s fascinating history on the Tellico Plains Mountain Press website, and look out for the big bear paws imprinted in the sidewalk around the main town square.
The Cherohala Skyway is also known as TN State Hwy 165 and NC-143. “Chero-” comes from the Cherokee National Forest, and “-hala” comes from the Nantahala National Forest, which the Skyway connects.
Once you make that turn from Highway 68 in Tellico Plains onto Hwy 165, just keep going.
Construction of the Skyway took over 30 years and it finally opened to sightseers in 1996.
Santeetlah Overlook is one of the Skyway’s most popular stops at nearly 5,400 feet high, though there are four other peaks at over 5,000 feet high and nine that reach over 4,000 feet.
Along the way you can explore multiple overlooks, trails, and picnic areas leading through the Cherokee National Forest, Wildcat Falls, Bald River Falls, Fall Branch Falls, Tellico River Gorge, Indian Boundary Campground on Boundary Lake, and eventually through the Nantahala Forest, and the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest closer to Robbinsville.
There are over 600 miles of hiking trails among these 650,000 acres and it is home to hundreds of species of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles.
Bald River Falls is near the beginning of the Skyway in Tellico Plains, and it is a hub for white water rafting and fishing.
I look forward to my first visit, which I am told you can see the 100 feet high falls from the road by driving six miles down SR-210.
Indian Boundary Campground
Right off Hwy 165, you can access the road to this campground and Boundary Lake. The tree-lined canopy of pines was beautiful, and the smell of campfires and marshmallows was going strong.
Nantahala National Forest
Entering North Carolina, you will drive through the Nantahala National Forest, the largest of North Carolina’s four national forests, with over 530,000 acres. This is also where the road name changes from TN 165 to NC 143.
This forest is divided into three districts, and if you continue to Robbinsville you will be entering the Cheoah district.
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest can be accessed from NC 143 onto a a two-mile sidequest loop through this lovely forest of poplar and hemlock trees.
Just six miles from Robbinsville and about fifteen minutes from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the town of Lake Santeetlah and its gorgeous, award-winning lake that has been voted the most beautiful lake in America.
There are only around 200 residents here and most properties are either rental/vacation homes, campgrounds, and marinas.
Robbinsville is also a tiny town with just 0.4 square miles and around 600 residents. Scenes from the films Nell and The Fugitive were filmed here, and the Avett Brothers released an ode to the town called Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions.
The first thing I saw on the main drag was this vibrant mural.
Junaluska Memorial & Museum
This is a cool site that has unfortunately fallen into great disrepair. Several years ago, a storm destroyed the museum and it has not been rebuilt.
I can not find a credible website for the memorial and onsite access is blocked to anything else but the memorial.
A tricky sloped driveway takes you to the top of the hill where Chief Junaluska and his family are buried in the center of multiple monuments.
These monuments are dedicated to the seven Cherokee clans and tell Chief Junaluska’s story.
This site is said to have been one of the origins of the Trail of Tears.
Near the back of the memorial, you will see signs directing you to the Traditional Medicine Trail.
It takes about twenty minutes to complete unless you are an herbalist/gardener like me, stopping to nose around and identify every shrub and leaf.
Tread cautiously, pay your respects, and do not take anything that does not belong to you.
Wehrloom Honey & Mead was a fun stop where I picked up a variety of homemade mead, honey, lotion, salve, candles, spices, and other items.
They have a second location in Asheville but still ace my criteria of being locally owned.
I went to The Hub for lunch and they really have no business making a Cuban sandwich this good. It’s my favourite sandwich and I have had a lot of them, but this one was fire. They kinda melt the cheese into the smoked pork so it is really gooey instead of just layered on.
I took home a cup of lobster bisque for later and it was unexpectedly delicious too.
The Hub is in an old gas station and rents motorcycles, so there’s that also.
Other restaurants like the Notorious P.I.G. BBQ, Wolf Creek General Store & Café, Willow Tree Restaurant & Bakery, Graham Coffee, and the Tapoco Tavern are on my list for future visits.
Speaking of unexpected, on the way back I passed this place with dragon sculptures all over the lawn.
I had heard of and even seen some of the magical dragon art near Robbinsville where the Tail of the Dragon scenic route begins. This one caught me by surprise though, and I believe it is a B&B.
Last but not all or even least of the unexpected, I was baffled by this mural of Ronnie Milsap in the middle of downtown.
Not really knowing who he was beyond a singer, I found an article in my own town’s newspaper, of all places, explaining that Milsap was a Robbinsville native who came over to our side of the mountain way back when. Weird and fascinating connection.
Taking the Cherohala Skyway back to Tellico Plains is a given, but once you are in Robbinsville you will be just minutes from The Dragon, and maybe even tempted to drive it.
This hellacious death trap road is famous among maniacal bikers and other lunatics who enjoy driving on that type of terrain at 100 miles an hour in the pitch black of night.
I will end this blog with the reminder I wrote to myself for the next time I drove all the way to Robbinsville with intent to write about it:
“YOU BETTER GO HOME THE SAME WAY YOU CAME OR YOU WILL BE TAKING THE DRAGON BACK AT NIGHT, IN THE DARK, WITH 500 RELENTLESS LUNATICS RIDING YOUR ASS, I STG DO NOT DO THIS AGAIN!”
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