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Exploring the Cherokee: Tennessee

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

RICH IN CULTURAL HERITAGE AND NATURAL BEAUTY, the Cherokee National Forest stretches along
the Tennessee-North Carolina border from the Georgia line north to Virginia. It is divided
into northern and southern sections, with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park between
them. Its 630,715 acres of lush vegetation were set aside as a national forest in the early
20th century. Most of the land had been heavily logged and damaged by wildfires and poor
farming practices. Early conservation efforts focused on restoring the earth and woods. The
forest is healthy and rich with plant and animal life today, and offers a large variety of
outdoor activities. Finding a campsite in the forest is relatively easy, with 30 developed
campgrounds to choose from. Most are open from late spring through fall and are available
on a first-come, first-served basis. In developed campgrounds, RV sites usually include a
fireplace, a table and a lantern post. Some newer sites have electrical hookups; water and
sanitation facilities are usually available within a reasonable distance. National forest
campgrounds have a stay limit of 14 days unless otherwise posted. Hiking offers one of the
best ways to experience the forest in a quiet, relaxed atmosphere. Choices range from
challenging hikes through rugged primitive areas to short walks along lakeshores.
Nationally designated trails include the Appalachian Trail, the John Muir National
Recreation Trail and Warrior’s Passage Trail. There are more than 700 miles of hiking
trails throughout the national forest. The Ocoee Whitewater Center features an easy
one-mile walk that includes crossing a 330-foot cable bridge that spans the breathtaking
Ocoee River. And the 10-mile bike- and hiking-trail system offers a glimpse of history and
adventure. If you prefer to get around on four legs instead of two, you might try one of
the 20 equestrian trails. Trail lengths range from one to 22 miles and offer a variety of
skill levels. All open public roads are available for horseback riding. The Conasauga River
Wildlife Viewing Area in the Ocoee Ranger District is a stretch of the Conasauga State
Scenic River. It is relatively siltfree and provides an unusual opportunity to view fish in
their natural habitat. You can slip on a mask and snorkel slowly in the still, deep pools.
You might see redeye bass, sunfish, blue shiner, amber darter and the Conasauga logperch,
among others. More wildlife- and bird-watching opportunities are found on the Tellico Auto
Loop, which passes through a black-bear sanctuary. Even if you don’t spot a bear, you might
see one of the forest’s 262 bird species, such as the red-breasted nuthatch or the
Blackburnian warbler. For more birding, go to the Gee Creek Trail section of the John Muir
National Recreation Trail. It is ideal for viewing wading birds on the shores of the
Hiwassee State Scenic River. Scenic driving is a popular activity in the forest, and one of
the newest and most beautiful routes is the Cherohala Skyway. Twisting through scenery that
rivals the Blue Ridge Parkway, the skyway crosses through the Cherokee and Nantahala
national forests, connecting Tellico Plains in southeastern Tennessee to Robbinsville,
North Carolina. Covering portions of what was once a Cherokee Indian trading route, this
40-mile, two-lane blacktop road passes crystal-clear streams, climbs to breathtaking
overlooks and skirts the shoreline of a beautiful North Carolina mountain lake. Paralleling
the Tellico River in Tennessee, the skyway winds along this classic river at 1,000 feet
elevation, offering canoeing and fishing between mileposts 2 and 4. Approaching milepost 5,
the river disappears and the skyway begins its ascent. Through hills and valleys, the road
offers enticing glimpses of changing forest types as you climb to over 5,000 feet
elevation. Be ready for your first full view of spectacular mountaintops and deep valleys
as you pass milepost 14. Turkey Creek Overlook, between mileposts 15 and 16, offers picnic
tables, or you can proceed to milepost 18 to hike and/or take photos. The skyway climbs
through Brushy Ridge, then on to East and West Rattlesnake Rocks. Just after East
Rattlesnake, the road passes by a black-bear refuge and presents panoramic views of the
rugged mountains. At Beech Gap, the skyway crosses into North Carolina and the Nantahala
National Forest. Unicoi Crest Overlook offers beautiful views into both North Carolina and
Tennessee. Then you can continue to Hooper Bald (5,290 feet elevation) for a hike at
milepost 8, or you may prefer to stop along the way at Stratton Meadows, Haw Knob Slopes,
Big Junction or the highest overlook: 5,390-foot Santeetlah. The last 10 miles of the
skyway skirt the mountain slopes, offering breathtaking views of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial
Forest and Santeetlah Valley. You can stop at several overlooks as you wind down into
Robbinsville. The Cherohala Skyway provides numerous opportunities to view magnificent
mountain scenery, take photographs, stroll along short trails and delight in an almost
never-ending showcase of elegant wildflowers. Take your time and enjoy the wonderful views
along this road. Allowing for stops, it takes about two hours to travel the length of the
skyway. Before You Go: For more information on the Cherokee National
Forest, Ocoee Whitewater Center or the Cherohala Skyway, contact the Forest Supervisor,
P.O. Box 2010, Cleveland, Tennessee 37320; (423) 476-9700; www.southernregion.fs.
fed.us/cherokee. Visit Trailer Life Directory for additional campground information. For
Volunteer State travel information, contact (800) TENN-200;www.state.tn.us/ tourdev.

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