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Land of the Noonday Sun: North Carolina

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

IMAGINE A DEEP RIVER GORGE, ONE SO DEEP THAT the sun doesn’t reach the bottom until midday.
And then, by about 3 p.m., the gorge is once again in the shadow of the mountains that
surround it. The Native Americans who once inhabited the region called it Nantahala, which
in the Cherokee language means “land of the noonday sun.” Local white-water devotees call
it “the Nannie.” Some people who visit this North Carolina gorge come by vehicle, and some
by the steam-powered excursion train from Bryson City. The really rugged walk the 134 miles
along the Appalachian Trail, from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia to where the trail
crosses the Nantahala River. This deep river gorge is located along U.S. Highway 19/74,
equidistant from Bryson City and Andrews. The highway runs alongside the river for 20
miles, and then the river empties into Fontana Lake in the western North Carolina
mountains. Whatever your outdoor pleasure, you are likely to find it in the Nantahala River
gorge. Fishing, white-water rafting, canoeing, kayaking, tubing, mountain biking, hiking,
horseback riding and even gem mining are some of the activities available here. If you like
the idea of cooking your own fish dinners, but fly-fishing is not your forte, Guffey’s
Trout Pond is located just up the road — east on U.S. 19/74 from the Nantahala Outdoor
Center, above the put-in for river runners. Guffey’s offers a sure thing with a guaranteed
catch. It’s a great place to take small children because they always catch something. There
are a dozen outfitters who offer every known method of going down the river, from rafts and
kayaks to canoes and playboats. They will bus you up to the put-in and then pick you up
when you reach the lower take-out. The outfitters provide guided and solo trips, as well as
life preservers, which are mandatory, and helmets if you wish. The Nantahala Outdoor Center
(NOC), a first-class outfitter at the intersection of the Appalachian Trail and the river,
sponsors events and offers rentals and/or instruction, from novice to advanced, on
alpine-tower and rope climbing, kayaking and mountain biking. It has a full-service
bike-repair shop. There are plenty of horse trails in the area, and two companies offer
guided and solo horseback riding. Since the Appalachian Trail crosses the river here, many
hikers use the NOC as a mail drop to send supplies ahead, instead of trying to carry
everything the entire 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine. Don’t let the thought of that
2,000-mile trek intimidate you. There are dozens of day hikes on well-marked trails on
either side of this gorge. One of my favorites is to pack north on the Appalachian Trail to
Cheoah Bald. Grass balds are peculiar to the eastern Tennessee/western North Carolina
region. A grass bald (as opposed to a heath bald) is a mountaintop that is covered with
grass. Farmers in the past moved their cows up to the balds in summer for grazing. Today
these balds make excellent vantage points for panoramic views of the surrounding region.
Cheoah Bald is often referred to as “the bleacher seats” for Great Smoky Mountains National
Park, which is only a few miles north of the gorge. The hike from the NOC up 3,500 feet to
5,062-foot Cheoah Bald is 16 miles, round trip. There is a shelter at Sassafras Gap, so
this can be an overnight trek. If you prefer the shelter, check at the NOC for
reservations. In the Nantahala National Forest, you can camp anywhere you can find level
ground. The view to the north is spectacular. The elevation gain is modest, but this is a
long, steady, uphill hike. Another good hiking trail is one that’s south on the Appalachian
Trail to Wesser Bald. This hike is a little shorter (13 miles, round trip) than the hike to
Cheoah Bald. There are dozens of other trails in the area; serious hikers should check at
the NOC for maps and guidebooks. The premier activity in the gorge is white-water
adventure, but if you want flat-water canoeing or boating, the Nantahala empties into
Fontana Lake, formed by the highest dam east of the Rocky Mountains. It is about 30 miles
long and provides ample opportunity for fishing or exploring backwaters. Fontana covers
10,000 acres and has a shoreline more than 240 miles long; the northern shore of the lake
is the border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Trout as well as large- and
smallmouth bass are plentiful, and walleyes here strike in waves, according to local
fishing guide Danny Grower. The area, which is where the movie Nell was filmed, is a truly
beautiful place to spend a day or two in a boat. Above the gorge is the smaller Nantahala
Lake, which experiences much less fishing pressure than Fontana. Nantahala Lake has 29
miles of shoreline. The Upper Nantahala River, which feeds the lake, winds 19 miles through
the mountains to the Georgia border. Trout fishing here is limited to catch-and-release.
The road (U.S. 19/74), the gorge and the river run generally in an east-west direction. To
get to Nantahala Lake, take U.S. 19/74 west to Beechertown. This is marked as the put-in or
boat-launch point for the river. Turn south (left) at the Beechertown powerhouse and follow
the road and creek to the lake. The roads are neither numbered nor marked, so using a
topographic map (available at the NOC) is mandatory. North Carolina is famous for its
rubies and sapphires. The Carolina Outfitters operate a gem mine in the gorge where you can
buy a bucket of local material and search for gemstones. In addition to rubies and
sapphires, you might come across emeralds and garnets. Besides gem mining, the area has a
significant logging history and is the ancestral home of the Cherokees. Twenty miles to the
east on U.S. 19/74 is the town of Cherokee, home of the eastern band of the tribe. This
reservation, which includes a Harrah’s gambling casino, is reserved for the descendants of
the Cherokees who managed to escape the roundup that resulted in the dreadful Trail of
Tears trek to the West. A significant rationale for the forced migration of the Cherokees
was the presence of gold and other precious metals and gems here. The NOC and Subaru of
America hosted the U.S. Eastern Wildwater Team trials on this class 2/3 (controlled flow)
river. Other scheduled events include the Junior Olympics Camp and qualifying kayak races
and the Citizens’ Slalom Races, both in July. All this hiking, riding and rafting can work
up a whopping big appetite, and the gorge is ready for the hungriest of outdoor sportsmen.
Several restaurants in the area provide food that ranges from sandwiches to gourmet dining.
Just east of the NOC is the River’s Edge Restaurant, which serves vegetarian delights. The
Mountain Steakhouse, on the eastern end of the gorge, offers a full menu. For more refined
palates, the Nantahala Village offers fine dining, and Relia’s Garden features gourmet
dining in a casual atmosphere. North Carolina’s Nantahala River gorge is a three-season
area. In winter, all activities come to a complete halt. Even the controlled-flow river is
shut off for the winter. So plan to visit this hospitable outdoor mecca next to the
spectacular Smokies sometime between spring and fall. Before You Go The
Nantahala is a controlled-flow river, and water release is governed by the Nantahala Power
Company. Its Web site provides lake-level information, but the water-release information
number is a toll call: (828) 369-4556. For water-release information on all the streams in
the area, call the toll-free TVA Lake Information Line: (800) 238-2264. For fishing
information or a state fishing license, call the North Carolina Wildlife Resource
Commission, (888) 2-HUNT-FISH, or visit the Web site. You will receive a rule book that
describes the regulations for each species and any special requirements that apply. In the
Nantahala National Forest, camping is abundant, but full hookups are very limited in the
gorge. Rocky Water Campground, (828) 321-3660, and Turkey Creek Campground, (828) 488-8966,
are located in or very near the gorge. There are several RV parks in Bryson City,
approximately 10 miles away on U.S. 19/74. Consult the Trailer Life Directoryfor complete
listings of campgrounds in the area. For more area information, contact the Swain County
Chamber of Commerce, (800) 867-9246; www.greatsmokies.com. For additional state travel
information, call (800) VISIT-NC; www.visitnc.com.

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