Rafting & Hiking in the Nantahala & Cherokee National Forests
South of the Smoky Mountains National Park, the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests offer a wealth of summer recreational opportunities, without the crowds.
More than nine million people pour into the Smokies every year, more than twice as many tourists annually than the second-place Grand Canyon. Yet, for the traveler willing to venture outside the park, the Nantahala and Southern Cherokee national forests are relatively untouched, rich with deer, elk, river otters, and the occasional black bear, grouse, warblers, hawks, and eagles in the misty skies.
This area offers a wide variety of vacation opportunities, such as:
- Scenic drives, including the Cherohala Skyway,
- White water rafting and kayaking on the Nantahala River in North Carolina and Ocoee in Tennessee, which was the venue for the canoeing and kayaking events during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics,
- Well-marked hiking trails, including a section of the Appalachian Trail and the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Park and Recreation Area, one of the largest old-growth preserves in the eastern United States,
- The Museum of the Cherokee Indian,
- Casino activity on the Cherokee Reservation,
- Mountain biking on the Tsali trail system,
- Horseback riding,
- Motorcycle resorts,
- Waterfalls, including 411-foot Whitewater Falls, the highest falls east of the Rockies, and
- Train tours on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
Scenic Drives in the Nantahala and Cherokee Forests
The area south of the Smoky Mountains National Park is easily accessible from Asheville, N.C., as well as Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tenn.
Several national Scenic Byways run through the area:
- Mountain Waters Scenic Byway, 61.3-mile drive through southern Appalachian hardwood forest, two river gorges, and rural countryside from Highlands to Lauda in North Carolina.
- Ocoee Scenic Byway, a 26-mile section of U.S. Highway 64 running from Ocoee to the North Carolina border, and
- Cherohala (or Overhill) Scenic Byway running about 30 miles through the mountains from Tellico Plains, Tenn., to Santeetlah Gap in North Carolina.
Hiking Trails in the Nantahala National Forest
Among the most spectacular day hiking trails in the Southern Highlands are designated national recreation trails, one in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Park. The other is the Whiteside Mountain National Recreational Trail near Cashiers, N.C. Both these two-mile loop trails are rated moderate and offer spectacular scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities, including nesting peregrine falcons near the Whiteside Trail.
More challenging hiking can be found in the Fodderstack area of the Nantahala in Tennessee, and the Snowbird Backcountry Area and Standing Indian Basin in North Carolina.
Hardier souls can try overnight hikes along the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, which runs 88 miles through Nantahala National Forest from Fontana Dam to the Georgia State line or the yellow-blazed Bartram National Recreational Trail, running 70 miles through the Nantahala forest to Georgia State Line.
Places to Stay While Exploring the Nantahala & Cherokee
Towns like Brevard, Highland, Wesser, and Cashiers, N.C., are ideal for exploring the eastern portion of the Nantahala. These mountain towns have ample accommodations, dining and shopping opportunities, and a reputation for excellent mountain music and crafts festivals.
The central area can be explored from a base at Cherokee or Bryson City, N.C., or any of the resorts along Fontana Lake, which lies along the southern border of the national park.
White water enthusiasts can find lodging and dining at the Nantahala Outdoor Center or near the Ocoee Whitewater Center, in Ocoee or Cleveland, Tenn., which hosts the annual White Oak Mountain Bluegrass Festival.
Cabins are available for rent throughout the area.