A Road Through Beauty, the Cherohala Skyway’s 36 miles of scenic mountain views rival any scenic byway in the eastern United States.
Mountaintops, waterfalls, and waterways adorn this high country of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. The average trip over the Skyway takes 2 1/2-hours, if you just want to drive and view scenery. I would recommend setting aside the best part of the day to enjoy some of the bigger than life features the Cherohala Skyway and Unicoi Mountain Wilderness have to offer.
The elevations range from 900 feet above sea level at the Tellico River in Tennessee to over 5,400 feet above sea level at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line at Haw Knob.
The Cherohala Skyway crosses through the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. The name “Cherohala” comes from the names of the two National Forests: “Chero” from the Cherokee and “hala” from the Nantahala.
In October 1996, the Cherohala Skyway was opened to the public at a cost of 100-million dollars offering access to the top of the world for far western North Carolina and far southeastern Tennessee. For the first time Robbinsville, North Carolina and Tellico Plains, Tennessee became sister cities if you can call them that. Both towns are modest in size yet large in local history, newly connected by a ribbon of asphalt over a vast wilderness.
The official scenic Cherohala Skyway is 36-miles in length, with 15-miles in North Carolina and 21-miles in Tennessee, although actual distance between Robbinsville and Tellico Plains is roughly 50 miles of paved road. The 36-mile scenic byway connects TN 68 with NC 143. There are no services over the actual scenic highway except for public restrooms at three locations along the Cherohala Skyway.
From heights nearing 6,000-feet, are views of the rugged rolling mountaintops of the Unaka Mountains with the Great Smoky Mountains to the northeast and the Tennessee River Valley to the west. What you will find along the route are lots of great mountain overlooks, camping areas, and numerous hiking trails leading off from the scenic byway.
The mountain-and-valley scenery along the 36-mile stretch is spectacular. Mountain balds as they are called, crown the Unicoi Crest at the pinnacle of the Cherohala Skyway and are without doubt part of the great mystery of mountain creation itself. The Cherohala Skyway scenic overlooks have rightfully been compared to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Newfound Gap Road through the Great Smoky Mountains.
There are 29 trails along the Cherohala Skyway covering 150 miles. These trails offer long and short hikes to special locations of natural beauty and mystery. There are also 8 horseback trails totaling 31 miles for equestrians to explore from the saddle.
To reach the eastern gateway to the Cherohala Skyway, take NC 143 west from Robbinsville, for approximately 12-miles, signs will mark the way. At this point where highway NC 143 becomes the Cherohala Skyway, you can access Joyce Kilmer Road. A two-mile drive along this side-road will take you to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and Slickrock Wilderness Area. The memorial forest is named after the poet and American patriot Joyce Kilmer who wrote the famous poem “Trees,” in 1913.
Joyce Kilmer, while serving in France during World War I was killed in action and highly decorated for his heroism by the French government. The memorial forest is an old-growth forest of giant trees, some ranging over 100 feet tall, over 20 feet in circumference, and estimated to be over 400 years old. The memorial forest remains isolated deep within a large mountainous cove, unspoiled and preserved for posterity’s sake.
Due to its remote mountainous location, a logging company’s bankruptcy and just plain good luck, these giants of the mountain forest were saved from destruction, preserving their beauty for our enjoyment as well as the generations to come.
This 3,800-acre woodland is an awe-inspiring experience that makes the Cherohala Skyway adventure unlike any other. Flowing through the heart of the memorial forest is the Little Santeetlah Creek, which is one of the main watersheds that feed the sky blue waters of Lake Santeetlah. Lake Santeetlah is one of the most beautiful lakes in all the North Carolina Mountains, mostly isolated and pristine.
Isolated in a wilderness land, adventurous souls come to appreciate the mountain country the Cherokee People’s ancestor called, “land of the noon day sun.”
A journey across the Cherohala Skyway is an experience you’ll want to repeat often.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.