The Skyway offers the cultural heritage of the Cherokees and early settlers in a grand forest environment in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Enjoy mile-high vistas and brilliant fall foliage as well as great hiking opportunities and picnic spots in magnificent and seldom-seen portions of the southern Appalachian National Forests. Popular stops along and near the Skyway include Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, Santeetlah Lake, and many Cherokee sites. This byway in particular is known for its fall colors.
The Cherohala Skyway was completed in the fall of 1996 after planning and construction for some thirty-four years. It was North Carolina’s most expensive scenic highway carrying a price tag of $100,000,000. It winds up and over 5,400-foot mountains for 18 miles in North Carolina and descends another 23 miles into the deeply forested backcountry of Tennessee.
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. The Cherohala Skyway is located in southeast Tennessee and southwest North Carolina. The Skyway connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee with Robbinsville, North Carolina, and is about 40+ miles long.
The Cherohala Skyway is a wide, paved 2-laned road maintained by the Tennessee Department of Transportation and the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The elevations range from 900 feet above sea level at the Tellico River in Tennessee to 5,390 feet above sea level at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line at Haw Knob.
It is a 2-laned road with wide shoulders and 15 scenic overlooks. Along the way, you can expect minimum cell phone coverage and limited toilet facilities. There are picnic sites, trailheads for hiking, and a wide variety of traffic types ranging from motorhomes to bicycles. Some grades are as steep as 9 percent along the skyway. The trip across the skyway takes about two hours. It is approximately 25 miles long in Tennessee and 19 miles long in North Carolina. Food and fuel stations are available in Tellico Plains, Tennessee, and Robbinsville, North Carolina.
Related article: America’s 10 Best Scenic Byways for your Next Road Trip
The Skyway is becoming well known in motorcycling and sports car circles for its long, sweeping corners, scenic views, and cool summer breezes.
Take your time and stop along the way to enjoy. Temperatures can drop as much as 20 degrees during the first 11 miles of your drive starting on the North Carolina side since the Skyway climbs from 2,660 feet elevation to 5,390 feet. The Skyway follows NC Highway 143 (easier to find on maps) and TN 165 to Tellico Plains, Tennessee.
When you get to the Cherohala Skyway stop in at the Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center located on Highway 165 in Tellico Plains, Tennessee, or the Graham County Visitor Center in Robbinsville, North Carolina to pick up brochures and maps or talk to the friendly people about your time on the Skyway. They can help you plan your trip, find good restaurants, locate a waterfall to enjoy, reserve a campsite, or any other special need you may have. The Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center is open Monday through Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm.
When to visit
Summer is a wonderful season for enjoying the Cherohala Skyway. The mile-high drive is spectacular. The long days and breathtaking sunrises and sunsets are unforgettable. You can escape the hot summer days at higher elevations where it’s usually cooler. Temperatures in the summer are very unpredictable. Hot days and mild nights are normal. Thunderstorms are common and can build quickly and without warning. Daytime temperatures can reach the 90s with nighttime temperatures dropping into the 60s.
Related article: America’s 10 Best Scenic Byways for a Fall Road Trip
Fall is a beautiful time of year on the Cherohala Skyway. Cool-weather arrives and the changing leaves are spectacular. Viewing the fall foliage is a favorite pastime in the eastern United States. The leaves begin changing color as early as late September in the higher elevations and continue through mid-November in lower elevations.
The dogwoods, poplars, and sourwoods are some of the first to transform. The red oaks, hickories, and white oaks change later and often hold their leaves until late fall. Temperatures are generally moderate throughout the season. Highs range from the 70s during the day to the 40s at night. Normally, fall is also a time of low precipitation along the Cherohala Skyway. The pleasant temperatures and low rainfall make it a perfect time for hiking, cycling, camping, and other outdoor activities enjoyed on the Skyway.
Winter is a beautiful time along the Skyway. The leaves have fallen and the views from the overlooks are spectacular. Traffic is at a minimum and it seems as if you have the mountains all to yourself. Ice and snow can be expected throughout the winter months along the Cherohala Skyway. The roadway is generally treated for such hazards keeping it passable for most of the year. CAUTION is the key word for traveling on the Skyway during winter.
A popular activity in winter along the Cherohala Skyway is checking the freshly fallen snow for animal tracks. Deer, turkeys, raccoons, foxes, and other animals (even black bears) native to these mountains cross the Skyway and leave their tracks in the snow.
Temperatures at or below freezing are common and should be prepared for especially at higher elevations. If you hike in the winter take special precautions:
- Dress in layers. The cold mornings can lead to warmer afternoons.
- Let someone know where you are going to hike. Take a friend.
- Take plenty of water. Don’t drink from streams or rivers.
- Take a snack, such as energy bars or candy.
- Please bring out all garbage that you take in.
Spring along the Cherohala Skyway is the “awakening of the forest after a long winter’s nap”. Wildflowers spring from the ground throughout these months. The annual rites begin early as red maple blooms in red and serviceberry in white. Around mid-spring, the dogwoods and redbuds join the flowering show. Temperatures are usually moderate during this season.
Typical spring weather is windy and warm. Daytime temperatures often climb into the 70s but can cool quickly at night. Spring is a great time to get outdoors. Hiking, camping, fishing, and cycling are all activities to enjoy along the Cherohala Skyway. If you like photographing nature, spring wildflowers and native wildlife are in abundance. Black bears are very active in the spring of the year and should be left alone.
Related article: America’s Fall Foliage: Leafing through America
Designation: National Scenic Byway (1998)
Intrinsic Qualities: Scenic
Location: North Carolina, Tennessee
Length: 41 miles
Best Fall Colors
Peak colors typically occur during the last two weeks in October but that is dependent upon fall temperatures and in particular, the first frost date. The color change begins at higher elevations where you see the earliest changes in late September and continue into mid-November at the lower elevations.
The Sourwood and Dogwood trees are the first to turn red early in the season. Next is the Tulip Poplars which turn yellow but then quickly turn brown. Peak leaf season brings in the red, orange, and yellow of the Maples and the bright yellow of the Birches. Oaks and Sweetgums finish up the season with purple, orange, and red.
Fall wildflowers on the Cherohala Skyway provide a beautiful display of colors starting in September up to the first frost in early October.
Take a jacket because temperatures can be 10 degrees colder at 5,000 feet. Remember that sightseeing will bring more traffic and it’s moving slower.
Your road to fall
October 1-10: 5,000+ feet elevation (Best leaf peeping spots on the Cherohala Skyway: Big Junction, Santeetlah, Hooper Bald, Huckleberry, and Spirit Ridge)
October 10-20: 4,000-5,000+ feet elevation (Best leaf peeping spots on the Cherohala Skyway: West Rattlesnake Rock, East Rattlesnake Rock, Unicoi Crest, Stratton Ridge, Mud Gap, Whigg Cove, Haw Knob, and Wright Cove)
October 18-26: 3,000-4,000+ feet elevation (Best leaf peeping spots on the Cherohala Skyway: Lake View, Brushy Ridge, Obadiah, Shute Cove, and Hooper Cove)
October 24-31: 2,000-3,000+ feet elevation (Best leaf peeping spots on the Cherohala Skyway: Bald River Falls, Oosterneck Creek, Indian Boundary, Turkey Creek, and Santeetlah Gap)
(Courtesy: Monroe (Tennessee) County Tourism)
Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree.
—Emily Brontë, Fall, Leaves, Fall