Rising northeast of Mount Rogers and marching along the Tennessee and North Carolina border into northern Georgia, the Unaka mountain range forms one of the most rugged stretches of wilderness east of the Mississippi. In some areas, the sedimentary rock of these ancient mountains has been eroded into smooth hills and forested domes, while other peaks end in rocky spires that pierce the sky. Home to such famous landmarks and parks as Roan Mountain and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the roads and trails are choked with visitors for the better part of the year.
South of the Smokies lie another portion of the Unakas, just as beautiful, but much less visited. The Unicoi Mountains reach heights topping out at more than 5,300 feet above sea level. Protected within two national forests and home to four federal wilderness areas, the rolling mountains provide dozens of trails to explore. Waterfalls abound, wild rivers cut through dark gorges, and old-growth forests still cling to the mountainsides in higher coves. Winding through the middle of all this beauty is a single ribbon of asphalt known as the Cherohala Skyway.
Formed by combining the names of the area’s two national forests, Cherokee and Nantahala, the roadway stretches over forty-three miles long. The national scenic byway begins in the small town of Tellico Plains, Tennessee, and passes through a twisty portion of the foothills before climbing up through the clouds to the state line. It then descends to the North Carolina city of Robbinsville, located along the shores of Lake Santeetlah. Along the way, picnic areas, historical markers, and an abundance of scenic overlooks entice visitors to slow down and enjoy everything the skyway has to offer.
Before beginning your journey, it’s best to stop at the skyway’s visitor center located on the Unicoi Turnpike in Tellico Plains. Here you can get maps, hiking guides, and better plan your trip. Don’t forget to fill up the tank and grab something to eat before you go, as your next place to do so won’t be until you get to Robbinsville. Once you’re ready to go, continue straight on Tennessee 165 to the start of the skyway. This first portion of the roadway winds through the lower portion of the Tellico River Gorge, offering great places to fish or just sit and enjoy the sounds of the river rushing by.
Soon you’ll come to a junction with River Road, where we highly recommend taking the twelve-mile detour to visit Bald River Falls. Here at the base of the Bald River Falls Wilderness Area, the mighty Bald River roars and cascades more than fifty feet to form one of the largest waterfalls in the state. A small parking area along River Road lets visitors stop to take in the wonder of the magnificent scene. For those who are more adventurous, a hiking trail climbs the valley to reveal a more intimate series of cascades further upstream. This is one of the sights you definitely do not want to miss on your visit to the Unicoi Mountains.
Back on the parkway, the road soon passes the entrance to Indian Boundary campground. Here a full-service campground, picnic area, and other visitor facilities lie along the shore of Indian Boundary Lake. Volleyball courts, a swimming beach, and a biking trail which encircles the scenic lake are available to enhance visitors’ stays and make a summer visit more than worthwhile.
After passing the campground entrance, the Cherohala Skyway begins climbing in earnest. Views of the Tennessee Valley seem to stretch all the way to the Cumberland Plateau on the horizon, while closer vistas of the Citico Creek Wilderness Area are sure to take visitors’ breath away. Trails begin at almost every pull off, so be sure to bring a good hiking map if you want to explore the natural areas. Our personal favorite is the Trails Illustrated maps published by National Geographic. Not only are they extremely detailed, but they are impervious to water and won’t tear easily, no matter how much you use them.
As the road nears the state line, be prepared for the weather to change drastically. While it may be sunny and sixty degrees along the Tellico River, snow can be blanketing the upper stretches of the skyway. Huckleberry Knob, the highest point in the Unicoi Mountains, is only a short half hour walk away. The grassy bald is maintained by the forest service and views stretch deep into both states and as far away as Georgia. Nearby you can also access the Benton MacKaye Trail, an alternative route to the more-famous Appalachian Trail which also begins on Springer Mountain and meets the A.T. in the Smokies.
After passing Huckleberry Knob, the Cherohala Skyway begins descending towards Robbinsville on a fairly steep grade. While your eyes will want to wander, remember to pay attention to the road; it’s also best to shift to a lower gear in some areas. The byway officially ends at Santeetlah Gap, but your adventure doesn’t have to stop there. A turn to the left onto Santeetlah Road leads two miles to the entrance of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and the Joyce-Kilmer/Slickrock Wilderness Area. This is home to one of the largest tracts of old-growth forest left outside of the Great Smoky Mountains. Hiking trails wander through the giant trees and beyond to climb the heights of Stratton Bald and The Hangover. Views from the top offer one of the best panoramas of the Smokies you can get without flying.
Robbinsville serves as a great place to stop and get dinner before driving back home, or it can be your base to begin exploring new areas within the Nantahala National Forest. Fontana Lake, Cheoah Bald, the Appalachian Trail, and the Nantahala Mountains are all easily accessible. You can also make the short drive down to the town of Murphy and jump on the Waterfall Byway, another beautiful road which offers almost one hundred miles of the best scenery to be found in North Carolina. We’ll be back to explore more of the Nantahala region in the near future!
Photo: Stunning views of the Unicoi Mountains and the Great Smokies beyond are found around every new bend in the national scenic byway.