Cherokee National Forest Overview
The long swath of Cherokee National Forest follows the ancient ridges of the southern Appalachian Mountains along the border of eastern Tennessee, interrupted only by Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Though the Smokies get the lion's share of attention, the Cherokee's latticework of wicked whitewater, misty waterfalls, and winding footpaths has a charm that makes it arguably an equal of its more famous, national-park neighbor.
The hardwoods that clothe today's Cherokee hide a lot of old battle scars. In the 19th century, the ancient forests of these mountains were ravaged by wholesale timbering and poor agricultural practices. In 1911, Congress passed the Weeks Act, which allowed the Federal government to purchase private lands from willing sellers in the southeastern states. After the law was enacted, the first land acquisitions were made for what eventually became the 640,000-acre Cherokee National Forest, named for the Cherokee Indians who made their ancestral homeland in these parts.
Today the forest is healthy and rich with plant and wild animal life, and it offers a large variety of outdoor activities. About 10 percent of the forest is designated wilderness, offering opportunities for solitude and primitive, unconfined recreation experiences. Among the northern districts' wilderness areas are Big Laurel Branch Wilderness, Watauga Lake, and Unaka Wilderness, which borders the Unaka Mountain Scenic Area. The southern districts' areas include Little Frog Wilderness, which lies along a stretch of the Ocoee River and borders the Cohutta Wilderness in Georgia, and the Citico Creek Wilderness. Between these wild areas and world-class outdoor playgroundshiking on the Appalachian Trail, kayaking the raging Ocoee, fat-tire biking around Johnson City, or fly-fishing the Tellicothe Cherokee National Forest has a lot to offer.
Hike along the AT
One hundred and fifty miles of the Appalachian Trail meander through the Cherokee National Forest. This narrow footpath carves through thickets of rhododendron, grassy balds, and lush forest. Keep your eyes on the white blazes painted on rocks and trees that serve as trail markers as you pass through spots with colorful names like Buzzard Roost Ridge, Locust Pole Knob, Beauty Spot, and Jane Bald. There are, in total, some 650 miles of footpaths to explore in the forest. Nationally designated trails include the Overmountain Victory Trail, John Muir National Recreation Trail, and Warrior's Passage Trail.
Paddle Ocoee Whitewater
The Ocoee River Gorge, and the secret serpent of whitewater that rages within, was unleashed in 1996 when the international community got its first glimpse at the beast during the Olympic Slalom Canoe/Kayak events. The forest's Ocoee Whitewater Center helped to establish the Ocoee as one of the best whitewater rivers in the world and transformed the surrounding region into an outdoor recreation mecca. And what's even scarier is that it's not the only whitewater action in the forest—slip into the drink on the Nolichucky, French Broad, Tellico, Conasauga, and the Hiwassee River. Whitewater outfitters abound.
Walls of Falling Water
If you like waterfalls—and who doesn't—an easy hike or drive will deliver you to the foot of several walls of falling water. The 150-foot Wildcat Falls, in the Tellico Ranger District, can be accessed by North Carolina Wilderness Trail #42. If that's not high enough for you, check out the 475-foot Buckeye Falls in the Unaka Ranger District. To get there, take Route 107 and turn right at mile 15.4 on Clark Creek Road to Clark Creek Trail. Another beauty, the 100-foot Bald River Falls is situated in the Tellico Ranger District. The falls can be viewed from the Tellico River Road (Forest Service Road 210).
Snorkel in the Conasauga
The slow-moving, silt-free, Conasauga River forms deep, still pools that provide snorkelers with a unique window into the underwater world. As you explore this river Atlantis, keep your eyes open for turtles, redeye bass, sunfish, the federally-listed blue shiner, the amber darter, and the Conasauga logperch. Also scan the shallows, you might see Alabama hogsuckers, stonerollers, and male darters. The Conasauga Fish Viewing Trail is located in the Ocoee Ranger District.
Fish the Hiwassee
Every year, they stock the Hiwassee with rainbow, brown, and brook trout in a 19-mile stretch downstream from the Appalachia Powerhouse. Anglers, spinners, and bait fishermen line up along the riverbank in hopes of landing a 12-pound lunker. Although technique varies, expect to find big browns wallowing in the shoals and pools while prize-fighting rainbows prefer the riffles and rapids. The powerhouse is located eight miles downstream from US 411.
Bike Old Copper Road
You can mountain bike the 2.4-mile Old Copper Road Historic Trail that was used to haul copper ore from historic Ducktown to the trailhead in Cleveland, Tennessee. The trail snakes its way along the Ocoee River so expect to hear the roar of rapids as you pedal. Mountain bikes are also permitted on the gravel portions of Red Leaf Trail #144, Azalea Trail #141, and Benton Falls Trail #131, but check with each ranger district on the latest deal.
The 5.7-mile Chestnut Mountain Trail (#104) in the Hiwassee Ranger District begins at the Lost Corral parking lot off Maggie Mill Road FDR #27 and ends at Iron Gap on Starr Mountain. The portion of the horse trail near Iron Gap is moderate to difficult due to steep terrain. The remainder of this horse trail is easy to moderate riding, passes through the Gee Creek Wilderness, and winds its way over Chestnut Mountain. To get there: Take Highway 411 south from Etowah and turn left at the Gee Creek Campground entrance sign (FDR #27). Take the first left (past Gee Creek Maintenance barn), cross the railroad tracks, and park in the parking area. Follow 4WD Road 2004 to the junction of Chestnut Mountain trail #104 trailhead.
Cruise the Cherohala Skyway
The Cherohala Skyway is a 40-mile scenic drive that traverses the Cherokee and Nantahala national forests. The two-lane road follows a former Cherokee Indian trade route along the Tellico River and connects Tellico Plains in southeast Tennessee to Robbinsville, North Carolina. The road provides access to several trailheads along the way including Eagle Gap, Grassy Gap, West Rattlesnake Rock, Mud Gap, and Hooper Bald trailheads.
Waiting for Wildflowers
You won't have to wait long. As early as late March, the Cherokee erupts with color—expect blood root, trout-lilies, and spring beauty. A little later, late bloomers like trillium, dwarf iris, rue anemone, flame azalea, and Solomon's seal arrive on the scene. At higher elevations, bet your bottom dollar that you'll encounter thickets of rhododendron.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication