Nantahala National Forest Overview

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Nantahala National Forest
Nantahala National Forest (Gordon Wiltsie/National Geographic/Getty)
Nantahala National Forest
Contact Details
National Forests in North Carolina
Nantahala National Forest
160A Zillicoa Street
Asheville, NC 28802
Phone: 828-257-4266
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The Cherokee Indian word Nantahala means "land of the midday sun"—an appropriate name for a forest in which deep mountain gorges and valleys are illuminated only when the noon sun is directly overhead. At 5,800 feet, the Appalachian summit of Lone Bald is the highest point in the forest; it is but one vertebra in the 1,600-mile spine that stretches from Alabama to Quebec. Cascading waterfalls and energetic whitewater rivers give the forest a wild, untamed atmosphere. It is heightened by primeval oaks, hemlocks, chestnuts, and poplars that reach for the sky.

For centuries, the Cherokees roamed the forest before European settlers forced them deeper into the hills. In 1838, the U.S. Army escorted most of the tribe to an Indian reservation in Oklahoma—a mass deportation known as the "Trail of Tears." A few elusive Cherokee remained, but it wasn't until 1973 that negotiations were finally resolved, and they were permitted to legally own a portion of the land. A small section of the Cherokee Indian Reservation is located within the northern boundary of the forest; it is a larger area situated just outside the forest northeast of Bryson City.

Raft the Roaring Nantahala
River rats can paddle through surging whitewater down the Nantahala River—a nine-mile stretch of world-class whitewater that rips through the dramatic Nantahala River Gorge. The Nantahala, or "Nanty" as locals call it, is a Class II-III river—kayaks, canoes, and rafts are the vessels of choice. The Nantahala Outdoor Center, headquartered in Bryson City, offers a variety of river trips suitable for first-timers and experienced rafters. Paddling is also available on the Nolichucky, Chatanooga, French Broad, and Ocoee Rivers.

More on paddling in Nantahala National Forest

Hike amidst 400-Year-Old Giants
The figure-eight Joyce Kilmer National Recreation Trail is a two-mile hike through one of the largest stands of old-growth trees in the eastern United States—400-year-old virgin hemlock and yellow poplars tower above a carpet of wildflowers and ferns. Hikers can walk amongst the moss-covered logs of fallen giants beneath a living canopy suspended 100 feet above the forest floor. Some of the trees boast trunks with circumferences of 20 feet —try and wrap your arms around a tree like that.

Hundreds of miles of carefully cut trails wind their way through the forest—some are multiple-use and allow horses and mountain bikes. The Snowbird Backcountry Area provides 37 miles of trails reserved exclusively for hikers.

More on hiking in Nantahala National Forest

Mountain Bike in Fat-Tire Nirvana
If you're craving technical singletrack (mountain-bike speak for difficult and narrow trails), you'll find fat-tire nirvana at the Tsali Recreation Area near Almond just off N.C. Highway 28. Several loops provide up to 42 miles of challenging trails rated as "more difficult", but even if you're just learning to pedal, you'll find a variety of low-impact routes that wind their way through the forest. The Left Loop, a 12-mile trail along the edge of Lake Fontana, was rated as one of the ten best rides in America by Bicycling magazine.

More on biking in Nantahala National Forest

Fish for Trout in Solitude
At Lake Chatuge and Fontana Lake, you can reel in jumbo-size bass, sunfish, walleye, and catfish. If it's trout you're after, try the Chattanooga River, the Upper Nantahala River, Standing Indian's Kimsey Creek, and Park Creek.

More on fishing in Nantahala National Forest

Camp Near a Mountain Stream
Nearly all the campgrounds in the forest are located near a lake, river, or stream—they include Chain of Lakes, Hanging Dog Recreation Area, Jackrabbit Mountain Recreation Area, Fires Creek, Tsali Recreation Area, Horse Cove Campground Area, Cheoah Point Recreation Area, The Snowbird Area, Cable Cove Recreation Area, Rattler Ford Group Campground, and Big Santeetlah Creek.

More on camping in Nantahala National Forest

Drive Underneath a 120-Foot Waterfall
The Mountain Waters Scenic Byway is a 61-mile drive that snakes its way through the southern Appalachian hardwood forest and two river gorges—at Bridal Veil Falls, the road allows you to drive under a 120-foot waterfall.

More on sightseeing in Nantahala National Forest


Published: 22 Oct 2008 | Last Updated: 23 Oct 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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