Often compared to the well-known Blue Ridge Parkway for its scenic beauty, the Cherohala Skyway in the Southern Appalachian region of the United States offers a spectacular journey through the forested mountains of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. This remarkable byway, winding through two national forests – the Cherokee in Tennessee and the Nantahala in North Carolina, hence the name “Cherohala”, is a hidden gem among America’s scenic drives.
Location and Distance?
The Cherohala Skyway stretches 43 miles from Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to Robbinsville, North Carolina. Though less than a quarter of the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Skyway’s concentrated beauty offers a remarkable driving experience. The route climbs to over a mile above sea level. And has numerous overlooks offering stunning views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
The map below shows where this road is located:
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The Journey on Cherohala Skyway:
The Skyway journey begins in the quaint town of Tellico Plains. This town is known for its charming downtown area and the Tellico River’s world-class trout fishing. From here, the road ascends, winding its way through dense forests and over rushing streams. Wildlife sightings are common – you may spot white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and if you’re lucky, a black bear.
As you approach the North Carolina state line, the terrain becomes more rugged, and the vistas more breathtaking. Several overlooks offer panoramic views of the Unicoi Mountains, a subrange of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Hooper Bald overlook is a popular stop, with a short trail leading to a summit boasting an elevation of 5,429 feet. On clear days, it’s possible to see the Great Smoky Mountains to the north.
You can also find some activities in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park not far away.
The Skyway’s highest point is at the Santeetlah Overlook in North Carolina, sitting at an elevation of 5,390 feet. Here, you’ll find sweeping views of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness and the Snowbird Mountains. As the road descends towards Robbinsville, it passes through tunnels of rhododendron and mountain laurel, eventually ending in the Cheoah River Valley.
History and Development
The Cherohala Skyway was officially opened in 1996, following a planning and construction process that lasted over three decades and cost around 100 million dollars. Despite its relatively recent opening, the Skyway quickly gained popularity for its beautiful scenery and excellent driving conditions. Today, it’s designated as a National Scenic Byway, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
Apart from the drive itself, the surrounding area is rich in outdoor recreational opportunities. There are numerous hiking trails off the Skyway, including a trail to Huckleberry Knob, the highest point in the Unicoi Mountains. For those looking to extend their adventure, the nearby Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center in Tellico Plains provides information on local attractions, including the Bald River Falls, a stunning waterfall that’s easily accessible from a roadside overlook.
To get a preview of the road, watch this YouTube video that shows us the drive:
How do I get on this road?
Determine Your Starting Point: Cherohala Skyway has two primary access points, one in Tennessee and one in North Carolina. Decide where you want to start your journey based on your location and travel plans:
- Tellico Plains, Tennessee: This is the western terminus of the Cherohala Skyway. It’s located in Tellico Plains, Tennessee. To reach Tellico Plains: from Interstate 75, take Exit 60 onto TN-68 South. then follow TN-68 South until you reach Tellico Plains.
- Robbinsville, North Carolina: This is the eastern terminus of the Cherohala Skyway. It’s located in Robbinsville, North Carolina. To reach Robbinsville, from US-129, you can take the turnoff onto the Cherohala Skyway near Robbinsville.
- Visitor Centers: If you would like more information about the Cherohala Skyway, consider stopping at one of the visitor centers along the route. They often have maps, brochures, and staff to help you.
Here is an approximate map of the avenue:
Is the Cherohala Skyway open?
The Cherohala Skyway is a year-round destination, with each season offering its unique charms. Spring brings a burst of color as wildflowers bloom along the roadside, while summer’s lush greenery provides a refreshing contrast to the blue mountain peaks. Autumn is perhaps the most spectacular time to visit when the hardwood forests explode into vibrant hues of red, orange, and gold. Winter, though often cold and occasionally snowy, offers its stark beauty and tranquility.
Before embarking on the drive, it’s essential to note that there are no gas stations or restaurants along the Skyway. Therefore, ensure your vehicle has a full tank of gas, and consider packing snacks or a picnic lunch. Also, weather conditions can change quickly at higher elevations, so be prepared for sudden weather changes and carry appropriate clothing.
The bottom line is that the Cherohala Skyway is more than just a road – it’s the gateway to an unforgettable Appalachian adventure. Whether you’re a motorcyclist looking for a thrilling ride, a nature lover looking to spot wildlife, or a photographer looking for the perfect scenery, Skyway is for you. So pack your camera, hit the road, and prepare for a journey through some of the most breathtaking landscapes the United States has to offer.
Picture credit: By Brian Stansberry – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11912684 / By Brian Stansberry – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11913074
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