As I was driving west toward Asheville yesterday I was thinking how five years ago around this time Wessel and I drove the same route, and hours beyond, to reach the Cherohala Skyway for a killer bicycle ride. It’s a fantastic and little-known mountainous highway from North Carolina to Tennessee. We saw more bikers there, of the motorized kind, than we did cars. I’d love to go back, but we don’t do many repeats. Meanwhile, I can relive it with y’all here. Though I can’t say this was my most inspired piece of journalism, I hope it at least piques your interest in one of our favorite American destinations. By the way, Wessel is the mysterious friend in the story. We were married a few weeks after publication of the article.
Published October 3, 2004, Boston Globe
TELLICO PLAINS, Tenn. — If you’ve been around long enough, you might recall hearing about real-life wagon trains rolling from Tennessee over the mountains into North Carolina. Most years, starting in summer 1958, the caravans got national media coverage, including Life magazine one week. In 1960, the train contained 105 wood-spoke, steel-tire, authentic covered wagons and 776 horseback riders.
While these reenactments, which continue in a smaller, less-publicized, and more comfortable (rubber tires, cushioned seats) form, took on a life of their own, they were started as a way to draw attention to Tellico Plains, a small town (population 860) that went nowhere.
“We were a dead end,” said Charles Hall, former owner of the Tellico Telephone Co., then mayor for 30 years, and now curator of a private museum bearing his name. Hall and some fellow Kiwanis Club members came up with the wagon train idea as a publicity stunt to draw attention to what they perceived was a need for a roadway over the Unicoi Mountains in the southern Appalachians, connecting the hardscrabble towns of Tellico Plains and Robbinsville, N.C. (population 750).
In 1996, thirty-eight years and $100 million later, 37 miles of new road was completed, and it’s beautiful. The history of the Cherohala Skyway is a good story, but the true drama lies in the scenery.
The skyway got its name (pronounced chair-oh-HAH-la) from the forests it connects, Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee to Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. Some locals call it the Wagon Train Road, or simply Highway 165. (In North Carolina, it’s Highway 143.)
In 1962, Congress approved $6 million to build the roadway. Construction slowed nearly to a halt when conservationists stepped in. Some still wish the roadway had never been built. Still, a drive or hike or bike ride in this nearly pristine wilderness should turn anyone into a tree hugger, at least for the 90 minutes or so it takes to traverse in a car.
One of the things that makes the Cherohala special is the absence of big connecting roads. Mostly this is rugged, lonesome land, offering views, some above 5,000 feet, with no evidence of civilization.
A friend and I stayed just off the skyway one weekend this summer. We love cycling on paved mountain roads, and knew we could get more than our fill here. Motorcyclists, who outnumbered auto drivers during our stay, are drawn to the Cherohala for the same reasons we were: the twists and turns, refreshingly light traffic, and stellar views. Not surprisingly, we saw only a handful of other bicyclists. With road grades upward of 9 percent and no shoulders, there are easier ways to see the sights.
There’s only one place to stay right along the skyway, and that’s Indian Boundary Campground, run by the US Forest Service. Non-camping accommodations can be found on at each end of the skyway. Indian Boundary has a lovely man-made lake with a sandy swimming beach, walking paths, a small fishing pier, and even boat rentals.
Before driving the skyway, pick up a brochure marking the turnoffs and overlooks, spots that were traveled long ago by the Cherokee and more recently by loggers.
Along the way, you’ll see an almost constant rise of fog and clouds from many valleys. Appreciate their special beauty instead of bemoaning the “obstructed view.”
As you leave Tellico Plains, you’ll cross the Tellico River, popular among whitewater kayakers and canoeists. A great side trip is to wind along River Road until you reach Bald River Falls, a popular roadside attraction.
As you continue up the skyway, the first notable overlook is Turkey Creek at 2,630 feet, with picnic tables and a restroom. You can see over the Tennessee River Valley to Tellico Plains in the distance.
The most dramatic views, however, are across the line in North Carolina. The highest turnoff is Santeetlah, at 5,390 feet. At the Hooper Bald Trailhead and turnoff (5,290 feet) just up the road, a quarter-mile walk through the woods takes you onto the “bald,” a meadow-like area, and near the site of an old hunting preserve. As you head down into the Santeetlah Creek Valley, you’ll see its massive walled gorge, and in the distance, the Smoky Mountains.
Spirit Ridge overlook (4,950 feet) has a paved trail through a hardwood forest that’s accessible by wheelchair.
Just north of Santeetlah Gap (2,660 feet), where the trail begins on the North Carolina side, is the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, one of the last tracts of virgin hardwood in the Appalachians. About 3,800 acres, now part of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, were set aside for protection in 1936. A 2-mile walking path winds through the towering trees, some more than 400 years old, 20 feet around the base, and 100 feet high.
Cherohala improvements continue to be made by both states. Graham County in North Carolina and Monroe County in Tennessee handle road maintenance, and the US Forest Service maintains the amenities. Only a year ago, Monroe County dedicated the Cherohala Skyway Visitors Center in Tellico Plains. The land for it was donated by Hall and his wife, Billie Nell Hall. There’s talk of marking the miles, as is done along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Over the years, turnouts have been upgraded with picnic tables, interpretive signs, and composting toilets. (There’s no drinking water along the skyway.)
While officials improve on information and amenities, the rest, of course, is up to nature. As far as we were concerned, the mountains and valleys, the rivers and sky, the wildlife and forests were perfect just as they are.