To the south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park are the town of Cherokee and the Cherokee Indian Reservation (Qualla Boundary). The home of the eastern band of the Cherokee Indians*, the sovereign nation is also the southern gateway to the Smokies, which is how we came to be in Cherokee; we had taken Newfound Gap Rd. from Cherokee up to Clingmans Dome, north to Sevierville & the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, around to Cataloochee Valley and then back to Cherokee to close the loop, with a day on the Blue Ridge Parkway still planned on our trip.
In addition to the natural beauty of the Smokies all around, Cherokee is also known as a casino town with its Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort. However, there’s so much more to this seemingly kitschy mountain town… If you would like to learn about the history and culture of the Cherokee people you have a multitude of options. Visitors can explore the Oconaluftee Indian Village, a recreated village from 1760, visit the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual to see authentic Cherokee arts and crafts as they’re created (bead working, pottery, stone carving, wood carving, basketry, finger weaving and more), or check out the Museum of the Cherokee Indian to learn about the fascinating heritage, history and culture of the Cherokees. Some of the most popular things to do in Cherokee include attending the Mountainside Theatre production “Unto These Hills” telling the story of the Cherokees, fish the Oconaluftee River, or revel in the scenic beauty of the region.
We chose to hike in to see one of the tallest and most spectacular waterfalls in the southern Appalachians, Mingo Falls. The hike to the falls is short, but steep; the ¼ mile trail is mostly stairs up to the base of the falls. Despite the easy access and beauty of the falls, there was less traffic headed to this waterfall on a busy autumn weekend than at the other Smokies waterfalls we had visited, including Grotto Falls.
The small parking lot had speedy turnover, and soon enough we were climbing up the stairs along Mingo Creek. Mingo Falls is called Big Bear Falls in the Cherokee language, and it cascades 200 feet nearly down granite boulders on its descent to Raven Fork and the Oconaluftee River. At the top of the stairway a short path leads to a viewing bridge at the very base of the falls.
Even with very dry weather in the past months, the falls were still a sight to behold. As the boys splashed in the creek, we took a moment to just enjoy: the sounds of all that water rushing by, the colorful foliage reflected in the pools below, the smell of autumn with a hint of wood smoke in the air.
If you’re staying on the Cherokee end of GSMNP you should definitely find time to visit Mingo Falls. Our next stop was the Oconaluftee Visitor Center only 5 miles away, but the beautiful waterfall remained with us on the remainder of our journey.
*The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has over 14,500 tribal members who have lived in this region for generations. The Cherokee people continue their traditional lifestyle of fishing, hunting and gathering wild foods from the mountains as well as enjoying modern careers. The tribe operates the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority, tribal services for visitors & residents, and Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel. For more information, please visit www.nc-cherokee.com.