Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Autumn on the Cherohala Skyway

With the grand opening of the Foothills Parkway this past weekend there is yet another scenic drive in the southeast with grand vistas of the Appalachian Mountains. While a return visit to the Foothills Parkway to see the 10 bridges of the “Missing Link” is in the works, we opted to let the initial excitement die down and instead headed to another destination about 3 hours from Greenville for our annual autumn color trip – The Cherohala Skyway.

The Cherohala Skyway is a 40-mile National Scenic Byway and National Forest Scenic Byway that connects Tellico Plains, TN, to Robbinsville, NC. The name Cherohala is a combination of Cherokee and Nantahala, the two national forests through which it passes, and the skyway provides access to those as well as the Citico Creek Wilderness, the Bald River Gorge Wilderness, and the remote interior of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

Fishing Indian Boundary Lake

Start your trip on the west end in Tellico Plains, mainly because the Visitor Center is located on that end.* Grab maps, updates on fall color, weather information or a souvenir before heading on. Expert tip: stop at the Tellico Grains Bakery and pick up croissants/scones for breakfast, as well as a loaf of bread for lunch. 

Tellico Grains Bakery

The first pull off is about three miles in, with a view of Tellico River, and the next (Oosterneck Creek, just 1 mile further) also serves as a boating takeout. Just afterwards is the turn for River Road, which winds along the Tellico River to multiple campgrounds and picnic areas. Be sure to take the 6-mile detour on River Road to Bald River Falls, a 100 foot waterfall that is easily viewed from the road. The Bald River and 3,721 acres of its watershed are part of the Bald River Gorge Wilderness, designated as a wilderness area by the US Forest Service.

Bald River Falls

Having returned to the Skyway, continue east. At about 13 miles in take a left on Forest Service Road 345 to Indian Boundary Campground. With 100 campsites, picnic areas, swimming, biking, fishing and hiking, this detour is worth it. There is a 3.2 mile trail that loops the lake, and the views of the mountains over the lake are breathtaking. Check ahead if planning to camp – reservations are advised during the busy season and the campground closes for winter.

The shores of Indian Boundary Lake

The skyway gains a total of over 4,000 feet in elevation over its 40 miles, climbing from a low point of just under 900 feet at Tellico Plains to a high point of over 5,400 feet near the TN-NC state line. The first overlook with an elevated view is Turkey Creek (15 miles in, elevation 2,630 ft), looking out over the Tennessee River Valley, although once you’ve hit 3,000 feet in elevation the pull-offs start coming a little closer together. Lake View (17.2 miles in, elevation 3,360ft) has a narrow view of Indian Boundary Lake, while Eagle Gap ( 17.9 miles @ 3,600ft) and Grassy Gap (19.3 miles @ 3,400 ft) offer trail access to Flats Mountain, Grassy Branch and McNabb Creek trails. At 20 miles (and 3,750ft) is the Brushy Ridge pull-off, overlooking Sassafras Ridge. The West Rattlesnake Rock Trailhead is soon followed by East Rattlesnake Rock, 4,000 and 4,110 feet, respectively. The 2.2 mile Falls Branch trail leaves from the West Rattlesnake Rock parking area and leads to a 70-foot waterfall in the Citico Creek Wilderness.

View from Unicoi Crest

At Beech Gap (4,480ft) you’ll cross into North Carolina, and the Unicoi Crest pull-off at 23 miles also sits right along the border. After crossing Old Santeetlah Road (which follows Santeetlah Creek all the way down to Santeetlah Gap) you’ll reach Stratton Ridge, an excellent place to stop: for the views, for the restrooms, for the picnic tables. We pulled out the fresh loaf of bread and our cooler, and enjoyed lunch at 4,420 feet in elevation.

The next pull-off is Mud Gap, trailhead for the Benton Mackaye Trail (BMT). The BMT begins at Springer Mountain, GA along with the Appalachian Trail, then loops west through Cherokee National Forest to rejoin the AT at Davenport Gap on the east end of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 275 miles long, it is named for the man who proposed the creation of the Appalachian Trail. At this trailhead you are actually standing on the TN/NC state line; the trail, state line and the Cherohala roughly parallel one another bearing north, while following the BMT southwest will take you to Whigg Meadow in 1.5 miles (and Springer Mountain in 160 miles). Formerly home to a shepherd’s cabin, there is a small pond tucked into the back side of the hill.

On the Benton Mackaye Trail

The next overlook is Whigg Cove at 4,570 feet, and the Skyway keeps climbing to Haw Knob (4,890ft), Big Junction (5,240ft) and finally Santeetlah (5,390ft), the highest overlook along the Skyway. At the Hooper Bald trailhead a ¼ mile hike leads to Hooper Bald and the site of the old hunting preserve created in 1908 by George Moore. Although no trace of the lodge remains today, this is a nice, easy hike, especially gorgeous in the spring when the native Flame azaleas are blooming.

Returning from Hooper Bald

Our favorite hike along the Cherohala Skyway starts from the Huckleberry parking area, an easy there-and-back, 2.5 mile round-trip trail to Huckleberry Knob. While Santeetlah is the highest overlook on the Cherohala, Huckleberry Knob is the highest point in the Cheoah Ranger District of the Nantahala. At 5,560 feet the panorama includes the Skyway heading into Tennessee, and a view back over the way you came and Oak Knob. The grassy knobs are maintained by mowing once a year, and in the summer clover, buttercups and blueberries dot the green expanse. A large cross on Huckleberry Knob marks a grave of one of two men who died on their way to Robbinsville from a Tellico Creek logging camp in 1899.

Up on Huckleberry Knob

The next overlook is Spirit Ridge, 32 miles into the journey. A short trail that is accessible for the physically challenged leads to an overlook. The Wright Cove pull-off has another short trail, although this one is more challenging as it drops down into the dense forest. Popular in the spring for the wildflower showing, the loop trail totals about ½ mile.

Hiking Spirit Ridge

After Wright Cove the Cherohala drops below 4,000 feet, and the last three overlooks pull-offs are Obadiah, Shute Cove and Hooper Cove. Shute Cove has a wooden platform with views looking north across the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness Area, and Hooper Cove has picnic tables in a nice, sheltered area with a view into the Santeetlah Creek drainage.

On the Wright Creek loop trail

Then just as suddenly as you found yourself at the top of the world you round a bend to find a pull-off with an info kiosk and an intersection signaling the terminus of the Cherohala Skyway. Old Santeetlah Road rejoins 143 at this point, and a road leads off to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and Rattler Ford & Horse Cove campgrounds. It is possible to circle Lake Santeetlah to the north to reach Highway 129 by heading north, while continuing on 143 will take along the south shore to Robbinsville.

Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center bear pen

There is plenty in the area to help make this into a longer trip: to the east Fort Loudoun State Historic Park, The Lost Sea, Unicoi Turnpike Trail and various Civil War Trail sites, while to the west are Fontana Dam and thousands of acres of State, National Forest & National Park lands. Get in touch with the knowledgeable folks at the Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center and check out the official Skyway website; this will build a soild foundation to begin exploring what is one of the wildest, most remote wildernesses left in the southeast.

* Note that while my mileages and descriptions are starting on the west end in TN, the Skyway mileposts begin at Lake Santeetlah and in fact run east to west.

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