Smoky Mountains Heritage

Smoky Mountain Pathways, Waterways & Railways

A heritage journey in the Smokies takes you off the beaten path. Scenic highways and country roads offer magnificent views, but for a full helping of mountain heritage you can travel along trails, rivers and rails.

In the Smokies, how you get from one place to another is often more important than where you are going or how long it takes to get there.

No matter where you are in Western North Carolina, there's a nearby trail that plunges deep into the forest. Whether you prefer a well-marked trail or exploring unfamiliar territory, mountain trails hold the promise of new vistas and a chance to follow in the footsteps of the Indians and pioneers who first blazed them.

There are riding trails, hiking & biking trails and wheelchair accessible trails. And, there is the mother of all trails, the Appalachian Trail, which runs the length of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Rafting a whitewater river like the Nantahala is another great way to gain a unique historical perspective. Outfitters along the Nantahala rent rafts, kayaks, duckys & canoes and provide guided raft trips.

There are small mountain lakes and massive power lakes, like Fontana and Hiawassee, that are perfect for fishing, water skiing and boating.

Once you've hiked our trails and rafted the rapids, you can be carried through the Smokies by a steam locomotive. Scenic train rides depart from Bryson City and Dillsboro and follow the routes that carried big city visitors to their summer retreats.

One of the most popular ways of traversing the Smokies is over scenic highways like Cherohala Skyway and the Blue Ridge Parkway, which snakes along mountain ridges up to 6,000 feet high.

Whether you prefer trails, rails, rivers or roads, the Great Smoky Mountains offer limitless experiences for the heritage traveler.

Protecting Our Natural Heritage

In the late 1800s, nation building was carried out with timber and power. The North Carolina Mountains had both. When the steam locomotive reached the Smokies, everything could be harvested. Workers were brought in, lumber was hauled out, rivers were dammed, mines were dug, and the natural beauty of the Smokies was threatened.

By the early 1900s, interest for the harvesting of virgin forests was waning and thanks to author/conservationist Horace Kephart, support for preserving the natural resources was growing. His persistent efforts marshaled public and private support for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (dedicated in 1934) and other government sponsored public works projects, including the Blue Ridge Parkway, the nation's most scenic highway.

Efforts to preserve the natural beauty of the North Carolina Mountains have paid off. There are rivers to raft, trails to conquer, wilderness areas, national forests, and the nation's most popular national park. You'll find examples of mountain heritage on winding trails and raging rivers, across endless vistas and along the streets of quiet mountain towns. There are museums, dramas, historic sites, train excursions, parks, parkways and skyways, folk art, fine art and performance arts. Experience festivals, celebrations and a unique mountain heritage waiting to be explored.

Here, history goes beyond words. You can touch it, live it and experience the past preserved for generations to come.

The Trail of Tears

With more and more immigrants heading south, the Cherokee were driven deeper into the mountains. Acre-by-acre, treaty-by-treaty, white settlement steadily consumed the Smokies. The Cherokee held onto their homeland as long as they could, but the election of Andrew Jackson as president spelled doom for the Cherokee. Jackson, a long time Indian hater, defied treaties, ignored Supreme Court rulings, and jailed Cherokee activists. In 1835, Jackson convinced a handful of cooperative Cherokees to sign the infamous Treaty of New Echota, giving them $5,000,000 and 7,000,000 acres in Oklahoma in return for all Cherokee lands and a pledge to leave the mountains peacefully.

Although their ancient homeland was taken, many Cherokee refused to leave and a standoff ensued. In 1838, virtually the entire standing army of the United States occupied Cherokee Territory, rounding up families by gunpoint and forcing them into crowded stockades. A few Cherokee were sent on river barges, but most would be marched to Oklahoma, a journey known as the "Trail of Tears".

They traveled without shelter or adequate supplies. Weary and defenseless, the natives became easy targets for bandits and disease. Of the 16,000 Cherokee who traveled the infamous Trail of Tears, 4,000 died before reaching Oklahoma.

The Chamber of Discord, at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, is filled with bouncing sounds, dramatic sculpture and Sequoyah's syllabify illustrating three Cherokee political opinions concerning their removal from the Great Smokies.

The Qualla Boundary

Home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians  

Nestled in the heart of the North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains is the homeland of the Cherokee Indians, known as the Cherokee Indian Reservation. The Qualla Boundary is a place of history and culture.

Visit the beautiful land and waters of the Cherokee, a noble people with a love of nature. Share the arts and crafts that have sustained them for centuries. See how the Cherokee survived and what life was like hundreds of years ago at the Oconaluftee Indian Village. Look on in amazement as the story unfolds with the tragic, yet triumphant, "Trail of Tears" in an outdoor drama. Ancient figures and artifacts are blended with high-tech imagery to show their history at the Museum of the Cherokee Indians.

The Reservation and the surrounding area are full of fun activities and interesting sites, sure to please the young and young at heart. Immerse yourself in a unique culture and reconnect with nature.

Cherokee is also internationally renown for their trout fishing waters. Hiking, biking, rafting, picnic and camping areas are all part of the will be a great vacation.

You'll find 45 motels, 170 cabins and 25 campgrounds. From top-ranked accommodations to world-class eating establishments, Cherokee is the place to be!
Cherokee artisans fashion crafts as their ancestors did at the Oconaluftee Indian Village.

Travel Information:

  • Exit MP 469 - Open year-round

Additional Information:

Mountain Music and Dance

Although European immigrants were glad to escape repression by the royal ruling class, they still longed for the music and dance enjoyed in their homeland. Dulcimers and other musical instruments were made by hand, and ballads from the old country were sung. These songs were passed down and modified from one generation to the next until they evolved into the fiddle and banjo-driven mountain music, a staple at many festivals and gatherings in the Great Smokies.

Mountain dance, on the other hand, is not as easy to trace. Beginning as a burst of enthusiasm during local celebrations, distinctive Irish step dancing was combined with Scottish sword dancing and Cherokee buck dancing and eventually evolved into the mountain clogging native to the region. This unique style of dancing has also been called flat footing, step dancing, hoe downing, buck dancing and back stepping. Here in the mountains it's just called dancin'.

Form, Function & Folk Art

Isolated in the Smokies, far from the conveniences of the 18th century, European immigrants soon developed a utilitarian form of art and craft. They had little choice; they either made what they needed, traveled miles to barter for it, or did without. As a consequence, their homes, furniture, clothing and toys were handmade. The Cherokee taught them how to use bloodroot and walnut hulls to dye threads, fashion corn beads into jewelry and honeysuckle vines into beautiful baskets. Items were made to use and to admire. Carved musical instruments were made to play old ballads from native homelands.

This blend of native art and European practicality was passed down from mother to daughter and father to son, creating an art form unique to the Smokies. Natural, simple and functional, Southern folk art has become a handmade expression of the culture and traditions of proud mountain artisans.

Scot-Irish Connection

Through a series of events set in motion by England's King James in the early 1600s, the Scot-Irish would become the prominent settlers in the Great Smokies. In an effort to subdue the Irish through infiltration, King James encouraged Scots to settle in Ulster. Suffering famine, religious persecution and inescapable poverty, many Ulster-Scots fled Northern Ireland for the new world. In the decades that followed, others would follow to avoid the swift brutality of British political repression.

The Ulster-Scots came to America aboard trading ships carrying flax from Belfast to Philadelphia. Once in the new world, many headed south through the Cumberland Gap and ended up in the highlands of Western North Carolina.

They brought with them a democratic spirit, simple Calvinist beliefs and a love for the mountains reminiscent of their homeland.

Like the native Cherokee, their beliefs, arts, crafts, music and dance proved to be lasting influences on mountain culture.

To learn more about the Scottish Heritage, visit the Scottish Tartans Musuem in Franklin, North Carolina.

Man in the Mountain

Archeologists suggest that the first natives to inhabit the Great Smokies were Paleolithic hunters and gatherers who migrated from Asia across the Bering Strait. The oldest evidence of human life in the Smokies dates back 12,000 years, when the Cherokee began to populate the southeastern mountains.

The first Europeans to discover the Cherokee were Spanish explorers in 1540. Traveling north from Florida, Hernando de Soto and his soldiers were searching for gold. When they found none, they quickly moved on to other exploits.

Over a century would pass before other explorers entered Cherokee territory in any significant numbers. By the time the Scot-Irish began to arrive, the Cherokee had developed an advanced civilization of nearly 22,000 people living in organized villages spread across more than 40,000 square miles.
Archeologists believe the ancient symbols on Judaculla Rock could be 3,000 years old.

The survival of the Cherokee Nation is attributed to their large numbers, their infatuation with the British and the impenetrable mountains they called home. Despite the eventual betrayal by the British and the introduction of small pox by the settlers, the Cherokee still admired European culture. As difficult as it was, they wanted to co-exist with their new neighbors.

Around 1809, a young Cherokee named Sequoyah realized that the only way his nation would thrive in a white man's world was to master the hallmark of civilization itself... the written word. In less than a dozen years, Sequoyah adapted a series of letters, dashes, and curls to make a distinctive letter for each of the 86 syllables in the spoken Cherokee language, a task that took the Phoenicians, Egyptians and Greeks ages to develop.

Virtually overnight, the Cherokee were assimilated into a new way of life.


Mountain Building

In Western North Carolina, mountain building began about a billion years ago when extreme heat and pressure thrust rock shelves thousands of feet into the air. Near the end of the ice age, massive glaciers, some as thick as 10,000 feet, slowly moved southward, collecting plants and animals along the way. As the ice receded, streams and rivers flowed, allowing the flora and fauna to prosper while the razor-edged ridges were rounded to reveal the ecologically rich environment and characteristically smooth look of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Today, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most biologically diverse environment on earth, an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site. In addition, Western North Carolina was recently designated as the nation's 24th National Heritage Area.

History of the North Carolina Mountains

The history of the North Carolina Mountains has been marked by tremendous geological violence, enhanced by an advanced native civilization and scarred by a shameful chapter from America's past.

These ancient mountains are the homeland of the Cherokee Nation, a trading zone for explorers and pioneers, and a land of opportunity for persecuted Europeans fleeing tyranny and famine.

Entrepreneurs would build their fortunes from our rich forests and ecologists would take them back, preserving our natural treasures for generations to come.

Here, in the world's oldest mountains, cultures collide; music, art and dance are woven together to reveal the distinctive fabric of our mountain heritage.

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Smoky Mountain Blueways

NEW! Digital Magazine

This issue of the Smoky Mountains Digital Magazine includes:

  • Must Do
  • Getaway to the Mountains
  • Insider Tips
  • Turn Off Your Stress at Oconaluftee Village
  • and More

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