Exploring Cherokee, NC – Things To See & Do.

Home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Cherokee, North Carolina, offers visitors a wide breadth of experiences. It’s a small town in the Great Smoky Mountains that is big on outdoor adventure, cultural experiences, and natural beauty. Here you can taste local cuisine (read: fry bread), learn the rich history of the tribe, shop for unique handmade crafts and jewelry, or try your luck at Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino.

Best Cultural Experiences in Cherokee

Many know about the dark history of the Trail of Tears, but that’s only part of the tribe’s rich history. The entire story is one of resilience, and to truly appreciate the extent of that you should visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Here you’ll follow the tribe’s journey from the days of hunter-gatherers, to the first chief to visit England as a delegate in 1699, to the displacement from native lands, and through modern days.

Another fantastic cultural show not to be missed is Unto These Hills. This drama is performed in an outdoor theatre and tells the story of who the Cherokee people were, who they are, and how things came to be.

Handmade Cherokee Arts and Crafts

Take home a beautiful piece of fine art from many of the best Cherokee artists across the Qualla Boundary. The Native American Craft Shop sells limited edition giclée prints, beautiful traditional and contemporary baskets, pottery and other works created by Cherokee and other Native American crafters. Showcasing the works of over 250 members, Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual preserves and promotes the traditional arts and crafts of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, and offers a vast selection of baskets, pottery, wood and stone carving, and beadwork. Traditional Hands Native American jewelry and Art Gallery features exclusively General Grant’s handmade Cherokee jewelry as part of a wide variety of high-quality Native American jewelry & art.

Explore the Smoky Mountains Surrounding Cherokee

A haven for outdoor adventurers, Cherokee offers visitors the perfect base camp for exploration. Hundreds of hiking trails dot the landscape, including some with beautiful waterfalls like Soco Falls and Mingo Falls. Choose your own adventure or let a professional guide from The American Wild Trekking Company lead the way on a guided tours throughout the Smoky Mountains.

The Oconaluftee River runs right through downtown Cherokee and offers a perfect spot to find rainbow trout on a fly-fishing adventures. Stop by Rivers Edge Outfitters to learn about their guided fly-fishing tours. The river is also a great spot for riding a tube. Book a trip with Smoky Mountain Tube and Raft to enjoy a lazy ride in a serene setting.

harrahs-cherokee-casinoAnother way to enjoy the mountains include on horseback. The folks at Smokemont Riding Stables offer a safe, family-friendly horseback riding experience through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Their tours are perfect for beginners and more experiences riders, and their trails feature beautiful wooded scenery, native plants, streams, and waterfalls.

You can also take in the mountain scenery from a championship golf course. The Sequoyah National Golf Club is open to the public and offers golfers an idyllic 18-hole journey, filled with panoramic vistas and beautiful landscapes.

Cherokee Nightlife

The best place to go for a fun evening in Cherokee is Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino. Play the slots or table games, see one of huge nationally-touring bands on the main stage, or head over to Ultra Star Multi-tainment Center, located inside the casino. This bowling, billiard and arcade center is perfect for family members too young for the casino floor.

With so much to see and do in the region, you’ll need a few days to explore everything. Check out our Cherokee guide to find local accommodations and campground information.

Where to Find Beautiful Fall Color in the Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina offers stunning natural beauty year-round, but fall is an extra special time to visit the region to see autumn’s colorful quilt covering the ridge tops. Thanks to the extreme variations in elevation, the Smoky Mountains enjoy one of the longest leaf-peeping seasons in the country. The first pops of color begin in late September along the highest elevations (over 6,000 feet) and continue through early November as color rolls down to the foothills. This means you can find stunning fall color at any point of the season.

Where to look for early fall color

Nantahala LakeDuring the earliest part of the season (late September – early October) you typically need to go above 4,000 feet in elevation to find fall color. Drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the higher points. Areas that tend to transition first along this scenic drive are Waterrock Knob (elevation 6,293’), the 16th highest peak in the eastern United States, Graveyard Fields (elevation 5,020’), a popular hiking spot with easy trails and multiple waterfalls, and Black Balsam Knob (elevation 6,214’), which offers near-360 views of the surrounding mountains. Another scenic drive to explore is the Cherohala Skyway near Lake Santeetlah. It spans the Great Smoky Mountains from North Carolina to Tennessee, connecting mountain peaks with elevations up to 5,390 feet at its highest point.

October is when fall color begins to accelerate across the mountains. Cooler nights and warm days provide the Smokies with the perfect weather conditions to produce peak season colors. When exploring for trees in transition, be sure to look down to find wildflowers adding their own pops of color to the season.

Typically around the second week of October is when Highlands, NC (elevation 4,117’), begins to see color emerge. Oaks, red maples, black cherries, and birches are all typically the first to turn. Blueberry bushes at the higher elevations will turn a brilliant red. A scenic drive along US Route 64 from Franklin to Highlands offers a beautiful way to see the color and some waterfalls along the way.

Top picks for mid season fall foliage

cherohala-skywayIn mid-October, you’ll find fall color heading into elevations around 3,000 – 4,000 feet. During this time you should visit Cashiers (elevation 3,484’), located in the heart of Jackson County. Nearby you can hike Whiteside Mountain, a 2.2-mile hike with gorgeous long-range views.

Around the North Carolina Smoky Mountains you’ll find fall foliage appearing around small mountain towns like Andrews and Maggie Valley. This is a great time to check out the Joyce Kilmer National Forest, a popular hiking spot near Robbinsville in Graham County. The combination of towering old-growth poplars and fall color make this a sought after spot for color hunters. Nearby you’ll find Lake Santeetlah, one of the most beautiful lakes in the country, thanks in part to the Nantahala National Forest that borders it.

In late October, fall color will encompass areas below 3,000 feet in elevation. You’ll find beautiful foliage throughout many of the mountain towns around the Smokies including Sylva and Franklin. Make a trip to Cataloochee Valley to see the majestic elk roaming the pastures to graze in the evening. As with any wildlife experience, keep a safe distance from the elk. You can also find elk at Oconaluftee Visitors Center near Cherokee.

End of season autumn hues

Great Smoky Mountain RailroadOnce November rolls around, you’ll find fall color creeping below 2,000 feet in elevation. This is the time to visit areas like Chatuge Lake in Haysville and Fire Creek Falls near Murphy. In Dillsboro, climb aboard the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad and get a scenic tour of fall color.

In Cherokee take a quick out and back hike to Mingo Falls, offering a stunning 120-high foot waterfall.

 

Happy leaf peeping!

Special Alert: Nantahala River Closures No Longer in Effect

UPDATE: The Nantahala River has been re-opened to the general public. After a week long process, the US Forest Service has taken the steps needed to clear and repair the damage done after multiple mudslides impacted the region.

What happened to the Nantahala River?

Debris in the Nantahala RiverSaturday, August 24, 2019 – Significant rainfall created multiple mudslides in the Nantahala Gorge area. Both the river and the road became inaccessible. Thankfully, no one was injured.

Monday, August 26, 2019 – Road access to the area was restored. Impacts to the river were significant and the US Forest Service suspended all river access permits until crews could remove debris, which included entire trees, boles, root wads, and other organic and inorganic material.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019 – Forest service contractors made significant progress on Quarry Rapid, and began work removing a tree dam.

Saturday, August 31, 2019 – Clean up the Nantahala River continues, and water is flowing, albeit a bit muddier than usual. Emergency closures are still in effect, as it remains unsafe for recreation.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019 – The clean up is complete and the Nantahala River is back open for everyone to enjoy.

What areas of the Nantahala River are closed for public use?

Restoration work of the Nantahala RiverUPDATE: The emergency closure order issued by the US Forest Service has been lifted. It is safe to enjoy recreational and commercial use of the Nantahala River.

Areas impacted by the closure were between the Beechertown Launch Ramp and the Silvermine Takeout Ramp on U.S. 19 on National Forest System lands within the jurisdiction of the USDA Forest Service. The prohibition included the entire Ferebee Memorial Site.

What can visitors to the Nantahala Gorge access?

There are plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities available in the region. Here are updates for attractions that access the Nantahala River.

Brookside Campground: Located a few miles away, they were not impacted by the mudslide. They are now able to provide trips down the Nantahala River.

Carolina Outfitters: Nantahala trips are now available as are trips down the Ocoee River.

Nantahala Outdoor Center: Pre-purchased tickets for rafting trips will be honored as business has now resumed. Their zip lines, hiking and biking trails, local paddling destinations, train trips, lodging, riverside restaurant and retail shops are also open for visitors.

Rolling Thunder: Nantahala River trips are no longer suspended.Ocoee and Toccoa River experiences are also available.

Wildwater Rafting: Rafting trips are available on all rivers including the Nantahala, Pigeon, and Ocoee. Their yurts, zipline and Jeep tours are available as well.