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Drive the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway

A sweeping view from Newfound Gap Road

The Great Smoky Mountains are synonymous with adventure, even when your plan for the day is a serene drive along the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway in Western North Carolina. Close to the Tennessee border, this 75-mile trip takes about 2 hours to complete, not including stops. The Byway creates a partial loop, running from Almond to Tapoca on NC 28 and then from Tapoca to Topton on US 129. It travels through the heart of the Nantahala Gorge and past the magnificent Fontana Lake and Lake Santeetlah, eventually landing you in the small town of Robbinsville, NC. Along the way, you will be charmed by the local artist community and delightful dining options, but your drive begins with heart-pounding excitement.

Undiscovered by most casual road-trippers, the “Tail of the Dragon” describes the adrenaline-pumping thoroughfare that has become world famous to those in the know. Motorcyclists and sports car drivers come from all over the world to test their grit on this road with over 300 tight curves spanning a short 11 miles. But more than just a challenging drive, the scenery lining the Tail of the Dragon is untouched by man. It is from this glorious road that the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway begins in Almond, NC.

Doc Watson and David Holt
David Holt and Doc Watson performed to a sold-out ‘An Appalachian Evening’ audience in 2009 | Photo Courtesy of the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center.

Your first stop on the Byway must be the Stecoah Valley Cultural Center, originally an old stone schoolhouse. Derived from the Cherokee word “Usdi Gohi,” “Stecoah” means “little place.” Visit the artists’ gallery, learn about the ways of the Cherokee people, and purchase unique local crafts and artwork for those unfortunate enough to not be along on your trip. Plan to spend enough time to explore all of the displays so you don’t miss any of the true treasures.

The first stunning lake for which that the byway is named is Fontana Lake. Although not a Native American word or phrase, “fontana” is derived from the Italian word for “fountain.” Take a refreshing swim, enjoy a picnic, rent a boat or a paddleboard, or fish in the deepest lake in North Carolina on your way to the awe-inspiring Fontana Dam.

Reaching as high as a dizzying 50-story skyscraper, Fontana Dam is the tallest dam east of the Rocky Mountains. Located on the Tennessee Valley River, the dam was designed to satisfy the urgent need for electric power during WWII. Amazingly, the project was completed in an unbelievable 3 years. The world-famous Appalachian Trail crosses over the dam and you are welcome to walk or drive it. On the far side, you will find an Information Center and gift shop. But, standing on the Observation Deck and feeling the raw power of the dam is the real draw. Insider tip: for an astounding experience, take a cable car from the skyway above down to the Fontana Dam.

Fontana Lake
Fontana Lake

You may also want to visit the family friendly Fontana Village Resort, originally founded in 1944 as a tent-city to sustain the workers building the dam. Enjoy the outdoor pools, lazy river, hiking trails, and water sports at the resort or spend the night bunking down in the lodge or a cabin. Alternately, find a more exclusive view of Fontana Lake from the Lakeview at Fontana Spa in Bryson City. This adults-only retreat features Treetop Soaking Cabanas with private, open-air, oversized tubs and signature bath salts.

When you come upon the shores of Lake Santeetlah, almost completely surrounded by the Nantahala National Forest, it’s easy to forget you are not alone in the wilderness. Be one of the lucky few to nab a campsite right on the lake and your isolation is almost complete. The word “Santeetlah” is Native American for “blue waters,” and you will not be challenged to see why in this crystalline lake.

a person boating on lake santeetlah in the nc smoky mountains
Lake Santeetlah | Photo by anoldent

After a day on the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway, you’ll be hungry enough to eat an elk. Literally. The Hub in Robbinsville near the end of the Byway offers just that. Try the Spicy Bison, an exotic 8 oz. burger made with a mix of elk, bison, wagyu and wild board and topped with cheese, bacon, jalapenos, grilled onions, and ranch dressing. Or challenge your appetite  to a MASSIVE Nathan’s® Famous footlong with any choice of toppings on a 12” bun. Believe it or not, they also make a double! But don’t delay, The Hub is only open from 11 am to 3 pm, 6 days a week (closed Tuesdays).

Another favorite with the locals around Robbinsville is Moonshiners Steakhouse, a laid-back and popular restaurant. They serve up heaping Smoked Chicken or Cajun Shrimp Tacos to feed even the hungriest traveler, and you will have to pinch yourself when you bite into their lemon-butter-topped, pecan-crusted trout. Did someone mention decadent homemade truffles? Yes please! Full of local flavor, the outside bar features local brews and generous cocktails alongside live music on their “tennis-court stage.” Eat and drink, tap your toe, laugh it up and become a local as the perfect way to end your journey on the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway.

Header image courtesy Swain County TDA / Chamber of Commerce.