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Explorer’s Guide to Fontana and Robbinsville, NC

a person boating on lake santeetlah in the nc smoky mountains

Spending time in the natural world is easily the most reliable and enjoyable way to reset your sensibilities. A vacation in Robbinsville, NC and the Fontana Recreation Area along the Western North Carolina and Tennessee border, drops you squarely into Mother Nature’s lap. Here you will watch your everyday cares fade like clouds into the misty mountain air as you refocus on the important things in life. Besides, your adrenaline won’t leave room for much thought as you bounce joyfully across the rushing water, fly down the side of a steep mountain, and careen through the air with wild abandon.

Outdoor Adventure

Hiking Trails

man hiking in the smoky mountainsWith the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Nantahala National Forest on your vacation doorstep, the number of hiking trails seems limitless. A few favorites are the Yellow Creek Falls Trail for beginners, Snowbird Creek Waterfalls Trail for a moderate level of difficulty and Cheoah Bald Via Appalachian Trail for a 6-hour-plus hike on a pretty challenging trail. Click here for more hiking-trail options.

One of the most beautiful, isolated and historic places to hike is the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Visit Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest Hiking Trails for information on trailheads, degrees of difficulty and maps. Also see below for more information about this virgin, old-growth forest named after one of America’s great poets.

Lake Santeetlah

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. Your lazy lake days can be spent fishing, swimming, and boating on these tranquil waters. For put-in points and types of fish in Lake Santeetlah, click here

Nearby Fontana Lake is also an excellent spot for swimming, boating, kayaking, paddle-boarding and fishing. In fact, some say that Fontana Lake offers the best smallmouth bass fishing in the United States. Check out the types of fish you can catch and a list of put-in points for Lake Fontana here.

Cheoah River

a person boating on lake santeetlah in the nc smoky mountains
Lake Santeethlah – Photo by anoldent

The 20-mile-long Cheoah River in Graham County, NC is one of the most challenging white waters in the world, when allowed to be in its natural state. The river was “de-watered” for 70 years by Alcoa Power, which diverted its water to a hydropower generator. The 9-mile section between the Santeetlah Dam and Lake Calderwood came back into use in 2005, thanks to the efforts of the group American Whitewater. There are now 18 “releases” for extreme paddlers to enjoy every year for the next 40 years.

In addition to the reintroduction of rare fish whose population was decimated with the river’s diversion and the mitigation of vegetation that had eventually taken over the ecosystem, the river is now returning to its former glory with challenging Class IV and V rapids through dense vegetation, root balls, and other natural obstacles. The lower section also has numerous “classic drops,” including an 8-footer!

Tsali Recreation Area

Outdoor enthusiasts will find Nirvana in the Tsali Recreation Area with its seemingly limitless options for fun. Immerse yourself in your favorite hobby or learn a new skill, like flat-water paddle boarding. Our hiking, camping, fishing, horseback riding, boating and bicycling are situated in some of this country’s most breathtaking surroundings from our glorious mountains to our crystal-clear lakes.

For some adventurers, the Tsali Recreation Area represents elite challenges to the best competitors in the world. With its 40 miles of off-road biking skirting Fontana Lake at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains, the Tsali trail system is the Mack Daddy of all-terrain riding experiences. Rated as a Top-Ten 10 place to ride in the US, Tsali was recently added to the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) Epics list of “what many mountain bikers live for and make travel plans around: immersive rides that are technically and physically challenging, beautiful to behold and worthy of celebration.”

All of Tsali’s recreation trails are open to hikers, but mountain bikers and equestrians follow a rotating-use-schedule, so visit the USDA Forest Service website to plan your ride. They also post comprehensive information on fees, weather, camping, amenities, directions, and activities.

Iconic Things To Do

Cherohala Skyway

The Cherohala Skyway is a 40-mile-long, 2-lane scenic drive that crosses through the Nantahala National Forest in southwest NC near Robbinsville and into the Cherokee National Forest in TN. Taking part of its name from each of these national forests, the Skyway is a can’t-miss destination for drivers and road cyclers who crave crisp mountain air and ridge after ridge of immense natural splendor. It took 34 years to plan and build so it’s worth your time. Read more about this designated National Scenic Byway at the Cherohala Skyway.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

Large poplar tree at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in Graham County, NC inspires the kind of hushed awe that can only be found in rare old-growth forests. Widely undiscovered by most, this forest, part of the Nantahala National Forest, lives under the protective watch of the US Forest Service and has remained untouched by logging and development since 1936. In fact, this land is so shielded from intrusion, all-terrain vehicles and chainsaws are not permitted, even by the forest’s keepers.

Joyce Kilmer (1886–1918), the American poet and writer for whom the forest is named, is probably best known for his 1913 poem ‘Trees.” Featuring one of the largest contiguous growths of hardwood trees and encompassing 3800 square miles near the town of Robbinsville, NC, this majestic paradise will have you questioning when exactly you stepped through time and into these primordial woods. Read more about the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest here.

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 the funicular – or cable car – from the visitor center to the base of the Fontana Dam.

Tail of the Dragon

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.

Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center

Any visit to the Fontana and Robbinsville, NC area should begin with the Stecoah Valley Cultural Center, originally an old stone schoolhouse and now a study of the Appalachian arts. Derived from the Cherokee word “Usdi Gohi,” “Stecoah” means “little place.” Visit the artists’ gallery to purchase unique local crafts and artwork. The center also serves to protect mountain music, offering opportunities for young people to learn mountain instruments and for the community and visitors to enjoy the mountain music concert series, An Appalachian Evening.

Wehrloom Honey and Meadery

For a literal once-in-a-lifetime experience, spend a few hours at Wehrloom Honey and Meadery in Robbinsville, NC. Their honey and honey products, like candles and lip balm, are sourced from Honeybees that forage in the unadulterated national forests that surround this family bee farm. Celebrate the bee culture with a glass of mead or order a flight to sample a variety of these fermented honey elixirs from their onsite meadery.

Where to Stay

Yellow Falls in Graham County NC
Yellow Falls

River’s Edge Treehouse Resort

Is there anything more relaxing than sleeping in a towering treetop as the wind rustles the branches outside? With 6 individual treehouse units, River’s Edge Treehouse Resort is located right on the gorgeous Cheoah River near Robbinsville, NC. But you don’t have to sacrifice comfort to commune with the wild, so prepare to be pampered with luxury linens on a king-size bed with memory foam.

Sip your morning coffee in a rocking chair on your private deck or enjoy a glass of wine while you fire up your personal gas grill. If you like an occasional break from the solitude, join fellow vacationers in the common areas to tell stories around the fire pit or play a game of cornhole. If you want to hike and fish, they will even lend you walking sticks and fishing gear!

Fontana Village Resort and Marina   

In the heart of the Fontana Recreation Area, nestled in the pristine beauty of the Nantahala Forest near the TN border, lies the Fontana Village Resort and Marina, a year-round destination in its own right. Select from multiple choices of accommodations, including rooms in The Lodge, suites, or cabins. They also offer RVing and tent campsites on Cheoah Lake with unparalleled views of the river and Fontana Dam. Insider Tip: The RV sites can only cater to rigs 30 feet long and less.

This resort has everything you need for a stellar outdoor vacation, like hiking and biking trails, a large swimming pool and Lazy River, disc golf, a marina, a massage and fitness center, outfitters, a general store, a gift shop, and restaurants. And they will rent you the equipment you need to have fun and explore.

Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort

One of the coolest places you can stay in the Fontana and Robbinsville, NC area is at the Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort. This mecca for motorcyclists on the NC/TN border is well-known for its convenience to the Tail of the Dragon, a harrowing 11-mile drive around 318 curves that appeals to performance car drivers and motorcyclists seeking the ride of a lifetime. Whether you choose to camp under the stars or bunk in one of their cozy motel rooms, this resort has everything you need for a pit stop, including a restaurant, store, gas pumps and a community pavilion and firepit for swapping Dragon tales. Also visit the Tree of Shame, created from pieces of bikes “bitten by the Dragon” and try not to add to it!

The Topoco Lodge

The Topoco Lodge, established in 1930 and included on the National Register of Historic Places, is exactly what you’re looking for in a perfect outdoor vacation. With 24-hour guest-service attendants, nightly bonfires, private hiking trails, tennis courts, and a “hammock cove,” you’ll quickly feel your shoulders relax as you take in everything good the natural world has to offer. Enjoy a romantic weekend in one of their newly renovated cabins with an open-air but totally secluded feel, or book a luxury suite or room with a king-size bed and hot tub.

Where To Eat

Topoco Lodge and Tavern in Graham County
Topoco Lodge

Three of above-recommended resorts offer restaurants right onsite, so you can eat a delicious meal and immediately collapse in bed after hours of unparalleled adventure.

Dragon’s Den Pub and Grill (at Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort)

You can’t go wrong with their hearty pub food in generous portions at really reasonable prices. The original Dragon Burger is memorable. Regulars also highly recommend their delicious and satisfying breakfasts to start an active day off right.

Mountview Restaurant (at the Fontana Village Resort)

Surrounded by stunning views of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the Mountview Restaurant offers an elegant but relaxed atmosphere serving fresh local vegetables and meats, baked goods, and desserts. For breakfast, don’t miss the Hungry Hiker or Hillbilly Benedict!

Wildwood Grill and Bar (at Fontana Village Resort)

Also located at the Fontana Village Resort, the seasonal Wildwood Grill and Bar is an inviting place to eat good food, listen to music and meet new friends. Insider Tip: Ask for a seat on the patio where you can watch all of the comings and goings of this bustling resort village.

Tapoco Tavern (at the Tapoco Lodge)

Just feet from the Cheoah River, the Tapoco Tavern serves up all-American fare and classic stone-oven pizza. Enjoy your steak, salad, or local mountain trout meal with a house-special Bloody Mary. Or get your motor running with southern breakfast favorites like biscuits and gravy, cinnamon rolls, and hash brown casserole.

There is far too much to do in Graham County, NC to fit it all here. For more vacation ideas, go to Visit Smokies – Discover Fontana and Robbinsville and Graham County Things To Do. See you when you get here, because you know this is where you really want to be!