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Free Things To Do in the Smokies for the Budget-Minded Traveler – Part 4

Fontana Dam

Fontana, Robbinsville, and Lake Santeetlah Edition

This is part four of a five part series that will help stretch those vacation dollars a little further by exploring fun free things to do in the Smokies of North Carolina.


Graham County is that hidden gem in the NC Smoky Mountains that’s yet to be discovered by throngs of tourists. Here are our favorite budget-friendly places to visit in the undiscovered towns of Fontana, Robbinsville, and Lake Santeetlah. Plan your trip now before the rest of the world discovers them!

Fun Free Things To Do At Lake Santeetlah

There are small towns and then there are downright diminutive towns. As of the 2010 census, the year-round population of the Town of Santeetlah was 43. When the “snowbirds” from Georgia and Florida come to the cooler mountains for the summer, the population surges to about 200. What they and every other visitor comes for is crystalline Lake Santeetlah.

Bring your boat, kayak, or paddleboard and begin your exploration of the 76 miles of coastline. The area is known for its unparalleled fishing of smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, walleye, crappie, bream, and lake trout. While not free you an rent a boat from Santeetlah Marina

Pitch your tent at one of the 50 primitive campsites with picnic tables and fire rings, and take a swim. Or pull on your hiking boots and head out on the 200 miles of hiking trails in the surrounding Nantahala National Forest. The perfect day hike leads you about 8 miles from the lake to the Appalachian Trail.

Yellow Creek Falls

A shorter but equally peaceful hike is just 12 miles up the road to Yellow Creek Falls. Trek  an easy, .33-mile trail to reach a gorgeous 70-foot-tall waterfall. You can swim here, but exercise caution in the summer months when water levels can rise with the thunderstorms.

Large poplar tree at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

Joyce Kilmer was both an American soldier and poet. He was recognized for his bravery in WWI where he was killed by a German sniper in 1918. But his revered poem “Trees” lives on and is considered a masterpiece that begins “I think I will never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, part of the Nantahala National Forest, stands as a monument to him.

The US Forest Service protects these pristine 3,800 square miles from logging and development. Hike the easy, 2-mile round-trip loop trail through striking hardwoods and a grove of colossal Yellow Poplars, standing 100 feet tall and 20 feet around.

Fontana Dam

It’s time to hop in the car and take the scenic drive to the Fontana Dam, about 25 miles from Lake Santeetlah. This Tennessee Valley Authority project is an engineering feat at 480 feet high and 2,365 feet spanning the roaring Tennessee River. Learn the history of the dam through a fascinating display at the Visitor Center (open May to October) and purchase some memorable souvenirs.

Tail of the Dragon – A Fun Free Thing To Do

So now that you’ve braved the highest heights, are you ready to brave the driving challenge of your lifetime? Car and motorcycle enthusiasts flock from all over the world to challenge their driving skills on US Rte129, also known as the Tail of the Dragon. You too can “ride the dragon” with its 318 curves in just 11 miles of roadway with no intersecting roads to slow you down. This is not for the faint of heart or sufferers of motion sickness!

A sunset behind the Smoky Mountains

Cherohala Skyway

For a much more relaxing drive, take a cruise along the Cherohala Skyway from Graham County to Tellico Plains, Tennessee. Reaching 5,400 feet above sea level, this popular roadway is designated as a National Scenic Byway and offers sweeping views, especially stunning at spring’s arrival and fall’s colorful departure.

There’s no shortage of unique and historical places to stop and stretch your legs in Graham County. A fun free thing to do for history buffs is the Alamance County Courthouse in the commercial district of Graham. It’s an imposing 3-story building designed by the distinguished architect, Harry Barton, in 1925. Built of stone and featuring complicated and intricate details in the neoclassical revival style, the courthouse is a significant landmark in Graham.

The Graham Historical Museum has a storied history having served as the town hall, police department, fire station, courtroom, and jail. Wander through the old photographs and exhibits giving a glimpse into the early life of Graham County residents. You can’t miss the 1930 Seagrave fire truck displayed as a reminder of the building’s former purpose. Admission is free.

The Stecoah Valley Arts, Crafts & Education Center in Robbinsville was created to preserve and promote Southern Appalachian mountain culture. Originally built as a school, the center is also dedicated to preserving the historic building in which it resides.

Today the center is multipurpose. It has a permanent Cherokee exhibit and features modern-day Cherokee arts and crafts for sale in its Stecoah Gallery. The gallery also celebrates the works of area artisans with jewelry , wood-turned items, quilts, and more for sale. The center offers 20 programs including performance arts and an Appalachian Musicians program for kids to learn the stringed instruments of their mountain heritage.