My driving route into Chattanooga involved a torturous journey on I-285 around Atlanta that resulted in a cracked windshield from a dump truck’s falling debris. So, when I was leaving Chattanooga a week later, I sorely did not want to repeat that journey.
That’s how I found the Cherohala Skyway.
The Cherohala Skyway is a 41-mile National Forest Scenic Byway between Tennessee and North Carolina. The two-lane road twists around mountain peaks past scenic overlooks and hiking trails. It’s a wonderful escape into the wild and – so far – a mostly undiscovered route.
It’s been one of my favorite one or two-day road trip routes since my first visit. I’ve returned half a dozen times and spent days exploring the beautiful highway.
Use this road trip itinerary to help plan your adventure. Hiking trails, waterfalls, scenic overlooks, and national forest campgrounds – what are you most excited about on this road trip?
Road Trip Map
How to use this map: Click the icon in the top-left corner to open the Map Legend, then click on any of the legend items to display more information. If you have a Google account, click the star beside the map’s name to save this map to your account, then access the map from your smartphone during your trip.
How to Find the Cherohala Skyway
One of the attractions of the Cherohala Skyway is that it’s a bit remote, but that doesn’t mean it is inaccessible. Still, there is a trick to getting there and one particular route to get the best experience.
The best direction to drive the Skyway is eastbound starting in Tellico Plains for one very simple but important reason: that is where the only visitor center is located. Robbinsville does not have a visitor center, for the Skyway or the town, so if this is your first visit you’ll want to start on the other end.
On the Tennessee end drive Interstate 75 and take Exit 60 toward Madisonville. Continue along Highway 68 through Sweetwater and Madisonville to Tellico Plains. This highway is four lane and an easy drive, taking about thirty minutes.
On the North Carolina end drive Interstate 40 and take Exit 27 onto the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway (Highway 74). This will remain a four-lane divided highway until just past Bryson City. Turn onto the two-lane Highway 28 and then Highway 143 into Robbinsville. You’ll know when you enter town when you come to a T-intersection at a traffic light. Turn right and continue along Highway 143 (Tapoco Road) through the small town until you see the highway turn left (there is a sign pointing toward the Cherohala Skyway). From here it is a leisure drive along a very curvy two-lane highway to the beginning of the Skyway. The total drive from I-40 to this end of the Skyway is 80 miles and takes about an hour and a half.
Tellico Plains, TN
Tellico Plains is the perfect place to begin this road trip. It’s a pleasant 30-minute drive from Interstate 75 to the small mountain town. The Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center and Charles Hall Museum are in the center of town. Gather information, get something to eat, and get ready for the road trip ahead.
Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center
The Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center always has a friendly staff eager to help you plan an adventure on the Skyway. They have a giant print map free for you to take along your drive that lays out all the scenic overlooks, hiking trails, and points of interest along the 41-mile drive. The visitor center also sells gift items like clothing and dinnerware features the Skyway logo and name.
Next door the Charles Hall Museum features an amazing collection of vintage photography, historical artifacts from the region, and a large gun collection. The museum was curated by Charles Hall, a former mayor of Tellico Plains. It offers a great glimpse into local history.
If you want to grab something to eat before starting the drive on the Skyway head over to the Tellico Plains Bakery or start heading out of town to find the Tellico Beach Drive-In, an iconic place everyone needs to visit in Tellico Plains. Grab a cooked-to-order meal (I highly recommend the thick onion rings and creamy milkshakes) then enjoy the view of the river from a picnic table.
Charles Hall Museum
Opened in 2003, the Charles Hall Museum and Heritage Center showcases over 10,000 artifacts collected by local historian Hall. The museum interprets the vast history of the region from early Native Americans through early settlements after the American Revolution into the 20th century. It’s a great museum to understand the history of the town and learn about the significance of names like Tellico and Cherohala.
Tellico Beach Drive-In
The Tellico Beach Drive-In is one of those roadside eateries that doesn’t look like much on the outside, but the food will leave you satisfied and give you a story to tell for years. The old fashioned drive in has a window for placing orders and another window for picking up the plastic baskets and trays. Picnic tables along the river’s edge give you a place to sit and enjoy the delicious meal surrounded by nature’s best.
Tellico Ranger Station
The Cherohala Skyway is a National Forest Scenic Byway passing through Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. Although the Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center is the best place for information about the route, the Tellico Ranger Station is the best place for information about the forest.
Stop inside the office to ask your burning questions about camping at Indian Boundary Recreation Area, backcountry camping on the numerous trails, and get a national forest map with elevations, trails, and things to see.
Bald River Falls
The Cherohala Skyway officially begins after passing the last private residence along the Tellico River. The two-lane road crosses the river once and then you’ll see the Tellico River Scenic Overlook on the right, the first of twenty-six overlooks and parking areas on the Skyway. About three miles from the edge of town is River Road. Turn on River Road and drive for six miles to find the gorgeous Bald River Falls.
The 100′ tall waterfall is just a couple hundred feet away from the bridge that spans the river, offering a fantastic place to view this waterfall without any strenuous hiking. When the waterfall is churning at full capacity the mist from the falls will dampen your face (and camera gear, making it notoriously difficult to capture a long exposure photo).
It’s easy to miss Baby Falls – I missed it the first time I visited Bald River Falls. Baby Falls is around the next bend in the road, just two minutes away, hidden from view on the road. This smaller 8′ tall waterfall is a popular place for kayakers and swimmers.
The small parking lot near the top of the falls features a few parking spaces, restrooms, and picnic tables. While Bald River Falls is certainly something everyone needs to see, Baby Falls is the best place to spend some time.
Oosterneck Creek Scenic Overlook
This scenic overlook offers a spectacular view of Cherokee National Forest. The interpretive panels explain some of the local history. The pull off has room for several vehicles, making it an easy stop along the road trip.
Indian Boundary Recreation Area
The Indian Boundary Recreation Area is perhaps the best hidden secret along the Cherohala Skyway. The recreation area includes a large lake, beach, swimming area, hiking and biking trails, and campground. Even if you’re just passing through on a weekend road trip the view from the beach of the long chain of mountains along which the Cherohala Skyway passes is something you don’t want to miss.
If you’re up for a little adventure try hiking a section of the 3.2-mile lake loop trail. If you’re up for a little more adventure there is a changing room at the beach.
The 87-site campground is spread across 3 loops and surrounded by a thick forest. While all the loops are “equal” I felt Loop A was had the best, and most secluded, campsites. A camp store, located on Loop B, sold limited groceries, camper gear, repair equipment, and fishing supplies. They did, however, have a very large section of “super moist cakes” and candles just in case it happens to be someone’s birthday.
Turkey Creek Overlook
The Turkey Creek Overlook offers the most fantastic view of any scenic overlook along the Cherohala Skyway. Located just 15.6 miles from Tellico Plains and 3.8 miles from the Indian Boundary Campground, the overlook is quick and easy to access. It also happens to be my favorite on the Skyway.
The large parking lot has room for dozens of vehicles, including campers and RVs if you are heading toward/leaving from the campground. There is a nice privy to one end and a few picnic tables. The overlook features a sweeping 180-degree view looking mostly northwest across the flat lands of Tennessee beyond the Appalachian Mountains.
It’s a great place to catch a sunset almost year-round and even better for watching passing summer thunderstorms.
Lake View Scenic Overlook
The Lake View Scenic Overlook has a more narrow view, but you can just make out the lake at the Indian Boundary Lake Recreation Area far below the overlook. The overlook has a limited 150-degree view looking north to northeast so you don’t really get sunrise or sunset views from here. The large parking area has plenty of room for large vehicles.
Flats Mountain Trail
The Flats Mountain Trail is an 11.3-mile out-and-back trail traversing across Flats Mountain. But for day trip visitors, it’s only a 4.6-mile out-and-back hike to the summit of the mountain.
Interestingly, the mountain’s summit is lower in elevation than the starting point of the trail. From the parking lot along the Cherohala Skyway, the trail begins at about 3,600′, ascends two hundred feet, and then descends to the summit at 3,324′. It’s one of the rare occasions when the hike back to the car is more difficult than the hike to the summit.
2023 Holiday Gift Guide for Travelers
Find the best gifts for travelers, road trippers, coffee lovers, and stocking stuffers with the annual guide – including my top gift recommendations.
Brushy Ridge Scenic Overlook
This small overlook with an equally small parking area features a nice view with something unique on the Skyway: the outline of a foundation of a former structure. The view looking the south long the mountain chain is pretty spectacular, especially in the late evening when warm sunlight splashes across the mountains.
Falls Branch Trail
The West Rattlesnake Rock parking area is the trailhead for the 2.2-mile Falls Branch Trail. This moderately strenuous trail travels along a ridge before descending about 500′ in elevation to a waterfall on Falls Branch. The cascading waterfall tumbles down several rocky facades in a dense forested area. The roundtrip hike takes about 2-3 hours.
Stratton Ridge Picnic Area
The Stratton Ridge Picnic Area is the largest picnic area on the Cherohala Skyway with dozens of tables spread across a small field in a cove. There is a large privy to one side making this a great place to stop with the family and enjoy a meal.
Mudd Gap Parking
Mudd Gap is a small parking area allowing day hikers and overnight backpackers to access the Benton MacKaye Trail. The 300-mile trail stretches across the Appalachian Mountains from Blue Ridge, GA to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is an alternative to hiking the Appalachian Trail and frequently a trial run for people hoping to complete a thru-hike on the AT.
Locally this section of the Benton MacKaye Trail is called the Mudd Gap Trail. The 3.3-mile roundtrip hike skirts around the edge of a mountain peak to Whigg Meadow. The hike only has an elevation change of about 600′ so the hike is relatively easy and takes about 4 hours to complete. There are primitive campsites along the Benton MacKaye Trail within a few miles of Mudd Gap.
Big Junction Scenic Overlook
As the name implies the Big Junction Scenic Overlook features a big view of the mountains, but unfortunately one I have never been able to see for myself. I’ve been to this scenic overlook seven times over two years and only ever seen fog and clouds literally on the road. The parking area is very small with only enough room for maybe three passenger cars at a time. It’s more of a pull-off than a parking lot. At this altitude the Cherohala Skyway is frequently swallowed in clouds from passing storms. It can be fun to see, but frustrating at the same time.
Santeetlah Scenic Overlook
At 5,390′ the Santeetlah Scenic Overlook is the highest overlook on the Cherohala Skyway. At this point visitors will have ascended 4,530′ from Tellico Plains and 2,730′ from Robbinsville. There isn’t much of a view from this overlook, but there is a large parking area with three picnic tables so at least you can say you enjoyed a meal from the highest overlook on the Skyway.
Hooper Bald Trail
The Hooper Bald Trail is one of the most pleasant hiking trails on the Cherohala Skyway – and my personal favorite. The 1.2-mile out-and-back trail ascends only 150′ to Hooper Bald, a large grassy field on the mountain’s summit at 5,414′. The bald summit offers a moderate view of the surrounding landscape, but it’s more about the bald summit than sweeping views.
The parking area features restrooms and plenty of parking.
This small parking area is the trailhead for the Huckleberry Knob Trail. It’s a 2.2-mile roundtrip hike to the bald summit of Huckleberry Knob. At 5,545′ above sea level it is the highest point along the Cherohala Skyway. With only a 344′ elevation change along the trail it is an easy hike that takes about 2 hours to complete.
Spirit Ridge Trail
The 0.7-mile out-and-back Spirit Ridge Trail is the easiest hike along the Cherohala Skyway. It’s an ADA accessible, paved trail with almost no elevation gain. The trail ends at a minor scenic overlook with a nice view of the surrounding landscape.
Shute Cove Scenic Overlook
The Shute Cove Scenic Overlook offers one of the best views for handicap travelers on the Cherohala Skyway. While the main overlook is up a short flight of stairs to a wooden platform, there is a view along a short paved trail for those who can’t climb the stairs. The view looking to the north across the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness Area is pretty spectacular.
Cherohala Skyway Info Kiosk
If you start this road trip in North Carolina the Cherohala Skyway Info Kiosk will be invaluable. The covered kiosk has a large map of the Skyway, information about various points and features, and frequently has paper maps to take with you. It will at least help you get to Tellico Plains where you can visit the Cherohala Skyway Visitors Center.
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest
Alfred Joyce Kilmer was a journalist, literary critic, and lecturer, but he is most remembered as the author of the short poem “Trees.” Kilmer was killed in action during World War I at the age of 31. In 1936, the US Forest Service set aside 3,800 acres and dedicated it as the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.
The only way to see the old growth forest is a hike on the 2-mile Joyce Kilmer National Recreation Trail. The figure eight trail has a 1.25-mile Lower Loop and 0.75-mile Upper Loop.
Maple Springs Overlook
The Maple Springs Overlook is a wooden observation deck with a spectacular view of Nantahala National Forest. But, you have to really want to see it. From the entrance to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, it’s an additional 4.6-mile drive on an unmarked, twisty road to the hidden overlook – expect to spend 10-15 minutes driving the road.
The overlook was rebuilt in 2018 following its destruction from a forest fire two years earlier. The rebuilt overlook features a 900-foot boardwalk from the parking lot to an open deck with a sweeping vista of the mountain landscape.
Robbinsville is a small western North Carolina town far off the beaten path – it’s 90 minutes from the nearest interstate highway. But it’s also in one of the most scenic areas of the state along US Highway 74.
Stop at the Graham County Visitor Center for local information on places to eat, sleep, and play. Get lunch or dinner at Lynn’s Place, a family-owned restaurant serving fresh fruits and local beef. Kin Cafe is a good place for coffee – it’s just about the only business in town open six days a week.
Where to Stay
Have you ever wanted to sleep in a tree house? Not a makeshift tree house, but an actual tiny house in a tree? At Rivers Edge Treehouse Resort in Robbinsville, you can satisfy your inner youth with a couple of nights in a tree house.