Drive along the much less crowded Cherohala Skyway from Robbinsville, for scenery on par with any that of The Blue Ridge Parkway. This route was finished in 1996, and offers spectacular scenery and well developed overlooks all the way up to Hooper’s Bald and beyond into Tennessee. For the first time ever, the casual motorist can get stunning long-range views the incredibly rugged Unicoi and Snowbird Mountains to the South of GSMNP. At 5,700 feet the area near Spirit Ridge and Hooper’s Bald, a former game preserve, offers the best views, a profusion of wildflowers, and is best place to enjoy a short hike and a picnic. If your timing is right you will be astounded at the abundance of wild strawberrys and blackberrys. I usually turn around near the summit. The road is more undulating and generally loses elevation on the Tennessee side, offering fewer long range views. If you want to make an interim overnight camping stop; however, the Cherokee National Forest Service’s lakeside Indian Boundary Campground is quite nice over on the Tennessee side.
To get to the Cherohola Skyway head south on U.S. 19 from (Great Smoky Mountains Expressway) from Cherokee. The shortest route heads west from the four lane on N.C. 28 at Almond. And then follows N.C. 143 over Stecoah Gap to Robbinsville. N.C. 143 eventually becomes the Cherohala Skyway beyond Robbinsville and Lake Santeetlah.
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest
After returning on Cherohala Skyway, turn left to visit the ancient grove of yellow poplars at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. The short memorial trail has two loop trails through a forest with the largest trees in eastern United States. The upper loop has the biggest trees. The forest was dedicated in memory to soldiers lost in foreign wars, as it’s namesake poet was in WW I. I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree… Upon leaving Joyce Kilmer Forest, take the short ride up to Maple Springs Overlook. From this overlook the southwestern quadrant of the Great Smoky Mountains appear as a mighty wall of mountains. It is the only place you will get a long range view of the region of the Little Tennessee River Gorge, and it is one of the best places to view a sunset from your car. Santeetlah Lake with it’s emerald green waters and hundreds of little coves is a favorite among canoeist and bass fisherman. The very small and basic Horse Cove Campground(pit toilets) is near Joyce Kilmer Forest on the lake. On the north shore of Santeetlah Lake, off 129, Cheoah Point Campground is larger, more popular, and has flush toilets. It has one secret walk-in campsite that occupies the very tip of Cheoah Point itself. The nearby Snowbird Mountain Lodge is perfectly located for exploring this area and boating on the lake.
Continue by winding your way around the lake on F.S. 1134 en route to U.S. 129. This secondary road is marked as it continues along the north shore to Santeetlah Lake Dam. The first of many giant dams on this route. Follow the signs for US 129 North and Deals Gap. In the gorge, Stay on N.C. 28 toward Fontana Dam, instead of continuing north on U.S. 129 toward Knoxville.
Biker Nirvana on the Tail of the Dragon
Only continue north on U.S. 129 if you want to experience the Tail of the Dragon. Bikers adore the challenge of the Tail of the Dragon, with more than 300 curves in a 13-mile stretch of road. An entire cottage industry has grown up around keeping the motorcyclists entertained.
After having traveled all over The Rockies, I have found no road in the country that is more nauseating. Personally, I usually try to avoid this route north to Tennessee and to the western segment of the Foothills Parkway.
Little Tennessee River Gorge
You will pass huge dams that get larger and higher as you progress up the gorge of the Little Tennessee River on NC 128. The super clear blue waters of Cheoah Lake is framed by steep rocky cliffs that might remind you of a fjord. The giant Fontana Dam is the high point along the route. You get a great view of this, largest dam in the east of the Mississippi, from the visitor’s center at the top of the dam. It is great fun to ride the funky little egg shaped incline railway down the face of the giant dam if you are lucky enough to catch it running. The nearby Fontana Village, was the former home to the thousands of workers that built the dam. Today it is a family resort with a restaurant that offers all manner of outdoor activities.
Tsali Recreation Area
On the south shore of Fontana Lake, The Tsali Recreation area is internationally famous as a destination for mountain bikers. Two of the four single-track loops skirt along the shores of Fontana Lake. Despite it’s popularity, you really have to be a biker to love this campground. Tsali has many loops and hot showers with few if any lake views. It is often crowded and sometimes overcrowded with mountain bike enthusiast in the summer. It a communal biker kind of thing. The campsites are small and tight for and NFS camprground.
Return to Cherokee on N.C. 28. and then on the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway. Closer and quiter, Bryson City and the historic Fryemont Inn is an excellent place to overnight especially if you also have plans for a ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railway.