A Road Through Beauty, the Cherohala Skyway’s 36 miles of scenic mountain views rival any scenic byway in the eastern US.
The elevations range from 900 feet above sea level at the Tellico River in Tennessee to over 5,400 feet above sea level at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line at Haw Knob.
The Cherohala Skyway crosses through the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. The name “Cherohala” comes from the names of the two National Forests: “Chero” from the Cherokee and “hala” from the Nantahala.
Having the Cherohala Skyway in two states, travelers can either choose the Tennessee access route from Tellico Plains to Robbinsville or the North Carolina access route from Robbinsville to Tellico Plains. Our access point was Robbinsville.
Though the official Skyway is 36 miles long, the distance between Robbinsville and Tellico Plains is about 50 miles. To reach the eastern gateway to the Cherohala Skyway, take North Carolina Highway 143 west from Robbinsville, for approximately 12 miles.
After 12 miles of winding road you’ll reach the junction of North Carolina 143 and Joyce Kilmer Road, the first kiosk on the right officially begins the eastern access of the Cherohala Skyway. This first overlook is called Santeetlah Gap, the overlook here is of the Slickrock Wilderness Area. What lies inside this 17,000 plus acre wilderness is the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and is a must see when in this region. The memorial forest was named after the poet-patriot Joyce Kilmer who authored the popular poem “Trees.”
As the Cherohala Skyway climbs through the thick hardwood forest along the Unicoi Mountain’s eastern slopes of the Nantahala National Forest, each new overlook boasts its elevation beginning with Hooper Cove at 3,100-feet, Shute Cove at 3,550-feet, Obadiah at 3,740-feet, White Cove at 4,150-feet reaching Spirit Ridge and its 4,950-foot overlook.
Reaching the heights of the Unicoi Crest, we begin our drive into the mysterious mountain bald country of the Unicoi Mountains. There are more than 80 of these balds throughout the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains. Balds are found on mountain summits and are devoid of the larger trees that grow throughout the Appalachian Mountain Chain.
The Huckleberry parking area and trailhead is at 5,300-feet. A short trail leads up a gradual slope through a thicket of dwarfed trees and shrubs to the bald above.
The next overlook is up the road and on the left. Hooper Bald, at 5,290-feet is a very popular stop over for bald explorers.
The next overlook along the Cherohala Skyway’s Unicoi Crest is Santeetlah at 5,390-feet, the pinnacle of this scenic byway.
The Cherohala Skyway cruises along the heights of the Unicoi Crest for a few miles, slowly descending past the overlooks of Big Junction at 5,240-feet, Haw Knob Slopes at 4,890-feet, Whigg Cove at 4,890-feet, Mud Trail Gap at 4,480-feet, and Stratton Ridge at 4,420-feet.
Rising slightly, the Skyway reaches the Unicoi Crest overlook at 4,470-feet then Beech Gap at 4,490-feet and Tennessee-North Carolina state line.
From here you leave Nantahala National Forest behind and enter the Cherokee National Forest along the western mountain wall of eastern Tennessee. North Carolina 143 of the Cherohala Skyway ends and Tennessee 165 begins.
The Cherohala Parkway descends westward from here with views of the Unicoi Mountains and the Tennessee Valley below. At 4,000-feet you’ll reach East Rattlesnake Rock at 4,110-feet and West Rattlesnake Trailhead at 4,000-feet.
As the Cherohala Skyway descends through the thick hardwood forest along the Unicoi Mountain’s western slopes of the Cherokee National Forest, you’ll witness views of mountaintops and hidden coves suddenly coming into view.
The Cherohala Skyway cruises past Caney Branch at 1,370-feet before reaching the Tellico River and the end of the Skyway. After winding 6-miles along the Tellico River you’ll reach the town of Tellico Plains at the western gateway of the Cherohala Skyway.
A journey across the Cherohala Skyway is an experience you’ll want to repeat often.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.