Riding the Cherohala Skyway Through a Mountain Wilderness

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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To reach the eastern gateway to the Cherohala Skyway, take NC 143 west from Robbinsville, for approximately 12 miles, signs will mark the way.

After 12-miles of winding road you’ll reach the junction of NC 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. Here a unique treasure of virgin hardwood old-growth forest awaits your discovery. The memorial forest was named after the poet-patriot Joyce Kilmer who authored the popular poem “Trees.”

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The drive along Cherohala Skyway is a scenic beauty right from the start. The best part of this scenic byway through a mountain wilderness is there are no public or private services along the Cherohala Skyway. There are also only three restroom locations along the entire route. The abundance of overlooks along the way will open your mind to appreciate the wonders of the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountain’s high country.

Most of the overlooks and picnic area are handicap accessible including one short trail at the very top of the Unicoi Crest, specially designed for mobile chair access. You’ll also find along with the picnic areas and overlooks plenty of kiosks and information plaques with facts about wildlife, wildflowers, plant varieties, trees, the forest, the watershed, mountain balds and hiking trails. There’s also historical information listed about the Native American people and settlers who once lived in and journeyed through these remote mountaintops.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As the Cherohala Skyway climbs through the thick hardwood forest along the Unicoi Mountain’s eastern slopes of the Nantahala National Forest, you’ll witness views of rolling mountains and hidden coves for as far as the eye can see. NC 143 continues its skyward ascent with each new overlook along the Cherohala Skyway boasting 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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. NC 143 of the Cherohala Skyway ends and TN 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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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.

—Joyce Kilmer

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