Cold rushing water splashes under heavy hooves, while wagon wheels jar against smooth rounded river stones. Within the wagon bed passengers’ rock back and forth like the swaying of an out-of-line swing. Crossing the shallow river ford, dry trail awaits the teamsters as they drive the lead horses on, flicking the reigns to keep up the steady pace. Ahead the old trail winds along as it climbs up and over the steep, remote gaps of the Unicoi Mountain Wilderness (also known as the Unaka Mountains.)
Jutting up from the valley floor, the mountain summits of the Unicoi reach for the sky, daring any intruder to scale its ridged slopes. Only the forest, streams and wildlife occupy this wild country. Over the next 50-miles these latter day pioneers encountered a mountain oasis with “no phones, no lights, no motor power, not a single luxury…like pioneers in an Old West dime novel, it was as primitive as could be.”
These riders of a new age were proving a point in their pursuit of adventure. Their point was that a direct route over the high mountains of southeastern Tennessee and far western North Carolina would make an impressive scenic byway, capable of connecting two national forests, and two out of the way towns.
Such was the goal of the Tellico Plains Kiwanis Club in 1958 when Sam Williams jokingly brought up the idea of a planned community wagon train trip. This mid 20th century wagon train trip was inspired by the old black and white television shows Wagon Train and Gunsmoke, along with Sam’s considerable affection for the beautiful wilds of his own mountainous backyard. This dream set into motion an engineered accomplishment that will be enjoyed for generations to come.
Just six weeks after Sam proposed the plan, sixty-seven covered wagons were loaded and hitched up along with over three hundred mounted horseback riders venturing out into the wild backcountry of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The annual wagon train journey was well received by some politicians who thought the idea of a scenic highway would be good for commerce and tourism. There were several rough logging roads and the old Native American trade routes crisscrossed the Unicoi Wilderness, one road lead to Robbinsville, North Carolina and the other to Murphy, North Carolina.
The first of the wagon train trips took the enthusiastic adventurers to the town of Murphy, North Carolina. In 1962 it was decided that a scenic byway from Tellico Plains to Murphy wasn’t as accommodating as a byway between Tellico Plains and Robbinsville.
The reason for this change in destination was that the route between Tellico Plains and Robbinsville could be constructed entirely over federal land at government expense. In late 1962 Congress approved this alternative route and allocated funds for the new scenic byway.
In October 1996, the Cherohala Skyway was opened to the public at a cost of 100-million dollars offering access to the top of the world for far western North Carolina and far southeastern Tennessee.
The Cherokee National Forest of eastern Tennessee and the Nantahala National Forest of western North Carolina shared a border here, conveniently dividing the Unicoi Mountains along the Unicoi Crest, culminating into the joint name of Cherohala.
The official scenic Cherohala Skyway is 36-miles in length, with 21-miles in Tennessee and 15-miles in North Carolina, although actual distance between Tellico Plains and Robbinsville is roughly 50-miles of paved road. The 36-mile scenic byway connects TN 68 with NC 143. There are no services over the actual scenic highway except for public restrooms at three locations along the Cherohala Skyway.
From heights nearing 6,000-feet, are views of the rugged rolling mountaintops of the Unaka Mountains with the Great Smoky Mountains to the northeast and the Tennessee River Valley to the west. What you will find along the route are lots of great mountain overlooks, camping areas and numerous hiking trails leading off from the scenic byway. The mountain and valley views along the 36-mile stretch are spectacular. Mountain balds as they are called, crown the Unicoi Crest at the pinnacle of the Cherohala Skyway and are without doubt part of the great mystery of mountain creation itself. The Cherohala Skyway scenic overlooks have rightfully been compared to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Newfound Gap Road through the Great Smoky Mountains.
Although the Cherohala Skyway is exceptional in itself there are also two outstanding site locations at either end of this scenic byway.
In Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest, where highway 68 begins the Cherohala Skyway, is a paved forestry road to a great destination. FR 210 travels along the Tellico River below the scenic skyway, following it’s own scenic highway to Bald River Falls. The upper reaches of the Tellico River is known as the Tellico River Gorge, its steep narrow rock walls and lush foliage are a beautiful and mysterious example of nature’s handy work. Winding your way along the narrow river gorge you’ll reach Bald River Falls. This waterfall is one of finest examples of the wonders of Tennessee’s mountain country’s precious watershed, a great and convenient photo opportunity due to the fact the 100-foot waterfall is alongside the roadway. Additional waterfalls are located just up the Tellico River from Bald River Falls.
Tellico River is famous for its trout fishing due the fish hatchery located along the river just past the falls. Camping and hiking are also very popular in this area. The headquarters of the Tellico Ranger District is located along the upper Tellico River Gorge for more information on the area.
On the eastern side of the skyway in North Carolina, at entrance where highway NC 143 becomes the Cherohala Skyway, you can access Joyce Kilmer Road. A two-mile drive along this side-road will take you to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and Slickrock Wilderness Area. The memorial forest is named after the poet and American patriot Joyce Kilmer who wrote the famous poem “Trees,” in 1913. Joyce Kilmer, while serving in France during World War I was killed in action and highly decorated for his heroism by the French government. The memorial forest is an old-growth forest of giant trees, some ranging over 100-feet tall, over 20-feet in circumference and estimated to be over 400-years old. The memorial forest remains isolated deep within a large mountainous cove, unspoiled and preserved for posterity’s sake.
Combined, these two special features of natural wonder along with the engineering wonders of the Cherohala Skyway itself make this scenic mountain drive even more rewarding.
Though the arrival of the new highway has added luxury and comfort for modern vehicle travel, the wagons have kept rolling since those early days in 1958. Keeping up the tradition as they have, each year the wagon train makes its journey through the wilderness, avoiding highway travel. Each year they retrace the original route from Tellico Plains, Tennessee to the town of and Andrews (near Murphy) in Cherokee County, North Carolina, following the old ways of the pioneer wagon trains.
Many of the wagon train’s wooden wheels have been converted to tire supported wheels for minor comfort sake; making the experience no less exciting along the old logging roads and ancient Native American trade routes through the Unaka (Unicoi) Mountains.
Isolated in a wilderness land, adventurous souls come to appreciate a backcountry that places them in a time where the past and present have a common symmetry, in the mountain country the Cherokee People’s ancestor called, “land of the noon day sun.”
Having the Cherohala Skyway in two states and knowing the popularity of accessing the byway at either end, the Blue Ridge Highlander has decided to offer its readers their own personal geographical choice of access to this Highlander Scenic Driving Tour. Highlander readers and welcomed travelers can either choose the Tennessee access from Tellico Plains to Robbinsville route or the North Carolina access from Robbinsville to Tellico Plains route. Visually, they’re both superb journeys.
Take a Scenic Drive with the Highlander on the Cherohala Skyway