The Cherohala Skyway is an incredible scenic drive through the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. It has also been named a National Scenic Byway.



A Drive on the Cherohala Skyway


I know a lot can be said for springtime in the Rockies, but you cannot deny there is something special about autumn in the Appalachians. Each year, the third week of October finds me making an annual pilgrimage up to Pinebox, my North Georgia mountain cabin, for my favorite time of year. Because so many of his vacation days were used on our trips to Costa Rica, Gettysburg, and Washington, DC, earlier this year, Jerry wasn’t able to make the trip this time. This year, Jim Swilley and Ken Marshall, two Georgia natives and dear friends of mine, joined me on the traditional backroad leaf-looking trip, and once again these painted hills did not disappoint.

Jim Swilley Ken Marshall Howard Blount

Ken, Jim & Me


Georgia


We started early by grabbing a quick breakfast at the Loving Road Stop & Go, just off the Appalachian Highway in Morganton, Georgia. Now we’re not talking pre-packaged gas station grub. Inside the store, on weekday mornings, the Biscuit Chicks serve up the best breakfast sandwiches around. They can make virtually any sandwich you want, but my favorite is the pork chop biscuit. This slice of boneless peppered pork loin inside a fresh-baked biscuit is guaranteed heaven in your mouth! This morning, I added egg and cheese to mine, and we ate our breakfast in the crisp morning air of the parking lot before heading to our next waypoint.

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Fresh-baked biscuit sandwiches inside!

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The famous pork chop biscuit.

Our leaf-peeping destination was the Cherohala Skyway, a scenic mountain highway linking Tellico Plains, Tennessee, with Robbinsville, North Carolina, but we knew we would be making a few stops along the way. We headed west a few short miles on the Appalachian Highway (called 515 by the locals), and when we reached Blue Ridge, Georgia, we turned north on Blue Ridge Drive. Our next stop would be Mercier Orchards, one of north Georgia’s most popular seasonal attractions, just 1.5 miles north of town. While I was buying bags of Fuji and Gold Rush apples, my favorites, along with a bag of Jonagolds for my dad, Jim and Ken decided to sample the fried pies. There is nothing like fresh-picked apples for snacking and to fragrance your vehicle while on an autumn backroad trip.

Mercier Orchards Apples

Apples, apples, and more apples!

Mercier Orchards Bakery Deli

The bakery and deli at Mercier Orchards.


Tennessee


Leaving Mercier’s we headed north on Blue Ridge Drive toward the border towns of McCaysville, Georgia, and Copperhill, Tennessee. These conjoined cities are situated on the bank of a single river called the Ocoee in Tennessee and the Toccoa in Georgia. A blue-painted stripe through town shows the actual borderline between the two states. These twin cities are the layover destination of the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, another North Georgia attraction.

Copperhill Tennessee

Copperhill Tennessee McCaysville Georgia State Line

The state line between Copperhill, Tennessee, and McCaysville, Georgia.

We continued north on TN-68 toward the western terminus of the Cherohala Skyway in Tellico Plains, Tennessee. When we reached the junction with TN-123 we saw a sign pointing to Fields of the Wood, a historic park, just five miles away. I remembered hearing about this attraction as a child and seeing pictures in my grandfather’s photo albums at his cabin in Franklin, North Carolina. Although the park was located not far from Pinebox, I had never visited there myself. One of the best features of backroad trips are the spontaneous opportunities that present themselves along the way. Because the park was not too far away, we decided to cross another state line and check it out.


North Carolina


Fields of the Wood Entrance

Fields of the Wood is a 220-acre Bible-themed park located north of Murphy, North Carolina. It was founded in the 1940s by the Church of God of Prophecy and boasts several features such as the All Nations Cross and Prayer Mountain. But the most memorable feature is what used to be the World’s Largest Ten Commandments, located just to the right of the main entrance. Apparently, a bigger tablet was unveiled in the Philippines in 2011. Although the park is showing its age, on the day we visited maintenance crews were hard at work. Some may think the park cheesy or kitschy, and perhaps it is, but when you combine its historical and spiritual aspects with free entry, the park is clearly a roadside attraction worth visiting.

Fields of the Wood Ten Commandments

The World’s Second Largest Ten Commandments.

Fields of the Wood Painting

Painting hanging in the Gift Shop/Café.

Leaving the park, we backtracked into Tennessee, and headed north on TN-68 to Tellico Plains. Just before we reached the city limits, we saw a road sign pointing to the left that read “Conasauga Falls 3.” We thought we had time for another side trip, so we turned down the paved road and I began clocking the mileage on my odometer. Soon the pavement ended, and we came to a fork in the road with no sign pointing the way to the falls. We elected to go left and continued down a road that became more and more rocky and finally led to a creek across the road we would have to ford if we drove any further. Because we had gone more than three miles, we turned around and decided to take the other road at the fork. That road soon led to a dead end. We paused and listened for the sound of crashing water, but hearing nothing we decided to abandon our search and head for town. We passed several cars coming in and lowered our windows to share our misfortune with a few of them along the way.

(Note: Back at home I researched how to find Conasauga Falls and learned that it requires a 1.5 mile roundtrip hike from the dead end. Additional signage in the area from the U.S. Forest Service would be much appreciated and would spare many backroad riders from a wild goose chase.)


The Cherohala Skyway: Tellico Plains, TN Terminus


Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center

We stopped for lunch at a local café and picked up some free maps at the Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center. The maps are invaluable tools to help you navigate the various stops along the way. The 43-mile Cherohala Skyway is one of America’s Byways, “150 distinct and diverse” American roadways, including both National Scenic Byways and All-American Roads, designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Opened in 1996, this two-lane paved highway derives its name from the forests through which it passes, the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. There are multiple pullover scenic views along the way, the highest being Haw Knob at nearly 5,400 ft. elevation near the TN/NC state line.


Bald River Gorge


Bald River Gorge Rock Formations Tennessee

Incredible striated rock formations along the Bald River Gorge.

My favorite detour from the Skyway is FS Road 210 at mile 39, just four miles from the Tellico Plains terminus. This paved road follows the Bald River Gorge twelve miles in to the bridge at Bald River Falls. The bridge, built in 1933, serves as a great viewing platform for the falls, although many visitors, Jim and Ken included, prefer hiking down the river banks for an up-close and personal look. When you factor in the spectacular fall foliage, black river rock formations, and an exquisite 100-ft. cascade, the detour is well-worth the extra time and the 24-mile roundtrip drive, and may be the highlight of the Cherohala Skyway.

Bald River Falls


Bald River Falls Bridge Tennessee

Bald River Falls view from the bridge.

Bald River Falls Tennessee

Jim & Ken at the bottom of the falls.

Bald River Falls Bridge Plaque

(Note: All videos are shot in 1080p HD, so for the best visual experience you may adjust the video quality setting and expand to full screen by clicking the icons in the lower right corner of the frame.)


Autumn Color


Cherohala Skyway Fall Color

Autumn along the Cherohala Skyway.

Back on the Skyway, we stopped at several overlooks along the way, and discovered ever-increasing seasonal color as we drove to higher elevations. It is hard to say for sure, but I believe several elevations were at their peak with breathtaking displays of orange, red, and gold.

Goldenrod Along the Cherohala Skyway

Apparently wasps and yellow jackets love the goldenrod.


The Cherohala Skyway: Robbinsville, NC Terminus


When we reached the eastern terminus of the Cherohala Skyway near Robbinsville, North Carolina, we took a left on Santeetlah Road and headed a short distance to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. This was Jim and Ken’s first time to hike the 2-mile figure-8 trail and visit the giant trees in this virgin forest. Before we headed up the trail, we grabbed some apples, my favorite trail food, out of the back of the Mountaineer. I was happy to see that undergrowth has covered much of the destruction of the infested hemlock trees on the lower loop since Jerry and I visited two years earlier.

Giant Tulip Poplar Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

(Note: All videos are shot in 1080p HD, so for the best visual experience you may adjust the video quality setting and expand to full screen by clicking the icons in the lower right corner of the frame.)

We emerged from the forest before dark, and although we had at least an hour and a half drive back to Pinebox, it was the end of a perfect autumn backroad trip through three mountain states in one day.


America’s National Scenic Byways


The Cherohala Skyway is just one of hundreds of scenic byways across the country. Our Take a Drive on America’s National Scenic Byways post provides an overview of the many federal and state roadway networks and driving options. 


Map It!



We Would Love to Hear From You


We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever driven the Cherohala Skyway? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!


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Helpful Links


 Loving Road Stop & Go

Mercier Orchards

Fields of the Wood

Roadside America: Fields of the Wood

Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center

America’s Byways: Cherohala Skyway

National Geographic: Cherohala Skyway Road Trip

Take a Drive on America’s National Scenic Byways

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

Backroad Planet’s Addition to Roadtrippers Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

Howard Blount is founder and co-owner of the travel blog BackroadPlanet.com. He has traveled internationally since boyhood and lived abroad in Mexico, Chile, and Paraguay. Now his passion is navigating the roads-less-traveled of this amazing planet in search of anything rare and remote. On the stuffy side, “Mr. Blount” has been a writer, consultant, and published author with the likes of Simon & Schuster and McGraw-Hill. Although his road trips are financed by his day job as a middle school teacher, Howard would much rather be doing anything that includes mountains, waterfalls, dachshunds, gospel choirs, books, restored classic movies on Blu-ray, HDTV, autumn, sandhill cranes, hot springs, Florida springs, rain and other gloomy weather, log cabins, cracker shacks, abandoned sites, unearthed history, genealogy, museums, documentaries, To Kill a Mockingbird, scenic and historical sites, castles, cathedrals, the Civil War, cold sheets, National and State Park Passports, quotes, the Rambos, Dionne Warwick, Steely Dan, Doobies, Diet Pepsi, Fish City Grill, anything Apple, all things British, Jesus, and lists. And on a random note, Howard is a fourth cousin once removed to Truman Capote.