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.
Table of Contents
- 1 A Drive on the Cherohala Skyway
- 2 Georgia
- 3 Tennessee
- 4 North Carolina
- 5 The Cherohala Skyway: Tellico Plains, TN Terminus
- 6 Bald River Gorge
- 7 Autumn Color
- 8 The Cherohala Skyway: Robbinsville, NC Terminus
- 9 America’s National Scenic Byways
- 10 Map It!
- 11 We Would Love to Hear From You
- 12 Pin this Post!
- 13 Helpful Links
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Cherohala Skyway: Tellico Plains, TN Terminus
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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!