Awards: Cherohala Skyway
The Federal Highway Administration's
2003 Environmental Excellence Awards
The Cherohala Skyway is an outstanding representation of a diverse, unique, and picturesque National
Byway. The foundation and precept of any scenic byway is that it has a distinct aesthetic character.
The personality of the Skyway's beauty is multi-dimensional, each dimension adding to the overall
beauty and its unmatched regional attractiveness. All along this roadway, the traveler is greeted
by scenic vistas. Views of the Nantahala and Cherokee National Forests display natural and panoramic
scenes of North Carolina and Tennessee. There is also an impressive variety of flora and fauna that
can be spotted from a series of fifteen pull-offs throughout the Skyway. In addition, quiet picnic
spots, short trails, and conveniently located restrooms enhance any traveler's visit. It took over
30 years to build this parkway, and cost $100 million, but its spectacular scenery is what the
Skyway is all about!
The entire length of the Cherohala Skyway is about 40 miles and connects the communities of Tellico
Plains in Tennessee, and Robbinsville in North Carolina. The portions of the Skyway in each state are,
however, considered separate byways that connect at the Tennessee-North Carolina line. The North
Carolina portion of the Skyway is located in Graham County. This region is serenely nestled between
the Unicoi and Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina. The Skyway gets its name from
characteristics significant to the region. The byway's corridor follows the rolling mountaintops of
the Appalachians and allows travelers a ride through the clouds - hence the designation of "Skyway."
The other part of the byway's name, "Cherohala," is derived from a combination of the two national
forests that are connected by the Skyway: "Chero," from the Cherokee, and "hala," from the Nantahala.
The Cherokee are the largest Native American group in the United States and were formerly the largest
and most important tribe in the Southeast, once occupying these mountains. Nantahala means "land of
the noonday sun" because of a magnificent river gorge that only gets direct sunlight during the
middle of the day. The Nantahala River that created this gorge is a mecca for whitewater sports
The historical origins of this byway also have great regional significance. The beginning of the
Cherohala Skyway is intrinsically connected with the cultural history of this local area. These rural
communities of western North Carolina and southeastern Tennessee desired regional connectivity and
played a major role in the development of the byway. In an effort to gain publicity for their need of
a transportation facility connecting these communities, residents began an annual wagon train trek
through the mountains and valleys where North Carolina and Tennessee meet. The wagon wheels of this
annual trek created the Skyway's original path.
Following the public's lead, and spurned on by the desire for economic development in these rural
areas, the local and municipal governments began partnering up. Collectively working for the same
goal they were able to generate enough momentum to get their respective state governments and the
federal government involved. Developing successful partnerships with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS),
the Federal Highway Administration - Eastern Federal Lands Division, and the Tennessee and North
Carolina Departments of Transportation was a monumental task. However, without these partnerships
taking place, the Skyway would have never been built.
The region where the Cherohala Skyway is located presents many unparalleled opportunities as a
mountain oasis. With thousands of acres of lush forests and miles of clear, swift streams, outdoor
recreational activities abound. Hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, paddling, and fishing
opportunities are excellent there and can be found within minutes of the Cherohala Skyway. Over
2,000 native plant species make this region a botanical paradise, while abundant populations of
rainbow, brown, and brook trout present challenging angling opportunities for any skill level. If
lake fishing is the preference, then visitors can choose from several of the deep, cool, emerald
waters in the area.
Many hardwood and coniferous trees abound throughout these mountains, thanks to the U.S. Forest
Service. Following the Civil War, large lumber companies moved in and systematically cleared large
swaths of forest. In 1911 the Federal Government authorized and began the acquisition of these
lands for their protection. Remnants of this clearing and upland open grazing are the "balds".
These bare grassy, rocky and partially barren knobs mark some of the highest points along the
route. Hooper's Bald (elev. 5429') is the highest spot along the Cherohala in North Carolina. It
was once the location of a private hunting preserve, stocked with buffalo, wild boar, elk, mule
deer, bear, wild turkeys and pheasants. The gameland preserve failed but a remnant of its history
is the presence of wild boars in this region. It is about 5 ½ miles from Hooper's Bald to the
pull-off at Beech Gap. From the beginning of the Skyway at Santeetlah Gap to this point is
approximately 20 miles.
A scenic overlook at Santeetlah Gap marks the start of the scenic byway. Visitors can stop here
and catch the tranquil view or read about the development of this route, as well as recreational
opportunities highlighted on the information kiosk. The Cherohala Skyway provides numerous
opportunities to view magnificent mountain scenery, take photographs, indulge in picnic lunches,
stroll along short trails, and delight in an almost never-ending showcase of elegant wildflowers.
Whitewater rivers and cascading mountainside waterfalls are also defining characteristics that
instill in travelers an appreciation of nature. From this juncture travelers can also visit the
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. This virginal forest, one of the last remaining old growth forests
in the East, includes poplar, hemlock, and oak. Some tulip-poplars have grown in excess of 100
feet high and 20 feet in circumference. More than a hundred species of trees can be seen here
while hiking over 60 miles of trails.
From Santeetlah Gap the Skyway ascends along Cedar Top Mountain. This peak, along with Little
Huckleberry Knob, Hooper's bald, Laurel Top, and John's Knob, forms the backbone to the byway.
The route then weaves westward up to Beech Gap through the Southern Appalachian Mountains. These
mountains are considered to be the oldest in the world, formed over 200 million years ago! There
are many pull-offs, trail access points and overlooks along the drive. The road, due to its
design and low traffic speeds, allows for bicycle and pedestrian traffic. It is a great
experience to walk or ride the skyway. Whatever one's preferences, the Cherohala Skyway offers
an unforgettable experience for the nature lover in all of us.