Tennessee’s only National Forest
Cherokee National Forest
In the Western United States, public domain lands were plentiful at the turn of the century to create National Forests and Parks. In the Eastern United States, growing populations had already claimed most of the land. In 1911, Congress passed the law, which allowed for the purchase of land to become National Forests. Two goals of the National Forests were to protect the watersheds and to provide a supply of timber for the increasing population. The Cherokee National Forest, like most Southern National Forests, was land that once belonged to large timber companies. Much of the land that became the Cherokee National Forest was cut over and scarred from repeated wildfires and poor agriculture practices.
Time has healed many of the scars on the land that is now the Cherokee National Forest. The 633,000-acre National Forest traces its history back to 1911. The first acquisitions were made in that year shortly after passage of the Weeks Act.
During the early days of national forests in Tennessee, lands were purchased for two national forests. In the southeast corner of the state was the Cherokee National Forest, which also included land in surrounding states, North Carolina and Georgia. In the northeastern part of the state was the Unaka National Forest, which also included lands in North Carolina and Virginia. In 1936, National Forests were reorganized along state lines. That gave Tennessee the present-day form of the Cherokee National Forest, divided into two parts by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The lands of the Cherokee are old and battle-scarred, marked by time and human influence.
Taking its name from the Cherokee Indians, who were stewards of the land long before settlers moved in, the Cherokee National Forest has returned to a high level of productivity. The USDA Forest Service manages the forest for multiple uses – wildlife, water, soil, timber, minerals cultural resources, wilderness and outdoor recreation.
The Cherokee’s most famous mountains, the Appalachians, were formed by rumbling earthquakes as the continental plates collided, uplifting the peaks higher than the Rocky Mountains. After many winters of bitter snows, cold winds and summer’s warm, humid air wearing them down to their present heights, some peaks are still well above 5000 feet.
The Cherokee has grassy balds on random mountain peaks. The European Wild Boar escaped from hunting preserve in 1912 and their progeny thrived and is now one of the most controversial hunting species of plants, and animals, clean water, outdoor recreation and forest products.
Cherokee National Forest stretches from Bristol to Chattanooga over parts of 10 east Tennessee counties. Sharing its eastern border with North Carolina, the 630,000-acre Forest is divided into northern and southern sections. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park lies between them.
Today the Forest is healthy and rich with plant and wild animal life, and offers a large variety of outdoor activities.
Visit the Cherokee National Forest and be part of nature’s spring beauty pageant. From late March to early June, the Cherokee National Forest provides an array of wildflower viewing opportunities. Bloodroot, trout lilies and spring beauty are some of the early bloomers that can be seen beginning in late March. They are usually followed by a rapid profusion of different kinds of trilliums, dwarf iris, rue anemone, flame azaleas and Solomon’s seal. These beauties usually bloom through late spring. Not to be forgotten are the rhododendron found in the higher elevations through the Forest.
Folks visiting the Forest during this lovely time of year should not give in to temptation and pick or dig up flowers and plants. Due to the increasing number of people digging plants from the wild, we are losing a great number of plant species; gene pools are becoming smaller and some plant species are becoming endangered. Scientists have discovered many wild plants are mutually dependent on other plants in the area and cannot live without the other.
Wildlife watchers have an unusual opportunity in the Cherokee National Forest. The Conasauga Fish Viewing Trail, in the Ocoee Ranger District, is a stretch of the Conasauga State Scenic River. It is relatively silt-free and offers a unique opportunity to view fish in their natural habitat. You can slip on a mask and snorkel and swim slowly in the still, deep pools. You might see turtles, redeye bass, sunfish, the federally listed blue shiner, the amber darter and the Conasauga logperch. Scanning the shallows, you might also see Alabama hogsuckers, stonerollers and male darters in breeding color.
Other wildlife and bird watching opportunities are along the Tellico Auto Loop, which passes through a black bear sanctuary. If you don’t spot a bear, you might see such bird species as the red-breasted nuthatch and the Blackburnian warbler. For more birding, go to the Gee Creek Trail section of the John Muir National Recreation Trail. It is ideal for viewing wading birds on the shores of the Hiwassee State Scenic River.
Driving for pleasure is one of the most popular recreation activities in the Cherokee National Forest. Spectacular stands of tall timbers and rhododendron heritage resources from the region’s diverse past, wildlife viewing areas, swiftly moving rivers and calm lakes, await the visitor along miles of the state. Overlook pull-offs provide opportunities for viewing and photographing the surrounding countryside. Spring and fall are the most popular times for touring the forest. During spring, the forest is alive with hues of violet, purple, yellow, red and various shades of green. Fall foliage is brilliant, and winter can be covered in white.
The most popular scenic routes in the northern districts include the Flatwoods Road near South Holston Lake, the Unaka Mountain Auto Tour near Erwin, the Roan Mountain area and scenic recreation corridors along Watauga Lake and State Highway 107 in Greene and Cocke Counties. Other popular routes are Big Cliffy Road, Brush Creek Road, hall Top Road, Paint Creek Road, and Hurricane Gap Road. All of these roads are gravel, low speed roads.
Other popular scenic auto driving would be the Cherohala Skyway. The skyway crosses through the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests along a former Cherokee Indian trade route. This 40-plus mile, two-lane road connects Tellico Plains in southeast Tennessee to Robbinsville, N.C.
Ocoee Scenic by-way is the first national forest scenic by-way in the United States. Its 26 miles follow the Ocoee River in Polk County, passing through scenic areas with rock bluffs, mountain peaks and historic sites such as the Ocoee Flume Line and Powerhouse. The Chilhowee Overlook and Boyd Gap offer unparalleled photo opportunities. Other beautiful drives are Tellico River Road, Tellico-Robbinsville Road and Hiwassee River Road.
The Forest’s 650 miles of footpaths include a 150-mile section of the Appalachian Trail. Other nationally designated trails are the Overmountain Victory Trail, John Muir National Recreation Trail and Warrior’s Passage Trail. Numerous short and interpretive trails make good leg-stretchers for those not interested in walking long distances. Hike to one of Cherokee National Forest’s waterfalls; many are easily or moderately accessible.
Hundreds of miles of forest roads, including many closed to automobile traffic; plus designated bike trails and multi-use trails make Cherokee National Forest a superb destination for mountain and road bikers. Bikers are allowed on designated bike trails, certain multi-use trails, all public roads and many gated roads in the forest.
The Cherokee National Forest is well known for its fishing. A few of the most popular fishing streams are in the northern districts including Paint, Jennings, Broad Shoal, Laurel Fork, Beaverdam and Little Stoney Creeks.
Cherokee’s great fishing rivers include the Hiwassee, North, Tellico and Bald Rivers, just a few of the Forest’s 500 trout rivers or streams. There are 60 species of fish in the streams, lakes and ponds.
Most campgrounds are open from late spring through fall in the Cherokee National Forest. Most camping is on a first come – first serve basis. Some group camping can be reserved in advance by contacting the appropriate district ranger’s office.
Cherokee’s developed campgrounds include tent and RV sites, and primitive camping is allowed anywhere in the forest unless otherwise posted. You also can rent the Donley cabin in the Tellico Ranger District. It is a restored 19th century dwelling that allows visitors to experience the way of life of the early Appalachian pioneers.
Indian Boundary Recreation Area is a wonderland of beauty and outdoor activities, including camping, fishing, hiking and biking.
Flowing through the Forest is the Ocoee River, site of the 1996 Olympic Canoe and Kayak Slalom Competition. There are several other rivers in the forest, with everything from Class I to Class VI rapids. Several whitewater rivers flow through the Cherokee National Forest: the Nolichucky, the French Broad, the Tellico, the Conasauga, the Hiwassee, and the famous Ocoee, site of the 1996 Olympic Canoe and Kayak Slalom Competition.
The Nolichucky River offers a variety of rapids that cut their way through a beautiful 3000′ gorge. Downstream from the gorge, gives accurate information for those paddling the gorge. Difficulty levels for this section are Class III and IV; paddlers with open canoes should use extra flotation. Check with rangers or local canoe clubs for advice on safe water levels for paddling. After the gorge, the Nolichucky is a typical Smoky Mountain valley stream. Beautiful scenery and Class II and III rapids make for fun, with just enough challenge to keep paddlers on their toes.
The French Broad flows from North Carolina, where it growls and roars into Tennessee, with Class II and III rapids. At normal levels there are several standing rapids, and there’s a four-foot ledge to contend with. The Tellico River offers easy Class II rapids, very demanding Class IV rapids, and everything in between. The Tellico River Road follows the river from Tellico Plains, so scouting is easy as you drive to put in. Tellico is well known for its fine trout.
The Conasauga originates in the Cohutta Wilderness Area and meanders north and west, back and forth across the Georgia/Tennessee borders. The Conasauga provides spectacular scenery and Class I and Class II rapids. The Hiwassee River winds through scenic gorges and rural communities, and provides canoeing, kayaking, rafting, and tube floating on the river. Its rapids are primarily Class I and Class II, with a few Class IIIs. Several ponds and lakes on the Cherokee National Forest await paddlers who prefer still water.
Horseback riding is open on all public roads. Any gated or numbered gravel road in the forest is available for horse use. There are many trails for horseback riding with scenic views. Cherokee’s variety of trails make it easy to plan short jaunts or long, overnight equestrian excursions.
In the Cherokee National Forest, there are a number of picnic areas along shady streams and lakes, or within view of spectacular mountain scenery. Covered picnic facilities for groups are also available at select locations.