One of the best things to do when visiting Gatlinburg is take in the magnificent scenery and one of the best ways to do that is to take 441 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Cherokee, North Carolina. The long, winding drive is about an hour and features spectacular views.
But the question is, what to do when you arrive. You can, of course, turn right around and go back to Gatlinburg. Or you can explore what the other side of the Smokies has to offer.
1 – The Blue Ridge Parkway
Didn’t get enough scenic driving on the way through the mountains? Check out the Blue Ridge Parkway, or at least part of it. The famous parkway runs from Cherokee to Afton, Virginia, but there are several entry and exit points in between that you can use to create a loop back to Gatlinburg.
2 – Oconaluftee Center & Mountain Farm Museum
This one’s easy. Located right on 441 just before you exit the park. This is the perfect spot to get out, explore, stretch your legs and have a picnic. The Mountain Farm Museum includes farm buildings, most dating around 1900, which were moved from their original locations throughout the Great Smoky Mountain National Park to create an open-air museum. Visitors can explore a log farmhouse, barn, apple house, springhouse and a working blacksmith shop to get a sense of how families may have lived 100 years ago. It’s also a great place for wildlife viewing. The first time I saw an elk – after they’d been reintroduced to the Park – was near here. They often appear in the large meadow behind the visitor center in the morning or the evening. If you want to see wild elk – still a rarity even for us locals – this is one of the best spots to do it.
3 – Go to Harrah’s
It may not be Vegas, but the Harrah’s Casino in Cherokee has, from an outsider’s point of view, been a boon for the town and the Cherokee Tribe which owns the casino. Much like Vegas or Atlantic City, the Harrah’s hotel and casino offers dining and entertainment including big-name music acts and comedians. The casino features table games such as poker, craps, blackjack and roulette. There are plenty of slots and video gaming options. The casino also offers Le Fu Men, which is dedicated to the Asian consumer and includes leading favorites such as baccarat and blackjack, with the unique décor of Asian flair.
4 – Oconaluftee Islands Park
A couple of years ago, my oldest daughter played with a travel softball team that played several tournaments in Cherokee. And while we didn’t necessarily want our day to end early, if it did we had a fantastic consolation prize. We’d take the girls to this park and let them wade, swim and beat the heat from an afternoon on the diamond. The river flows fairly shallow through the park so there are plenty of places for smaller kids to wade and enjoy the water. But there are also deeper areas with strong currents, so keep a close eye. The park is beautiful and spacious. It’s a popular event destination. We accidentally photobombed a wedding there once, but that’s a story for a different time. There’s plenty of places to get in the water on the Tennessee side of the mountains for sure, but Oconaluftee Islands is unique and worth a visit if you’ve already made the trek across the mountains.
5 – Maggie Valley
About half an hour from Cherokee is Maggie Valley, a popular destination for hiking – be sure to check out the Deep Creek Trail – shopping and more. The Wheels Through Time Museum, for example, has classic motorcycles and rare cars on display. Connected to the Blue Ridge Parkway, Maggie Valley has crafts, antiques and lots of outdoor adventures. Be sure to check out the Blackrock Mountain if you’re up for some serious hiking. The Blackrock is a high-elevation hike, so depending on the time of year, make sure that the parkway is open.
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