The surprising Cherokee history behind Devil’s Courthouse in NC

People on top of the devils courthouse

Some say the Devil's Courthouse gets its name from the sinister aspect of the rock formation. However, the name also has Cherokee roots (photo by Johnnie Laws/shutterstock.com)

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They say the Lord works in mysterious ways but so, too, must the Devil. 

It stands to reason, right? He’s in Georgia inexcusably losing fiddle contests and in Mississippi luring Blues men to their eternal fate. 

But as much as it appears the Devil enjoys having a hand in the music business, if the mountains of Western North Carolina are any indication, his real passion may be the law.

There among the high mountains of easternmost parts of the Smokies are a pair of different formations – located about 20 miles apart – called the Devil’s Courthouse.

Now, I’m no legal expert. However, I can’t imagine the docket that would have required a pair of courthouses under the same jurisdiction in such tight-knit proximity. 

Blueridge Parkway with a blue sky
The Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina is a famous parkway that runs from Cherokee, NC to Afton, Virginia (photo by Vladimir Grablev/stock.adobe.com)

Where is Devil’s Courthouse NC?

The more prominent – and well-known – Devil’s Courthouse is a mountain in Transylvania County, North Carolina.

The Devil’s Courthouse is located about 10 miles from the Pisgah National Forest. It’s located near mile marker 422 on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In fact, there is a Devil’s Courthouse Tunnel that allows drivers to go through the mountain. 

The Sign to the Devil's Courthouse Overlook
A sign directs visitors to the pedestrian overlook (photo by The Wandering Roze/shutterstock.com)

Why is the Devil’s Courthouse popular? 

There are several reasons why it’s a popular destination. First, the drive along the sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway is excellent. There’s a parking lot and observation deck just off the road that offers some of the most spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.

The top of the mountain – accessible via a strenuous half-mile trail – offers a panoramic view of the mountains. The 360 degree views from the top of Devil’s Courthouse mean that – on a clear day – you can neighboring states Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia. 

But it’s more than a stunning view of the mountain’s landscape. The summit of Devil’s Courthouse is home to a variety of high-altitude plants that migrated here during the last ice age.

Also, it’s a frequent nesting spot for birds of prey like the Peregrine Falcon. Signs in the area prohibit climbing on the rock formations which could disturb the birds’ nests. They won’t return to a disturbed nest. 

“By staying on the trail, we can ensure that these natural wonders remain protected for years to come,” the park service says.

A Plaque at the Summit of Devil's Courthouse
A sign at the Devil’s Courthouse overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway identifies mountains in the distance (photo by Kelly vanDellen/shutterstock.com)

Why is it called Devil’s Courthouse?

We’ll start with the basic explanation first. For some, it’s the rocky summit of the mountain popular with rare rock gnome lichen and Peregrine falcons. They see a sinister aspect of the rock formation which lends itself to the name Devil’s Courthouse.

But the truth, it seems, is more historic and complicated than that. 

Like much of the mountains’ history, it’s tied to Cherokee lore and Tsul’kălû’ – a slant-eyed giant who looks a little like Bigfoot and is known as the Cherokee’s version of the Devil. 

He is the lord of the game, aka the hunt, whose anglicized name is Jutaculla or Judaculla. Thought of as an evil spirit, Tsul’kălû’ is believed to have resided in a cave at the Devil’s Courthouse which he used as both a literal court and a private dance chamber.

Maybe when he wasn’t fiddling for souls, the Devil was holding dance battles for them. 

It sounds like the place of the slant-eyed giant was hopping.

What is Tanasee Bald?

Other Cherokee legend associates Tsul’kălû’ with Tanasee Bald, which is located at the junction of Haywood, Jackson and Transylvania counties. You can read a Cherokee tale about him and how the bald got to be bald here.

Below the bald is a place called Judaculla Rock, which is an outcrop of soapstone known for its ancient carvings and petroglyph. Judaculla is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The boulder is located in a bowl-shaped depression that was man-made.

Speculation varies on what the story the carvings are trying to convey. But there is a seven-toed footprint (I also saw it described as a seven-finger handprint) cut into the rock that is believed to represent Tsul’kălû’.

There is speculation that the Cherokee used the spot for religious ceremonies right up until the time they were forced from their homes. However, I don’t know how scholarly that work is. 

The rock is accessible off a gravel road. There is a wooden viewing platform. The rock belongs to Jackson County which is making preservation efforts. Visitors are welcome during daylight hours. 

The Judaculla Rock
Below Tanasee Bald is a place called Judaculla Rock, which is an outcrop of soapstone known for its ancient carvings and petroglyph. Judaculla is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (photo by Luanne Allgood/shutterstock.com)

What about the Devil’s Courthouse Trail? 

It sounds like an easy hike.

It’s a mostly paved trail and less than a mile from the Devil’s Courthouse overlook to the rocky summit and back to the parking area.

But make no mistake, it can also be a strenuous trail. It would be smart to have a fairly accurate understanding of your fitness level before undertaking the hike.  

Do I have to hike the trail to see the mountain views? 

If you want panoramic views of the mountain’s landscape, yes. There are also fantastic mountain views from the beautiful overlook over the balsam fir trees and along the first half of the trail.

But, again, whether it’s the first half or the final stretch, the hike is pretty much a consistent upward climb. Certainly, it would be a shame to go that way and miss the best of the views.

But I had an uncle have a heart attack while climbing a strenuous mountain trail once in Kentucky. He survived. But do be aware of your physical limitations.

Read Also: Clingmans Dome may soon receive a new name; what you should know

Sunrise view from the Devil's Courthouse overlook
Low clouds over the Appalachian Mountains at sunrise from the Devil’s Courthouse overlook (photo by John Bilous/shutterstock.com)

What about the other Devil’s Courthouse? 

Whiteside Mountain in Jackson County, North Carolina boasts high white cliffs. One of the overhangs there is referred to as the Devil’s Courthouse.

But access is limited to the site due to dangerous conditions including high winds which the park service fears might prove tempting for paragliders.

Whiteside Mountain also figures in the lore of another Cherokee legend that speaks of Spearfinger – a powerful female monster – who built a bridge from the Hiwassee River to the mountain. 

Read Also: The Cherokee legend of Spearfinger: What did she look like?

Have you visited Devil’s Courthouse? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.

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1 thought on “The surprising Cherokee history behind Devil’s Courthouse in NC”

  1. Judaculla judged the hunters on how well they treated the animals after they had been hunted. Legend has it that if animals were mistreated afterward that he would take them to the Court house to judge their actions.

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