A first-hand experience visiting Oconaluftee Islands Park in Cherokee
When visiting the Smokies, my family loves to stop and stretch our legs at Oconaluftee Islands Park. It’s a small park in downtown Cherokee, North Carolina. If you’re heading into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from the North Carolina side, chances are you’ll drive right past it, but I always recommend it to visitors traveling through the North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains.
The park is situated on a long, narrow island on the Oconaluftee River. Basically, the island splits the river into two shallow streams of water. It’s the perfect spot for my kids to burn energy wading and splashing in the shallow river.
IN THIS ARTICLE
Subscribe to our newsletter for area news, coupons and discounts
What can you do at the park?
My family likes to feed the ducks and geese or relax in one of the park’s many shady picnic spots. The park also has sidewalks, so it’s easy to bring a wagon or stroller if you need to, which is nice for my family of seven. The water levels can vary depending on the season. Once when we visited in late spring, the water was shallow and gentle enough for my kids to safely wade across the river. Actually, it felt more like an especially wide creek than what I think of as a river. When we visited in June, the water was pleasantly chilly. It happened to be Father’s Day, and several families and groups were there too. Even though it was busy, there was lots of room for everyone to spread out and it never felt crowded. Some groups brought a picnic lunch and others were making use of the picnic tables with grills. There was even a sizeable pavilion for large groups.
My kids had an absolute blast in the river and got soaking wet. When it was time to leave, they changed into dry clothing before climbing back into the car to continue our road trip home. Next time we go, I’ll have them wear bathing suits. Trout fishing is also available, although you’ll need to register online and obtain a permit.
What to know before you go: Trail difficulty, parking and more
Part of why I love visiting this park is the ease of parking. There’s parking available along the road on one side of the river. Visitors can walk across one of two wooden piers for easy access to the island. Also, public bathrooms are located on the piers.
I also like to walk along the Oconaluftee River Trail. The Oconaluftee River Trail is 3.0 miles long if you begin at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and follow the 1.5-mile walking path out and back. It’s considered an easy trail. However, even though it’s relatively flat, there are a few small hills in the terrain. This makes it a popular destination for families with kids and novice trail runners. Unlike most trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, visitors are permitted to walk dogs and ride bicycles on this trail. In fact, the only other trail that allows dogs and bicycles in the national park is the Gatlinburg Trail, which is a 1.9-mile trail that begins near the Sugarlands Visitor Center and meanders along the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River toward the City of Gatlinburg.
How to get to Oconaluftee Islands Park
If you’re traveling north, usually I recommend a drive up Interstate 75 North through Chattanooga and Knoxville. Truthfully, I am not a big fan of interstate driving. So more often than not, I choose to take the more pleasant option, the scenic route. You can take a route through the beautiful scenery of the Nantahala National Forest and into the heart of Cherokee. If you’re coming from Asheville, take I-40 West to Exit 27. From Pigeon Forge, you would take US-441 South.
Cherokee is located within the Qualla Boundary. This 57,000-acre area is governed by the tribal council of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The Qualla Boundary was established in 1876 after the land was purchased in partnership with the Cherokee people. When the Qualla Boundary was established, it legally returned control of the land to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. You’ll notice that the street signs in town feature both English and Cherokee languages.
Have you visited Oconaluftee Islands Park? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!