Explore Western North Carolina’s Scenic Drives: A Road Trip Guide

by | Blue Ridge Mountains, Cherokee National Forest, Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Summer is quickly winding down and the crisp air of fall will arrive before you know it. Have you taken a road trip, yet, through the awe-inspiring scenic Great Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina? Or the Nantahala National Forest and the Cherokee National Forest? Explore western North Carolina’s scenic drives no matter what time of year, these mountains are always a sight to behold–scenic overlooks that take your breath, winding country roads under a canopy of trees (especially beautiful when they don their colored leaves), and those little-known out-of-the way treasures to stop at and visit for a spell. Carolina Outfitters wants you to have a peaceful drive with the windows rolled down and the wind in your hair as you explore our beautiful home and let the fresh mountain air saturate your soul. We’ve prepared a road trip guide below of five of the most awesome scenic drives in Western North Carolina.

Blue Ridge Parkway

blue ridge mountains at parkway in north carolina

The Blue Ridge Parkway connects the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. Construction of this 469 mile road began in 1936 and was completed in 1987. The connection brought tourism to the area, and pulled the Appalachian region out of the Great Depression. Traveling the parkway takes you along the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina and Virginia offering panoramic views of the mountains and jaw-dropping beauty everywhere you look. The parkway is divided into districts–the Ridge and Plateau regions are located in Virginia, and the Highlands and Pisgah regions are located in North Carolina. Carolina Outfitters white water rafting is on the North Carolina side so that’s where the focus will be for this blog post,

 

Must See Stops Along the Blue Ridge Parkway

  • In addition to the scenic views, there are many waterfalls along the route–Linville Falls, Looking Glass Falls, Skinny Dip Falls, Graveyard Fields, Crabtree Falls, and several more. Stop and visit at least one of these natural wonders.
  • Stop and admire the view at Stone Mountain Overlook (a mountain formed by a huge rock) and have a picnic. 
  • Stop at Doughton Park–here you’ll find cabins that were part of Appalachian life and miles of hiking trails. 
  • Take a break at Sally Mae’s, a general store in operation since 1958. Sally Mae’s also sells regional crafts and arts from over 500 area artisans. 
  • Visit Moses Cone Memorial Park home of Flat Top Manor, a 1901 house that belonged to Moses Cone, an industrialist and philanthropist. Stretch your legs and hike up to the firetower. 
  • One of the most mentioned views is Grandfather Mountain. Be sure and visit the environmental habitats and observe the diverse wildlife. Cross the mile high swinging bridge, if heights don’t make your stomach feel queasy, for some magnificent views.

 

There is so much to see and do along the Blue Ridge Parkway, it can feel overwhelming. Blue Ridge Heritage offers a Places to Go map that you can personalize by plugging in your interests. 

 

Nantahala Byway

Ferebee park nantahala nc in fall with red maple treeFerebee Park/Memorial Picnic Area

Since the wagon trails of the 1800s, people have been traveling the road that passes through the Nantahala Gorge where lumber barons made their fortune for a short time. A railroad was built to connect Asheville to Murphy fueling the logging trade and bringing the outside world to Western North Carolina. The Nantahala Byway runs from Whittier, North Carolina on highway 74 and through the heart of white water rafting in the Nantahala Gorge and on into Murphy. This 43 mile drive takes you through some beautiful scenery in the Nantahala National Forest, especially along the Nantahala River. Though the drive is not long, there is plenty to see and do along the way.

 

Must See Stops Along the Nantahala Byway drive

  • Stop in at the quaint little town of Bryson City, grab a bite of breakfast at Everett Street Diner in a country-style setting, then visit The Chocolate Shoppe to get some old-fashioned confectionery for your road trip.
  • If you’re up for a curvy ride, take a side-trip down Highway 28 South. This crooked road, known as Black Snake Road to the locals, meanders toward Franklin, North Carolina. Stop at the scenic overlook known as Horseshoe Bend where the Little Tennessee River bends around like a horseshoe. Back on the road still headed south, take a right at the Tellico Bridge onto a gravel road that runs along the Little Tennessee River. Gravel gives way to pavement on Needmore Road and brings you back onto highway 19/74. 
  • Turn left and keep left where highway 19/74 becomes a two-lane road with some beautiful scenery, especially in the fall when the leaves begin to change.
  • Before you head into the Nantahala Gorge, stop at Nantahala General Store (formerly known as the Nantahala Food Mart) and grab some snacks for the rest of your trip. Be sure to browse the gift shop attached to the store! And, if you have some time, stop at the Nantahala River Gem Mine to sift for gems.
  • Drive through the iconic Nantahala Gorge and enjoy the rushing white water of the Nantahala River. Stop at a swinging bridge, cross over to the railroad tracks, take a left, and hike a short distance down to the Devil’s Kitchen | Indian Caves.
  • Stop at Ferebee Park to admire the river and have a picnic lunch. 
  • Stop at Patton’s Run (named for a one-armed postman named Charlie Patton who taught beginner canoeists as an instructor at Camp Mondamin) and watch Carolina Outfitters rafters navigate some cool white water on the Nantahala River.
  • Next up, take another side-trip onto Wayah Road where the commercial rafting companies put in for a trip down the river. Stretch your legs a bit and, from the put in parking lot, hike down to the old Matthew and Sara Cole’s 1870s homestead where only the chimney remains. Contemplate what life might have been like in another era. Get back onto Wayah road to see the Nantahala Cascades, then return to 19/74 to continue your journey. 
  • Stop in Murphy for a bite of supper at Julie’s Place (closed on Sundays) and experience some downhome southern comfort food to top off your day of scenic wonders.

 

Fontana Byway drive

fontana Dam in north carolinaFontana Dam

Once upon a time, our beautiful mountains were harvested for their lumber, until the government said no more and established the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One such lumber camp was named Fontana by Mrs. George Leidy Wood from New York who fell in love with the area whenever she spent time in the Montvale Lumber Company camp. In 1942, the lumber barons were kicked out and construction of the Fontana Dam began to provide hydro-electric power. This in turn created Fontana Lake which brought recreation fun to Western North Carolina where people could swim, fish, hike, and boat. 

The Fontana Byway is also known as Indian Lakes Scenic Byway (because of the lakes with Indian names along its path). Your road trip runs along NC Highway 28 North and US Highway 129 taking you all the way to the Fontana Dam and beyond.

 

Must See Stops Along the Fontana Byway 

  • As soon as you start down 28 North, Fontana’s finger lake is on your left, the Almond Boat Dock is on your right. Stop and spend a peaceful few minutes near the water, or go for a short swim if you have towels and a change of clothes. 
  • Back on the road you’ll cross a bridge that spans Fontana Lake. Drink in the beauty of this remote mountain lake as you drive along the bridge.
  • Don’t pass through Stecoah without stopping at the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center. Here you can learn about the history of the Cherokee Indians who lived in the valley, attend summer music festivals, and purchase regional arts and crafts.
  • Make a stop at Fontana Dam. We suggest parking and walking across the dam to fully experience this engineer of wonder and view the Fontana Lake in all its beauty and glory. After your walk, get in your vehicle and cross the dam. Take a right onto Powerhouse road and visit the base of the dam.
  • Spend the night at Fontana Village where you can take a scenic cruise on the lake at the Marina.
  • The next morning, head into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and drive along the scenic Cheoah Lake. Take a left onto US Highway 129 to continue your journey.
  • Check out the Cheoah Dam on the Little Tennessee River where Harrison Ford jumped in the movie The Fugitive.
  • Feel like stretching your legs again? Look for Yellow Creek Falls on your left. A short hike through the Nantahala National Forest will take you to a splendid waterfall in a peaceful setting.
  • Visit the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and Santeetlah Lake. Some great hiking and camping awaits you if you want to spend an extra day in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
  • NC 143 will take you to Robbinsville where US Highway 129 ends at US Highway 74 where you’ll pick up the Nantahala Byway. Head toward the Nantahala Gorge for some more scenic beauty.

 

Yes, you’ve traveled in a loop! Your road trip will lead right back to the 19/74 Highway 28 junction where you began.

 

Waterfalls Scenic Byway drive

dry falls with waterfall and people hiking in franklin nc.Dry Falls

The Waterfalls Scenic Byway runs 98 miles beginning on Route 64 from Rosman to Murphy, North Carolina. The purpose of this road trip is to visit as many waterfalls as you can cram into a day…or two. There are over 200 waterfalls along this 98 mile stretch. Some are super easy to access, others take a little more effort to visit. Carolina Outfitters (home of the most fun you’ll have white water rafting in the Great Smoky Mountains!) has chosen a few favorites to highlight. Visit North Carolina Tripping for even more waterfalls on this western North Carolina scenic drive.

Toxaway Falls

Toxaway Falls is the first waterfall you’ll see on your journey. You will drive over it on Highway 64 between Brevard and Cashiers. In 1902 engineers began building a stone and clay dam creating Toxaway Lake. In July of 1916 hurricanes dumped over 20 inches of rain on the area. A third hurricane, along the Gulf of Mexico, proved to be too much and the dam collapsed, spilling over 5 billion gallons of water that rushed downward destroying everything in its path and stripping the earth down to the bedrock. Oddly enough the only casualty was an old blind mule. Due to the loss of tourism and the Great Depression the dam wasn’t rebuilt until the 1960s. Today, a beautiful 150 foot waterfall spills over the bedrock starting at Lake Toxaway.

Rainbow Falls, Turtleback Falls, and Hidden Falls

In Sapphire, North Carolina, these three waterfalls are found pretty close to each other in Gorges State Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains. They share a nice visitor’s center with restrooms, a museum, and gift shop. Some hiking is involved but nothing too strenuous. These beautiful waterfalls are fed by the Horsepasture River accumulating in a 125 foot drop, creating a mist that you can sometimes see rainbows in.

Bridal Veil Falls

Bridal Veil Falls is located in the Cullasaja River Gorge in the Nantahala National Forest and can be viewed right beside the road on Highway 64 from Highlands. At one time, you could drive behind the falls, but icy conditions and falling rock became a hazard and traffic was diverted away from it. Today you can park and walk behind the falls, but don’t expect much water unless it has rained a great deal. It’s a noteworthy waterfall simply because you can see it from your car as you drive by. If you don’t feel like a hike, Bridal Veil Falls is perfect for a visit.

Dry Falls

Dry Falls is a treasure and favorite spot to visit for the tourists and locals alike. It’s located just off of Highway 64 in the Nantahala National Forest. Stairs and a path have been built down to the waterfall for ease of access, or you can view them from the observation platform. It’s fun and awe-inspiring to walk behind the falls as the water thunders down, misting your body with water (bring a towel or wear a raincoat!). 

Glen Falls

Time to stretch your legs! Glen Falls is a popular stop on the Waterfall Byway. After a short drive off of Highway 64, on a dirt road, some walking is involved. It’s well worth the one mile in and one mile out hike to see some beautiful cascades and three major waterfalls. 

 

Now that you’ve seen your fill of waterfalls stop in Highlands, a pretty little town, for some lunch or supper and maybe some shopping before you leave.

 

Cherohala Skyway Scenic Byway drive

fall road with motorcycles on the Cherohala SkywayCherohala Skyway-21 by DzmitryParul is licensed under CC BY 2.0

 

The Cherohala Skyway gets its name from the combination of the Cherokee National Forest and the Nantahala National Forest (Chero…hala), and officially opened in 1996 after 34 years of construction. This two-lane, 50 mile road runs from Robbinsville, North Carolina to Tellico Plains, Tennessee and crosses both national forests. Breathtaking after breathtaking views await you on this twisty, curvy road. It’s been called a super-sized version of the Tail of the Dragon at Deals Gap near Robbinsville, loved by motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts the world over. 

As you begin your scenic drives of western North Carolina on the NC side, stop to visit the Chief Junaluska Memorial and Museum located on the left side of the road. Chief Junaluska fought alongside Andrew Jackson in 1814 at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Pack a picnic lunch (our favorite mountain fixin’s: fried chicken, mashed potatoes or potato salad, biscuits, green beans, and a big ol’ jug of southern sweet tea should hit the spot), and stop at one of the many scenic overlooks that provide picnic tables. Once you start your trip into the Tennessee side, stop at the Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center for local and area information about lodging, attractions and shopping. Be sure to visit the gift shop!

 

Best Overlooks on the Scenic Drive of the Cherohala Skyway

cherhalo skyway with hemlock treesCreative Commons Attribution 3.0 | Brian Stansberry

Shute Cove Overlook

During your scenic drives in western North Carolina, Shute Cove is one of the first scenic overlooks on the North Carolina side of the Cherohala Skyway and is part of the Unicoi mountains in the Southern portion of the Appalachian Mountains . Logging companies cut most of the old growth trees, but the second growth trees are just as pretty anytime of the year. 

Big Junction Overlook

Big Junction is the second-highest summit in the Unicoi Mountain Range. Be prepared for mostly fog and clouds at this stop, which has its own beauty and charm. From here you’ll start your descent toward the Tennessee side of the Cherohala Skyway. 

Brushy Ridge Overlook

Brushy Ridge Overlook is a good stop to have a picnic lunch while loving the breath-taking view of the mountains where you can also see the outline of an old foundation from a former structure.

Turkey Creek Overlook

If you stop at any of the overlooks, Turkey Creek is a must-see, must-stop overlook. It’s also a good place for access to a restroom. Several picnic tables are available with plenty of parking.  

Osterneck Overlook

This overlook offers a spectacular view of the Cherokee National Forest. Learn some local history of the area from the information panels at this stop on your scenic drive in western North Carolina.  

Visit Ride the Cherohala Skyway for a complete list of scenic overlooks. Stop at any of them that captures your attention. Plan for a full day of road-tripping so you can enjoy most of the overlooks, maybe take a hike or two, and have lunch.

Now that we’ve given you a guide for a road trip, get out there and drive, but pay attention while doing it, and always stop and park at overlooks before you start admiring the views. 

Book a white water rafting adventure with Carolina Outfitters before you leave!

 

Margaret Marr, is a local author of paranormal, mystery, and suspense laced with romance. She has written over 15 books available on Amazon. 

 

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