Cherokee National Forest consists of 650,000 beautiful acres in eastern Tennessee. The forest lies along the eastern border of Tennessee and is divided into a north and south section by the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. It’s a land of lush valleys, spectacular waterfalls and seemingly endless mountains.
Cherokee offers a host of opportunities for recreation, adventure and solitude. There are designated trails for horses, ATVs and entire networks built with mountain bikes in mind. For those looking for solitude and an escape from civilization, there are 11 wilderness areas throughout the forest.
The biodiversity of the national forest is remarkable as well. There are over 20,000 documented species in the forest including more than 154 fish alone. Cherokee is truly a special part of the American landscape.
History of Cherokee National Forest
While the forest is beautiful, it’s history is a bit rocky. The land that is now Cherokee was occupied long before it was a national forest. The Cherokee Indians lived on (and off of) this land. The arrival of Europeans forcibly changed their way of life. War and disease drastically changed their well-being. Europeans had been settling in the area since the late 1700s. Finally in 1838, the Federal Government forced the Cherokee people from the land they called home.
The other thing that made a drastic change was mining which began in the 1880s. Over the next 40 years, timber companies tapped Cherokee for lumber. At that time, timber companies were largely unregulated and they took full advantage of it. In 1910, this area provided almost 40% of America’s timber. By the time the timber companies moved out, the land was barren and lifeless. The land they left behind was one whose natural resources had been depleted and whose occupants were poor and struggling to survive.
In the early 1900s, the federal government began protecting present-day Cherokee. In the 1930s, the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) of the New Deal planted thousands of trees, and built trails, roads and fire towers.
Recreation in Cherokee National Forest
Cherokee National Forest only features one ATV trail —Buffalo Mountain ATV Trail. This 13-mile trail is accessible via Horse Cove Gap trailhead near Johnson city. There is a $5 fee to park here.
Biking Cherokee National Forest
Cherokee is a top destination no matter what kind of bike you ride. For cyclists, the roads winding over and around the mountains are a great ride, although it’s worth noting that most of these roads don’t have a designated bike lane.
Cherokee really shines when it comes to mountain biking. There are two great trail systems for mountain bikers. The Tanasi Trail System is the site of the yearly Black Bear Rampage. This trail system features more than 30 miles of trails including the 1.5 mile Thunder Rock Express, an especially memorable descent, .
The Chilhowee Trail System is a network with over 20 miles of trails and notable elevation changes. The elevation range is between 600 and 2,000 feet.
There are more than 30 campgrounds in the forest from the Indian Boundary Recreation Area (87 sites) to Birch Branch Campground (5 sites). Four of these offer RV hookups. Many of these are first come, first served, but some of them will require reservations which can be made at recreation.gov.
The Forest Service permits dispersed camping in a few designated places. There are sites in three areas — Citico Creek Corridor, Paint Creek Corridor and North River Corridor in the Tellico River area.
There is one cabin available to rent in the forest, Donley Cabin. This cabin is a primitive cabin in the Tellico River area. Reservations are required and the cost is $35 a night.
Cherokee offers great fishing opportunities for both cold and warm-water fish. Lakes like Watauga Reservoir, Parksville Lake and Wilbur Lake offer good fishing. These lakes hold species like bluegill, crappie and largemouth, spotted and striped bass as well as crappie and other panfish.
Many of the forest’s fast-moving rivers are stocked with trout. Citico Creek, Beaverdam Creek, Paint Creek and Tellico River are some of the most popular locations for trout fishermen. In addition, most of the mountain streams in the forest have have wild brook, brown and rainbow trout.
Hiking Cherokee National Forest
Hiking is thing that Cherokee offers plenty off. There are dozens of short trails throughout the forest, many of them leading to beautiful waterfalls. If overnight hikes are your thing, try one of the forests longer trails. One such trail is the Appalachian trail. This trail is a 2,200 mile trail that stretches from Maine to Georgia. The Appalachian passes through 14 states and has more than 250 shelters along the way.
The 21 mile John Muir Recreation Trail also is in Cherokee. Part of this trail runs along sections of the beautiful Hiwassee River. The John Muir trail is actually part of the longer Benton Mckaye Trail (300 miles).
Another hike that is well worth the effort is the Pinnacle Mountain Trail. This 4.9 mile trail isn’t the easiest, but the view is well worth the effort. This trail leads to a fire tower perched atop Buffalo Mountain. The views from this tower are panoramic views of Unaka and Roam Mountain as well as the nearby towns. The trailhead is just off Interstate 26 (exit 32) in Unicoi.
Horses are permitted on many trails in the forest. There are also two trail systems especially for horses — The Little Citico Horse Trail Complex and the Starr Mountain Horse Trail Complex. There are also several campgrounds designated for horse camping. Lost Corral Horse Camp offers high lines to tie your horse and Young Branch Campground offers horse stalls and a corral.
There are many great scenic drives throughout the forest, but there are two scenic byways that are especially memorable. These are the 26-mile Ocoee Scenic Byway (the first designated as such in America) and the Cherohala Skyway. The Cherohala Skyway is a 43 mile drive that winds through Cherokee National Forest and into Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina.
Many streams in Cherokee are very clear and a surprisingly great place for snorkeling. 15-20 different species of fish are commonly seen, including drum up to 6 pounds. Turtles and salamanders are also common. Conasauga River (Trail Head #61) and Citico Creek (Young Branch Horse Camp) are two of the most common, but there are many other places to explore on your own. Snorkeling programs can actually be scheduled for groups of 12-24 snorkelers through the Ocoee Whitewater Center.
Many of the forest’s lakes permit boating, waterskiing and wind surfing. Boating is permitted in many places throughout the forest. If you want to use a motorized boat, you will have to launch from one of the ramps at Holston Lake, Watauga Lake or Parksville Lake. The Hiwassee River has Class I-III rapids and rafting, tubing and kayaking is popular here. Outfitters and guides are available.
There are also several designated swimming areas in the forest, many of which are located at day use areas.
Visit Cherokee National Forest
Put Cherokee National Forest on your list of destinations. It’s well worth your time. Explore the Watauga Reservoir by boat, or navigate the popular Appalachian Trail by foot. Ride your mountain bike on the Tanasi Trail System or experience the forest by car on the Ocoee Scenic Byway. From the week-long hiker to the weekend warrior, Cherokee National Forest offers something for everyone. Above all, remember to have fun, be safe and leave no trace.