On a beautiful, sunlit day in early December, Tim & I went hunting for waterfalls along the Cherohala Skyway. Locals told us that we’d find at least eight falls within hiking distance along this scenic road that cuts through the Cherokee National Forest.
With time to kill while we waited for the repairs on our RV to be completed, Tim & I decided to drive the Cherohala in its entirety from Tellico Plains, TN to Robbinsville, NC, a distance of approximately 40 miles.
Actually, we had no choice but to drive it entirely because once you set forth on the skyway, there are no alternative routes back. Neither are there gas stations or food vendors. Fortunately we had full tummies and a full tank.
The mile-high skyway, peaking at 5,390 feet, took over 30 years to build and cost more than $100 million. One of 96 National Scenic Byways, many people say the Cherohala rivals and even surpasses its neighbor, the better-known Blue Ridge Parkway on the other side of the Smoky Mountains. If it's not the best, it runs a close second!
Finding our first waterfall was easy. The dramatic Bald River Falls cascades over 100 feet to the rocks below and you can see it without leaving your car.
Of course, we did leave the car because we wanted to get as close as possible. We wanted to hear its voice roaring in our ears and feel its mist caressing our faces.
Dropping the car in the nearby parking area, we walked back to the bridge. Slippery with the ice that had formed from the mist, the bridge was almost my downfall. If another couple had not warned me to proceed with caution, I would have fallen flat on my face. As it was, I had to windmill my arms to retain my balance. Still, it was worth it to experience this majestic force of nature.
We had to work harder to find the next waterfall. Taking the trail at the upper end of Bald River Falls’ parking lot, we climbed above the falls. Our second destination was Kahuna Falls.
Working our way upstream was not easy due to the frost-covered rocky trail, but we made it.
Although the drop at Kahuna Falls is only 10 feet, making it less spectacular than its sister, the falls were still worth the hike to view them.
We’d hoped to continue upwards on the same trail to Bald River Cascade, but as we climbed, the path became more and more treacherous. Deciding to stay safe rather than sorry, we turned around before we ever made it to the cascades.
Our consolation prize was the rainbow that formed out of the mists of Bald River Falls.
Back in our car, we began to realize that we were not the only hunters on the skyway. Biologists estimate that the population of black bears in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is roughly 1,500 and we were just outside the park's confines.
The volunteer at the Cherohala Visitors Center back in Tellico Plains had warned us that today was the opening day of hunting season for black bears, but we thought little of it at the time. However, pickups loaded for bear were almost the only traffic we encountered all day.
Clustered in several of the scenic overlooks were hunters outfitted with orange vests and camouflage pants. I didn’t feel comfortable snapping photos of men carrying guns so the only shots I took were at zoom level. I did capture one close-up though--a hunting dog who was raring to be released.
Seeing all the hunters made us re-evaluate our own hunt. Was it really worth tramping through the woods without the protection of orange clothing just to capture another digital image of a waterfall? We thought not!
Instead we opened the sunroof on the car and listened to Christmas carols while we exclaimed over the beauty we found around every curve. No doubt our singing along with the music scared the bears away because we didn’t see a one. Perhaps we were also lucky that no hunter took offense at our noise.
Lake Santeetlah with its 76 miles of shore appeared on our left. It was tempting to stop but we were burning daylight and needed to press on.
At the end of the road and three hours after we'd begun, we turned off the skyway onto Highway 129. We headed back to Vonore, TN, through The Tail of the Dragon, an 11-mile-long series of hairpin twists and turns.
I can attest to the suitability of the road’s name. It was easy to imagine that the road mimicked the snap of a dragon’s tail.
Even though Tim took it slow, there were still times when I had to clutch my seat’s armrest to feel secure.
I’m not sure it counts as a waterfall, but the spew of water through the floodgates of the Cheoah Dam recalled for us the 3 days of rain earlier that week. No doubt the runoff of that water contributed to the spectacular volume being released over the dam’s spillway. This dam might look familiar. It was used as a filming location for the 1993 movie, The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford.
Towards the top of The Tail was a scenic overlook that showed how far we'd come from the Dam.
We saw a several small waterfalls as we traveled along the Tail. These were nestled in the bends of the road as we came around the curves.
So I guess that upped our waterfall count for the day. We were still short of the eight promised by the locals, but the ones we saw were definitely worth the hunt.