October is a great time of year.
The changing leaves never fail to delight us. And something very cool happens to the slant of sunlight after the Autumn Equinox. Artists know this. As for those who don’t believe it, I’ll quote a famous comedian who likes to say, “I don’t know it’s a fact. I just know it’s true.”
We are blessed to live near two national scenic byways — the Cherohala Skyway and Ocoee Scenic Byway. Both provide enjoyable ways to experience fall color in the mountains and river gorges. And the ease of traveling both in one day is an added benefit.
The Cherohala Skyway climbs to mile-high scenic vistas from Tellico Plains to Robbinsville, North Carolina. The Ocoee Scenic Byway winds alongside the Ocoee River between Ducktown and Ocoee, with a spectacular side trip up FS Highway 77 to the Chilhowie Overlooks.
Jim and I drove the Cherohala Skyway last week on our way to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. We saw traces of color already appearing at high elevations. And we noticed a lot of wildflowers lining the road in North Carolina.
This caused us to wonder why there are more flowers on the east side of the mountains than the west. It reminded me of a conversation I had years ago with a natural resource manager.
He believes the presence of the Tennessee River creates a slightly different climate on the east side of the mountains.
Colorful mountain slopes and river banks are pleasure enough, but I also love the place names encountered along the way. They hint of interesting histories.
Names like “Obadiah,” “West Rattlesnake Rock,” “Marble” and “Isabella.” You might want to take a notebook along to record names you find interesting. When you get home, you can extend the experience by researching the people, places or events that gave rise to the names.
To explore both byways in one day, start in Tellico Plains, the western gateway to the Cherohala Skyway. The road climbs out of town until it reaches over 5,000 feet in elevation. There are overlooks along the way where you can pause to take photos or just drink in the spectacular views.
After climbing to the highest point at Santeetlah Overlook, you’ll start down the mountain into Robbinsville (Graham County) North Carolina. There, you will be entering the homeland of the Snowbird Cherokees. The Qualla Boundary (Cherokee Reservation) is about 40 miles north of Robbinsville, but tribal lands extend south to include the Snowbird Cherokee Community in Graham County.
Linguistic experts tell us dialects vary between the tribal members at Cherokee and those who live around Robbinsville. It’s been suggested the Snowbird dialect might be older.
At Robbinsville, you will pick up Highway 129 to drive east to the junction of US Highway 19 and US Highway 74. There, you can head south toward Murphy, North Carolina. The highway winds through the Nantahala River Gorge and small communities like Marble — named for the white, blue, gray and pink marble that was quarried in the area.
Before white settlement, Murphy was known as “The Place of The Great Leech.” The designation comes from a Cherokee myth that tells of a giant leech that lived at the confluence of the Hiwassee and Valley rivers. The creature was reported to snatch humans that dared to get too close.
Leaving Murphy, you will head west on Highway 64 toward Ducktown and Copperhill to enter Tennessee’s Copper Basin and the eastern gateway to the Ocoee Scenic Byway. The Ocoee Scenic Byway follows part of the Historic Old Copper Road as it snakes through the Ocoee Gorge.
The Old Copper Road was built between 1861 and 1863 so the copper mines could transport ore from the Ducktown Basin to the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad terminus at Cleveland. Wagons pulled by mules and oxen spent two arduous days to get to Cleveland.
The copper haulers and teams spent the night at the “Halfway House,” located where Greasy Creek empties into Parksville Lake.
Notice the Ocoee powerhouses and flume line. Built in the early 20th century, they are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
If time allows, take the side trip up FS 77 to the Chilhowee Overlooks. There, you can look out over Parksville Lake and the mountains that surround it. Continue west on Highway 64 to Highway 411 at Ocoee and you will have driven two national scenic byways in one day.
Driving both byways is an easy one-day trip, but you might want to plan shorter return excursions to certain segments of the route in order to explore some of the small towns and cultural attractions found along the way.
Suggestions that quickly come to mind include: Charles Hall Museum at Tellico Plains, Junaluska Museum at Robbinsville, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, Cherokee County Historical Museum at Murphy, Ducktown Basin Museum at Ducktown and the restored original section of the Old Copper Road at the Ocoee Whitewater Center. But the curious traveler will discover even more.
So, gas up the car, pack a camera and notebook, and enjoy nature’s free show.