photograph by C2 Photography

Cherohala Skyway. The words are a whisper, magical and mysterious, promising a path through the clouds. But this road is real. It begins in Robbinsville and winds 43 miles through hardwood forests, up mountain peaks, and over the state line to Tellico Plains, Tennessee — a bond between neighbors. That connection is what sparked the idea in 1958. (Construction took its own circuitous route; after nearly four decades, the Cherohala opened in 1996.) Between the two small towns, the skyway leads up and away from civilization, rising to more than 5,300 feet at its highest point. It’s at least 10 degrees cooler on top of the world, and a whole lot quieter — except for the motorcycles that zip around the scenic byway’s twists and curves. Start with the name Cherohala, which borrows from the two national forests through which it passes: Cherokee, mostly on the Tennessee side, and Nantahala, in North Carolina. The rest of the story unfolds on the open road.

 

Lake Santeetlah

Drivers headed for the Cherohala Skyway pass Lake Santeetlah soon after hitting the road in Robbinsville. But the view from behind the wheel doesn’t do pristine Santeetlah justice, so those in the know trade their cars for canoes, or, in warm weather, go swimming at Cheoah Beach. In 1928, the Tallassee Power Company — now Tapoco — completed Santeetlah Dam, impounding the Cheoah River to harness hydroelectric power. In the years since, seemingly little has changed: The majority of the shoreline is preserved as Nantahala National Forest, meaning that outside of a few small communities, like the Town of Lake Santeetlah, the land is untouched and undeveloped. So the placid lake mirrors the landscape around it, literally and figuratively, reflecting the Unicoi, Snowbird, Yellow Creek, and Cheoah mountains all around. And, like most of Graham County, it remains remote and rugged, wild and wonderful.

Trade in your cars for canoes to experience the beauty of Lake Santeetlah. photograph by C2 Photography

 

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

One of the best-known stops on the Cherohala Skyway is a land of giants: towering trees, some more than 400 years old. Since 2010, this old-growth forest has been lovingly tended by Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS), an Asheville-based nonprofit that monitors, preserves, and educates on wilderness areas throughout the region. 

Crews of SAWS members like Gianna Ossello and Joshua Lyon (above) hike into the backcountry and camp out for nine days at a time, braving rain, heat, snow, and wildlife while they clear trails and build retaining walls. photograph by C2 Photography

Because the Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits motorized equipment, the crews use only hand tools. So every time they need to move a fallen limb or a dying tree, they do it the old-fashioned way: with antique crosscut saws. Each saw is about 100 years old and has a name, like “Orion” or “Slim.” The use of traditional methods and tools helps maintain opportunities for solitude in the wilderness, says SAWS program manager Katie Currier. “It brings it all back together, to use these saws that were made in a time when more of our country still looked like these wilderness areas,” Currier says. There’s a poignancy to that. “These saws probably aided in westward expansion; now, we’re using them to care for these areas.”

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is home to towering trees, some dating back 400 years. photograph by C2 Photography

Layers of wilderness cocoon the Joyce Kilmer forest, giving it a primeval hush: Its 3,800 acres are part of a larger wilderness area within Nantahala National Forest. To find a tract of public land so large, and to find yourself at the very heart of it, is special and unique in the Southeast, Katie Currier points out. It’s a fitting tribute to Kilmer, the soldier and poet who wrote, “I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree.” Like so much of Graham County, the forest offers a variety of outdoor opportunities. There’s rugged backcountry, sure, but also a two-mile figure-eight trail; the upper loop leads to Poplar Cove, home of the forest’s oldest and largest residents. Drive in alongside gurgling Little Santeetlah Creek, and immediately, you’re enveloped by the cool, calming shade of this cathedral of trees.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest
5410 Joyce Kilmer Road
Robbinsville, NC 28771
(828) 479-6431
fs.usda.gov/recarea

 

Snowbird Mountain Lodge

Right off the skyway, at the top of a steep driveway, a cozy lodge blends seamlessly into the landscape. Everything about the inn that Arthur and Edwin Wolfe built in 1941 is a celebration of the wilderness all around: The first thing you see when you walk inside is a window with a breathtaking view of the Snowbird Mountains. The Wolfe brothers couldn’t have asked for a better caretaker of their legacy than Robert Rankin, who has owned the lodge since 1995. Over the years, Rankin has made thoughtful additions, always mindful of the purpose of this place: real connection, within and without. Seasonal events — art classes, music series, and wildlife talks — encourage guests to get outside their comfort zones, preferably in nature. “My designation is to preserve and protect this place, to make it as valuable and viable in the present as in the past,” he says. “And to do that, we have to know who we are — and we don’t change.”

Snowbird Mountain Lodge
4633 Santeetlah Road
Robbinsville, NC 28771
(828) 479-3433
snowbirdlodge.com

Snowbird Mountain Lodge blends seamlessly into the landscape. photograph by C2 Photography

Snowbird’s hospitality is inspired by its natural setting, from the rustic great room to the 15 guest rooms in the main lodge. photograph by C2 Photography

A stay at Snowbird includes breakfasts, packed lunches for hiking or picnicking, and elegant dinners like bronzed trout Niçoise. photographs by C2 Photography

 

Yellow Creek Falls

Graham County is a land of dams — most famously the 480-foot Fontana, the tallest dam east of the Rockies. But it’s also a land of waterfalls. One of the easiest to access is Yellow Creek Falls, which tumbles into a tranquil wading pool — a gorgeous reward for about 10 minutes of hiking through the forest. “If you’ve only got one shot at something,” says Daniel Allison, director of Graham County Travel and Tourism, “this is an easy one, and well worth it.”

Yellow Creek Falls
9041 Tapoco Road
Robbinsville, NC 28771

Enjoy a leisurely hike to Yellow Creek Falls where you can listen to its soothing waters and see beautiful fall color. photograph by C2 Photography

 

Wehrloom Honey

Come summertime, skyway wildflowers buzz with busy honeybees. They may be on a mission for Aron Wehr, who tends hives scattered throughout Graham County. Together, Aron, his wife, Jessica, and the bees fill the couple’s colorful shop with candles, soaps, lotions, lip balms, bottles of mead — and, of course, lots and lots of honey. In 2010, Aron gave Jessica a couple of hives for Christmas. Two hives became hundreds, and by 2013, the hobby had blossomed into a livelihood. The shop, with its tiny mead taproom and patio, is a happy place: “Everybody likes honey,” Aron says. Customers often tell him stories about how their parents and grandparents kept bees. “At one point, everyone had hives,” he says. “Everyone has a connection.”

Wehrloom Honey
257 Willie Colvin Road
Robbinsville, NC 28771
(828) 735-2300
wehrloom.com

Aron Wehr tends to Wehrloom Honey’s hives, which produce different hues and tangs of honey. photographs by Tim Robison, C2 Photography

 

The Hub

A group of customers has parked their vehicles and wandered into The Hub. As they scan the menu, one woman asks, “Are we in North Carolina?” Manager Kenny Graham (pictured below) is used to hearing this question, here on the edge of the state. Plenty of drivers and motorcyclists on their way to and from the Cherohala Skyway stop in and fuel up with house-smoked pork, chicken, brisket, and ribs. The restaurant was once an abandoned service station, but seven years ago, owner Greg McCoy had a vision for its renovation. Today, the ’50s-themed diner is decorated with license plates and other souvenirs from devoted customers. McCoy also fixed up the outdoor area: He built an airy structure using 120-year-old barnwood; the tables were created using wood from the lanes at a shuttered bowling alley. Under strings of lights, guests chow down and chuck cornhole beanbags next to the Cheoah River. McCoy may have named The Hub for its location — a popular crossroads for motorsports enthusiasts — but it has grown into a gathering place in its own right.

The Hub
664 Rodney Orr Bypass
Robbinsville, NC 28771
(828) 479-0478
facebook.com/thehubofwncllc

The Hub opened as a coffee shop and quickly switched gears to become a restaurant, serving diner fare — a double cheeseburger with all the fixin’s (right) hits the spot after a long hike — barbecue, ice cream, and still, Kenny Graham says, “the best coffee in town.” Graham and his team bring their creativity to the menu, too; their best-selling sandwich, the Peachy Cuban, is a classic with a twist. photographs by C2 Photography

This story was published on

Saintsing is an associate editor at Our State magazine and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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