No matter how you approach it — east from Asheville on U.S. Highway 19, north from the Blue Ridge Parkway, southwest from Nantahala National Forest — Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort
No matter how you approach it — east from Asheville on U.S. Highway 19, north from the Blue Ridge Parkway, southwest from Nantahala National Forest — Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort sneaks up on you. Whereas the Vegas Strip glows in the Nevada desert like a kitschy bonfire, Jackson County’s gambling mecca materializes out of nowhere, its earth-toned concrete and shiny glass reflecting the colors of the rugged hills hiding it.
The same is somewhat true for the resort’s gaming floor. When the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (ECBI) opened the casino in 1997, games of chance were front and center. But today, guests can trek parts of the 2.6-million-square-foot complex without the blllling-blllling-blllling of 3,000 slot machines in the background. They stroll quiet corridors filled with works by Cherokee artists. They gaze out at Soco Creek, which meanders through the 56-acre property. They buy laurel berry oil soap at Hazelwood Soap Co., order a filet at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and catch some stand-up at The Comedy Zone. But they won’t see roulette wheels spinning from those parts of the resort.
In the past decade, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort has evolved from a midsize gaming house into a regional entertainment hub and one of the primary economic engines west of Asheville. Two years ago this month, the resort opened the Cherokee Convention Center, which comprises 83,000 square feet of meeting space and draws conference-goers from across the nation. And that same month, it also opened its fourth tower of rooms, The Cherokee, bringing the count to 1,833 and cementing its spot among the largest hotels in both Carolinas.
Of course, the gaming floor has had additions, too. But while gambling may forever be the main attraction, it’s no longer the only reason to visit. Today’s resort, which sprawls for nearly half a mile, defies a single descriptor. From the outside, passersby can see the four hotel towers, the convention center, and the 3,000-plus-seat event center. There are three parking decks, a “multi-tainment zone” complete with an arcade and a 24-lane bowling alley, and even a “green” roof featuring 22,000 square feet of succulents. Indoor walkways connect these various wings, offering expansive views of the mountains that draw tourists to western North Carolina.
This is a far cry from the earliest days of the casino nearly three decades ago. “It used to be so loud and smoky,” says EBCI citizen Shana Bushyhead Condill, executive director of the nearby Museum of the Cherokee Indian. “It was just chaos, because it was mostly just the machines.”
That began to change in 2008, when the resort underwent its first major expansion. The EBCI added more hotel rooms, more restaurants, and a spa. But the conference center was the game-changer, says Tiffany Henry, Jackson County’s director of economic development. When she was a kid, Cherokee never stood a chance to attract the kind of large, national conferences that it books now. The town couldn’t have hosted such events even if it wanted to; there wasn’t a meeting room big enough.
Henry saw firsthand evidence that Cherokee had become part of the convention conversation, so to speak, when a colleague from central North Carolina came with her daughter for a statewide cheerleading conference. Her friend and other cheer parents leveraged their visit to sweat out toxins at the spa’s sauna, hike on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and soak in the Native American culture that permeates the county.
This is what the EBCI has had in mind with each expansion: Conference-goers “stay on the end of the [resort] where the conference center is, and they don’t have to venture onto the casino floor unless they want to,” Henry says.
Brad Walker, who lives in nearby Bryson City, has talked to a lot of tourists — and not just because he managed hotels in Jackson and Cherokee counties for more than 15 years. He and his wife own Uncle Bunky’s Christmas Cottage and Bunky’s on Everett T-shirt shop, both about a 20-minute drive from the resort.
Visitors may have their sights set on winning big, but for many, it’s no longer their sole focus.
In recent years, Walker, the “Bunky” of said stores, has noted a shift in tourism, both in who the visitors are and where they spend their money. Cherokee is no longer the town it was in the days before legalized gambling, when mom-and-pop shops along the highway sold Native American crafts. Nor is it the town it was shortly after the casino opened, when tourists flocked to the area with only gambling in mind. Today’s visitors may have their sights set on winning big, but for many, it’s no longer their sole focus.
“We’re getting a lot of people who are fairly well off coming to the area, and they want to look around,” Walker says. “They find these little towns like Bryson City and Waynesville and Sylva, and they might come back. They might even come back here to live.”
The conference center has had an impact on the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, says Condill, who returned to North Carolina in 2021 to run the facility. The resort’s conference center opened around the same time, and Condill went to the launch ceremony believing that it would give the EBCI another opportunity to grow the local economy. She’s seen a reciprocal relationship develop between the museum and conference center, providing more opportunities to share Cherokee history and culture.
“Our strategy had always been that the casino was a separate audience, that folks going to the casino weren’t necessarily interested in coming to the museum,” she says, noting previous failed efforts to include trips to the museum in package deals with the resort. Today, however, things are going so well that Condill and her staff are planning a major renovation, perhaps even with a space for weddings.
Touring the museum, chatting with Uncle Bunky, braving a whitewater rafting ride at the Nantahala Outdoor Center just 25 miles southwest — these are the ingredients of a laid-back vacation. And all without the ding-ding-ding of alarm bells and the clickety-clack of slot machine handles to interrupt the calm.