Early Spring in Cherokee, North Carolina
A Girlfriend Getaway for Grown Ups in the Great Smokies
By Sara Damewood
My friend Tammie and I found the perfect girlfriend getaway in the Great Smoky Mountains during late March. We hadn’t seen each other in person for several years and wanted a low-cost adventure that would help us relax and renew our friendship.
Tammie discovered a deal for flying into the airport in Asheville, North Carolina, and I knew just the place for our retreat: Cherokee. Tammie, who loves trees and peaceful rivers, agreed.
March is the off season in Cherokee, which sits at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is the main town in the Qualla Boundary, the ancestral home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
It’s technically not a reservation but property of the Cherokee, a sovereign nation preserved in a land trust by the federal government. We visited on quiet weekdays, reducing our motel cost.
I had a special interest in the tribe, and not just because I was a part of their history. I had lived in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1970s when I was married to a park ranger. I returned as an elderly pilgrim, intrigued by the Cherokee story.
The Water Was There First
The first thing we did after checking into our motel in Cherokee was take a walk by the Oconaluftee River. This centerpiece of the Qualla Boundary flows from the mountainous national park into a greenway in the downtown area. The pristine water dances over the rocks and provides a sanctuary for the weary tourist. We were enchanted.
In Cherokee mythology, the earth is a great island floating in a sea of water, and it’s suspended by four cords hanging down from a solid-rock sky vault. At first, all was water until the animals (who lived above the arch and were feeling crowded) ventured below to have a look.
I encourage you to read or hear from native storytellers this tale of courage and exploration by various animals. Spoiler alert: it has a happy ending when the Great Buzzard flaps its wings in soft mud and creates mountains and valleys.
Historically, the Cherokees have believed that rivers and streams are pathways to another world, a cosmos beneath the flowing water. Certainly, we felt that magic!
Wine on the Balcony
Many of the motels in Cherokee have balconies. Some sit beside the river. We enjoyed a lower-cost view of the mountainside, where we could sip wine and enjoy a light supper.
Something to keep in mind if you enjoy conversation this way is that everyone nearby can hear you. We were reminded of this as we noticed bubbles floating downward. What a gentle way to let someone know what you’re overhearing!
The Long Man
The next morning, we headed to the Oconaluftee Visitors Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We were blessed with good weather; so we were comfortable with light sweaters. However, we were prepared for unpredictable March rain and winds.
Actually, the rain in the Great Smoky Mountains contributes to an amazing diversity of plants and animals. It is the most biodiverse park in the National Park system, encompassing over 800 square miles. Over 19,000 species have been documented in the park.
The park service had a whiteboard on the visitors’ center porch that listed which wildflowers were blooming and where to look, and we started from there to walk on the mostly-flat Oconaluftee River Trail which meanders back into the town of Cherokee. The trail is 1 ½ miles one way to the Qualla Boundary.
At the trailhead, there was the Mountain Farm Museum, which included mostly 19th century buildings. I had been there in 1979, dressed in period clothing as a volunteer. Everything looked the same to me. Although the outdoor museum was open, the farmhouse was closed.
So, we walked along the river for a while, noticing a few violets near the path. If you’re serious about wildflower identification, I recommend bringing a pair of binoculars and a guidebook.
Late March is a good time to view flowering plants before trees’ leaves block their sunlight.
The Cherokees call the Oconaluftee River “Gunahita Asgaya,” which means “a long man” with his head in the mountains and his feet in the sea. His body grows as it goes along, and he was historically called on by the Cherokee for strength and washing away physical, mental and spiritual ailments. When he needs more water, he begins to sing, praying to the sky for water.
A Native Lunch
We got takeout lunch at Newfound Lodge Restaurant, which has since been renamed Luftee River Restaurant. It was Thursday, which was the day for a “Traditional Indian Dinner.” Much of it was tasty country cooking that’s common American fare, but the Bean Bread was distinctly Cherokee. Also, the Golden Hominy dish represents a tribal staple: corn. Unfortunately, they serve squash on another day.
Beans, corn and squash are called the “Three Sisters” of Native American agriculture, because the plants nurture each other like family; they thrive better together than when planted alone.
When I lived in the national park in the late 1970s, I volunteered at a tribal agency and was invited to have lunch with some of the staff. That group of female friends introduced me to venison and the “three sisters.” I remember my delight in learning about their historically matrifocal culture, power and independence as women. At that time, these Cherokee Americans adopted aspects of American culture while also honoring their heritage. So, I was curious to know how their communal lives had evolved.
Cherokees and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
After lunch, we headed up Highway 441 (also known as Newfound Gap Road), the road that takes you through the national park over the mountain toward Gatlinburg, Tennessee. For a few months in 1979, I drove that route daily to my clerical job at the park headquarters.
Then, as now, there was debate about how to manage the park in a way that preserves its natural beauty but that also allows for tourism. Should we mow? Should we have a road through the park at all?
From the Oconaluftee Visitors Center, we drove 7.5 miles to the trailhead for Kephart Prong Trail. It was named after Horace Kephart, who wrote about Smoky Mountain culture in his book “Our Southern Highlanders” and who advocated for the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The federal government created the park in June 1934, and it opened a world of tourism to the Cherokees. Until then, their main contact with whites was their October Cherokee Fair. The park’s popularity grew despite the Great Depression, and in August 1939 an estimated 169,000 people visited. Cherokee became the eastern gateway to the park.
So, as we walked just two tenths of a mile up Kephart Prong Trail, we noticed vestiges of that era. The Civilian Conservation Corps camp was located there between 1933 and 1942. Remnants include a chimney from the camp barracks, the rock framing for the camp signboard and a water fountain.
The 2.1-mile hike to the Kephart Shelter at the end of Kephart Prong Trail starts with a footbridge over the Oconaluftee River and ascends along a rushing mountain stream. We found more violets scattered near the path before turning around to avoid the climb up Mount Kephart.
A Crow’s Eye View
We drove another 8.2 miles, ascending through cove hardwood, pine-oak and northern hardwood forest to the spruce fir forest at the Newfound Gap parking area.
Nearly a mile high, significantly cooler and fragrant with evergreen woodland, it’s the highest point on the highway before it starts its descent to Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
The view of the “gap” (a low point in the mountain ridge) is stunning, and there were lots of other visitors beholding the panorama.
As Tammie took the opportunity to call home, I walked around with my camera and delighted in watching the flocks of crows. It was crow courtship season.
I can’t say that I saw them “doing it,” but I certainly got a sense of their social behavior. In the early Spring, groups of ten or more individuals begin to show off for each other.
One showed off for me. I was calling to it, “Please come down here, pretty bird, and let me get a good look at you!” By golly, he did. He posed on the rock wall beside me.
They say that crows and ravens (in the Corvid family) are intelligent, smarter than your dog. The Cherokees have known that, and Corvids have had a special place in their mythology.
In the late afternoon, we were back on the Oconaluftee River Trail expecting a quiet stroll along the water. Elk like water too, and we didn’t realize they might be crossing the trail about that time.
The best time to find them is early morning or late evening. Visitors should be sure to read the park regulations about wildlife viewing. We didn’t know that it’s illegal to willfully approach elk within 50 yards, but they were certainly approaching us.
My wise friend Tammie hid behind a tree, and I eased forward a bit with my camera. I think I was more than 50 yards away from those “large, dangerous animals!”
The National Park Service began reintroducing elk to the park in 2001. Since then, the elk population has grown to an estimated 200 individuals.
They are also wandering around the adjacent Qualla Boundary, and the Cherokee are challenged with how to coexist with these magnificent creatures.
Having a spiritual kinship with the land and the animals, natives love seeing elk roaming in undisturbed forest. However, landowners struggle to protect their gardens and property.
Big Cove and the Cherokee Language
The last morning of our visit was chilly, so we took a little time to explore the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in the cultural district of Cherokee. It’s open daily all year and is a great place to learn about the tribal history, art and culture.
I remembered how curious I was in 1979 about the native culture. At that time, I had heard that you should visit the Big Cove area of Cherokee to find the most traditional tribal members and to hear the Cherokee language. Sadly, I never got around to doing that.
So, that’s where Tammie and I headed after lunch. The road through Big Cove winds beside the beautiful Raven Fork stream. We decided to stop at the Big Cove Grocery before heading out of town. There we discovered a young woman, Chastity, and struck up a conversation about Cherokee mythology and language.
I told her a story I had heard that Big Cove was the mythological home of “the little people,” tricksters who came out only at night. They reminded me of leprechauns.
She said “oh, yes,” her family had always talked about how some tribal members had the misfortune of building their homes on top of the trails of the little people. They might find an object (like a button) missing, but then in a few weeks or so, they would find it in some random place.
I had also heard, in the 1970s, that Big Cove had the most people fluent in Cherokee. Chastity remembered elderly family members and others who spoke the language, but over time fewer young adults and children were fluent.
However, now the tribe has instituted the New Kituwah Academy, which is a private bilingual Cherokee and English-language immersion school for Cherokee students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
In a partnership with the western Cherokee nation and Western Carolina University, they are engaged in a race with time to save the language from extinction.
Cherokee Travel Tips
Tammie and I loved our pilgrimage to the Cherokee area, and we hope some of you will also discover this national treasure.
Here are some pointers for your trip:
Explore the Cherokee, NC website.
Check out the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website.
If you visit in the off-season, you may miss the opportunity to hear Cherokee storytellers. So, read some stories before you go. It will greatly enrich your visit. For starters, try “Living Stories of the Cherokee,” collected and edited by Barbara R. Duncan.
Finally, if you are grateful (as we were) for the beautiful natural environment and the enchanting history and culture of the Cherokees, consider thanking your hosts. In Cherokee, “thank you” is pronounced “wado.”
Sara Damewood is a semi-retired clinical social worker in South Carolina and writes travel essays for history buffs on her blog “Conversations with Clio.”