Southern Mountains: An Outdoor Paradise
It’s rather like the 500 pound black bear at the dinner table; you can’t help but notice it. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park dominates the southern mountains with some of the highest peaks in the region and yes, it is home to approximately 1,500 black bears.
From the panoramic views atop Clingman’s Dome (elevation 6,643 feet), the highest point in the park, to the Appalachian Trail snaking its way through the heart of the park and southward through the Nantahala National Forest, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is more than spectacular views. Along with North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain and the Cape Lookout National Seashore, it is also an International Biosphere Reserve, protecting fragile ecosystems with over 12,000 known species of plants and animals. When viewing wildlife, it’s best to use binoculars and keep your distance. Above all, do not feed the park animals, particularly the bears. For information about the park and to pick up maps and guidebooks stop by the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on Hwy 441.
North Carolina’s southern mountains are an outdoor paradise, with trails, scenic beauty and more than enough activities to keep the most enthusiastic adventurer happy. How about whitewater rafting at the Nantahala Outdoor Center or horseback riding at the Cataloochee Ranch. In winter, bring your skis. The Cataloochee ski area, Sapphire Valley and Scaly Mountain offer skiing, snowboarding and snow tubing.
When you’re tired of the outdoors, come in from the cold and enjoy great restaurants, shopping and attractions in the many quaint mountain towns that are scattered around the region. You’ll find scenic villages with names like Highlands, Cashiers, Sylva, Cullowhee, Bryson City and Maggie Valley filled with antiques shops and mountain crafts galleries. Visit the Mountains Heritage Center celebrating the natural and cultural heritage of the area with exhibits and demonstrations. Ride the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad over 53 miles of mountain terrain, bridges and through tunnels. In Waynesville, be sure to see the collection of art, handicrafts and furniture by North Carolina artists at the Museum of North Carolina Handicrafts.
East of Waynesville you can join the Blue Ridge Parkway and travel southward past Cherry Grove Overlook (mile post 415), a great place to look for migrating Monarch butterflies, and Richland Balsam (elevation 6053), the highest point on the parkway, to where it ends in the Eastern Cherokee Indian Reservation at the foot of the Smoky Mountains. Here you’ll find the town of Cherokee with many attractions and cultural centers. Visit the Oconaluftee Indian Village and step back in time to experience living history in an 18th Century Cherokee community. Visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and learn about the early beginnings of the Cherokee people through story and song. Experience a powwow and see the powerful outdoor drama "Unto These Hills".
North Carolina’s southern mountains are filled with adventure at every bend in the trail. From outdoor activities to scenic drives to Appalachian crafts and music to learning about the rich heritage of the Cherokee people, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the time goes by. You may just have to come back for more.
By Pam Watson
added: December 29, 2008
updated: July 27, 2011