If you’re thinking about a quick getaway to the mountains, and you’d like to go beyond the familiar destinations of Asheville and Blowing Rock, you’re in for a treat.
This itinerary for an overnight trip to Cherokee, North Carolina, comes from Julie McElmurry. Not only did she grow up in the area, but her parents ran a campground and tourism-based businesses. Julie has a degree in Recreation and Tourism Management from NCSU, so is well versed in the art of having fun and exploring.
She often provides personalized itineraries to friends. The level of detail is limited more by their limits than by her enthusiasm and knowledge of area.
Julie, now based in Charlotte, is the founder of Charlotte Unconventional Film School, and has created a series of documentary films about Franciscan Monastery life.
Cherokee is, roughly, a 4 hour drive, 45 minute drive from Raleigh. It’s about an hour from Asheville, and an hour from Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Julie has a great hotel recommendation, but you might also want to look into renting an RV and staying on a campground.
We’ll let Julie take it from here!
The North Carolina mountains draw visitors from all over the state and beyond, but many people think Asheville or Boone or, maybe, Blowing Rock, are the end-all be-all when it comes to “the mountains.”
I’d like for you to tack on an extra hour to your drive past Asheville and visit Cherokee, NC. Tourism has been one of their main industries since the 1950s and you’ll be part of a long tradition of happy tourists to visit there.
You can return to your urban life in the 704 with a bag of fudge, some taffy, and screen printed t-shirts after just a one-night visit and really feel like you had a nice vacation.
So, come along with me and I’ll take you to the places I visited on a recent overnight trip there in July.
My suggestion is that you first go directly to Mingo Falls for a hike, then spend parts of your day at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Qualla Arts and Crafts, Oconaluftee Indian Village and have supper at Paul’s Restaurant.
Plan to be at the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center (entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) by dusk to see the Elk, get a good night’s sleep, and then spend a day chilling and tubing around the Oconaluftee River and Islands Park.
Take an easy hike to see Mingo Falls
Mingo Falls on National Park Service website
Trailhead: Continue on US-441 through the town of Cherokee then turn right onto Big Cove Road. At the first stop sign turn left and drive 4.5 miles to Mingo Falls Campground, where the trail begins.
To me, a good hike is one that is not very physically demanding but has a big pay off of a view at the top. For this reason, Mingo Falls, a 10 story high waterfall (Niagara is 20 stories high) is one of my favorites, especially when traveling with skeptical friends who are not big into physical exhaustion.
Park (for free, of course, you ain’t in the big city anymore) and mount the few hundred steps, pausing to take in the view of the woods and swigs of your water and catch your breath along the way. This damp air and lush greenery has a quintessentially Great Smoky Mountains feel to it and you’ll enjoy glimpses of the river on your walk up.
At the top is a wide platform for viewing Mingo Falls and taking photos to your heart’s content. Every year, several people die, usually Floridians, because they decide to scale some of North Carolina’s rocky, wet waterfalls and fall to their deaths.
Don’t scale the waterfall. From the platform, enjoy the sounds, the sites, views of it from all over the platform and take your pictures of this ten-story high wonder.
The walk down the staircase (careful, it can be slippery) takes around ten minutes or so. It is common to say “hi” or witty comments like “where’s the elevators” when passing your fellow tourists on the way up or down, offering a friendly smile and/or nod. From here, you can continue into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for lots more hiking, vistas, picnic spots and a spot where you can jump from NC to TN (where the state line is obvious).
Peep at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Stained Glass Windows
Our Lady of Guadalupe
82 Lambert Branch Rd, Cherokee, NC 28719 (right up the hill behind Paul’s Restaurant)
This can be a great surprise if you’re able to keep a secret and one of your traveling companions is a huge fan (aka has a devotion) to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Built in the 1960s, this is one of just two Catholic churches in the entire county. You can stand outside and look through the sliding glass doors to get a perfectly clear view of the window, best when it is sunniest out, of course.
Be sure to tag the post on social media because I have a feeling if more people around NC knew this was here, they’d love to come see it for themselves since such grandiose artistic depictions of this beloved image are so rare here.
Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Museum of the Cherokee Indian
589 Tsali Boulevard, Cherokee NC 28719
Parking is free (of course!) and tickets are very reasonable as you enjoy this self-guided tour of exhibits at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
It was redesigned about 10 years ago by some people who have designed exhibits for Disney, or so I’ve been told. The museum now gives you a better picture of Cherokee people and their long history.
The day we went, several artisans were making crafts and answering questions.
Out front is the giant statue of Sequoyah carved with a chainsaw from one tree in the late 1980s. Sequoyah developed the first Cherokee syllabary (alphabet) in the 18th century.
Read up on the tribe’s renewed efforts to preserve and teach the language in recent decades, which has resulted in younger generations being conversant and even fluent in the Cherokee language now.
These days, the Sequoyah statue is sporting a mask, which is part of a wide, and I think, effective campaign to remind people to keep each other safe from Covid. You’ll see signage around town reminding people that wearing a mask protects elders and one another. Masks are required indoors and everyone I saw was complying.
The Museum has a great gift shop and although the town of Cherokee has lots and lots of gift shops, I especially liked the t-shirts here and came home with one depicting the sunset over the mountains. Visiting here takes about two hours.
Stick your souvenir books, t-shirts, honey and more in the car, and then you can pop across the street to the Qualla Arts and Crafts building.
Qualla Arts and Crafts
Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual, Inc.
645 Tsali Blvd, Cherokee, NC 28719
Over the years, I have purchased some small items from here (a decorative mask, a small basket, and simple plastic beaded jewelry).
From their website, “Founded in 1946, Qualla Arts and Crafts continues to uphold a standard of excellence when it comes to the traditional arts and crafts of the Eastern Cherokee. Showcasing the works of over 250 members”.
If you have some money, this is the place to spend it on pottery, baskets, jewelry, carvings, textiles, pipes, paintings and more. There’s an exhibit on the interior of the building about the origins of this guild and its role in preserving traditional arts and crafts.
Oconaluftee Indian Village
Oconaluftee Indian Village
218 Drama Road, Cherokee, NC
A place we did not visit this time around, but will on our next trip, is the Oconaluftee (pronounced Oh-khan-uh-luft-ee) Indian Village, just up the hill from the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
This is a cool walk through the woods where you can watch men and women demonstrating traditional arts and crafts.
You’ll see how canoes are made not just by carving out the wood, but with a slow, slow smoldering burn.
You can see how a blow gun (which uses poison darts) is made and used, and more.
You’ll have a knowledgeable guide who can answer your questions. Sometimes, in the city, we feel like we have to pretend to know everything, but you’re in a new place, seeing things you haven’t seen before and it is perfectly okay to say that and to ask questions of your guides.
There’s a gentleness and kindness you’ll find all over Western North Carolina. Two hours should be enough time to experience this place, with some walking up and downhill. And guess what: parking is free here.
Enjoy Fry Bread at Paul’s Restaurant
1111 Tsali Blvd, Cherokee, NC 28719
Don’t rely on your usual tools like Yelp and Trip Advisor to gauge other people’s opinions on Paul’s. As you may have noticed, the internet, especially reviews of places, skew toward the negative.
In this case, most complaints are about how long it takes to prepare the food. So, accept that this place might be a little slower than the Dairy Queen, which is next door, but, you’re on vacation. Relax. My husband took a spot on a rocking chair and people watched for the 30 or 40 minutes while waiting for our delicious food to be lovingly prepared.
Meanwhile, his daughter and I peered through some windows of souvenir shops (some are currently closed) and watched the river from a wooden fishing platform across the road from Paul’s.
I also got my photo taken with a concrete triceratops that, if memory serves, spent the 1980s alongside a water slide that was down by the IGA grocery store.
From the fishing platform, we were able to shout greetings to the tubers below who shouted back friendly answers to our queries about where they got their tubes (tube rental place) from and how they planned to get back to their starting place (by walking and carrying the tubes).
There was no cell phone reception there, so instead of scrolling on his phone, my husband enjoyed handing out menus to fellow tourists and watching them order through the tiny window.
I ordered the “Indian Taco,” which is fry bread with chili, cheese, tomatoes, onions and lettuce on top, and they ordered ribeye steak, an elk burger (which seemed wrong to me–read the next section) and pinto beans.
The menu featured lots of interesting game that you might not have tried before. The indoor seating area (and bathrooms) were closed, but the front deck was open and we enjoyed eating there. There are only two places in Cherokee I know of that sell fry bread and the other one is closed right now.
Another way to order fry bread is with honey on it (for dessert).
Check out the herd of elk at dusk
At the Oconaluftee Visitor Center Inside the park, 2 miles north of Cherokee, NC, on US-441
We had plans to peep on the elk at sunset but Paul’s Restaurant was lovingly preparing our delicious meal so we headed out a bit after sunset. I promised my travel companions that there would surely be at least one lollygagger, one slow elk enjoying slow food out in the fields outside the Oconaluftee Visitors Center (at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park).
Sure enough, although our fellow tourists were all piling themselves back into their minivans by the time we arrived, we pulled up and got out of the car in time to see one lonely elk gnawing away at some grass.
They are native to this area but eventually disappeared. They were brought back in the late 1990s and now a few herds roam the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
For some reason, and lucky for us tourists–because it is super easy to get to, there are clean National Park bathrooms nearby and plenty of space to set up chairs for the evening–they appear in these fields around dusk every night (probably at dawn too, but I am not your dawn expert by any means) for their supper.
It is a nice peaceful vibe to sit and watch them emerge from the woods, dozens at a time. We were happy to see one of them, but if you get there earlier, there will be more than that. And no, you cannot pet them or go up to them. You can smile at them and tell dumb jokes, but they don’t laugh readily.
Overnight at the Econo Lodge
Econo Lodge in Cherokee
20 River Road Highway, US-19, Cherokee, NC 28719
Cherokee has lots of family owned motels, many of them built in the 1950s and 1960s, and single story. Some are along the river. We stayed in the Econo Lodge, which is the cleanest Econo Lodge I’ve ever stayed in. There were rocking chairs outside the room and we spent many hours just chilling in the cool night air and talking.
I forgot to mention that the temperature there is about 10 degrees cooler than Raleigh, which meant that when my husband hopped in the car to get a coffee one morning (in July) he turned on the heater in the car.
The Econo Lodge is right in the middle of most everything we wanted to do and see (restaurants, shopping, the Islands Park) and, of course, parking is free.
Breakfast was a to-go bag generously filled with fruit, a muffin and yogurt.
Full disclosure: I have known the owner of this motel since back in the day. My husband and I have spent literally a few hundred nights in Choice hotels and this one is truly the best, cleanest Econo Lodge we’ve ever been in.
Oconaluftee River and Islands Park
Oconaluftee Islands Park
Address is basically just 441 in Cherokee, NC
You can plan on visiting this throughout the day and it might be fun to set aside your second day to just chillax at the Oconaluftee Islands Park.
You can rent or buy tubes and tube down the river (walking up the river and repeating this action) all day.
We sat on the rocks but next time we’re going to bring our folding chairs and a cooler and just watch the water flow all day.
There are lots of nooks and crannies in this little island park where you can have some solitude, or you can people watch in a busier area.
My favorite spot is just about 10 feet upriver from the bamboo forest, a little stone “beach”. If I show up when you’re there, scoot over, though, will ya?
You can get a fishing license and fish for trout here. If you don’t bring chairs, at least bring some beach towels to spread out on.
Oh, and I counted over 10 single shoes laying around, so if you’re going to enter the water with sandals on, make sure they have a strap in the back to keep them on your feet-both feet.
Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort
777 Casino Drive, Cherokee, NC 28719
I don’t have many tidbits to offer on visiting the casino but I do encourage you to do it. Lots of the money spent there stays local and helps fund Cherokee’s awesome school system and more. There is a hotel attached but when I checked the prices for a weekend, rooms cost 5x what regular hotel rooms cost.
You can get sushi, Dunkin’ Donuts, pizza and big steaks, and have a plush experience there. I prefer staying at the family owned motels and eating at the family owned restaurants in town, but if you’re into it, by all means, go try your luck there.
More about Visiting Cherokee
I hope that you have a lot of fun on your trip to Cherokee, NC. There’s plenty more to do there, including mountain biking, more hiking in the Smokies, golf, and driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, which you could take all the way back to Asheville, and enjoy the views-a-plenty, if you can handle the 45 mph speed limits.
I have not taken the opportunity to delve deeply here into the history of this area and the Cherokee people, but I do hope you’ll visit the museum and the Oconaluftee Indian Village so that you gain a greater understanding of whose land you are on.
Also, check out the websites listed for the official visitor’s bureau and the Chamber of Commerce so you can tweak the schedule I suggested here into something that you and your traveling companions will love.
Thank you to Julie McElmurry for this guide to visiting Cherokee. Please check out Charlotte Unconventional Film School, and her series of documentary films about Franciscan Monastery life.Subscribe to Triangle on the Cheap