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Guide to the Cherokee National Forest

relaxing hikers

Extending from Chattanooga through Bristol, along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, the Cherokee National Forest boasts a wide array of recreational activities, from scenic drives to horseback riding. The forest is filled with historical attractions, mountains, rivers, lakes and waterfalls. It’s so diverse, in fact, that the U.S. Forest Service divides the land into 15 different recreation zones.

Here’s our list of some of the best things to do in the Cherokee National Forest:

Visit Iron Mountain Recreation Zone

The Iron Mountain Recreation Zone is known for its rugged mountains and perfect for catching panoramic views. Take a Sunday drive and pass through the shortest tunnel in the world on TN 133 at Backbone Rock. While you’re there, take in the 40-foot Backbone Falls. For a more extreme outing, you can cover 50-plus miles of trails on a multiday backpacking adventure.

Discover Waterfalls

If you love the majesty of a waterfall, then you’ll enjoy hiking through the Watauga Lake Zone in the northern region of the forest. It’s home to seven different waterfalls, including the 80-foot Laurel Falls. Come for the waterfalls, and stay for the other water sports offered by the lakes and streams in this portion of the forest.

Hike a Portion of the Appalachian Trail

We can’t talk about the Cherokee National Forest without mentioning this famous hiking trail. Come for a day hike, or make it a longer adventure. Either way, you’ll see an abundance of wildlife and incredible views from high-elevation perches.

Raft the Ocoee

You may have watched whitewater rafting when Atlanta hosted the Olympics, but did you know you can raft the same rapids? The Ocoee River Recreation Zone is home to world-class whitewater excursions and mountain-biking trails. For the less daring, the Ocoee Scenic Byway is a great locale for a picturesque drive.

Step Back in Time

The Coker Creek Zone is a perfect spot for enjoying nature while getting a living history lesson. You can walk a portion of the ancient Native American travel route, the Unicoi Turnpike, which was later a segment of the Trail of Tears. You can also pan for gold at the site of the country’s first gold rush. Who knew it was in Tennessee?

Fish or Canoe the Hiawassee

The scenic Hiawassee River Gorge is bordered by tree-lined hillsides and is a peaceful setting for some of your favorite water sports. The area is popular for canoeing, kayaking, rafting and tubing and has a 5-mile section of whitewater that includes several playful class II rapids. You can also fish for trout along three miles of a stocked, designated fishing area. If staying dry is more your style, 20-plus miles of trails offer day-hike and backcountry adventures.

Visit the Backcountry

In the Bald Mountain Zone, roads are limited, but more than 40 miles of trails traverse the forest. You’re bound to see an abundance of wildflowers, and you’ll be wowed by several waterfalls, including Margarette Falls and Still Branch Falls. With so much ground to cover, you may want to take it all in on horseback or bring your gear and stay at one of the campsites in the area.

These activities only scratch the surface of all that you can do in the Cherokee National Forest. What’s your favorite activity in the forest? To read more about recreation in Tennessee click here. 

Most outdoor activities have some level of risk, and you may need to consult an expert before engaging in the activity. Always check the current weather conditions before embarking on any outdoor activity.

Cynthia Fagan

Cynthia Fagan

Cynthia Fagan is a writer whose expertise and interests include health care, corporate wellness, professional development and diversity. Cynthia reads like a fiend, volunteers compulsively and especially values work that develops skills and confidence in others. She is a military spouse and mom who enjoys traveling and lives in Signal Mountain, TN.

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Cynthia Fagan

Cynthia Fagan is a writer whose expertise and interests include health care, corporate wellness, professional development and diversity. Cynthia reads like a fiend, volunteers compulsively and especially values work that develops skills and confidence in others. She is a military spouse and mom who enjoys traveling and lives in Signal Mountain, TN.

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