Cherokee public art bear

I created this free guide to planning a ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Just click the link below. No registration required.

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As I ascended the foothills toward Cherokee and the Smoky Mountains on my motorcycle, a refreshing breeze of magnolia and jasmine wafted through my visor. It was a gift that folks in their hermetically sealed cars missed altogether. I drank in that lovely scent, which reminded me of the importance of belly breathing.

I was emotionally and physically exhausted by the two-month process of moving out of our suburban home of 26 years as we downsized to an urban townhouse. The magnolia and jasmine induced my decompression cycle.

Camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Matt fly fishing in the Raven Fork River

Matt fishing in the Raven Fork River.

Matt and I decided to take Memorial Day off together before I headed further south on my BMW and he returned to his office. We stayed at the Cherokee/ Great Smokies KOA in a Deluxe Cabin that faced the morning sun. The Raven Fork River flowed below our deck.

In the podcast (above), I recorded several minutes of the Raven Fork caressing the riverbank. I also included a guided meditation designed to help you drop your cares into the river and focus on something joyful. I invite you to enjoy it as often as it calls to you—download it if you’d like.

By Monday, when most campers were headed home from the holiday weekend, we were rested and ready to explore. 

The best way to reach most of what the Smokies and Blue Ridge Mountains offer is via the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Parkway connects North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains and Virginia’s Shenandoah National Parks; Cherokee is its southern terminus. 

Cherokee’s history

Detail of "Language Bear" public art

Detail of “Language Bear” public art bear by Billie Jo Rich

Cherokee is named for the Native Americans who have lived in the region for over 11,000 years. Although you’ll hear people refer to their tribal lands as the “Cherokee Reservation,” the proper term is the “Qualla Boundary.” The Boundary  is adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and defines lands held in trust by the federal government for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a sovereign nation. 

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians worked against expatriation, which is referred to as the Trail of Tears. 16,000 Cherokees were forced to walk west for six months across 1,200 miles. Nearly one in four died along the way.

Learn more about Cherokee history and culture at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. 

Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Mingo Falls

Mingo Falls is in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park

You could fill a week with places to see and things to do within 50 miles of the Cherokee KOA; here’s what we did in a day.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited of our country’s 58  national parks and boasts over 800 miles of hiking trails. We visited its Oconaluftee Visitor Center, with 6,300 square feet of educational displays and services featuring the rich cultural history of the Smokies: pre-historic culture, legends and artifacts, the arrival of European settlements, logging, the creation of the national park and the contributions of the Civilian Conservation Corps, of which my grandfather was one.

Be sure to pick up a map of the park and spend an hour or so visiting the adjacent Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill.   

The rangers and volunteers know virtually everything about the flora, fauna, history and culture of the area. Since I was soon headed south to Alabama’s de Soto Falls, named for  Hernando de Soto, I was interested in the Spanish explorer’s 1540 history in the Smokies. I took a chance and asked a ranger if he knew anything about this period of time. 

By luck, he who had recently read a biography about the de Soto. He told me stories of greed and cruelty to rival any I’d heard about Hernan Cortes, who felled the Aztec Empire. If you’re not in the habit of chatting up park rangers, you’re missing out on a treat. They have dedicated their professional lives to making your visit a memorable experience.

Clingman’s Dome and rainforest

Clingman's Dome Observation Deck

You can see for 100 miles from Clingman’s Dome Observation Deck, provided the air is clean

Clingman’s Dome was next on our agenda. Since we were feeling fresh from our rest and relaxation at the campground, we decided to take the steep half-mile hike up to the observation tower, which, according to the National Park Service, is the highest point in the park. There are several benches along the way for rests and I’ll admit I needed a few.

The Appalachian Trail crosses Clingman’s Dome and is the highest point from Georgia to Maine. We met several through-hikers at the base of the observation tower and wished them well on their adventure (see them at the bottom of the picture to the right). 

We often equate “rainforest” to the Amazon, but Clingman’s dome is home to a coniferous rainforest. The cool, wet conditions are ideal for spruce and fir.  You’ll be walking through clouds, and temperatures are commonly 10-20 degrees (F) cooler there than at the lowlands. Be sure to pack a sweater or jacket, even in summer. If you’re lucky, and the clouds and air pollution are out of the way, you’ll be able to see mountain views for more than 100 miles from the 360-degree observation tower.

campfire ringBack at our cabin for one last night, we built a fire and talked about the important things in life that are too often neglected in the daily bustle. Although we could have stayed on at the campground for a week, we were rested enough to get on with our lives. 

The staff at the campground told me that the only complaint they hear about vacationing Cherokee is the difficulty of finding a phone or wifi signal. 

“Problem?” I asked. “That’s why we came here.”

Readers, I hope you’ll listen to the podcast above at a quiet time when you can follow the guided meditation to relax and let go. We all need help from time to time. You can share it with friends and/or subscribe in iTunes and Stitcher.

I created this free guide to planning a ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Just click the link below. No registration required.

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