The name Great Smoky Mountains was inspired by the bluish haze that hovers over the forest-the result of vapors exhaled by millions of trees. But history, too, imbues these ancient peaks, among the highest in the Appalachian range. This territory was sacred to the Cherokee Indians, and among the Europeans that followed, the land inspired a fiercely dedicated pride of place. It has yielded more than its share of statesmen and scalawags, fighters and frontiersmen, whose lives have been immortalized (and embellished) by front-porch raconteurs. The art of storytelling, in fact, has long been a favored pastime in the hills of eastern Tennessee.
1. Hiwassee State Scenic River
After tooling north from Ocoee on Rte. 411, the drive veers east onto Rte. 30 and parallels the Hiwassee River as far as the town of Reliance. From here you can ride the waters in a raft or canoe, or you can continue east into the wilderness on the hiking trails that wind along the river’s forested banks. Look for great blue herons stilting through the sun-dappled backwaters, and ospreys making high-speed dives in an effort to snatch trout.
2. Tellico Lake
Rte. 411 follows the contours of the mountains north and east to Tellico Lake, which fingers its way into valleys flooded by the damming of the Little Tennessee River. Along the lake — and beneath it — lie ancestral lands of the Cherokee Indians. Their capital, Tanasi (the word that evolved into “Tennessee”), stood on a site just offshore from the Chota Peninsula, where a stark memorial of eight stone pillars commemorates the eight posts that once supported the tribe’s meeting house. A short drive away is the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, honoring the life of the man who, inspired by the white man’s “talking leaves,” created the Cherokee alphabet.
As a diversion, climb to the clouds on the Cherohala Skyway, which follows old wagon-trail routes from its start at the Tellico Plains, Tennessee, on Rte 165, reaching altitudes of more than 5,000 feet as it travels 52 miles to Robbinsville, North Carolina. Other attractions of the route include Whigg Meadows near Haw Knob — the highest point in Monroe County — and Indian Boundary Lake, a popular place for swimming, fishing, picnicking, and camping.