Length: About 130 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Year-round, but best conditions occur from April to October.
Nearby attraction: Sequoyah’s Home Site, log cabin built by the genius inventor of the Cherokee alphabet and namesake to the world’s largest trees as well as many geographic locations, northeast of Sallisaw via Rte. 101. Spavinaw State Park, on the shores of Spavinaw Lake, off Rte. 10.
Further information: Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, P.O. Box 52002, Oklahoma City, OK 73152; tel. 800-652-6552, www.travelok.com
Several years before the march along the Trail of Tears, some members of the Cherokee tribe, known as the Western Cherokees, were already living in present-day Oklahoma. Their government—a democracy that took the U.S. Constitution as its model—was centered about three miles east of Gore, where a re-creation of the 1829 Cherokee Courthouse can be seen. Also on view at the site are a log cabin from the early 1800s, drawings, early photos, and a collection of tools and other artifacts.
The little town of Gore itself, flourishing as people discover the delights of eastern Oklahoma, serves as gateway to this drive, which leads north on Rte. 100. Rambling through the Cookson Hills, a lush, gently rolling landscape, you’ll soon come to Tenkiller Lake and its dam. An over-look, affording far-reaching vistas, lets you preview the scenery before continuing northward.
2. Tenkiller State Park
Big, blue, and beautiful, Tenkiller Lake extends for 34 miles or so, but its shoreline, full of twists and turns, totals about 130 miles—a diverse mix of bluffs, woodlands, manicured lawns, and bathing beaches. Rte. 100 follows along the water’s edge, rolls right across the top of the dam, then skirts Tenkiller State Park, one of more than a dozen spots that can serve as convenient bases for camping, fishing, boating, and even scuba diving.
3. Cherokee Heritage Center
Rte. 100, which overlaps here with Rte. 82, roughly parallels the eastern shore of Tenkiller Lake. A few miles before Tahlequah, stop in nearby Park Hill to see the stately Murrell Home, an elaborate mansion built in 1843. Its original owner, a businessman from Virginia, married a Cherokee chief’s niece, a union that helped forge a link between Cherokees and the settlers. In addition to touring the sumptuously furnished home, visitors can follow a nature trail through the grounds, green with flowery gardens, shrubs, and trees.
Follow Rte. 82 through the oak and hickory forest to the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah. One could easily spend a whole day at the complex: the Cherokee National Museum offers exhibits on tribal life, both past and present, a re-created village depicts life in the 1500s, and actors at an outdoor theater dramatize the tragedy of the Trail of Tears.
More Cherokee history awaits in nearby Tahlequah, where marchers on the Trail of Tears ended their journey. Here the tribe’s eastern and western branches joined hands and crafted a constitution for the Cherokee nation. The area’s first newspaper, the Cherokee Advocate, was published in town, offering its readers articles in both the newly created Cherokee written language and English. Self-guiding tours of Tahlequah are available; stops along the way include the Old Cherokee National Capitol, the Cherokee Supreme Court Building, and the campus of Northeastern State University, with its restored 1889 Cherokee National Female Seminary Hall.
5. Illinois River
The meandering channel of the Illinois River—born in the nearby Ozarks of Arkansas—accompanies scenic Rte. 10 northeast. In the spring, redbud and dogwood trees, bursting with blooms, make the stretch particularly pleasing. Come summertime, the big attraction is the river itself: fairly tame, the Illinois is the perfect avenue for lazy float trips beneath a lofty canopy of sycamore trees.
6. Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees
A maze of bays, creeks, and wooded hollows welcomes motorists to yet another watery wonderland: Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees. Autumn here, in addition to the seasonal treat of blazing foliage, offers a special thrill: the sight of hundreds of white pelicans cruising in to fish and to make landings on the lake. To get out on the water yourself, take a narrated cruise aboard the Cherokee Queen I or the Cherokee Queen II, paddle wheelers just like the ones that used to rule America’s inland waterways. The boats depart from Grove, the hub of the region. Har-Ber Village, one of this area’s pleasant stopovers, is nestled on the lakeshore a little more than three miles to the west. Its carefully re-created 1800s pioneer town and huge collection of antiques truly help to bring the past era to life for today’s visitors.
7. Honey Creek State Park
On the shores of Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees and south of grove off Rte. 59 is another Oklahoma jewel, Honey Creek State Park. With camping, fishing, boating, swimming, and waterskiing, it is a popular destination for many locals and out-of-state visitors, both to sample its many attractions and to spend time on the banks of Grand Lake.
8. Twin Bridges State Park
After passing through rolling hills, swing west on Rte. 60. Where the Neosho and Spring rivers feed into Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees is Twin Bridges State Park. Just northwest lies the friendly, homey town of Miami (“my-am-ah” to Oklahomans) and old Rte. 66, the highway of many legends. Another early treasure here is the Coleman Theatre Beautiful, a 1929 vaudeville showplace for many performers, among them Oklahoma’s own native son, Will Rogers. The master of homespun humor was himself part Cherokee, and his life, though cut short by tragedy, was a colorful example of how Cherokee heritage in eastern Oklahoma is woven into the broader fabric of American life.
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