The 15 Best Things to Do in Cherokee NC & the Qualla Boundary

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Cherokee, North Carolina is not like any other town we’ve ever visited during our extensive explorations of the Blue Ridge Mountains

That’s partly because most of the area lies within the Qualla Boundary, which is held as a land trust by the US Bureau of Indian Affairs for the federally recognized Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

The Cherokee and their ancestors had occupied this area for centuries before the first Europeans arrived.

But once gold was discovered near modern-day Dahlonega and Helen GA in 1828, attracting thousands of settlers to the Blue Ridge region, conflict between them and the Cherokee people became increasingly common. 

Most of the Cherokee people were forced out of the area after passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, with approximately 11,000 Cherokee people relocated from North Carolina via the tragic Trail of Tears. 

But some of the indigenous people evaded capture in the Great Smoky Mountains, while others were allowed to stay due to earlier treaties.

Under the leadership of Chief Yonaguska, the Qualla Cherokee had separated from the authority of the Cherokee Nation in 1819. 

Local merchant William Holland Thomas, a longtime ally of the Cherokee who was adopted into the tribe, became their lawyer and drew up a simple plan of self-governance.

He also served as an intermediary between the Cherokee and the US government, ultimately purchasing much of the land that became the Qualla Boundary on their behalf.

As a result, many of the best things to do in Cherokee NC today are related to and owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee, including the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Oconaluftee Indian Village, Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Resort, and more. 

Read on for our in-depth guide to all the best Cherokee attractions, which also include Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and some of our favorite Western North Carolina waterfalls and trails.

READ MORE: The 25 Best Western NC Small Towns To Visit (and Live In!)

Best Things to Do in Cherokee NC Guide

  1. Visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian
  2. Explore Oconaluftee Indian Village
  3. Hike to Mingo Falls
  4. Shop at Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual
  5. Visit the Oconaluftee Visitor Center
  6. Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
  7. Hike to 3 Deep Creek Waterfalls
  8. Learn the History of Mingus Mill
  9. See Stunning Sights at Clingmans Dome
  10. Picnic in Oconaluftee Island Park
  11. “Hunt” for the Cherokee Bears
  12. See the Elk In/Around Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  13. Explore the Mountain Farm Museum
  14. Marvel at Soco Falls
  15. Play at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Resort
Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee NC
Museum of the Cherokee Indian

1. Visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian

The first thing we ever did in Cherokee NC also ended up being our favorite thing to do there.

Visiting The Museum of the Cherokee Indian offers an excellent overview of Cherokee art, history, and culture, as well as an introduction to other indigenous tribes.

The museum uses a stunning array of exhibits, digital films, photographs, and holographs to tell their story, from their earliest indigenous ancestors and the arrival of European immigrants to the signing of the Treaty of New Echota and the Trail of Tears.

The expansive gallery of modern-day Cherokee arts and crafts at the end is truly a must-see (as is the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual Co-Op across the street)!

 
Women doing beadwork at Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee NC
Women doing beadwork at Oconaluftee Indian Village

2. Explore Oconaluftee Indian Village

If you have any interest whatsoever in the history and culture of the Cherokee people, a visit to the Oconaluftee Indian Village is an absolute must when you visit Cherokee NC.

This excellent living history museum is a remarkable replica of an 18th-century eastern Cherokee community, surrounded by verdant forest and the soothing trickle of gentle mountain streams.

The guided tour leads you to an array of Cherokee weavers, beadwork, woodworkers, potters, and weapon makers demonstrating their traditional crafts.

There are also several historic cabins, storytellers, and insightful lectures on Cherokee culture & history.

READ MORE: Exploring Oconaluftee Indian Village & Visitor Center in Cherokee NC

Couple at Mingo Falls in Cherokee NC
Couple at Mingo Falls

3. Hike to Mingo Falls

Located approximately 5 miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 469.1, Mingo Falls is arguably the most beautiful waterfall within the Qualla Boundary of Cherokee NC. 

Measuring about 120 feet tall and tumbling down a moss-laden rock face, Mingo is one of the tallest waterfalls in Southern Appalachia and the Great Smoky Mountains.

The trail to reach the falls is only 1/4-mile or so each way, but it’s straight up 160+ stairs. So it’s generally considered to be a moderately difficult trek.

Still, the payoff is more than worth the Thighmaster workout. The view from the top is truly breathtaking, and we had the place entirely to ourselves for nearly a half-hour.

Our advice: Get there early if you want to beat the crowds, especially on weekends!

READ MORE: The 50 Best North Carolina Waterfalls to Visit

Cherokee Baskets at Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual in Cherokee NC
Cherokee Baskets at Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual

4. Shop at Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual

After you finish your visit to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, you’ll want to head across the street to visit the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual

This co-op was launched in 1946 by visionary Cherokee craftspeople and tribal leaders, who saw that preserving and promoting traditional Cherokee crafts could strengthen tribal values and provide livelihoods for local people.

Start your visit in the impressive art gallery, which features extensive educational exhibits on Cherokee baskets (including Honeysuckle, Rivercane, and White Oak-style weaving), woodcarving, beadwork, and more. 

The exhibits not only teach you about the meaning and methodologies behind these traditional Cherokee crafts, but also introduce you to the indigenous artists who earned national acclaim for their work. 

Finally, make your way into the shop, where you’ll find an extensive array of museum-quality baskets, jewelry, paintings, pottery, and other art available for purchase. Most of it is made by Cherokee NC locals.

READ MORE: Asheville River Arts District: A Guide to Galleries & Restaurants

Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Cherokee NC
Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Great Smoky Mountain National Park

5. Visit the Oconaluftee Visitor Center

The Oconaluftee Visitor Center you’ll see in Great Smoky Mountains National Park today is actually the second one: The first was built back in 1941 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. 

The new, LEED-certified green building was built in 2011, and it’s the park’s first new visitor service facility to be constructed since the early 1960s.

It’s a gorgeously designed facility, with flooring made from salvaged American chestnut, rubber, and recycled carpets, plus a geothermal heating and cooling system. 

Inside you’ll find you’ll find museum displays about the history of the Oconaluftee Valley and the Smokies, including indigenous and early Appalachian heritage, as well as some info on the establishment of the national park.

It’s also a great place to ask park rangers about planning your itinerary, and perhaps pick up park maps, guidebooks, and souvenirs from the store (which is run by the Great Smoky Mountains Association).

READ MORE: The Best Hiking in Asheville NC Bucket List (Top 25 Hiking Trails)

View from the Raven Fork Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Cherokee NC
View from the Raven Fork Overlook

6. Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway

Cherokee NC is home to the Blue Ridge Parkway’s southern terminus, so the town makes a perfect base for exploring some of our favorite overlooks, hiking trails, and waterfalls located along the 469-mile scenic route.

Some of our favorite Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks in the area include the View Raven Fork Overlook (Milepost 467.9), Thomas Divide Overlook (MP 463.9), Big Witch Overlook (MP 461.9), and the Thunderstruck Ridge Overlook (MP 454.4).

Popular Blue Ridge Parkway hikes nearby include the 0.6-mile Waterrock Knob Trail (MP 451.2), the 1.47-mile Richland Balsam Trail (MP 431), and access to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from the Bear Pen Gap Trail (MP 427.6).

There aren’t as many great Blue Ridge Parkway waterfalls in this area as you’ll find in some sections further north. But Soco Falls (2 miles from the Parkway), Mingo Falls (5 miles), and the 3 Deep Creek waterfalls inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park (11 miles) are all close enough!

READ MORE: 15 Highlights of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in Western North Carolina

Tom Branch Falls on the Deep Creek Trail in Bryson City NC
Tom Branch Falls on the Deep Creek Trail

7. Hike to 3 Deep Creek Waterfalls

If you want to hike the Deep Creek section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we strongly advise you to get there early. Especially if you’re visiting on a weekend, or when peak fall colors are popping.

The weather is refreshingly cool, the relatively easy hiking trails are surprisingly uncrowded, and the morning light on the trio of beautiful waterfalls is downright magical.

If you go in spring you’ll see tons of wildflowers along the way, and we also saw lots of butterflies and North Carolina birds in the forest.

If you don’t have time to visit all 3 waterfalls, Tom Branch and Indian Creek Falls (1.6 miles round-trip for both falls) were easily our favorites.

But the bridge at Juney Whank Falls (a 0.1-mile loop) makes it easy to get a great close-up view.

 
Mingus Mill in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee NC
Mingus Mill in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

8. Learn the History of Mingus Mill

One of the first significant stops when you enter Great Smoky Mountain National Park from Cherokee is historic Mingus Mill, which was built in 1886 on the banks of Mingus Creek.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the mill was a business and social hub for local Appalachian communities.

Families would travel there from far and wide to get their corn milled, but they would also bring other goods and skills to barter with others.

Though Mingus Mill ceased its commercial operation in the 1930s, it is still actively used by park employees today.

You can buy cornmeal, flour, and other locally-made products when you visit.

READ MORE: 30 Fun Facts About North Carolina State History & Culture

Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee NC
Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

9. See Stunning Sights at Clingmans Dome

Known by the Cherokee people as Kuwahi or ᎫᏩᎯ (meaning “mulberry place”), Clingmans Dome is the tallest mountain in Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 6,643 feet.

It’s the second tallest mountain east of the Mississippi (after the 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell), and the highest point along the entire Appalachian Trail.

The 45-foot concrete observation tower on the summit was built in 1959, and features a circular observation platform that can be accessed by walking up a spiral ramp.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the tower’s platform offers visitors a spectacular 360º panorama of the surrounding terrain, including Lake Fontana and several 6,000-foot summits. 

While the path to reach is only a 1/2-mile long, it is fairly steep and rated as moderate in difficulty. If you go, take lots of water, because it gets hot in those Appalachian hills!

READ MORE: The 7 Best Hikes on the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina

Bridge at Oconaluftee Islands Park in Cherokee NC
Bridge at Oconaluftee Islands Park

10. Picnic in Oconaluftee Islands Park

One of our favorite free things to do in Cherokee NC, the scenic Oconaluftee Islands Park is right in the heart of the popular mountain town.

The park located right in the middle of the Oconaluftee River, with several bridges leading over the river from the parking areas.

There are lots of picnic tables scattered about, as well as massive trees, wildflowers, a gazebo, and plenty of shallow areas for wading and fishing.

There’s even a small bamboo forest along one side of the river, which offered a beautiful shaded spot to spend a hot, sunny spring day.

READ MORE: The 25 Best Blue Ridge Mountain Towns in GA & NC

11. “Hunt” for the Cherokee Bears

The Cherokee Bears Project started in 2005, with a mission to showcase the impressive array of talented indigenous artists in the Qualla Boundary. 

The committee selected bears because they play an important role in Cherokee culture, appearing in lots of sacred tribal legends and folklore.

There are numerous “official” Cherokee Bears spread throughout town, including contributions from all 7 clans of the Cherokee (Bird, Blue, Deer, Long Hair, Paint, Wild Potato, and Wolf). 

The artwork ranges from the Sequoyah Bear (honoring by the man who created the Cherokee language syllabary) and Forefathers Bear (which honors the animal spirits of the ancestors) to the Out of Hiber-Nation Bear (the colors of spring) and Pottery Bear (for Cherokee artisans).

Families with kids can make a fun scavenger hunt by downloading a PDF map of all the Cherokee Bear locations.

READ MORE: The 15 Best Things to Do in Bryson City NC & Swain County

Roadside Elk with Tongue in Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee NC
Roadside Elk in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

12. See the Elk In/Around Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Cataloochee Valley Elk were reintroduced to Great Smoky Mountains National Park back in 2001, with a total of 52 animals released that year. 

The National Park Service publishes an annual Elk Progress Report. By the end of 2014, there were around 200 Elk in North Carolina, with at least 13 calves born during the previous year’s mating season.

These days, the wild Elk can often be found in the most unexpected places outside the park. 

We’ve seen them all along the Oconaluftee River, behind the Mountain Farm Museum, on the road to Clingmans Dome, and even hanging out in people’s front yards in downtown Cherokee!

If you visit the area, please be sure to drive slow, because you never know where you might find them.

 
Mountain Farm Museum in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee NC
Mountain Farm Museum in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

13. Explore the Mountain Farm Museum

Located right next to the Oconaluftee Visitors Center at the Cherokee entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Mountain Farm Museum features a fantastic collection of historic log cabins and other buildings.

The buildings– which include a barn, applehouse, springhouse, smokehouse, and working blacksmith shop– were gathered from throughout the Smoky Mountains to showcase life on an Appalachian farm in the late 19th century. 

Moved to the park in the 1950s, the Davis House was built more than 100 years ago from chestnut wood before blight decimated the American Chestnut in forests during the 1930s and early 1940s.

The site includes demonstrations of historic gardening and agricultural practices, and two great hiking trails– the 1.5-mile Oconaluftee River Trail (which is a great place to spot the Cherokee Elk) and the Mingus Creek Trail

READ MORE: The 20 Best Treehouse Rentals in the North Carolina Mountains

Soco Falls on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Cherokee NC
Soco Falls

14. Marvel at Soco Falls

Located about 10 miles east of Cherokee, less than 2 miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway, Soco Falls is a stunning waterfall that delivers excellent ROI for such a short hike.

It’s actually a pair of twin waterfalls that spill over stepped cliffs into a shallow pool before winding down a slope laden with moss-covered rocks.

There’s an observation deck for viewing Soco Falls that’s very easy to reach from the parking lot off US-19.

But more adventurous and sure-footed hikers may want to tackle the short, steep trail to the base of the falls that descends from the deck.

Note that this trail tends to be very muddy, with slippery rocks and roots all along the way. But thankfully there are ropes to hold onto as you navigate the path to the bottom.

READ MORE: The 15 Best Pisgah National Forest Waterfalls to Explore

Lobby of the Cherokee Tower at Harrah's Cherokee Casino in Cherokee NC
Lobby of the Cherokee Tower at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino

15. Play (& Stay) at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Resort

Owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and operated by Caesars Entertainment, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Resort was opened in 1997, making it the first casino in North Carolina

The casino’s profits are distributed to members of the tribe via two checks per year.

Profits are also used to benefit those seeking financial aid for secondary education, affordable housing, and healthcare supplements.

We stayed in their brand new Cherokee Tower, which opened in October 2021. 

The swanky design incorporates the 4 elements– Earth, Air, Fire & Water– and the rooms offer excellent views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In addition to their 1,800 pet-friendly rooms and 83,000 square feet of meeting space, the resort features an array of casino games (slot machines, table games, etc.), bowling and video games at the Ultrastar Multi-tainment Center, and more.

They also offer restaurants ranging from casual to fine dining, including the Brio Italian Grille, Selu Garden Café, and Wicked Weed Brewpub out of Asheville. –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett

Leave No Trace logo

We encourage anyone who loves the Blue Ridge region to learn about the Leave No Trace principles of responsible environmental stewardship. 

Stay on marked trails, take only pictures, pack out your trash, and be considerate of others who share the trails and parks you explore. 

Remember that waterfalls and rocky summits can be dangerous. Never try to climb waterfalls or get close to a ledge to get a selfie.

When you're exploring the wilderness, it's better to be safe than to be a statistic!

The BRMTG was created by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett, the award-winning team behind the world-renowned responsible travel website Green Global Travel. Bret grew up camping and hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia and North Carolina with his parents, and the couple both spent childhood summers on the water with their grandparents. After becoming empty nesters, they yearned for a pristine place where they could escape the hustle and bustle of the city, commune with nature and family, and embrace a sustainable lifestyle that leaves time to appreciate the simpler things in life. Join them and their team as they explore the region, offering expert insights on Blue Ridge travel as they search for the perfect mountain home.