[Updated May 9, 2023]
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 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, 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 hiking trails.
Best Things to Do in Cherokee NC Guide
- Visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian
- Explore Oconaluftee Indian Village
- Hike to Mingo Falls
- Shop at Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual
- Visit the Oconaluftee Visitor Center
- Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
- Hike to 3 Deep Creek Waterfalls
- Learn the History of Mingus Mill
- See Stunning Sights at Clingmans Dome
- Picnic in Oconaluftee Island Park
- “Hunt” for the Cherokee Bears
- See the Elk In/Around Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Explore the Mountain Farm Museum
- Marvel at Soco Falls
- Play at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Resort
- Hike the Mountains-to-Sea Trail
- See “Unto These Hills”
- Float/Paddle the Oconaluftee River
- Ride the Fire Mountain Trails
- Spend a Day in Bryson City
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)!
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.
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.
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: Hiking the Mingo Falls Trail in Cherokee NC
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 arts and 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.
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 Great Smoky Mountains, 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).
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 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (11 miles) are all close enough!
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 NC hiking trails are surprisingly uncrowded, and the morning light on the trio of beautiful waterfalls is downright magical.
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.
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 the grist 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.
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.
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 20 Best Lakes in North Carolina
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
15. Play (& Stay) at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Resort
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.
READ MORE: The 15 Best Hotels in Asheville NC to Visit
16. Hike the Mountains-to-Sea Trail
Along the way, it passes through 37 different counties, 10 NC State Parks, 3 National Forests, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The first section of the MST starts at Clingmans Dome in GSMNP, traversing 34.7 miles of trails east through the heart of Cherokee NC to Waterrock Knob.
Though most folks may not up for a multi-day backpacking trek, it’s easy to day hike parts of the MST, which weaves on and around the Blue Ridge Parkway. For more details, check out the interactive MST map.
17. See “Unto These Hills”
Performed under the stars at the 2,800-seat Mountainside Theater since July 1, 1950, the professional theatrical production tells the dramatic history of the Cherokee people.
The story begins with the arrival of Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto and his army in 1540, and traces the devastating impact he and subsequent European settlers had on the Cherokee Nation.
Incorporating important historical figures such as Junaluska, Tsali, and US President Andrew Jackson, the play shows how the discovery of gold in North Carolina and Georgia ultimately led to the Indian Removal Act and the tragic Trail of Tears.
But the production ultimately ends on a triumphant note, spotlighting the strength, spiritual fortitude, and rich cultural traditions of the Cherokee people.
The show is performed every Monday through Saturday, from May 27 through August 19, 2023. Doors open at 7PM and the show starts at 8PM.
18. Float/Paddle the Oconaluftee River
The high elevation and an annual average of 10 inches of snow during winter in the Smoky Mountains might lead you to believe the area would be cool in peak summer.
But the weather in Cherokee NC can definitely surprise you. Although the high temps in July and August average around 85ºF, in our experience the humidity makes it feel much warmer during the dog days of summer.
Local companies such as Cherokee Rapids Tube & Kayak Rentals and Smoky Mountain Tube & Raft offer 2 to 3-hour river tubing trips on the Oconaluftee from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend.
Anyone ages 5 and up can go tubing down the gentle river, and the average cost is $14 for tube rental and shuttle bus, with life jackets available on request.
19. Ride the Fire Mountain Trails
The extensive network offers loads of fun features for mountain bikers, from berms and quick elevation hits to blinds, rock gardens, and tables.
There are different trails for riders of varying ability levels, including single-track and wider sections, smooth and fast routes, and challenging features for more technically accomplished bikers.
You’ll also find a few different attractions for hikers and trail runners to enjoy, such as Fire Goddess Falls and numerous scenic overlooks.
20. Spend a Day in Bryson City
But Bryson City (which is 11 miles west of Cherokee) is the one we’d most highly recommend taking a day trip to visit, because it offers loads of fun activities.
The charming downtown area features an array of great Bryson City restaurants, shops, and museums, not to mention the iconic Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
Nearby natural attractions include white water rafting on the Nantahala River, water sports on Lake Fontana, and some of our favorite hiking trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
And if you visit during winter, it’s also one of the best Christmas Towns in North Carolina, thanks to the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad’s “Polar Express.” –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted