View from the trail to the summit of Whiteside Mountain near Highlands and Cashiers in North Carolina
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Nantahala National Forest | A Lush Canopy in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Immerse yourself in the emerald embrace of the Nantahala National Forest, a sprawling section of the Blue Ridge Mountains filled with waterfalls, ancient trees, and steep adventures among pristine lakes.

Nantahala is a Cherokee word for “land of the noonday sun.” That’s because the tree canopy only allows sunlight to touch the ground during midday.

Across more than 531,000 acres, you can explore heights up to 5,800 feet or depths to 1,200 feet along the Hiwassee River. And, the tallest waterfall east of the Rockies falls in this forest.

Nantahala National Forest also offers 600 miles of trails, which can seem like a lot to sort through, especially considering it is next to two more national forests and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We’re going to help you plan a trip to North Carolina’s largest national forest right in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Nantahala National Forest
Nantahala National Forest | photo via duval15

Nantahala National Forest History

The history of Nantahala National Forest mimics much of the other public land in this region. It was home to the Cherokee for millennia until settlers arrived in the 1800s. The Cherokee were forced off the land in the Trail of Tears.

You can learn more about this history in the town of Cherokee NC, tucked between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Nantahala National Forest.

Logging companies started up in the old-growth forest, and conservation champions stepped in. In 1920, Nantahala National Forest was created.

The forest connects to Pisgah National Forest (created in 1916), and both are managed under one umbrella, leading to the collective term “The Forest” which refers to them together.

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Nantahala National Forest | photo via brookandholler

What Is a National Forest vs a National Park?

It’s helpful to know the differences between places like Nantahala National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Public lands are preserved or conserved by different entities.

The National Park Service manages all national parks and sites under that umbrella, like national seashores or national monuments. It’s an agency under the U.S. Department of the Interior.

On the other hand, the U.S. Forest Service oversees all national forests, but its footprint covers some grasslands, prairies, and rivers — the Forest Service reports to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

The key difference between national parks and national forests is the intention of the public land. National park sites preserve natural and historic sites while allowing public access. National forests are sustained for current and future generations but can include “multiple use” activities like logging, hunting, and mining, which would never be allowed on national park lands.

But Wait! There’s More… Wilderness

Both parks and forests can have designated wilderness areas under the National Wilderness Preservation System. These are the most primal wilderness areas and will remain untouched by development.

“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson, after signing the Wilderness Act of 1964

Most designated wilderness areas have no roads, facilities, or development. They are found within or adjacent to park or forest boundaries.

Here’s why all that matters…

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Nantahala National Forest | photo via jennareebee

Visiting Nantahala National Forest

Since Nantahala National Forest is close to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s possible to visit a park, forest, and wilderness during your trip. In fact, you could also walk on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail or ride the Horsepasture River, which is part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

Some rules might change at each boundary, especially when it comes to pets on public land and road access. In addition, Nantahala National Forest has three designated wilderness areas.

Nantahala National Forest Layout

Looking at the huge footprint of the forest, we can cut it into three sections known as Ranger Districts:

  • Cheoah Ranger District in Robbinsville NC: With 120,000 acres on the northwest side, it’s the smallest district but is home to old-growth forests and four mountain reservoirs.
  • Tusquitee Ranger District in Murphy NC: At nearly 160,000 acres, this is the place for lake lovers. Three lakes and two rivers run through the district, which is on the southwest side of the forest.
  • Nantahala Ranger District in Franklin NC: This is the largest district at 250,000 acres of rugged mountains, jaw-dropping waterfalls, and raging rivers. This footprint covers the entire eastern section of the forest.

Within the districts, there are numerous recreation areas. It helps if you think of it as the forest being a country — the districts are states, and the recreation areas are cities.

The Designated Wilderness Areas in the forest are Ellicott Rock Wilderness, South Nantahala Wilderness, and Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness.

Nantahala-National-Forest
Nantahala National Forest | photo via thomaslongphotos

Things to Do in Nantahala National Forest

All four seasons greet you here. Just like the neighboring Smokies, Nantahala gets amazing fall foliage — some of the most epic you will ever see — with far smaller crowds.

Any elevation above 4,500 feet will start to turn in late September, while the middle elevations burst into color throughout October before striking a handful of lower elevation spots in early November.

For the best wildflowers, though, visit in April or May, paying special attention to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. In contrast to the fall leaves, spring wildflowers start to bloom at the lower elevations first and work their way up to the higher elevations.

With the variety of weather and expanse of this national forest, the outdoor activities range from skipping rocks to climbing a 6,000-foot granite mountain knob.

NOTE: The Forest Service is much more dog-friendly than most national parks, so Nantahala National Forest is a great choice for those traveling with pets. A leash is required at all times and dogs can’t swim in the designated swimming areas.

Taking a Scenic Drive

One of the best ways to enjoy Nantahala National Forest is by driving any one of the many scenic routes.

Cherohala Skyway

This scenic trip is as stunning as the Blue Ridge Parkway but much more digestible in a day at just 43 miles. The name “Cherahala” comes from it connecting Cherokee National Park and Nantahala National Forest.

Nantahala Byway

Another 43-mile drive takes you through the forest and along the famous Nantahala Gorge. At the bottom of the gorge is some of the best white water rafting in Appalachia. The Nantahala Outdoor Center is located here.

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Nantahala National Forest | photo via linz_through_the_lens

Waterfall Byway

Put this byway on your must-see itinerary for Nantahala National Forest. It threads 98 miles and 200 waterfalls. Enjoy popular waterfalls like Bridal Veil and Dry Falls, which you can walk behind, and the “at-your-own-risk” Bust Your Butt Falls swimming hole. Another option is the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway.

Whitewater Way

Take this route from Sapphire NC along nine twisting miles to the tallest waterfall on this side of Denver CO. You’ll pass between Gorges State Park and the forest to Whitewater Falls’ magnificent 411-foot drop. Some choose to keep driving to South Carolina to hike to Lower Whitewater Falls.

Blue Ridge Parkway

The southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway is in Cherokee and winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains — about 55 miles along the boundary of Nantahala National Forest.

Swimming in the Forest

A few recreation areas are designated at swimming locations during the humid summers. Expect to pay a fee when visiting a rec area within the forest. Swimming is allowed at Cheoah Point Beach, Cheoah River Area, Cliffside Lake, Fingerlake, Wilson Lake, and Jackrabbit Mountain Recreation Area.

White Water Rafting

The Nantahala Gorge is one of the prime spots for white water rafting, but those who want the ultimate adrenaline-filled ride should tackle the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River. It’s highly recommended to use a local outfitter for a guide since they handle all the permits, safety gear, and training.

Camping in the Forest

The forest offers camping options galore, with dispersed camping allowed in certain parts of the various ranger districts. Organized campgrounds and RV campsites are available too, but cabin rentals are only located in the Cheoah and Nantahala Ranger Districts.

Rock Climbing

Climbers look at these steep cliffs with a sense of adventure, but there are only two locations within the forest where you can go rock climbing: Panthertown Valley Backcountry Area and Whiteside Mountain.

NOTE: Be aware that peregrine falcon nesting season (March until early June) can close rock climbing locations.

Driving Off-Highway Vehicles

This is one activity that you can’t do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so enjoy the assortment of trails in the Wayehutta OHV Trail System. That’s in the Nantahala Ranger District and is closed from mid-December through March.

Hiking in the Forest

As noted earlier, 600 miles of trails fill this forest, and it takes some scouring to find the ones best suited to your skillsets and physical abilities.

One of the most popular is Wayah Bald, which follows the Appalachian Trail. Access points offer a hike from 3 miles to 27 miles. Whiteside Mountain is less than 3 miles round-trip to a stunning peak where a railroad used to bring tourists to soak in the view.

Also, we recommend an easy trail through the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, where you can see some of the largest trees in the eastern half of the country. It’s one area that the logging industry never touched.

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Nantahala National Forest | photo via thisguyhikes

FAQs About Nantahala National Forest

Is there a fee to get into Nantahala National Forest?

National forests differ from national parks when it comes to entrance fees. Nantahala National Forest does not have an entrance fee, but certain recreation areas or points of interest could have a day-use fee or annual fee. New fees are proposed every few years, so check the latest fee schedule before you visit.

Is Nantahala National Forest open year-round?

Yes, but certain roads are subject to annual closures, usually from January through April. Increased bear activity, bear interactions, and bear attacks can lead to campground or trail closures. It’s important to check the alerts & notices.

Is Nantahala National Forest in the Great Smoky Mountains?

No, but both areas are part of the same mountain range. Here’s how it works — The Appalachian Mountains are the main range, but the Blue Ridge Mountains are a sub-range. Diving deeper, the Great Smoky Mountains are a sub-range of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Wonders of Nantahala National Forest Await

If you’re wondering if Great Smoky Mountains National Park is better than Nantahala National Forest, that’s only a question you can answer. You get a lot more flexibility at a national forest, but you also lose some of the preservation and historical aspects within the park.

The one thing I’d recommend is taking at least one of the scenic drives mentioned above. It will be hard to not want to experience more Nantahala National Forest sites after that.

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