Aerial View of Cherokee, North Carolina

ULTIMATE Guide to Things to Do in Cherokee NC

Considering a Smoky Mountains getaway? You’ll find plenty of things to do in Cherokee NC!

Cherokee, North Carolina, sits at the south entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. However, it’s more than that — it’s a portal to the cultural footprint of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

This town has served as a homeland and a battleground. Footprints from the Trail of Tears wind through Cherokee, while the natural beauty of the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Mountains carve geologic history in all directions.

Cherokee is a side of the Smokies everyone should experience. A legendary giant roams the mountains, while waterfalls are tucked away at nearly every turn. Scenic drives beckon with the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway starting here.

Aerial View of Cherokee, North Carolina
Cherokee North Carolina I Shutterstock

Getting to Know Cherokee North Carolina

Cherokee might be the anchor town for the Smokies’ entrance, but it’s nothing like Gatlinburg in all the right ways. Here, the crowds quiet down and nature reigns. The Oconaluftee River carves through the community, and its banks are home to both a vibrant present and a resilient past.

Cherokee Through the Ages

The Cherokee lived on this land going back to at least 2000 B.C. The tribe was skilled at hunting, fishing, and farming. In the 1500s, Spanish explorers arrived, starting 200 years of uncomfortable interactions between the natives and anyone eyeing their prized land.

The Trail of Tears

Any progress toward peaceful cohabitation ended when gold was discovered in Georgia. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 and subsequent legislation forced 16,000 Cherokee from their homeland. History calls it the “Trail of Tears.”

But, not everyone left. Those who stayed behind fought back or hid in the secret sections of the woods unknown to settlers and continued Cherokee traditions.

The Qualla Boundary

By the late 1800s, the determined Cherokee people had earned an unlikely ally. William Holland Thomas, a white man, grew up around the culture and had been adopted into the tribe. As his beloved people suffered, he maneuvered behind the scenes to buy up land — something a Cherokee native legally could not do.

That land became the Qualla Boundary where Cherokee is located today. The Eastern Band of Cherokee only includes descendants of those who hid in the woods or survivors of the Trail of Tears to walk another 1,200 miles to return home.

As a sovereign nation, the Cherokee live in their homeland but welcome millions of tourists yearly to enjoy the beauty and their history.

Cherokee’s Location

Cherokee is the main south entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, just over 50 miles west of Asheville North Carolina.

While Cherokee is about 45 miles as the crow flies from Knoxville Tennessee, the mass of mountains makes it a nearly 80-mile trip if you take the interstate through Gatlinburg — that’s a one-way trip and can take more than two hours with traffic on mountain roads.

Between Gatlinburg and Cherokee, Newfound Gap Road is a 36-mile stretch of a beautiful scenic drive that cuts through the highest point of the journey through the heart of the Smokies.

Also, Cherokee is one of the easiest ways to reach the Smokies from Atlanta, which is 160 miles to 175 miles southwest depending on the route you choose.

Seasons & Weather

By and large, Cherokee gets four robust seasons. Cherokee and many of the nearby cities have long been tourist destinations, especially during the stifling summer heat because this region is 1,100 to 1,400 feet higher in elevation than Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville.

The hottest part of summer won’t get you much relief during the daytime, though, as temperatures are just a few degrees cooler. However, on average, you will get a nice 5 to 10-degree drop in nighttime temperatures.

On the flip side, winter might have it raining in Gatlinburg but snowing in Cherokee. North Carolina’s roadways are also more likely to close during winter weather — snow along Newfound Gap Road can shut down access in both directions.

Additionally, fall colors will sparkle sooner in Cherokee than in the Gatlinburg side of the park. Foliage turns at the highest elevations first before working down to the valleys. So, the colors can start to unfurl in late September, but it’s October when the best bounty comes through.

Outdoor Things to Do in Cherokee NC

The pole position that Cherokee holds at the entrance to the most visited national park in the country offers a multitude of outdoor opportunities spanning four seasons.

Oconaluftee Indian Village

Who better to tell the stories of Cherokee ancestors than the descendants themselves? The Oconaluftee (“O-cun-uh-loof-tee”) Indian Village takes guests back to the 1760s when vendors, crafts, sweat lodges, performances, and so much more about the Cherokee way of life are on display from April to November.

Don’t mistake this for a theme park — it’s an immersive experience where you learn about living in the Smokies before GPS, mobile phones, plumbing, or power existed. You’ll also understand why this land is so important to the Cherokee.

Unto These Hills

This family-friendly amphitheater performance has been mesmerizing crowds since the 1950s. From May through August, the drama walks you through the experience from when the Cherokee people lived here thousands of years ago to when the settlers arrived to the Trail of Tears to the resurrection of the homeland and community.

NOTE: Only 2,100 seats are available each night. Bring a blanket and enjoy the show under the stars.

Oconaluftee Islands Park

Surrounded by all the attractions and history of Cherokee, Oconaluftee Islands Park offers a place to relax, cast a line for trout, or splash in the water under shaded trees. Stop by the Cherokee Welcome Center to reserve one of the pavilions for large group gatherings. And during the holiday season, you have the Island of Lights to enjoy.

Santa’s Land Fun Park & Zoo

Even Santa and his reindeer can’t get enough of the Great Smoky Mountains! Santa’s Land is coming up on 60 years of entertaining new crowds with each summer season. Amusement rides, a petting zoo, magic shows, and fun houses await. Plus, you’ll get to be among the first to tell Santa what you want for Christmas.

NOTE: Due to Santa’s busy schedule closer to the holidays, this attraction is only open in the summer.

Trout Fishing

Cherokee is widely known as one of the best trout locations in the nation with 30 miles of waterways waiting for excited anglers. The waters are privately stocked, and a license is required.

Since the Cherokee are a sovereign nation, they have their own fishing license, rules, and guidelines separate from the state of North Carolina. The community holds fishing tournaments throughout the season, some of which are designed just for kids.

NOTE: Please take note of the seasons and the catch-and-release locations and timelines.

Fire Mountain Trails

It’s hard to beat the best trails in the Great Smoky Mountains, but Fire Mountain Trails is blazing its own path with adrenaline-filled mountain biking, trailing running, and hiking adventures. Berms, blinds, and ramps await, twisting through the scenic landscape. The trail system seems to never stop growing — Fire Mountain Ignitor Park opens in late 2024.

Waterfalls Everywhere

It’s hard to throw a rock without hitting a waterfall in Western North Carolina. Mingo Falls is one of the closest and most impressive — a short hike leads to the showstopping 120-foot drop.

Soco Falls is a short but steep staircase and trail right off the main road in nearby Maggie Valley. And, the Deep Creek Trail can take you to Indian Creek Falls, Tom Branch Falls, and Juney Whank Falls.

TRAVEL TIP: There are more than 300 waterfalls throughout the Smokies and nearby national forests. It’s impossible to see them all on one trip.

Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc.-Cherokee
Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc. | photo via jacoblongphotography

Indoor Things to Do in Cherokee NC

Most of Applachia is geared toward the outdoors, but you can find some shopping along downtown Cherokee in addition to a few other indoor options.

Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc.

This isn’t your everyday arts and crafts store, even by Appalachian standards — the handmade items at Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc. tell their own stories. The techniques used to make these products were learned over millennia and passed down through Cherokee heritage.

Pottery, jewelry, baskets, and hand-carved novelties fill the sanctuary. You can explore dreamcatchers, ceremonial masks, and award-winning artist paintings as well.

Museum of the Cherokee People

By the time you get to visit this historic staple of Cherokee, the Museum of Cherokee People will have undergone a complete renovation for a more immersive experience.

The self-guided tour offers fascinating, shocking, and emotion-inducing artifacts and contemporary art. The museum has been preserving the Cherokee heritage since 1948, attracting about 83,000 visitors each year.

TIP: If you or someone you are traveling with believes they have Cherokee blood, you can schedule a genealogy consult.

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort

All the amenities of a Las Vegas casino resort are tucked into the Smokies at this gem of a destination for those who want to try their luck. Shows, restaurants, and 14-story views of the surrounding landscape await.

Cuisine ranges from pub food to famous chef footprints like Gordon Ramsey and Guy Fieri. You can even sample the best brews from Asheville at the Wicked Weed Brewpub without having to drive.

Blue Ridge Parkway

You’re indoors on this adventure only as long as you can stand being in the car with these amazing scenic viewpoints. The Blue Ridge Parkway was designed to connect Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

The entire scenic drive runs 469 miles, but a great loop to take goes from Cherokee to the Devil’s Courthouse into Nantahala National Forest, looping around to the west side of Asheville before taking I-40 back to Cherokee.

Smoky Mountain Gold & Ruby Mine

Kids particularly love this attraction where you can pan for gold and minerals and then have an expert check out your collection. A gift shop with various gems and minerals on display, and other knick-knacks, make a great place to explore the rocky side of the Smokies.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad train in western North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountain Railroad I Photo Credit: Bob Pool / Shutterstock

More Attractions Near Cherokee NC

While there’s a lot more to do in the neighboring cities of North Carolina’s Smokies boundary, there are two that stand out.

First, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad departs from Bryson City just 10 miles west of Cherokee. You can take rides through the scenic foliage and to the Nantahala River Gorge where you can parlay into a trip rafting on the river or riding zip lines.

Second, skiers will love the Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley. It’s just a 45-minute drive.

Peter's Pancakes & Waffles-Cherokee
Peter’s Pancakes & Waffles | photo via micahoball

Cherokee North Carolina Restaurants

As noted above, the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Hotel has many dining options, but let’s explore some of the more local businesses.

Granny’s Kitchen

Granny’s Kitchen has brought home cooking to Cherokee daily since 1984. You don’t even need to worry about the menu because breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served buffet-style. The items change each day, but you’ll get a full meal and then some at Granny’s Kitchen.

Peter’s Pancakes & Waffles

Another great breakfast stop with big portions is Peter’s Pancakes & Waffles. It’s also on the way to the national park entrance.

All Fried Up

You’ll smell the fried fabulousness before you see it at All Fried Up. This comfort food stop serves chicken, fish, shrimp, nachos, waffles, tacos, and so much more, and it’s sure to bring you back again and again. Southern classics like fried green tomatoes, fried okra, and po’ boy sandwiches fill out the menu.

Native American Brewing Co.

Native American Brewing Co. brings Cherokee heritage to the trending world of craft beer. Bar foods like big pretzels and stacked sandwiches provide plenty of nosh with your next drink.

Cherokee Grand Hotel-Cherokee
Cherokee Grand Hotel | photo via carlene.bloss

Hotels & Lodging in Cherokee NC

Aside from the casino’s fancy hotel tower, you aren’t going to find luxury accommodations in Cherokee. You will get comfortable settings with rustic and authentic charm, though.

Great Smokies Inn

The location next to the river, park entrance, and the center of Cherokee makes Great Smokies Inn an ideal destination. The rooms are simple, but the reviews repeatedly proclaim how welcoming and helpful the staff is here.

Cherokee Grand Hotel

The Cherokee Grand Hotel sits a bit away from the center of town, offering a little more peace and quiet. At the same time, a weekend shuttle can take you to and from the casino. Guests also enjoy a free continental breakfast.

Black Bear Lodge Cabin

Large families will love the log cabin of Black Bear Lodge with its hot tub, fire pit, and large porches to enjoy the scenic views. Inside, the cabin sleeps six comfortably. Wait until you see the stone shower and high ceiling on this rustic treasure. Plus, the location can have you deep water rafting or walking in the national park in just minutes.

Shooting Star Ridge

When the view matters, Shooting Star Ridge provides one of the best spots to see stars and meteor shows after dark. Inside, two bedrooms and bathrooms can accommodate up to four people. Enjoy the fireplace inside or the fire pit outside. And, you won’t want to miss soaking in the outdoor hot tub after a long day exploring.

Cherokee, NC
Cherokee | photo via

FAQs About Cherokee North Carolina

Is visiting Cherokee North Carolina worth it?

Cherokee and the North Carolina side of the Smokies offer a different experience than the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge Tennessee side.

Cherokee is ideal for those who want to experience indigenous culture and the “wild” of the wilderness. This region offers a series of small towns along the way rather than several massive cities with shows and shops.

How old do you have to be to gamble in Cherokee NC?

Only those 21 and older can be on a casino floor, even if they aren’t trying to gamble. Those under 21 can visit the amenities detached from the casino building, like the arcade and hotel. Even the restaurants attached to the casino building are 21 and older, so always bring your ID.

Is there a ghost town in Cherokee NC?

Cherokee isn’t a ghost town, but the Smokies are filled with remnants of homes that would pique the interest of any ghost town hunter. Of all the ghost towns in the Smokies, one of the most intriguing is 17 miles east of Cherokee at the former Ghost Town in the Sky theme park.

How much does it cost to get into Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Nantahala National Forest?

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the national parks without an admission fee. However, there is a cost for parking if you plan to park for more than 15 minutes. You can drive Newfound Gap Road or hike into the park for free.

Always, ALWAYS check park conditions before you go, and keep in mind that your parking permit does not guarantee that a spot will be available.

For Nantahala National Forest, the fee depends on what you plan to do while you’re there and what section of the massive forest you plan to visit.

The Indigenous Culture & Nature of Cherokee NC Await

The National Park Service is committed to telling a more realistic story of the Indigenous people and the lands surrounding national parks. Cherokee already does that, so supporting the experience at the park by visiting Cherokee leaves a memorable impression of how America evolved — for better and worse.

The beauty of Cherokee is beyond the natural wonders that surround it. Here, the stories that were told in ancient times still resound. As much as the world around us evolves, the Cherokee stay true to their ancestors’ way of life in many ways, and that makes it an experience to cherish and share with your family for years to come.

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