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The Unaka Mountains, Unicoi Moutain Wilderness

The Unaka Mountains, Unicoi Mountain Wilderness and the Cherohala Skyway

Some of the largest mountain wilderness lands in the nation lie on the fringes of the eastern Tennessee Valley’s mountain region and along the western boundary of North Carolina’s mountain country. This wilderness of over 1,154,000 acres has been divided into three separate mountain ranges.  The Upper Unaka Mountains, the Lower Unaka Mountains and bridging the two of them together in the middle is the Great Smoky Mountains.

Upper Unaka Mountains

The Upper Unaka Mountains are in Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest and North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest.  The Lower Unaka Mountains are located in the Cherokee National Forest and North Carolina’s far western Nantahala National Forest. The upper and lower Unaka Mountains have a combined total of 633,000 acres. The middle Unaka Mountains make up the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with approximately half of its 521,000 acres in both Tennessee and North Carolina.  All three mountain ranges have similar geological characteristics as they evolved during the same period of time, creating the western wall of Tennessee’s Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountain region.

The Upper Unaka Mountains have numerous paved roadways crossing its mountainous area, with a long history of early white settler expansion prior to the Revolutionary War. These early settlers founded several towns and local communities throughout the region.  Though more inhabited by humans and highways than the middle and lower Unaka the majority of the land in the Upper Unaka Mountains is under the control of the Forest Service.

Appalachian Medley Byway is a registered national scenic byway in the Upper Unaka Mountains, and is composed of two local highways, Hwy 209 and 27/70 in Madison County North Carolina.

Great Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains (Middle Unaka Mountains) are void of towns (except along the outskirts) due to the National Park status for preservation. 

There are relatively few paved roads in the 521,000-acre national parkland.  Two or the paved roads are US 441, which dissects the middle of the park and is known as Newfound Gap Road and Clingmans Dome Road reaches the highest paved point in the park and is accessed off US 441.

Route 73 to Cades Cove is also known by several names, Cades Cove Road, Old State Road, Little River Road and Laurel Creek Road.

To be accurate there is one other paved road leading into the national park. Located just north of Bryson City in Swain County, North Carolina there is an 8-mile stretch of paved road that winds through the park and suddenly ends at an uncompleted tunnel.  This road has become known as the “Road to Nowhere,” and that is just where is goes…nowhere, due to the project losing it’s funding.

The road was meant to be a scenic byway from Bryson City, North Carolina to Cades Cove on the Tennessee side of the national park. If you decide to check it out when you’re in the area, you can to see the actual potential the road had. The road is on the map leaving Bryson City and is listed as Fontana Road.   If you’re inclined to drive to nowhere, give this one a try.  These are the only paved roads in the national park.

The Lower Unaka Mountain wilderness lands were virtually barren of any paved roadways. The only seriously constructed paved road through this remote wilderness didn’t open until the closing years of the 20th century.  In 1996, such an engineering feat was accomplished and is registered as a National Scenic Byway.  This road is the Cherohala Skyway connecting the southern Tennessee Valley to the mountain interior of far western North Carolina.

The Lower Unaka Mountains and The Cherohala Skyway

Though geographically known as the Lower Unaka Mountains, this mountainous area is locally known as the Unicoi Mountain Wilderness.  The grand engineering of the Cherohala Skyway transverses the entire width of the Unicoi Mountains from east to west, following the Unicoi Crest over its very heights.  The Lower Unaka Mountains consist of 304,000-acres within two national forests, Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest and North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest.  The name Cherohala comes from combing the two national forest names. These forests have mountains summits and balds ranging just under 6,000-feet above sea level.  The Unicoi Mountains are a vast wilderness so isolated that it was nearly forgotten.

After the logging companies had their way with large portions of this mountain range in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the federal government bought the land and reforested the then government owned property.  The forest service controlled the resources returning it back to the wilderness it was meant to be.  Rough primitive roads are all that existed throughout the Unicoi Mountains Wilderness at that time.  Until the very end of the modern 20th century, the Lower Unaka’s remained a massive land block between southeastern Tennessee and far western North Carolina.

In 1958 a plan took root by the Tellico Plains Kiwanis Club (located in the town of Tellico Plains in Monroe County Tennessee,) to begin an annual wagon train trip starting out from Tellico Plains.  The wagon train would follow old and mostly abandon logging and forestry roads through the forbidding Unicoi Mountain Wilderness and into Cherokee County, North Carolina.  This annual wagon train trip would include many participants traversing over 50-miles of tough terrain.  The experience and the beauty these teamsters and their companions encountered each year inspired the Kiwanis Club members to petition for a scenic highway that would directly connect Tellico Plains with the mountain communities of North Carolina. 

The route that congress approved in 1962 would follow the Unicoi Crest from Tellico Plains, Tennessee to Robbinsville, North Carolina. Forty years of highway construction slowly cut its way through the wilderness of the federally owned lands, scaling great heights, creating an engineering marvel that rightfully compares itself to the Blue Ridge Parkway and Newfound Gap Road in the Great Smoky Mountains. 

The Cherohala Skyway opened its highway to the sky in October 1996 and is one of 20 Federal Highway Administration’s Scenic Byways.  The byway itself reaches an elevation of 5,390 feet and the views are spectacular from floor to ceiling. 

The Highlander

Although very enjoyable, the mountains can be a driving challenge to a flatlander (no offense), to help you with your new venture, take a look at our driving tips