The Cherohala Skyway

The Cherohala SkywayThis winding, two-lane road across the Great Smoky Mountains offers ever changing views of ranks of forested peaks.

This little-known byway is also called the Mile-High Highway, and tor good reason. Starting in the Tennessee town of Tellico Plains at the modest elevation of 990 feet (302 meters) above sea level, the road traces a serpentine route through lush, deeply forested foothills before climbing into the heart of the Blue Ridge, and descending again to Robbinsville, North Carolina. By the time the road reaches the Tennessee—North Carolina border, its elevation has reached 4,000 feet (1,219 meters), and for the next 15 miles (24 kilometers) it crosses several peaks in excess of 5,200 feet (1,585 meters). Completed in 1996 after 30 years of construction, this feat of engineering passes through one of the least developed areas of mountain wilderness in the eastern U.S. To the north lies the Citico Creek Wilderness and the celebrated Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. To the south is the Snowbird Backcountry and the Bald River Gorge Wilderness. An opportunity to experience the latter occurs early on the Tennessee side, where just 5 miles (8 kilometers) past the Skyway Visitor Center, Forest Service Road 210 leads to where the Bald River tumbles in a broad veil of mist 100 feet (30 meters) into a still pool.

When to go. In the first two weeks of October, the mountainsides are blanketed with foliage in a pallet of flaming reds, yellows, and oranges, and the usually crisp, dry air offers views far into the distance. Driving the Skyway in May and early June can also be a delight as springtime greens and firework-like displays of rhododendron, flame azalea, and mountain laurel burst in swathes across the steep hills.

How to Find It.  The Skyway is best driven from west to east. Starting in Teilico Plains, take Tennessee 165 to the beginning of the Skyway. Free maps are available at the visitor center in Tellico Plains.

Planning . The Skyway is a smooth, well-maintained road, but it has no services, so make sure you have plenty of gas, water, and snacks before heading out. It takes about three hours to cover the 55 miles (88 km) at a leisurely pace, allowing time to enjoy the overlooks and visitor center. Add another three hours to hike the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness and you have a pleasantly full day.