Western North Carolina

Imagine a place with vast mountains, deep valleys, glistening lakes and rivers, and abundant wildlife. No, I’m not speaking of the Grand Canyon, the Rockies, or Yellowstone, its western North Carolina (WNC). This area has all the natural beauty of its more famous counterparts and offers many outdoor activities for all ages. Much of WNC is located within the Great Smoky National Forest and the region is dotted with small towns that hearken to the days gone by with their town squares and relatively low populations . Whether you are looking to hike, camp, fish, or ride motorcycles one place in WNC stand out- Graham County.

Graham County is a small, rural area (the closest Wal-Mart is a hour drive away) located in WNC with a population just under 8,000. The county is surrounded by the Appalachian mountain range and two-thirds of the county is located within the Nantahala National Forest. Here elevations range from 1,177 to 5,560 feet. Fontana Lake, along with the Cheoah River, form most of the northern border of Graham County, with the Great Smoky National Forest on the other side. These areas are the places to begin looking for the activities that interest you.

The Fontana Lake area:

In January 1942, Tennessee Valley Authority began construction of what was to become Fontana Dam. Almost three years later, the dam was finished. The results where, at the time, the fourth tallest dam in the world. Fontana Dam is still the tallest dam in the Eastern United States at 480 feet. Today, there is a visitors center located at the top of the dam that details its construction during World War II and also offers insight into the history of the region prior to the dam. Fontana Dam is unusual as water does not flow over the top but instead through large spill tunnels located at the bottom. The water is forced through the tunnels with such force that water sprays across the lake and across the road on the opposite side. Also at the top of the dam there are several open picnic tables with nice views of the lake. A portion of the famous Appalachian Trail is also located here. The trail, which begins in Georgia and ends in Maine, is approximately 2,175 miles long. The construction of the dam also resulted in the creation of a lake that covers over 10,000 acres.

Fontana Lake is over 25 miles long and has more than 240 miles of shoreline – most of which has not been developed, with more than 90 percent of it being owned by either the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service. There are various public boat ramps and launching areas available for boaters. The cold, deep waters have proven to be the ideal environment for a variety of fish. Record size muskie and walleye have caught here and it’s considered by many to be one of the best small-mouth bass fishing lakes in the country, including the Fisherman’s Bass Tournament Circuit, which held its annual Hall of Fame Classic at Fontana in Fall 2001. Also, portions of the 1994 film “Nell” starring Jodie Foster and Liam Neeson was filmed in the Fontana area. The cabin Nell lived in through the film can be accessed by the lake.

One of the few places to stay while exploring this area is Fontana Village Resort. They offer a variety of accommodations from spacious hotel rooms, 1-3 bedroom cabins, and a campground. The resort is open year-round, however is the busiest during the summer months. There are numerous activities for guests, which includes 2 outdoor pools and a lazy river and a indoor pool for those rainy days. Some of the areas best mountain biking and horse trails surround the resort, which also rents biking equipment and has a stocked horse stable with experienced guides. Other activities include tennis courts and mini-golf. The resort also has a marina that rents almost any type of watercraft- jet skis, pontoon boats, houseboats, and kayaks. With its on-site restaurants, gas station, and general store, this resort is an outdoor lovers all-inclusive paradise.

The Cheoah River area:

Just past Fontana Lake is the Cheoah River area, which encompasses the river, Lake Calderwood, and Lake Santeetlah. Here you will also find Deals Gap and the Tail of the Dragon. The Dragon, as many call it, is a stretch of 318 curves in 11 miles of US Highway 129. With its hairpins curves it is popular destination for motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts. The Cheoah River is beginning to become popular with kayaks, with its Class IV and Class V whitewater rapids. The Cheoah Dam is featured in the 1993 movie The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford. Lakes Calderwood and Santeetlah offer a variety of fish to catch, such as crappie, bass, and walleye. Here you can also find the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. In the 1930s, the U.S. Forest Service was asked to create a memorial forest for Kilmer, a poet and journalist who had been killed in World War I. They chose a 3,800-acre area along Little Santeetlah Creek, which it dedicated as the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in 1936. The forest offers a rare example of an old growth cove hardwood forest, an extremely diverse forest type unique to the Appalachian Mountains. Many types of trees exist in Joyce Kilmer and dominant species include poplar, hemlock, red and white oak, basswood, beech, and sycamore and many are over 400 years old. The largest rise to heights of over 100 feet and have circumferences of up to 20 feet. There are hiking trails leading through the forest. Picnic tables and restroom facilities are also available. Fee campgrounds and more primitive sites are available for those who enjoy camping. Other hiking and horse trails can be found along Little Santeetlah Creek. For those who enjoy fly fishing, the creek is routinely stocked with brown and rainbow trout. The Cherohala Skyway is another popular activity for motorcyclists. This 36-mile National Scenic Byway that connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to Graham County, North Carolina. The skyway gains over 4,000 feet in elevation, rising from a low point of under 900 feet at Tellico Plains to a high point of over 5,400 feet.

Whether you are looking for a quiet, relaxing vacation or an action-packed adventure, Graham County is for you. Its quaintness is rivaled only by its beauty. Here you won’t find many major retail stores or restaurants just good, plain fun. Don’t worry though, there is a grocery store, gas stations, motels, and even a McDonalds (only built 2-3 years ago). For the outdoor enthusiasts this is paradise.