The ULTIMATE Guide to the Nantahala National Forest, NC

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Whether you’re a seasoned outdoor enthusiast or a first-time visitor, a journey into the Nantahala National Forest is sure to make lasting memories. Read on to learn all about it, including where to go, what to do, and where to stay.

Nantahala National Forest, one of the largest national forests in North Carolina, spans 531,286 acres in the western part of the state. With its stunning mountain peaks, flowing rivers, and pristine lakes, Nantahala is a year-round destination for outdoor lovers.

From hiking to rafting, waterfalls to ancient forests, this forest has something for everyone.  With miles of trails and many recreational opportunities, the Nantahala National Forest is the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life and reconnect with nature.

In this article, we will explore the wonders of Nantahala National Forest, I’ll give you everything you need to know so you can enjoy your visit here.

Trip map courtesy of Wanderlog, a vacation planner app on iOS and Android

Overview of the Nantahala National Forest

The Nantahala National Forest is located in the mountains and valleys of southwestern North Carolina. It’s the biggest of the state’s four National Forests, covering 531,148 acres with elevations ranging from 5,800 feet at Lone Bald in Jackson County to 1,200 feet in Cherokee County along the Hiwassee River.

The forest is adorned with waterfalls. The main attraction is Whitewater Falls, the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi River. It descends 411 feet and is a must-see for any visitor.

Photo by Rod E. Bryant: https://www.pexels.com/photo/upper-whitewater-falls-in-nantahala-national-forest-18569849

You can also visit other stunning waterfalls, such as Glen FallsBridal Veil Falls, and Dry Falls, which allow you to walk behind the cascading water.

The Nantahala National Forest also offers up some extraordinary summits with panoramic views. Whiteside Mountain, located between Cashiers and Highlands, provides an incredible vantage point with sheer cliffs and a 2-mile loop trail with spectacular views to the east, south, and west. 

Wayah Bald, standing tall at 5,200 feet, has sweeping vistas of the rolling hills of Georgia to the south and the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee to the north.

Nantahala National Forest is divided into three areas:

  • Tusquitee Ranger District: Close to 160,000 acres, spanning Cherokee and Clay Counties. It is home to Hiwassee Lake, Chatuge Lake, and Appalachia Lake, as well as numerous rivers and streams.
  • Cheoah Ranger District: Over 120,000 acres, spanning Graham and Swain Counties. It is home to several mountain reservoirs and streams where you can fish, launch a boat, or just enjoy the water.
  • Nantahala Ranger District: The largest district, at over 250,000 acres. It is home to four long-distance trails, beautiful mountain views, rivers, and large granite wall faces.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is located in the Cheoah Ranger District. This unique forest is home to some of the oldest trees in the eastern United States, with towering tulip poplars dating back as far as 450 years.

The Joyce Kilmer National Recreation Trail is a 2-mile loop with two sections. The upper loop takes you through Poplar Cove, and the lower loop leads to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial plaque.

History of the Nantahala National Forest

This is the home of the Cherokee, who first settled these lands and managed these resources for generations. The name “Nantahala” is derived from the Cherokee language and means “Land of the Noonday Sun,” which depicts the deep, steep valleys and high peaks that can make it appear as if the sun is only directly overhead for a short while each day. 

In the early 20th century, the forest was extensively logged. Later, during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) played a crucial role in reforestation and conservation efforts, helping to restore the forest to its former glory. 

In 1920, the Nantahala National Forest was officially established under the authority of the 1911 Weeks Act. This act allowed the government to acquire lands for national forests to protect watersheds, provide timber, and control the flow of rivers. Since then, the forest has flourished and is a vital part of North Carolina’s natural heritage.

Things to Do In The Nantahala National Forest

Nantahala National Forest is more than just beautiful landscapes; it’s also a playground for adventure seekers. With more than 600 miles of trails, there are opportunities for hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders, and those who love off-road vehicles. It’s a fantastic place to explore and have outdoor adventures.

Below, we’ll look at some of the most popular activities in the forest.

Hiking 

The Nantahala National Forest is home to several incredible hiking trails, many open year-round. The forest also has trails specifically designed for families and children. 

If you’re planning a trip to Nantahala National Forest, make sure to include one of these stunning hikes in your bucket list. 

The forest offers hundreds of miles of hiking trails, perfect for all levels of hikers. Whether you like mountain views or waterfalls, there’s a hike for everyone. Below are some popular hikes you may want to consider.

For Mountains

If you’re craving some climb and some mountain views, you may want to check out:

  • Whiteside Mountain National Recreation Trail: This moderately challenging loop trail spans 1.9 miles and involves an elevation of 511 feet. It’s an excellent choice for those who want to try their hand at mountain hiking.
  • Pickens Nose Trail: This 1.4-mile out-and-back trail offers a quick elevation of 295 feet. The trail offers incredible views from the summit. You won’t regret the journey.
  • Cheoah Ranger District: The Cheoah Ranger District covers 120,500 acres in Graham and Swain Counties. It’s home to four large mountain reservoirs and many streams. There’s also an extensive network of trails, about 320 miles, including the famous Appalachian Trail. These trails are perfect for mountain bikers, horseback riders, short-distance hikers, and backpackers.

For Waterfalls

For waterfalls, here are a couple of good trails:

  • Glen Falls Trail: Explore the beauty of Glen Falls, a magnificent triple waterfall that plunges over 60 feet in the heart of Nantahala National Forest. The 2.4-mile challenging hike has an elevation of 784 feet.
  • Dry Falls Trail: Experience the unique wonder of Dry Falls, a waterfall that lets you walk behind the cascading water without getting wet. This trail is less than 0.11 miles and has a height of 72 feet. It’s a must-see for those who love waterfalls.

Boating and Fishing

The forest has numerous streams, rivers, and lakes, for some great freshwater, mountain fishing. These waters are home to various types of trout, including brown trout, rainbow trout, and brook trout. Just remember to get your fishing license before you head out.

Here are a few great fishing spots: Cherokee LakeCliffside LakeSqually CreekSnowbird Creek, and Balsam Lake. The Upper Nantahala River is one of the best spots in the area to catch wild trout. 

You can also go canoeing or kayaking on the Upper Nantahala River and Lake Santeetlah.

Rock Climbing

Like the rest of western North Carolina, the Nantahala is a rock climbing destination. Pickens Nose is a popular spot and is at the southern end of the forest. Whiteside Mountain and Panthertown Valley are the two other sites in the forest.

Whitewater Rafting 

If you’re an adventure seeker, you can’t miss the chance to ride the thrilling rapids and go whitewater rafting in the Nantahala National Forest. The Nantahala River Gorge is one of the top rafting spots in the forest.

You’ll find numerous companies in the area that provide guided rafting tours. They offer not only the gear you’ll need but also transportation. Be sure to check out my post on the Top Rafting Spots in the Smoky Mountains for more information.

Mountain Biking

The Tsali Recreation Area is one of the best options for mountain biking, with up to 42 miles of challenging trails, including the famous Left Loop, which was once named one of the top 10 rides in America by Bicycling magazine. 

For road cycling, the Nantahala River Bike Trail is a great place to go. It is an easy, paved 1.2 mile trail that is mixed-use, so you’ll see families out there too. It is also pet friendly.

Camping

The Nantahala National Forest offers a range of campgrounds, from full-featured sites to primitive and group camping areas. You can check them out on this official guide. Most of these areas have grills, picnic tables, and drinking water.

Here are a few excellent campgrounds to consider:

  • Tsali Campground: (Open April 15 – October 31) This popular campground offers a range of amenities and is a fantastic place to start your camping adventure. At Tsali Campground, you’ll find 42 campsites, which operate on a first-come, first-served basis. 
  • Cheoah Point Campground: If you’re seeking scenic beauty, this campground is a wonderful option. It provides a picturesque backdrop for your camping experience.
  • Horse Cove Campground: For those looking for a more secluded camping experience, Horse Cove is an ideal choice. It is located close to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest’s entrance.

Horseback Riding

There are lots of places for horseback riding in the Nantahala National Forest, and you can also go with a guide if you are new to riding.

The Tsali Recreation Area is right near Fontana Lake and has a total of 4 different loops. It is most popular for a mountain biking destination, but lots of people ride horses here too.

There are over miles of horse trails near the Hurricane Creek Campground you should check out if you’re taking your horse. This campground is also a great choice because there are stalls, and the trails connect with the campground, so it’s very convenient.

Wildlife and Bird Watching 

The Nantahala National Forest is home to lots of wildlife, including black bears, bobcats, timber rattlesnakes, and a wide variety of bird species. It is also a great place to see whitetail deer and wild turkeys. 

Nearly anywhere in the forest is a great place to spot wildlife, including the Nantahala Ranger DistrictHurricane Creek Horse & Primitive CampgroundBlue Valley Dispersed Camping, Kimsey Creek Group CampgroundStanding Indian Campground, and Whiteside Mountain.

To spot the endangered Peregrine Falcon, check out Whiteside MountainGlen Falls is another very popular birding spot, and the trail also takes you to three waterfalls. Birders also flock to the Wesser Bald Fire Trail, where the sweeping mountain views give you plenty of room to scan with your binoculars.

Target Shooting

The Nantahala National Forest is home to several shooting ranges:

  • Moss Knob Shooting Range: This 150-yard range with six firing lanes is free to use throughout the year. There’s also a parking area for four cars. 
  • Dirty John Shooting Range: This range offers a 100-yard length with target frames at various distances. It features six stations and is available year-round. The fee is $3 per car for parking or $ 7 for an annual pass. 
  • Panther Top Shooting Range: This range is open year-round and provides a covered shooting area with four 25-yard firing lanes for pistols and six 100-yard firing lanes for rifles. The user fee is $2, or you can pay $25 for a season pass.

Scenic Drives

The Cherohala Skyway snakes 41 miles through both Tennessee North Carolina, connecting the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests. It is North Carolina’s most expensive scenic highway ever completed, and was finished in 1996. It is a popular spot especially for motorcycles and sports cars, but regardless of what you’re driving it’s a beautiful route. 

Climbing from 2,660 feet all the way up to 5,390 feet, the route is scattered with scenic lookouts and trailheads. If you have an EV, there is an EV charging station at Tail of the Dragon Resort in Deal’s Gap, NC, right on the skyway.

Another great drive is the Nantahala Gorge Scenic Byway, which takes you along mountain roads on US 74 from Bryson City to Marble. 43 miles of it pass right through the Nantahala National Forest, with 20 miles passing through Nantahala Gorge. There are lots of great stops along the way, including to fish by the river or even to go whitewater rafting

Where to Stay

If you’re not planning on camping but want to stay overnight, there are lots of places to stay. Depending on where in Nantahala you want to go, here are a few really good accommodations you may want to consider.

Tapoco Lodge

Robbinsville, NC

Tapoco Lodge is truly one of the top, landmark hotels in North Carolina. This beautiful, historic resort has been accommodating mountain travelers since 1930. Their spacious 120-acre grounds are also a TripAdvisor traveler choice for 2023. 

They are located in Robbinsville, giving you convenient access to the Nantahala National Forest. Onsite are hiking trails and river access. You can sip some wine or coffee on their deck while taking in the mountain (and river) views.

They also have an onsite spa and two onsite restaurants – the Tapoco Tavern and the Cheoah Dining Room.

Lakeview at Fontana

Bryson City, NC

Lakeview at Fontana is an ultimate relaxation destination. Complete with treetop cabins, you can soak in a hot tub in the canopy while enjoying sweeping views of Fontana Lake. And you don’t have to stay here to enjoy the soak – you can come just for the day to enjoy taking a bath here. Their spa also offers a 60-minute massage.

Room choices include the Cozy Room, a small unit with a Queen or King Bed, a 1-bedroom suite, and a 2- or 3-bedroom suite. The suites have kitchenettes and dining areas.

They offer self check-in and check-out, and also offer an ‘unplugged’ option, intentionally absent of TV or Wifi. Of course they have rooms with free wifi and TVs, but this option is to help you fully unwind and disconnect.

Some rooms are pet friendly, so check with them in advance if you want to bring your best friend.

Sky Ridge Yurts

Bryson City, NC

​The Sky Ridge Yurts are a really cool, unique stay right at the footsteps of Nantahala. As the name implies, these are luxury yurts. It’s not a hotel, but it’s definitely not camping either. It’s part of a growing trend of glamping sites, where camping meets luxury accommodations.

The Yurts can sleep up to 6 people, depending on which one you reserve, and all are completely private. They are by far more spacious than any hotel room you’ll find, with full baths, full kitchens, and even a washer and dryer in many of them. They have an attached deck with a grill and plenty of views, and you can enjoy views from inside the yurt as well.

In case you weren’t sure, Yurts also come with central heating and air. Other amenities include free wifi and satellite TV. And if yurts aren’t your thing, Sky Ridge offers two different private houses you can book as well, each of which sleeps up to 6 people.

The Bottom Line

From hiking in the mountains to fishing in pristine lakes, from the thrill of whitewater rafting to the tranquility of wildlife viewing, you’re sure to find lasting memories in Nantahala National Forest. It’s truly a place to make memories, connect with nature, and cherish the simple joys of life.



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