Known locally as the Qualla Boundary, the 57,000-acre tract is home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and marks the ancestral home of the Cherokee Nation, once one of the largest Indian tribes on the continent.
Today, Cherokee is a melting pot of old and new, as tribal leaders try to balance the preservation of Cherokee’s singular heritage and cater to the contemporary wants and needs of its visitors.
Efforts by tribal members to preserve and cultivate their customs and culture are significant. The Cherokee language is taught in the schools. Tribal artists also use traditional materials, from river cane basketry to pottery to finger weaving. Cherokee song and dance is also alive and well, with pow-wows and dance troupes performing throughout the year.
Cherokee is home to a great many festivals celebrating native culture, song, dance and food. The home to these events is the Cherokee Indian Fairgrounds in the heart of town.
The community is also home to the region’s largest employer and, in recent years, its central feature, Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino. The casino, one of the state’s most visited tourist attractions, recently underwent an impressive expansion that transformed the colossal campus into a destination resort, home to shopping, luxury hotel rooms, big-name concerts, a nightlife lounge, indoor pool with mountain views, and spa. The casino’s concert venue offers world-class entertainment, from live music to comedians, theatrical productions and other stage acts.
The reservation’s many parks offer great picnic spots and there are plenty of well-equipped campgrounds. Fishing in the Cherokee waters are among some of the finest in the country. Those rivers have played host to the U.S. Fly Fishing Championships in the past, with several annual tournaments taking place throughout the summer.
And if you’re looking for the mountain kitsch the town has long been known for — fudge, wood carvings, beaded hand bags — it’s all still here, lining the main shopping strip that’s bustling in the summer.
• Harrah’s Cherokee Casino — You’ll find a diverse selection of entertainment at Harrah’s, from slots and video gambling to restaurants and big-name performers taking the casino’s main stage. The culinary lineup includes the Noodle Bar, the lauded Ruth’s Chris Steak House, a BRIO Tuscan Grille, Selu Garden Café and a food court with perennial favorites like Dunkin’ Donuts and Uno’s Pizza. The amazing Chef’s Stage buffet is true to its name, putting master chefs in the creative limelight while they grill up the day’s fresh entrées. Visitors must be 21 to enter. Always open. 828.497.7777 or www.harrahscherokee.com.
• Cherokee Bonfire — Cherokee storytellers host a bonfire at 7 p.m. every Friday and Saturday night at the Oconaluftee Islands Park. Roast marshmallows, hear the legends, relax by fire and water and be entertained by Cherokee legends, stories, songs and dance. 828.788.0034.
• The Museum of the Cherokee Indian — This museum features an interactive immersion into the history, customs and beliefs of the Cherokee. Exhibits explore religious beliefs, traditions and the history of Cherokee settlements in Western North Carolina, as well as the gradual change brought by white colonists. Located at U.S. 441 and Drama Road. Open daily at 9 a.m. 828.497.3481.
• The Oconaluftee Indian Village — The Cherokee of the 18th century comes to life at this working replica of a village. A Council House gives visitors a glimpse into the Cherokee system of government, while craftspeople demonstrate things like basket and canoe making and arrowhead carving. Located near the Mountainside Theater of U.S. 441 North. Call for times. 828.497.2111.
• Unto These Hills — An outdoor drama depicting the story of the Cherokee people, it’s one of the longest running outdoor dramas in the nation. The production traces the Cherokee people through the eons, through the zenith of their power, their struggle to adapt to the early white settlers and hang on to their ancestral lands, through the heartbreak of the Trail of Tears, finally ending, appropriately, in the present day, where the Cherokee people continue to rewrite their place in the world. Nightly except Sunday. 866.554.4557.
• Trout Fishing — The ponds and streams of Cherokee are replete with trout, stocked with rainbow, brook and brown varieties. Unlike other areas, daily licenses are sold and multi-day discounts are available. 828.554.6110.
• The Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual — If you want to take home a piece of Cherokee, authentic handmade crafts created by hundreds of local artisans are for sale at this co-op. Here you can find hand-made baskets, drums, rugs, carving and other crafts. 828.497.3103.
• Santa’s Land — A theme park that offers a petting zoo, paddle boats, rides and appearances by Santa and his helpers. Located off U.S. 19 heading east. 828.497.9191.
• Kituhwa Mound — According to Cherokee legend, Kituwah was one of the seven mother towns and was once the largest ancestral settlement in the area. The mound, bordered by the Tuckasegee River and the low hills of the Smokies, is all that remains of it. The mound was reclaimed in 1995 when the land was purchased by the tribe. Located on U.S. 19 heading toward Bryson City.
• Visitor Center — The Cherokee Welcome Center and Cherokee Chamber of Commerce are located at 498 Tsali Blvd. 800.438.1601 (welcome center) or 828.788.0034 (chamber of commerce) or www.visitcherokeenc.com or www.cherokeesmokies.com.