Standing next to his motorcycle, Davis scans the 360-degree mountain views from an overlook on the Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway, a 43-mile two-lane mountaintop road stretching from Robbinsville to Tellico Plains, Tenn. He shakes his head when asked why more people aren’t aware of the Skyway.
“If you could compact the best parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway into 40 or so miles of road, it would be the Cherohala,” he said. “It’s a road everyone needs to do at least once in their lifetime.”
Into the great beyond
Ever since I moved to Western North Carolina and took my position at The Smoky Mountain News, I kept hearing about the Cherohala Skyway. Folks and friends would mention it here and there, with pretty much everyone saying the same thing — “I hear it’s absolutely beautiful, but I’ve never been on it.”
My never-ending itch for exploration coupled with an unrelenting curiosity of the unknown fueled the urge to track down the Skyway and finally see for myself just what this road was. And yet for two years it remained on my to-do list, always sitting there, teasing me to disappear for an entire afternoon into this great beyond of Southern Appalachia.
So, I started doing some research. Turns out the idea for the Skyway emerged in 1958, when the original route (which is now the Skyway) was a covered wagon trail, which was only used at the time as a novelty when the bookend communities would recreate the past on the “Wagon Train Road.” A buzz about maybe someday putting a road “up there” to connect all of the small mountain towns on both sides of the state line snowballed. By the early 1960s, Congress allocated funds to construct the Skyway.
Thirty years and $100 million dollars later, the Skyway was officially opened in October 1996. Back then, the U.S. Forest Service estimated five million cars would traverse the road, a number far above actual numbers these days. But, regardless of what statistics said, what remains is a beloved and often overlooked piece of blacktop meandering through some of the most desolate and mesmerizing landscape this side of the Mississippi River.
Let the Odyssey commence
Rocketing out of Waynesville last Friday, a warm late fall sun sat overhead as a crisp mountain breeze coated the region. I’d never been into Graham County, with my furthest point of reference going mountain biking at the Tsali Recreation Area just beyond the Swain County line. Crossing into Graham on N.C. 28, the road is filled with steep inclines, rollercoaster down hills and s-curves galore.
Before you know it, you’re in Robbinsville, an isolated outpost community in the heart of the county. With the town being one end of the Skyway, Delphus and Cindy Lee just finished riding the road from west to east. Sitting on their motorcycle, the Kentucky couple said they make a yearly trip along the Skyway.
“If you love to ride, it’s one of the most exhilarating roads you can get on,” Delphus said.
“The scenery and the curves,” Cindy smiled.
Heading to the start of the Skyway down N.C. 143, Thunder Mountain General Store suddenly appears. “Last Stop For 50 Miles” a small sign says in front of the building.
“Over 1.3 million travelers go by our store every year,” said owner Ken Osburn. “Every corner of the world comes here.”
Osburn and his family came from Franklin, Tenn. They purchased and opened the store in January 2014 and are all smiles with all of the unique people who wander into their business.
“[The Skyway] is Gatlinburg without all the riff raff,” he said. “It’s pure nature and beauty — you get to see where God showed off.”
So, why don’t more Western North Carolina locals know about the Skyway or actually go up on it?
“I notice a lot of locals get complacent, which happens anywhere you grow up,” Osburn said. “Anyone that lives at a beach gets used to the beach, while other folks can’t wait to get to the beach. One thing we’ve agreed on here is to never get complacent with the beauty of these mountains.”
Up and away
Entering the Skyway, you’re immediately thrust into the sheer majesty of these mountains as an endless array of steep ridges look back at you from Santeelah Gap. The multitude of ridges hypnotizes the viewer, almost as if they were ripples in some vast, mysterious ocean. Countless trees still hold strong to their leaves, with the foliage season far from over.
The Skyway itself is a smooth road with too many notable viewing spots to count, so many in fact, you might want to tack on a couple more hours to the time estimation of your trip. After awhile your neck begins to hurt from turning left and right nonstop, eager to not miss an inch of this utterly captivating landscape.
At a nearby overlook, Linda and Mickey Archer are standing in awe of their surroundings. Visiting from Pensacola, Fla., they’ve ventured up to the Skyway every year for the last 15.
“As Floridians, we don’t have mountains,” Linda chuckled. “The Skyway is just a wonderful experience, the people, the trees, the road — everything.”
“The views knock your socks off,” Mickey added.
Drifting further along, the miles seamlessly tick away. Thoughts and memories, new and old, filter through your field of vision. A person can do a lot of thinking on the Skyway, as if to escape from the madness of a fast-paced world and get back to nature, back to silence, back to where you can hear the most important voice in your life — your own.
At another overlook, I find myself deep in my own mind, staring off into the abyss of not only Western North Carolina but also my existence. It’s a pretty amazing feeling to hear nothing around you but your boots on the ground, the air in your lungs and the occasional sound of a bird in flight to destinations unknown.
Soon, a sleek 1988 Chevrolet Corvette rolls up. At the wheel is Frank Helwig from Brantford, Ontario. With an ear-to-ear grin, the middle-aged man seems to have tapped into the fountain of youth cruising the Skyway.
“This car was made for this road,” he laughed. “This place is spectacular, it really is. That’s why I came here — it’s a trip of a lifetime.”