Graham County covers 433 square miles with elevation ranges from 1,177 to 5,560 feet. Two-thirds of the county is National Forest. It is the home of Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, Slickrock Creek Wilderness Area, Snowbird Backcountry Area, Nantahala National Forest, and borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Appalachian Trail winds through the county making its trek from Georgia to Maine. Lake Santeetlah's shoreline is more than 75% National Forest; insurance that it will never be spoiled by development. Many visitors enjoy the solitude of the lake even on the busiest of summer weekends. Graham County's trout streams have earned a national reputation. Total resident population of Graham county is less than 8000.
Activities in Graham County lean toward outdoor adventures. Hiking, whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking, fly-fishing, lake fishing, boating, jet skiing, hunting, horseback riding, nature photography, and mountain biking are some of the more strenuous activities. Others prefer the quiet restfulness of the forest, waterfalls, mountains, lakes, and streams. Many motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts come to ride the Tail of the Dragon at Deal's Gap and the Cherohala Skyway.
1. Hiking the Appalachian Trail
Graham County proudly hosts almost 29 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Fontana Dam to Grassy Gap near Wesser in the Nantahala Gorge. Elevations in this section vary from 1,725 to 5,062 feet and presents hikers with some of the most challenging elevation changes along the entire trail. South of the Smokies are the long climbs of the Stecoah-Cheoah Mountain area, then the outstanding Nantahala section, with 4,000-foot gaps and 5,000-foot peaks. Cheoah Bald offers panoramic views of western North Carolina. The variety of forest growth and the beauty of the flowering shrubs, along with the many spectacular views, make this entire section of trail memorable and is just a 20-minute drive from 34 Blue Duck.
2. Santeetlah Lake
In the midst of the lush, green mountain slopes, 3,000 acres of open water ideal for fishing, canoeing, and kayaking comprise Santeetlah Lake. (Its name is derived from an Indian word meaning "blue waters.") Santeetlah Lake is formed by the Santeetlah Dam across the Cheoah River on the northern end of the lake, and, like many of the man-made lakes in the mountains, Santeetlah makes its way into numerous picturesque coves and inlets. Most of the shoreline is undeveloped and part of the Nantahala National Forest, where ample camping opportunities abound.
Both cold- and warm-water species of fish flourish here, including largemouth bass, small mouth bass, walleye, bluegill, brown trout, and rainbow trout. Reports of osprey and spotted sandpiper near the boating access area have been recorded in the spring and summer, and great horned owls have been spotted in the winter. During migration shorebirds and waterfowl including green herons, prothonotary warblers, and red crossbills stop by the shallow coves of the many-fingered lake.
Over 80% of the Santeetlah shoreline (80 miles) is either federal (national parklands) or state owned, limiting any future development and preserving the unique tranquility of the area.
Unlike the regional TVA lakes with their continuous power generation Santeetlah Lake enjoys a 65-year restriction on any significant drawdown, preserving the recreational quality of the lake. The lake has the only beach facility open to the public free of charge in all of Western North Carolina and is just ¼ mile from 34 Blue Duck.
3. The Tail of the Dragon
Thrill-seeking drivers head for Deal’s Gap, where the road is the destination.
For those who like to tour on two wheels, the mountains of North Carolina provide some of the most scenic and challenging motorcycling roads anywhere. One of those is considered by many to be the best in the world and has been featured in National Geographic Adventure and numerous motorcycle magazines.
The constant rumble of motorcycle engines in Deals Gap attests to its popularity. This winding passage over the mountains into Tennessee was part of a Cherokee Indian trail network in centuries past. Today, the route is covered by a ribbon of blacktop officially designated U.S. Highway 129, but the bikers and sports car drivers that come from all over the globe to negotiate this famous stretch of road call it the "Tail of the Dragon."
Anyone who has taken it on understands why. The Dragon borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on one side and a privately owned, unspoiled forest on the other. And, although it is one of the most beautiful roads in the country, its twists, turns and switchbacks require a driver’s undivided attention.
In fact, experienced riders warn, “No sightseeing allowed.” At least, not while driving. Several pullouts and a scenic overlook provide opportunities to stop and enjoy the spectacular views. Speaking of views, the Dragon’s starting point at Tapoco Bridge, a.k.a. Fugitive Bridge, has a view of Cheoah Dam, where Harrison Ford made his death-defying leap in the movie The Fugitive.
A steep climb and multiple “S” curves later, the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort offers accommodations, a restaurant, gas station and store. From there, drivers grab the Dragon by the tail and hang on through the next 11 miles and, count ’em, 318 curves. Some are so sharp; they’ve earned names like Copperhead Corner, Wheelie Hell, Gravity Cavity, Beginner’s End and Brake or Bust Bend. The Tail of the Dragon ends at Tabcat Bridge in Tennessee. 34 Blue Duck is off RT. 129, just six miles north to Deals Gap.
4. Cherohala Skyway
The Cherohala Skyway was completed in the fall of 1996 after being under construction for some thirty-four years. It is North Carolina's most expensive highway carrying a price tag of $100,000,000. Winding up and over 5,400 foot mountains for 15 miles in North Carolina and descending another 21 miles into the deeply forested backcountry of Tennessee. The road crosses through the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests thus the name "Chero...hala". The Skyway is becoming well known in motorcycling and sports car circles for it's long, sweeping corners and scenic views.
This road enthusiast's dream connects Robbinsville, North Carolina with Tellico Plains, Tennessee. It can be desolate at night and extremely dangerous in the winter months. There are no facilities other than restrooms for the entire 36 miles so make sure you have enough gas to make the crossing. There is little evidence of civilization from views that rival or surpass any from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Beginning at Santeetlah Gap on the North Carolina side (mile marker 0, at elevation 2660 feet), the road quickly twists and ascends to Santeetlah, an overlook at mile marker 11, the highest overlook at 5390 feet. Along this section you will ride the mountaintop for another seven miles to the Tennessee state line. It can be cold and cloudy riding the mountain ridges, so make sure you dress properly, even in the summer months. We have been caught in pea soup fog, thick clouds, and bone chilling temperatures. The mile-high ride is always a new and unforgettable experience.
At mile marker 16 the descent starts into the Tellico River basin. There are a few more spectacular scenic vistas on the Tennessee side. A detour to Bald River Falls on paved Forest Service Road 210 is well worth the short trip. Water cascades over 100 feet onto the rocks below - all which can be seen from the comfort of your motorcycle /car.
The Tellico River, at the lower elevations on the Tennessee side, is famous for it's trout fishing, and when the water is up, can be quite a challenge for canoers and kayakers. The river leads you to the sleepy town of Tellico Plains where you can fill your tank and feed your belly. The Skyway is just a10 minute drive from 34 Blue Duck
5. National Forests, Great Smoky Mountains, Nantahala, and Joyce Kilmer
Volumes have been written about these unique Eastern United States forest treasures. 34 Blue Duck is just 8 minutes from Joyce Kilmer, a short drive to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and borders Nantahala.
6. Class IV White water activities on the Cheoah River
The Cheoah River challenges rafters with hydraulics, wave trains and nine miles of exciting paddling. Unique in its features, it is at once a classic, steep Southern creek, and then suddenly a warm, wavy ride, similar to big rivers out West. Rafting the Cheoah River is the perfect challenge for our most adventurous guests.
All in all, Cheoah River white water rafting is the adventurous capstone to any river lineup. There is a guarantee 17 days of whitewater each year for the next 50 years. Because these opportunities are limited, it's best to book your Cheoah adventure early.
Without a doubt, the Cheoah is the most exciting and physically demanding river the licensed outfitters offer. Expert guides complete intense training on this river. The few licensed outfitters require Cheoah guests to have prior rafting experience on rivers that are rated at least Class III or above, or to have experience canoeing or kayaking rivers rated Class II or above. The Cheoah's persistent whitewater and non-stop rapids require guests to paddle continuously. Guests who may not be able to paddle the entire trip and take an active role in their own rescue are discouraged from rafting the Cheoah. It’s just ½ mile to the Cheoah from 34 Blue Duck.
7. World class Tsali mountain biking
The popular Tsali Recreation Area has long been a top destination for mountain biking in Western North Carolina, and even the entire eastern US. Containing nearly 40 miles of trails in a system with four excellent loops, it has been rated as one of the top 10 places to ride in the USA. The area is located on a hilly peninsula reaching into beautiful Fontana Lake, at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains. The four long main trails at Tsali wind along the lakeshore and onto the wooded, steep interior ridges. There are several connector trails, gravel roads and extension trails that give a few more options for rides besides the main loops. Three designated overlooks along the trails provide sweeping views of Fontana Lake with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the other side. The trails are fast, hard packed single track, and they're extremely well designed and well used. Trails alternate use between mountain bikers and horseback riders on different days; two will always be open to mountain biking. There is a $2.00 trail use fee for one day. Tsali is just a twenty-five-minute drive from 34 Blue duck.
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