By: Olwen Claiborne
swimmers in Cherokee, NC
Photo Credit:

"In the beginning, the land was wet. The great buzzard was sent to prepare the land. By the time he reached the Cherokee territory he was so tired that his wings began to hit the ground. Wherever they hit, a mountain or valley was formed." – A portion of the Cherokee creation story.

The Cherokee lands once encompassed a vast area, including much of modern-day North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. Today, the territory of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, known as the Qualla Boundary, covers roughly 88 square miles of North Carolina along the southern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The 35-mile drive from Gatlinburg, TN to Cherokee, NC, across the highest peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is a drive back in time – and one with amazing views.

The Oconaluftee Visitor Center sits at the southern border of the National Park. Here, the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill provide an opportunity to explore historic buildings and learn how European settlers may have lived 100 years ago. This is an excellent location for viewing a herd of elk, the result of a successful restoration program launched in 2002. Enjoy from a distance, however – they are protected wildlife and are unpredictable.

Continue to journey back in time by visiting the interactive Oconaluftee Indian Village. Here, the Cherokee lifestyle of the mid-18th century comes alive as native guides escort you through traditional dwellings, work areas, and sacred ritual sites. The Village is open most days mid-April through early November.

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian contains artifacts and displays that tell the stories of the accomplishments, suffering, and triumphs of the Cherokee people, from Paleo to modern times. The museum has been described as “one of the top ten native sites east of the Mississippi” by Kevin Gover, Director of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Next door, The Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual is a cooperative gallery and shop featuring handmade, traditional pieces by over 350 native artisans. Take home a piece of history!

In the evening, sit under the stars and experience the outdoor drama “Unto These Hills” in the newly renovated Mountainside Theatre. From May to August, native actors in authentic regalia dance, sing, and tell the story of the legacy of the Cherokee people.

Alternatively, experience traditional storytelling and dancing at the Cherokee Bonfire event which runs throughout the summer months. Gather by the fire at Oconaluftee Islands Park for a cultural experience drawing from a rich oral tradition. Go to for a schedule of this and other special events, such as the annual Qualla Arts and Crafts Open Air Indian Art Market or Talking Trees Children’s Trout Derby.

For those who prefer an over-21 indoor experience, try your luck or catch a world-class concert at Harrah’s Cherokee Resort Event Center and Casino. Past entertainers have included Heart, Alicia Keys, Dwight Yoakam, and Gregg Allman.

Cherokee, NC, is a sovereign nation rich in history and looking to a successful future. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians welcomes you to come explore, learn, and enjoy.