a day trip to cherokee reservation & bryson city

last saturday was gorgeous. and you know what that means… road trip!! there is nothing like packing a few snacks (thanks to my love!), filling up the gas tank, and heading out with no real plans – except that we were headed west, toward cherokee, nc.

cherokee is located beside the north carolina-tennessee border (but in north carolina), and is a national indian reservation. it is 56,000 acres and home to more than 10,000 eastern band of the cherokee members.

you know the story of the trail of tears? you know, when the us government forced native americans off of their land and made them walk west, displacing them and getting them out of the area that the whites wanted to claim? well, those natives that were forced to move and walk west, thanks to the indian removal act of 1830, were from the cherokee tribe, from the mountains of north carolina. they had been living on this land for thousands of years, and yet, when the europeans began settling the area, they pushed the natives from their home. can you believe that there was a law to remove people from their homes?! a horrible, embarrasing time in american history.

the cherokee that lina and i were headed for, only about a 45 minute drive from our home, is THE cherokee where these native americans lived at one time. however, there are still many who are members of the cherokee tribe today who live here. it is a fairly economically poor, but historically and culturally rich, area of the state – deep in the great smoky mountains. of course, there is a huge, crazy casino on the reservation now, a major way that cherokee receive income these days. but, other than the completely obtrusive, giant, over-the-top casino, cherokee remains simple, and a feels like stepping into a blast from the mid-1900s past. think: route 66-style america – a tourist destination for american families in the 1950s.

after driving a beautiful, windy mountain road and passing diners and retro-motels and trailer parks, you arrive in the middle of the town. the main street is lined with shops – trading posts filled with kitschy indian souvenirs and danial boone (mountain men) things. moccasins and dreamcatchers are everywhere. stuffed black bears, hillbilly signs, and other nature-loving knick knacks are in every single store. there are a few diners filled with southern food and one amazing fudge shop, which has been making incredible fudge since my mom was a little girl.

as a child, my parents brought me here almost every sumner for a day trip. and every summer i bought a new stuffed black bear (native to the nc mountains) and a piece of native american jewelry – handmade by local cherokee.

there are also museums and a native american village display, which give tons of information on the rich, beautiful, and sad history of the cherokee. it is easy to explore the culture, arts, crafts, and ways of life of the cherokee first-hand through beautiful exhibits and displays.

but, my absolute favorite part of cherokee has always been the outdoor drama, unto these hills, which is played out on the side of a mountain, in a greek-style outdoor amphitheater. this play tells the story of the cherokee up until the time they were forced to leave their land. i am certain that it has a huge part in teaching me about the equality of all people. i remember being horrified that some people told others to leave their homes.

my love and i didn’t visit any museums or see the outdoor drama (it only runs in the summer) while we were there, but we did wander in and out of all of the quirky stores. and yes, we purchased a locally-made dreamcatcher, which now hangs on our wall – as a symbol of our dreams and our connection with all people.

while we were in the area, though, we also wanted to explore a little of the great smoky mountains nature just outside of cherokee. the great smoky mountains national park is the most visited national park in the states. you wouldn’t think that, would you? but, it’s true. the mountains of north carolina are incredible. they are some of the oldest mountains in the world, way older than the rockies out west. indigenous people and plants have called these mountains home for tens of thousands of years. so, there is a rich history. and it is easy to drive on some old, mountain road feeling as if you are the only one around. there is also a rich history of “american history” (from the time of the US becoming a country until now) as well. old buildings, pioneer villages, monuments, trails, legends, and stories are found all through the mountains. you could explore the area for weeks, months, years. i’ve lived in nc almost my whole life (minus 3 years in sweden), and there is so much more to see…

after exploring the cherokee area, we decided we’d take another mountain road into a nearly town – somewhere lina had never been. and i hadn’t been there in over 10 years. ever deeper into the mountains, and just about 10 miles south of cherokee, lies the small town of bryson city.

i’ve never really thought that much about the town. i mean, it’s not near any big city. knoxville, tennessee is about an hour and a half away, and asheville is about the same distance. so, once you’re there, it’s just you, main street, and the gorgeous mountains. if you’re a city person, this is not the place for you to live. but, if you are the kind of person who wants to get away, soak up some nature, eat at a local diner, climb a mountain, sip on some locally brewed beer, ride a train, and raft down a river, then this is a great weekend/week getaway. a reminder of the simple things in life.

we were just coming into bryson city, when we passed a drive-in diner on the right. i blurted out how cool it was and kept driving. we realized that we were hungry, and though it looked old and very, very local, i turned the car around and we headed to nabers drive-in for lunch.

and we were not disappointed! i think it’s was lina’s first time at a real drive-in (sonic does not count, fellow americans!). our car faced the tuckasegee river (everything has cherokee names in this area), so we had the perfect view. just as we were about to order, a train chugged passed us – the great smoky mountains railway, a passenger train that provides day trips from dillsboro to bryson city. a really, really fun adventure – riding the train through the mountains. which reminds, me, we’ve got to do that soon!

i pushed the old button and gave our order to the cashier through the speaker. two grilled cheese sandwiches. one order of fries. one order of onion rings. and a strawberry milkshake. when in rome, right? and oh, dear lord, they delivered our food, hung it on the window, and we began salivating. it. was. so. yummy.
drive-in food

stuffed to the gills, we decided to drive down main street and park the car so we could wander a bit. what we discovered was a small town that is doing quite well. people were out and about, walking, eating, chatting, enjoying the weather. right there, we decided that we’d plan a weekend getaway in one of the bed & breakfasts on  main street a little later in the spring.

to finish up our amazing saturday, we decided to end with a beer at the taproom of the local brewery (natahala brewing company), which was beside the train station. we sat outside, sipped beer, and just loved every single second of being together.

exhausted, full, and completely satisfied, we climbed back into the car and made the hour long drive east… headed home as the sun set behind us, lighting up the mountains with a peaceful, gorgeous, golden glow.

once home, we hung the dreamcatcher and settled in for a cozy night. all in all, it was a perfect day. don’t you just love day trips? dream catcher

if you ever get a chance to visit cherokee and bryson city, it is well worth your time. let us know and we’ll be your guides. there is so much history to explore. so much beauty to see. today’s trip, for me, was a harkening back to simpler times, and a reminder that the spontaneity of a day trip can be just as adventurous as a trek around the world. there’s so much to learn and so much to discover out there!

peace & love. xx

0 thoughts on “a day trip to cherokee reservation & bryson city

  1. Wow Liz, what a great day trip and a beautiful collection of photos. Thanks for sharing it. 🙂 x

  2. Wow looks like a great day of exploring, I went to Cherokee as a kid and loved it

    1. It is kind of an iconic NC place, i think. you’re welcome back anytime! thanks for your comment. 🙂

  3. These pictures are stunning; I’m definitely going to have to spend some time in that area. I’m glad you got our a bit after the snow and bad weather and enjoyed the day.

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