There are a lot of unexpected things to do in Cherokee, NC, but getting there is a bit of a ride. Coming from eastern North Carolina, you’ll get on Route 19 near Maggie Valley, which is where the adventure begins. While it’s paved, it is a mountain road with ups, downs, and crazy curves.
But hey, this is all part of visiting a mountain town. And on the way, you’ll pass right by Soco Falls so be sure to stop.
Some of my favorite NC small mountain towns are near Cherokee including Sylva, Maggie Valley, Waynesville, Bryson City, Dillsboro, and Cullowhee. Take a little extra time and make it a week in the mountains.
Facts About Cherokee, North Carolina
Cherokee, North Carolina is in the Qualla Boundary which is the home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. While often incorrectly referred to as a reservation, this is incorrect. Because the ownership of the land is held by tribal members, it is a boundary, an important distinction.
The waters in Cherokee are clear. This may sound odd, but it’s a unique characteristic. How many times have you gone by a river in North Carolina after heavy rains and it’s a brown, muddy mess? This is due to sediment pouring down the banks and entering the river. In Cherokee, the water is always clear.
This is because they allow plants to build up on the banks of the rivers which stabilize the land and keep the sediment where it belongs. The result is clear water and great fishing.
Cherokee is so close to Great Smoky Mountains National Park that there is a trail where you enter the park without necessarily knowing it.
The Best Things to Do in Cherokee, NC
I love visiting North Carolina’s small towns. They each have their own vibe and it feels manageable to wander around.
There’s plenty to do in Cherokee, or you can head to nearby Waynesville or Sylva if you have more time. Whether you’re into shopping, eating, hiking, or looking for a fun day at the casino, this small town has it all.
Cherokee has two shopping areas downtown. The first is on Route 19, just past Harrah’s Casino. It’s about a quarter mile of shops on both sides. Make a right onto 441 and you’ll pass a second area with its colorful stores.
Both sections are touristy, but there are a few fun shops where you can find great items and learn about the local culture. Plus, there are at least four coffee shops that I counted. And fudge. Everyone likes fudge.
Oconaluftee Indian Village
Oconaluftee Indian Village is a living history museum. There is a fee to enter. Once inside, you’ll be transported to a Cherokee village from the 1760s. You’ll see villagers make canoes, pottery, baskets, and design jewelry with stunning beadwork.
There are also dances and stories. Everything in the village is designed to be authentic including the homes made of woven sapling and mud.
Knowledgeable guides will answer your questions and walk you through the area.
Unto These Hills Outdoor Drama
Unto These Hills is an outdoor theatre near Oconaluftee Indian Village. Technically the show is Unto These Hills and the location where it’s performed is Mountainside Theatre.
Inside the theatre is the eternal flame which is incredible to see. When the theatre is closed, you can see inside. The theatre is much larger than I thought.
While I wasn’t able to see Unto These Hills because it runs seasonally, I’ve heard it’s a well done drama highlighting the stories around the formation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians from encountering the first Europeans to the Trail of Tears.
Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Established in 1948, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian is one of the oldest operating tribal museums. Beyond just cultural artifacts, the museum is one the interpretive sites for the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.
Located in the heart of Cherokee, the museum traces the story of the history of the Cherokee people from their earliest known origins to the present. There are computer-generated holograms, sound, and other special effects that keep you engaged and leave an impression.
You can locate the museum easily by looking for the 20-foot statue of Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet out front.
Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual Co-Op
Across the street from the Museum of the Cherokee Indian is the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual Co-Op. Unlike many arts and crafts co-ops I’ve been to, this one is pristine and full of top notch works.
There’s a room set aside as a museum that also explains the background and significance of the crafts and why they are important to the Cherokee people.
Next is a large room full of hand-made craft from local artists. From $4 bracelets (which really should be more), to $200 hand-woven baskets, to paintings worth more, there are plenty of things to admire and potentially purchase.
Cherokee Veterans Park
The Cherokee Veterans Park is a small, outdoor park on Tsali Boulevard (Route 441). You’ll see the tank out front just past Oconaluftee Island Park.
Part of the park is a memorial designed by James Killian Spratt. It’s made of seven granite stones with a large obelisk in the center that has a bust of Charles George, a Medal of Honor recipient. I really enjoyed walking through the memorial and the park itself.
Visit Harrah’s Resort and Casino
Harrah’s is the biggest building in Cherokee. There’s a resort, the main hotel, and the casino. But you’ll also find an arcade complete with bowling alley, pool, and convention center.
Inside the hotel are a ton of restaurants, but they’re spread out. If you’re staying in Cherokee Tower (the main hotel), there’s a bar in the lobby, Starbucks, and Guy Fieri’s Kitchen & bar. But it’s not a far walk to the casino or resort and there are sky bridges so you can stay inside.
Cherokee Visitor’s Center
I’m a huge fan of visitor centers to help you plan and finalize your agenda when visiting small towns. The Cherokee Welcome Center has tons of information.
I asked where I could get the best latte in town and they didn’t disappoint. But they also helped me organize my trip a bit better, so I wasn’t going back and forth to the same areas.
Santa’s Land wasn’t open when I visited but it’s a big attraction and worth mentioning. They are open certain days of the week from May through October, then close for the season. It’s advised to call ahead in inclement weather to confirm they’re open.
Part amusement park with rides, part petting zoo, it’s an interesting place.
Outdoor Adventures Near Cherokee
Since Cherokee sits right next to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there’s plenty of outdoor adventures. It’s also just 45 minutes from both Lake Junaluska and Fontana Lake, two of the best lakes in North Carolina.
Soco Falls is along Route 19 about 15 minutes outside of Cherokee. There’s a small gravel area to pull over. It looks like it’s designed for cars to park facing the guardrail, but for some reason, everyone parks parallel making it interesting to get in and out.
The hike to the viewing platform is easy, but it’s not the best view. You can keep going down on slick rock. While not steep, there is a rope to help you from sliding. And prepare to get muddy. I highly recommend hiking shoes, something with solid tread.
Once you’re down, the falls are beautiful. There are two waterfalls! It’s tough to pull yourself away.
This might be the easiest waterfall to see in Cherokee. You should know that your GPS will steer you wrong. But that’s okay, because the town of Cherokee has your back. GPS will tell you to make a right on Sherrill Cove Road from Big Cove Road. This is wrong. Once you make the right, there’s a giant sign “No access to Mingo Falls. Your GPS is WRONG.”
So you turn around and head back to Big Cove Road, and there’s a sign, “Mingo Falls” with an arrow to the right. From here on out, there are plenty of signs to get you there.
You’ll park in the small lot and hike up a lot of stairs (not steep though), maybe about 0.25 miles to the falls. They’re beautiful and you’ll have a great view from the bridge. All further access is closed, but you’ll get what you need.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
One of the entrances to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is five minutes from downtown Cherokee. Once inside, you’ll have access to some of the best areas in the park.
Before heading to the park, you must purchase a parking pass if you plan to park for more than 15 minutes. This includes parking at Clingman’s Dome. This is a new process as of March 1, 2023.
Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Mountain Farm Museum
About a half mile down Highway 441, you’ll arrive at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Mountain Farm Museum. The parking lot is small, but there seems to be a lot of turnover so just keep circling and you should find a spot.
Inside the Visitor Center is a gift shop and interactive exhibits, maps, guides, and helpful staff. There are also restrooms nearby.
The Mountain Farm Museum is around the back, easily accessed via a paved trail which turns to gravel partway down. The buildings date around 1900 and were moved from their original locations to create the museum.
There’s a log farmhouse, barn, apple house, springhouse, and more. Walking around provides the sense of how families survived 100 years ago. The area is also beautiful to walk around and there’s a river along the edge.
With a little luck, the local rooster may decide to perch on a bench and serenade the crowds. He’s vocal!
Just down the road from the Visitor Center is Mingus Mill, an old gristmill built in 1886. The chute guiding the water into the mill is unbelievably long.
The mill was shut down sometime in 2023 when an inspection showed rotting wood. The water is currently diverted before it reaches the building, and no one is allowed to enter.
The mill uses a water powered turbine instead of a water wheel which was quite an engineering feat in its day.
If you’d like to see a working gristmill, you can visit the mill at Cades Cove which is still used to grind corn. Built in 1867, it’s also older than Mingus Mill.
This is a bit of a drive, but it’s a beautiful loop. You’ll continue on 441, heading towards Gatlinburg and follow the signs. Check the park’s website before heading out. Certain times of the year, the loop is closed to cars, allowing cyclists and hikers a chance to get in there and explore. This is usually on Wednesdays through the summer.
Clingman’s Dome is a large observation deck on the North Carolina and Tennessee border in the park. It’s a bit of a drive, but well worth it if you have the time.
There’s a parking lot at the top, but in peak season it’s going to be full. Prepare to park along the road and walk as much as half a mile to the observation deck.
The concrete spiral path leading the to deck makes for great photographs. Beware that the deck itself is small and people will smash themselves in. Take your time, be patient, and you’ll get a good view.
If you’re a serious hiker, you can camp in the park and hike to the dome during less crowded times.
The road leading to Clingman’s Dome is closed in the winter. Check the park website for up-to-date information.
Oconaluftee Island Park
There’s something about Oconaluftee Island Park. It’s right in the middle of downtown with easy parking. You’ll see people fishing (with a permit). But it’s the bridges and the way the river forks to create an island setting that captures your attention.
Basically, the river heads under a bridge then splits creating a wide berth of land in the middle. Cherokee took advantage and made it into a park. Reddish bridges take you from the edges to the island where there is a gazebo, grass, and plenty of picnic areas.
It’s a little oasis where you can get away from the crowds but still be in downtown Cherokee.
Oconaluftee River Trail
I had the pleasure of hiking this trail with botanist Adam Bigelow. Admittedly, I can’t tell a daisy from a petunia, but Adam somehow described plants in a way that made sense to me.
His excitement at finding certain plants along the trail was contagious. We hiked along the trail, then down by the river. Somewhere along the line, we entered Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Cherokee end of the trail is on Highway 441 just past Oconaluftee Island Park. You’ll need to look at a map to confirm the trailhead because there’s no distinct signage pointing to it.
Fire Mountain Trails
Fire Mountain is known for having amazing trails. Hiking trails, mountain biking trails, and now a disc golf course.
Most of the trailheads are in a parking lot just above Oconaluftee Indian Village, but there are plenty of other places to access the area.
Most hiking and mountain biking apps have the trails noted, and you can also get information at the Cherokee Visitor Center.
Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
The iconic Blue Ridge Parkway is right off route 441 in Cherokee. You’ll pass the entrance just inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Not far along the parkway is Oconaluftee River Overlook followed by Raven Fork Overlook. It then weaves through the Sherril Cover and Rattlesnake Mountain tunnels.
For a nice loop, you can take it to route 19 just above Soco Falls, then come down 19 back into Cherokee.
Sequoyah National Golf Club
I added this to the bottom because technically it’s in Whittier, NC and not Cherokee, but it’s only a 7 minute drive. Since I don’t play golf, all I can do is share what a very excited friend told me; it’s a par 72 championship course.
What I do know is that it may be the only golf course offering views of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you’d like to learn how to play, or hone your skill, they have a driving range, putting greens, and a chipping area. You can also get Golf Club fitted by certified PGA Golf Professionals.
Where to Eat and Drink Near Cherokee, NC
With Harrah’s Resort and Casino, all the downtown restaurants and nearby Sylva and Bryson city, there are plenty of places to eat.
Brio Italian Grill
Located inside Harrah’s Resort, Brio offers Italian dishes inspired by Tuscany. This is a chain restaurant, but I’ve always found it reliable. For an appetizer, try the fried calamari. It’s light and crispy with a sauce that has a kick.
My go to is the Margherita Flat Bread, but I’ve also had the Strawberry Balsamic Chicken Salad, and Pasta Alla Vodka and all were delicious.
Grannies Kitchen Restaurant
Grannies is down home, southern, cooking served buffet style. There’s a specific menu for each day of the week. Check their website for your favorites.
When I say down home, I mean fried chicken, roast beef, green beans, black-eyed peas, and spiced apples.
Breakfast includes options like scrambled eggs, sausage patties, grits, French toast sticks, biscuits, and gravy.
After a big day of hiking or mountain biking, this is your spot.
Peter’s Pancakes & Waffles
A perennial favorite, Peter’s is where you to for breakfast. Specializing in breakfast and brunch, they know how to do it right. Even better, enjoy your breakfast sitting alongside the Oconaluftee River.
The pancakes are light and fluffy, but there are plenty of egg dishes if you’re not a pancake person.
Selu Garden Café
Another Harrah’s Resort restaurant, Selu is open for breakfast and lunch. First, let’s start with the all you can eat breakfast that includes biscuits and gravy, and a made-to-order omelet station. There are also menu items if you want something like granola or eggs benedict. But the buffet is great value if you’re hungry.
Lunch features basic wraps and other items, but there is a portion of the breakfast menu that’s available all day too.
Wize Guyz Grille
Located in Tepee Village downtown Cherokee, Wize Guyz Grille is that restaurant where you’ll find pizza, burgers, hot dogs, and Italian pasta dishes. This is where you go when you’ve been hiking or camping and dreaming of a burger for two days.
These guyz figured out what people want and nailed it to a tee.
Front Porch Cakery & Deli
Front Porch has a small lunch menu, mainly sandwiches, soup, and a few specials, but it’s really just an excuse to get dessert.
Just to reel in you, a few of their dessert daily specials include Hot Fudge Cake, and Home-Made Apple Hand Pies.
I also thought the cakes they had in the store looked really good.
Mini Donut Place
Besides donuts, Mini Donut Place also has a small breakfast and lunch menu. I’m not a hot dog person, but I heard their hot dogs are good. I was in it for the coffee. I asked a local for the best coffee place and they pointed me here. It was a good choice.
I seriously just wanted a good cup of coffee and Mini Donut Place delivered.
If you know me, you know I have a latte problem. I’m aware and doing nothing to fix it. Before heading out of town, I stopped at Qualla Java for a latte to power me through my drive.
While they have a lot of fun flavors, I enjoyed a plain old latte which hit the spot. But if you want something like blueberry in your latte, give it a try.
Where to Stay in Cherokee
Since the town is next door to the busiest National Park in the US, there are plenty of accommodations in and around Cherokee. If you’re camping, driving an RV, want to try glamping, looking for an economy hotel, or want to live it up in a resort, there’s a place for you in Cherokee.
You’re in the mountains, next to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there’s tons of campsites. Wherever you decide, you’ll need reservations, so call in advance. There are options for RVs, tents, and backpackers everywhere. I’ve listed a few below to help get you started.
Great Smokies KOA Holiday
River Valley Campground
Cherokee Campground & Craig’s Cabins
This is a hard core outdoor area so glamping is hard to come by. There are a few glamping options in Bryson City (mainly Yurts), and you can also try Yogi in the Smokies.
There are tons of hotels, motels, resorts, and lodges in the area. You’re sure to find something to fit your budget.
Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort
This is the largest hotel in the area and offers both a resort and hotel. The rates are surprisingly reasonable for all it has to offer, and parking is free if you self-park.
Once inside you can spend your entire trip here, or head out. It’s conveniently located within five to fifteen minutes of everything you want to see.
Rolling Hills Lodge
This is a cute lodge-like hotel that offers an amazing free breakfast. They’re right across from the Oconaluftee River. Even better, they’re along the Elk Trail and you may see an elk walk through the parking lot.
They won the 2023 TripAdvisor Traveler’s Choice award, and also the Cherokee Pride Award for Exceptional Customer Service for a Lodging Establishment. Centrally located downtown, you’ll be treated well and have access to everything you need.
Holiday Inn Express & Suites Cherokee
If you’re familiar with Holiday Inn Express, then this is pretty standard. A clean, basic room, free continental breakfast, outdoor pool, and gym.
It’s across the street from Harrah’s Casino and less than a five-minute drive to downtown Cherokee. You’ll be centrally located.
Stonebrook Lodge is located next to the Holiday Inn Express, across from Harrah’s Casino. Once again, you’re central to everything.
The hotel is noted as being very clean. A continental breakfast is included with your room.
Great Smokies Inn
If you want to walk to everything in downtown Cherokee, then book a room at Great Smokies Inn. It’s on Acquoni Road just before the intersection with Big Cove. That puts is about 1 mile from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, next to Oconaluftee River Trail and Oconaluftee Island Park, and near great shopping.
There actually aren’t a lot of Airbnb or VRBO options in Cherokee itself. You’ll find most rentals are in Sylva or Bryson City.
Festivals in Cherokee
If you happen to be in the area during one of the festivals, make sure to stop by.
The Cherokee Indian Fair
The Cherokee Indian Fair is usually held the first week of October. It celebrated its 111th anniversary in 2023.
With a goal celebrate Cherokee culture, there’s plenty to do. After paying the entrance fee, you’ll find traditional stickball games, competitions, crafts, and rides. But the real treat is the food. Traditional Cherokee foods cooked by locals include chicken, fried potatoes, mustard greens, and bean bread. For dessert, there’s chestnut bread and meat pie.
If you do attend, the event is cash only so be sure to hit the ATM before you go.
Generally held the middle of May at the Cherokee Indian Fairgrounds, the free event is a perfect outing for the family. Featuring fresh berries, strawberry products, children’s activities, cultural demonstrations, and more, it’s a full day of strawberries.
Cherokee Summer Carnival
Running the end of June to early July, the Cherokee Summer Carnival features amusement rides, games, food, and more. Think along the lines of clowns and dunk tanks.
Wrap-Up: Things to do in Cherokee, NC
When you picture Cherokee, you likely think about Harrah’s Casino and Resort, or Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but there’s a lot to do in the town.
Come visit Cherokee, one of the best towns in Western North Carolina. Learn about the Cherokee people, see crystal clear rivers, stay at a hotel where Elk often wander through the parking lot, shop for local crafts, and eat fantastic food.
Don’t be stingy with your time, while Cherokee may be a small town, this is not a day trip. Book a long weekend and explore Cherokee, North Carolina.