“A series of mountains rise out of the great Appalachia Range in Graham County, North Carolina, southwest of the Great Smoky Mountains…”
– Traveller Bird

In Robbinsville, the Junaluska Museum and Gravesite serve as the center for Cherokee Heritage Trails. At this small, remarkable museum created by members of the Snowbird community of Cherokees from the Eastern Band, you will find information on sites and events in this area. The Junaluska Memorial and Museum also present information on the Cherokee leader Junaluska, a walking trail with medicine plants, exhibits of artifacts from this area more than 6,000 years old, and the story of the Trail of Tears in this area.

The main Cherokee Heritage Trails site in Robbinsville is the Junaluska Grave Site and Museum. Near Robbinsville, the Tatham Gap Trail was used on the Trail of Tears, and can still be walked or driven. A side trip to Joyce Kilmer Forest shows old growth as it may have looked a thousand years ago. Another side trip to the Nantahala Gorge shows another natural wonder, now famous for whitewater recreation. The recently completed Cherohala Skyway, Snowbird Community’s most scenic drive, links North Carolina and Tennessee along ridge tops with panoramic views of North Carolina and Tennessee.

Sites in Robbinsville


The Junaluska Memorial and Museum honor this Cherokee leader who was who was held in high esteem by both Cherokees and whites. Seven large granite markers erected around his grave tell the story of his life, 1776-1858, which was shaped by the events of the turbulent period leading up to and following Removal. The Junaluska Museum, located just downhill, provides further information about his life. There, exhibits of artifacts from the Cheoah Valley date back more than 6,000 years, and information on the Trail of Tears is presented. Community members like Iva Rattler and Jim Bowman who helped to create the museum and who often volunteer here provide additional information on Junaluska and the Snowbird Cherokees. Baskets, beadwork, silversmithing, and other crafts made by Cherokee people are sold here. Recently, the museum created a “Medicine Plants” walking trail that loops around the hill below the grave site, and the Friends of Junaluska are planning to expand their programming.

Born in 1776 in the village of Echoe, near present-day Dillard, Georgia, Junaluska and his family kept moving as the borders of the Cherokee territory kept shrinking – first to land on the Cullasaja River and then near the Valley Towns. In 1811, Cherokee oral tradition records that he met with Tecumseh at Soco Gap and declined, for the Cherokees, Tecumseh’s offer to join him and all other tribes in uniting to defeat the whites.

Junaluska’s contemporaries described him as tall and dignified, and say that he was a good speaker. His name comes from the Cherokee language tsunalahvski – “He tried and failed,” because he boasted that he would go and kill all the Creeks, and when he returned, having obviously failed, this was the name he took. A courageous warrior and natural leader, Junaluska had three wives, having been widowed twice, and his descendants still live among the Eastern Band today.
The remarks of Reverend Armstrong Cornsilk were delivered in Cherokee language and translated into English by Lewis Smith. They were taken down by one of those present:

“Ladies and gentlemen, friends: We have met here at Junaluska’s grave. We have met as friends and brothers and sisters. We are refreshing our memories over Juno’s burial.


“We appreciate his going to war, and gaining the big victory for Jackson. The Cherokees and whites were fighting the Creeks at that time. And we Cherokees feel that it was through him we have the privilege of being here today.


“I knew Juno at that time. I knew him well. I recollect how he looked. He wore the hair cut off the back of his head, and he would plait the hair on top of his head so as to make it stick up like horns.


“He was a good man. He was a good friend. He was a good friend in his home and everywhere. He would ask the hungry man to eat. He would ask the cold one to warm by his fire. He would ask the tired one to rest, and he would give a good place to sleep. Juno’s home was a good home for others.


“He was a smart man. He made his mind think good. He was very brave. He was not afraid.


“Juno at this time has been dead about fifty years. I am glad he is up above [pointing upward.] I am glad we have this beautiful monument. It shows Junaluska did good, and it shows we all appreciate him together – having a pleasant time together.”


“I hope we shall all meet Junaluska in heaven [pointing upward] and all be happy there together.”

Contact: Junaluska Museum, T.J. Holland, Cultural Resources Manager, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians P.O. Box 455 Cherokee NC 28719. 828 479-6352
E-Mail: junaluska1@frontier.com

Sites Near Robbinsville

On June 21, 1838, North Carolina troops escorted three hundred Cherokee prisoners from Fort Montgomery (now Robbinsville) across the Snowbird Mountains on the first leg of their thousand-mile trek to Oklahoma. They crossed the Snowbirds on the military road built on the long-familiar Cherokee trail between the Cheoah community and the Valley Towns (from present-day Robbinsville to Andrews.) One can walk or drive along this route, today, finding in some places the wagon ruts made by the Army as they transported the Cherokees in their first stage along the Trail of Tears. [See sidebar on Removal of the Cheoah Cherokees]

The Tatham Gap/ Rockpile Trail was significant in Cherokee history even before the events of the Removal, and it figures in legends and oral history. Like other ancient trails made by game and by early people, it could be thousands of years old. It takes a direct route from the watershed of the Valley River (in Cherokee, Gunahita, or “long”) into the valley and watershed of the Cheoah River. Both of these river valleys stand at about 2,000 feet elevation, but the surrounding peaks rise above 5,000 feet. The trail makes its way through the 3,500 foot high gap, a relatively easy way between the two valleys, and one that avoids traveling through the Nantahala Gorge. (On the northern side of the valley, Stecoah Gap (on Rt. 143) provides similar access into the Cheoah River valley.)

Contact: Ms. Pat Momich, Interpretive Specialist, United States Forest Service, 160a Zillacoa Street, Asheville, NC 28802

Side Trips

The giant, old trees here in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest stand more than a hundred feet high and twenty feet around – testaments to the loveliness of trees as they once existed in the old growth forests. Giant tulip poplars and hemlocks create cathedrals of shade in which understory trees and wildflowers thrive. A two-mile loop trail extends from the parking lot for an easy hike through this grove. This special Memorial Park bears the name of British poet, soldier, and journalist Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918) in tribute to his poem “Trees.” Although he never visited the southern Appalachians, his lines could have been penned about these giants: “I think that I shall never see/ A poem as lovely as a tree.” Pockets of old growth in the southern Appalachians remain rare because virtually all of these mountains were logged – in many places clear-cut- from the 1880’s through the 1930’s. While this industry created fortunes for lumber companies and employment for local men, it left a landscape that looked as bleak as the surface of the moon. Photographs from the 1930’s show Civilian Conservation Corps workers planting tree seedlings in a desolate, barren, wasteland that stretches over ridge after ridge as far as the eye can see. Only a few isolated stands of timber escaped.

Although their stewardship was not apparent to those of European descent, the Cherokees had managed forests throughout their territory for centuries with a variety of practices. In autumn they burned off fallen leaves to eliminate underbrush and insects, and to aid in gathering chestnuts; this also minimized the effect of forest fires. Cherokee houses required young saplings and cooking fires required firewood, leading to the clearing out of young growth around village areas, and this along with the use of fire created open understory forests in many places. Around villages they created stands of desirable trees at the forests’ edge such as hickory, walnut, and persimmon. In harvesting woodland plants and trees for food, medicine, and crafts, Cherokee people observed traditions rooted in a sense of the sacredness of life and respect for all life; as a result these traditions encourage regeneration and sustainability. These included, for example, taking only the fourth plant of the species being collected, taking bark only from one side of a tree (in a prescribed direction), and cutting ramps above their roots rather than pulling the plant.

Contact: Cheoah Ranger District U.S.F.S. Rt. 1 box 16-A Robbinsville NC 28771

Phone: 828 479-6431

Whitewater on the Nantahala RiverThis narrow gorge, with steep sides and violently rushing waters is known as the haunt of monsters in Cherokee lore: Spearfinger, the Giant Inchworm, and the Uk’tena. An old stone wall high on the slope of the gorge was said to be the form of the monster snake, Uk’tena, after it had been turned to stone. Spearfinger, Utlvta, the liver-eating ogress who had powers over stone, was said to frequent this place. The Uwtsvta, or giant bouncing snake, lived here. It moved like an inchworm with only part of its body on the ground at a time, and was so large that when it stretched across the gorge it blocked out the sun. All of these legendary terrors are cited as the reason Cherokee people avoided the narrow part of the gorge.

But Cherokee people did live at Briartown, Kanugayv-yi, and also, just prior to Removal, at Chinleanahtli, the village of Tsali and his former neighbor and final pursuer, Euchella. Both had moved from Cowee when it was taken in the Treaties of 1817 and 1819.

Contact: Nantahala Gorge is administered by the U.S. Forest Service, Wayah District, 90 Sloane Rd. Franklin NC 28734

Phone: 828 524-6441.

The Stecoah Valley Center is located in the small town of Stecoah on the northern side of Graham County. If you are traveling to Robbinsville from Cherokee and Bryson City, Stecoah is on Rt. 129 shortly after turning right off of the main four-lane.

Located along Stecoah Creek, below Meetinghouse Mountain and Deep Gap Mountain, this old Cherokee town site is separated from the Robbinsville/ Snowbird valley by the Cheoah Mountain Range, which the road crosses at Stecoah Gap. The name “Stecoah” identifies several Cherokee villages in the original homeland.

Contact: Stecoah Valley Center  121 Schoolhouse Road, Stecoah NC 28771

Phone: 828 579-3362.

Website: www.stecoahvalleycenter.com

Scenic Drives

View from the Cherohala SkywayIn 1965, a wagon train made up of horseback riders and wagons pulled by horses and by mules traveled across part of this route to dramatize the need for a connecting route between Andrews, North Carolina and east Tennessee. Now this scenic highway, completed after thirty years at a cost of more than $100 million dollars, connects Robbinsville, N.C., with Tellico Plains, Tennessee.

Beginning outside of Robbinsville, near the Snowbird Community, the forty-mile-long, two-lane road immediately ascends to the mountain ridges and follows them along its whole route, providing miles of panoramic vistas. It passes high mountain meadows covered with rhododendron as it winds gently across the crest of the Great Smoky Mountains. Its highest overlook, Santeetlah, sits at more than a mile high at 5,390 feet. Following an ancient trading route in places, the Skyway passes rivers, creeks, a lake, and a waterfall as well as a black bear preserve. Many of the overlooks include picnic tables, restrooms, and short hiking trails. Its name does not come from Cherokee language, but rather a combination of “Cherokee” and “Nantahala” – the two national forest areas through which the road passes. Allow one-and-a-half to two hours driving time and, if traveling in winter, be aware that weather may be more severe at these elevations.

Contact in N.C.: Nantahala National Forest Cheoah Ranger Station, Rt. 1 Box 16-A Robbinsville NC 28771
Phone: 828 479-6431
or Sheriff’s Department, Graham County, N.C. 828 479-3352

Contact in Tennessee: Cherokee National Forest Tellico Ranger Station 250 Tellico Ranger Station Rd. Tellico Plains TN 37385
Phone: 423 253-2520
Sheriff’s Department Monroe County Tennessee, 423 442-3911