Cherokee National Forest: 15 + Ways to Play

Some of the most memorable days with family are spent in the simplest ways, like soaking in the mountain air on a meandering woodland path or catching some rays at the lake beach surrounded by towering peaks of gorgeous greenery.

While it may not be expensive or glamorous, just being together in nature is a powerful way to connect. In Cherokee National Forest, you’ll find tons of gloriously simple was to get out and play together.

Delightfully less crowed than the great Smoky Mountains, Cherokee National Forest offers a wealth of family-friendly camping, hiking, fishing, mountain biking, wildlife viewing, and more! The quaint neighboring towns, nestled along the base of the mountains, also offer a variety of shopping and dinning options to extend the fun.

Stretching north to south along Tennessee’s eastern border, the forest stretches all the way from Bristol to Chattanooga. The forest is broken into two chunks separated by GSMNP.

Jane Bald in Cherokee National Forest TN

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Camping in Cherokee National Forest

Cherokee National Forest boasts over 36 campgrounds including frontcountry, and backcountry options. Backcountry campsites often have no amenities and require campers to hike out to the site.

Frontcountry sites often boast a variety of amenities, such as running water, showers, and electric. They also allow campers to drive right up to their site.

Below you’ll find the best frontcountry sites for family camping, including options with swim beaches, biking, and more! All of the campgrounds below accept reservations, so you can plan ahead.

Jacobs Creek Campground (northern region)

  • Cost: $10-$12/night, tent and RV
  • Closest Town: Bristol
  • Amenities: hiking, swimming, boating, fishing, flush toilets, showers, potable water, dump station

Little Oak Campground (northern region)

  • Cost: $10-$12/night, tent and RVs
  • Closest Town: Bristol
  • Amenities: lake view and lake access sites, hiking, swimming, boating, fishing, flush toilets, showers, potable water, dump station, (no electric)

Rock Creek Campground (northern region)

  • Cost: $12-$40, tent and RV
  • Closest Town: Erwin
  • Amenities: hiking, swimming, fishing, flush toilets, showers, potable water, dump station, optional electric

Indian Boundary Campground (southern region)

  • Cost: $20/night, tent and RV
  • Closest Town: Tellico Plains
  • Amenities: hiking, swimming, boating, fishing, flush toilets, showers, potable water, electric, dump station

Parksville Lake Campground (southern region)

  • Cost: $12/tent, $20/RV
  • Closest Town: Benton, TN
  • Amenities: hiking, flush toilets, showers, potable water, picnic tables, fire rings, electric available, dump stations

Thunder Rock Campground (southern region)

  • Cost: $12-$20/night, tents only
  • Closet Town: Benton, TN
  • Amenities: kayaking, mountain biking, hiking, flush toilets, showers, potable water, picnic tables, grills, swimming at nearby Ocoee Whitewater Center

Rental Cabins

Cherokee National Forest offers 1 very primitive rental cabin in the southern region. It is very popular and books up quickly.

Thankfully there are tons of cabin rentals in the adorable towns that line the foothills of the forest. All of the towns offer a variety of shopping and dining options, as well as hotels for less rustic accommodations.

Bristol TN (northern region)

  • 20 minutes to Cherokee National Forest
  • Bristol Caverns
  • Bristol Motor Speedway (NASCAR)
  • extensive shopping options at The Pinnacle
  • a lively historic downtown shared with Bristol VA, allow you to stand in 2 states at once

Jonesborough TN (northern region)

  • 20 minutes from CNF
  • small water park
  • vibrant downtown with historic charm
  • famous regional festivals and story telling events

Elizabethton, TN (northern region)

  • 10 minutes from Cherokee National Forest
  • historic covered bridge
  • quaint downtown
  • Sycamore Shoals State Park living history reenactments

Athens, TN (southern region)

  • 30 minutes from CNF
  • Mayfield Dairy Farm and Creamery
  • spectacular festivals throughout the year
  • historic downtown area with eateries and gift shops

Cleveland, TN (southern region)

  • 30 minutes from Cherokee National Forest
  • 35 minutes from Chattanooga
  • Museum Center at 5 Points
  • Red Clay Historic park of Cherokee history
  • historic downtown with many popular annual festivals
Bald River Falls Hiking Trail in Cherokee National Forest, TN
Bald River Falls

Top Cherokee National Forest Hikes

Cherokee National Forest boasts excellent hiking, without all the crowds of of the Smokies. As an added bonus, leashed dogs are allowed in all areas of the park, including all hiking trails.

Below you’ll find some of the most popular hikes in Cherokee National Forest. It should come as no surprise that they all feature waterfalls.

To get the most out of your visit to these falls, avoid going during a drought. It’s better to go during the rainy season, when the falls will be overflowing with water.

Sill Branch Falls (Erwin, TN)

  • round trip length – 3.2 miles
  • difficulty – easy
  • region – northern

Though one section of this hike is pretty steep, the overall trail is short and manageable with one creek crossing along the route.

Margarette Falls Trail (Greeneville, TN)

  • round trip length – 4 miles, beginning at parking lot
  • difficulty – moderate
  • region – northern

This trail starts off fairly easy, but develops a steep vigorous incline as you get closer to the falls. This trail also tends to be a bit rocky and may be best reserved for physically capable hikers.

In addition to the falls, hikers will enjoy several bridge crossings along this route.

Benton Falls (Reliance, TN)

  • round trip length – 3 miles
  • difficulty – easy
  • region – southern

The majority of this trail is smooth and sandy which makes it a great all ages hike. The most strenuous part is a set of stairs leading down to the gorgeous tiered waterfall.

Bald River Falls (Tellico Plains, TN)

  • round trip length – 3 miles
  • difficulty – moderate
  • region – southern

This beautiful water fall is actually visible from the road, no hiking necessary. However, the adjacent hike offers views of several smaller falls along the route. There are also several bank areas where you can dip your feet in the water.

Please note that this trail does have some steep drop-offs and can get narrow in spots, so you will have to watch kids closely.

Indian Boundary Swim Beach, Cherokee National Forest, TN

Swim Beaches and Picnic Areas

While there are picnic areas peppered throughout the park, especially near popular hiking trails, the awesome day use areas below feature both scenic picnicking and swimming for double the fun!

Jacobs Creek Recreation Area (northern region)

This lake-side spot features a designated swim area with a grassy shore. There is also a nice shady picnic area on site.

Shook Branch Beach (northern region)

This fantastic grassy beach area, on Watauga Lake, boasts over 20 picnic tables with grills. There is also drinking water, and a restroom with flush toilets on-site.

Conasauga River Blue Hole (southern region)

This natural swim area, boasting both shallow and deep swim sections, is a popular spot for snorkeling. There is no “beach” area at this location, but it does have a nice open picnic area. While there is no running water, there are vault toilets on-site.

Ocoee White Water Center (southern region)

The White Water Center boasts 2 different swim areas: Mac Point Beach and Parksville Beach.

Mac Point, on Lake Ocoee, features a changing area, sandy beach area, shady picnic area, grills, drinking water, and flush toilets,

Parksville has a grassy beach area with neighboring picnic tables, and vault toilets.

Indian Boundary Recreation Area (southern region)

One of the most popular recreation areas on the list, this forest attraction boasts a large sandy swim beach with sunny picnic area, covered pavilion, restrooms, fishing pier, and easy looped hiking trail.

Chilhowee Recreation Area (southern region)

Located on McKamey lake, this recreation area has a nice designated swimming area with a large sandy beach, fishing spots, hiking and biking trails, picnic area, and flush toilets.

Rock Creek Recreation Area (southern region)

This stream-fed swimming hole boasts a shady picnic area, playground, restroom, and mixed use hiking/biking trails.

Boating

Cherokee National Forest boasts 7 different ramps for boating enthusiasts. Each launch area allows both motorized and non-motorized boats. All free-standing ramps have a daily parking fee of $2 – $3.

Watauga Lake Area (northern region)

  • Sink Mountain Boat Ramp
  • Rat Branch Boat Launch
  • Little Milligan Boat Launch

South Holston Lake (northern region)

  • Little Oak Campground Boat Launch
    • registered campers only

Ocoee River (southern region)

  • East Parksville Boat Launch
  • Kings Slough Boat Launch
  • Parksville Boat Launch
whitewater rafting locations in Cherokee National Forest, TN

Whitewater Rafting

Wahoo’s Adventures

  • Location: Erwin, TN
  • Cost: $75 per person

This wild rafting adventure on the Nolichucky River includes a buffet lunch. This company also offers tubing.

Cherokee Rafting (southern region)

  • Location: 869 Highway 64, Ocoee, TN
  • Cost: $30 – $85 per person

This attraction offers rafting experiences on the Ocoee River. They offer 3 different rafting experiences, including the Middle River, Upper River, and Full River. Prices vary based on the experience you choose.

Ocoee Adventure Center (southern region)

  • Location: 4651 Highway 64, Copperhill, TN
  • Cost: $35 – $99 per person

This adventure company also offers upper, middle, and full Ocoee River rafting experiences.

Tubing

If white water rafting seems a little too adventurous for you, a tubing experience may be more your speed. Instead of requiring you to navigate raging rapids, tubing is more like a natural lazy river experience. It provides full nature immersion, with significantly less scare factor.

USA Raft Adventure Resort (northern region)

  • Location: TN
  • Cost: $15/ once-out, $25/all day

USA Raft offers full-day and once-out tubing trips on the Nolichucky River. They also offer guided rafting, caving and fishing tours.

Web Brothers Float Service (southern region)

  • Location: 3708 Highway 30, Reliance, TN
  • Price: $17 per person for an unguided tubing experience

The tubing route is about 5 miles long and can take up to 4 and 1/2 hours to complete. In addition to tubing, Web Brothers also provides guided rafting experiences.

Best Stargazing Spots in Cherokee National Forest, TN

Stargazing

One of the most magical experiences in Cherokee National Forest is stargazing under a glittering mountain sky. While you can of course do this on your own, you may be interested in attending a FREE stargazing party instead.

At these star parties, held at Unicoi Crest, the The Smoky Mountain Astronomical Society will bring numerous telescopes for attendees to use. You can also bring your own equipment.

There be volunteers on hand to answer questions and help you locate various constellations and celestial bodies. These parties are as much educational as they are fun!

Unicoi Crest is situated along the Cherohala Skyway and straddles the Tennessee, North Carolina Border.

ATV Riding

The Buffalo Mountain ATV Trail, a 13 mile linear ATV trail, is the only one located directly inside Cherokee National Forest. It is just outside of Erwin, TN in the northern section of the park.

There are also some privately owned trails, just outside of the national forest, including

Cherohala Skyway in fall, Cherokee National Forest, TN
Cherohala Skyway

Scenic Drives

Another spectacular way to spend the day is by taking in the stunning views along the park’s most scenic roads. These routes are a great place to marvel at fall colors, wildflowers, wildlife, and more!

Mountain Biking

The areas below all offer a variety of mountain biking trails. Most of the trails are shared with hikers, so you will need to be mindful of others.

The CNF website doesn’t have very detailed information regarding it’s biking trails, but the mountain biking project website has tons of info and reviews. Some of the most highly rated trails include

  • Erwin Linear Trail (northern region)
    • easy
  • Pinnacle Mountain Trail (northern region)
    • intermediate
  • Green mountain Loop (northern region)
    • difficult
  • Tanasi Trail System (southern Region)
    • beginner and advanced trails
  • Chilhowee Mountain Trail System (southern region)
    • beginner, moderate, and advanced trails
  • Indian Boundary Loop Trail (southern region)
    • easy
Black Bear Appalachian Mountains, TN

Wildlife Viewing

Local Species

Some of the most popular and prolific wildlife throughout the forest, include

There are only 2 species of venomous snakes in East Tennessee, the copperhead and the timber rattlesnake. While copperheads are responsible for more yearly bites than the Timber Rattlesnake, their venom is less toxic.

To avoid an extremely painful (potentially deadly) bite, watch your step and never purposefully touch a wild snake.

Best Viewing Spots

In addition to the scenic drives listed above, which are excellent options for viewing wildlife, there a variety of hiking areas inside the park that make excellent viewing areas. The 2 locations below offer a mixture of both open fields and forested areas to maximize your viewing experience.

  • Dillard Place – wooded hillsides, grassy meadows, and small ponds
  • Roan Highland – a vast landscape of balds and hallows
goldfinch bird Cherokee National Forest, TN

Bird Watching

Birding is another popular wildlife experience within Cherokee National Forest. The forest is home over over 262 species of birds, including both full-time and seasonal residents.

While any forest experience provides an excellent opportunity for bird watching, there are various scenic loops that are popular among local birders, including the Unaka Mountain Wildlife Viewing Loop and Tellico Wildlife Viewing Loop.

Although there are many more, below we’ve listed the most common birds by season. Because these birds have such large local populations, they will be the easiest to spot and identify, especially for newbies.

Year Round Species

  • Blue Jay
  • Northern Cardinal
  • American Goldfinch
  • Cedar Waxing
  • Eastern Towhee
  • American Robin
  • Song Sparrow
  • Dark-Eyes Junco
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Noerthern Flicker Woodpecker
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Eastern Screech Owl
  • Red-Tailed Hawk

Summer Residents

  • Indago Bunting
  • Broad-Winged Hawk
  • Whip-Poor-Will
  • Chimney Swift
  • Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher
  • Black Throated Green Warbler
  • Black-Throated Blue Warbler
  • Chestnut-Sided Warbler
  • Pine Warbler
  • Hooded Warbler
  • Canada Warbler
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • Gray Cat Bird
  • Wood Thrush
  • Eastern Wood-Pewee
  • Acadian Flycatcher
  • Ovenbird

Winter Residents

  • Yellow-Rumpped Warbler
  • White-Throated Sparrow
  • Ring-Billed Gull (near lakes)

Fishing

If you’re not into birding, perhaps fishing is more your scene. The streams and rivers throughout the national forest boast a wide variety of popular fish perfect for eating, including

  • Catfish
  • Bluegill
  • Walleye
  • Brook Trout
  • Brown Trout
  • Black Crappie
  • White Crappie
  • Rainbow Trout
  • Small Mouth Bass
  • Large Mouth Bass

Wild trout can be found in most streams over 1,000 feet in elevation, while the best spots for stocked trout are Beaverdam Creek, Citico Creek, Paint Creek, and Tellico River.

Anyone 13 years of age and older needs a fishing license in the state of TN.

Snorkeling

If you prefer viewing fish, instead of catching them, snorkeling may be the best option for you. Cherokee National Forest’s top viewing locations are

  • Conasauga River (northern region)
  • Citico Creek (southern region)

While other local streams are free to be explored individually, the two above offer ranger lead snorkeling programs throughout the warmer months, which can be booked through Ocoee Whitewater Center.

horseback riding locations in Cherokee National Forest, TN

Horse Back Riding

For a more domesticated animal experience, Cherokee National Forest boasts a variety of designated horse trails in the following areas

  • French Broad River Area (northern region)
  • Holston Mountain Area (northern region)
  • Bald Mountain (southern region)
  • Big Frog Area (southern region)
  • Citico Creek Area (southern region)
  • Starr mountain Area (southern region)

The forest also manages 2 horse camps to provide overnight camping experiences for those bringing their own horses.

  • Lost Corral Horse Camp (southern region, near the Hiwassee River)
  • Young Branch Horse Camp (southern region, near Citico Creek)
  • Cherokee Trails Campground and Stables (northern, privately owned, Bluff City)

If you don’t have your own horse and are looking for guided tours, the stables below offers guided rides through the national forest.

Books to Share

Read alouds are a great way to bond with your kids while giving them an academic boost. These books will pair perfectly with your visit to Cherokee National Forest.

More East TN Family Fun

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