Visiting Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee

Nestled in the heart of Tennessee, Cherokee National Forest is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. Covering over 640,000 acres, the forest is home to a diverse range of wildlife and offers a plethora of recreational activities. Visitors can enjoy hiking, camping, fishing, and even hunting in certain areas of the forest.

For folks who are wandering the Appalachian Trail, which runs for 70 miles through the forest, they might find themselves here without even realizing it. Hiking this section of the trail offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. For those seeking a more leisurely experience, there are plenty of shorter hiking trails that offer beautiful scenery and opportunities for wildlife viewing.

Camping is also a popular activity in Cherokee National Forest, with numerous campgrounds scattered throughout the area suitable for most types of camping. Many of these campgrounds offer amenities such as showers, picnic tables, and fire pits, making them a great option for families.

How to Get to Cherokee National Forest?

Cherokee National Forest is located in the southern Appalachian Mountains, straddling the rugged border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The forest is easily accessible by car and is located within a few hours’ drive of several major cities and airports. cherokee forest

Nearby Airports

The closest major airport to Cherokee National Forest is Knoxville — properly known as McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS). From there, you rent a car and drive approximately 1.5 hours to reach the forest. Other nearby airports include Asheville Regional Airport (AVL) in North Carolina, which is approximately 1.5 hours away, and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) in Georgia, which is approximately 3 hours away.

Nearby Cities

Several cities are located near Cherokee National Forest, offering visitors a variety of lodging and dining options. In the northern district of the forest, visitors can explore the towns of Erwin, Johnson City, and Elizabethton. In the southern district, visitors can explore the towns of Etowah and Ocee.

Getting Around

You will want to have a car in this area. If you decide to explore by car, you can drive a scenic routes through the Forest for great views. You can also head to a trailhead and hike the numerous trails that criss-cross the forest. There are also several campgrounds located within the forest, providing visitors with the opportunity to stay overnight and fully immerse themselves in the natural beauty of the area.

What’s Nearby

Cherokee National Forest is in what we consider to be a mecca of outdoors exploring, and visiting can be woven-in to a broader trip that hits lots of key destination. Visitors can take a scenic drive along the Cherohala Skyway, a 43-mile stretch of road that winds through the mountains and offers stunning views. The town of Gatlinburg, located just outside the forest, offers a variety of tourist attractions, including amusement parks, museums, and shopping. The legendary Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which borders Cherokee National Forest, is absolutely worth a visit and offers additional opportunities for hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing.

You are not far away from some of the great spots in other states too, namely Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina. We’re big fans of SW Virginia, with the Virginia Creeper Trail and Big Walker Mountain area.

If you want to head south, you pretty quickly get to the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest area, along with some of the great paddling in that area. You can tie all of these areas together with the Appalachian Trail if you are particularly ambitious.

Exploring Cherokee National Forest

You can do pretty much anything you want in the Forest, it has a little something for everyone.

Recreational Activities

Visitors can choose from a variety of recreational activities such as camping, hiking, fishing, swimming, and boating. The forest has several developed campgrounds, including the secluded Dennis Cove Recreation Area incherokee tennessee Carter County, which is popular with those seeking a rustic experience. Indian Boundary Recreation Area, located off Cherohala Skyway, offers over 87 campsites equipped with fire rings, picnic tables, and electrical hookups for RVs, as well as day-use facilities such as a 96-acre lake and a swim beach.

Hiking and Trails

Cherokee National Forest has over 600 miles of trails, including the famous Appalachian Trail, which passes through the forest for 70 miles. Choose from easy, moderate, and strenuous hikes that offer stunning views of the forest’s natural beauty. The forest also has two interpretive trails at Little Oak Recreation Area, a designated Watchable Wildlife Area.

Our favorite hikes:

  • Benton Falls: Easy. A nice trail that is not terribly rugged, taking you to Benton Falls on a relatively tame downhill trail. Total roundtrip is about 3 miles.
  • Jane Bald: Moderate. A little more difficult trail, and while it is not long (2.6 mile roundtrip) there is more incline. You will be on the Appalachian Trail for part of it, and head up to a beautiful open area with nice 360 degree views and great photo opps.
  • Appalachian Trail. The AT runs through much of the Forest, and it is worth tackling a section of it. In our opinion, the Tennessee and North Carolina border is the best area of the AT. You can really make it as long as you want, and tackle whichever section is most appealing to you. The area on either side of US Highway 19 is a good place to explore and easy to start from.

Camping and Accommodations

The forest has several developed campgrounds, including the remote Dennis Cove Recreation Area and the family-friendly Indian Boundary Recreation Area. Visitors can also choose to camp at Little Oak Recreation Area, which offers lake views and direct access to South Holston Lake. Many campsites are reservable through Recreation.gov or by calling 1-877-444-6777.

Wildlife and Biodiversity

Cherokee National Forest is home to a diverse range of wildlife, including black bears, deer, and wild turkeys. Visitors can also spot a variety of bird species, including bald eagles, ospreys, and woodpeckers. The forest’s diverse habitats, including hardwood forests, high-elevation spruce-fir forests, and grassy balds, provide a unique opportunity for visitors to experience a range of ecosystems.


The Forest offers excellent fishing opportunities in its streams, rivers, and lakes. Visitors can fish for a variety of species, including trout, bass, and catfish. The forest also has accessible fishing piers at Indian Boundary Recreation Area and several boat ramps for visitors to launch their boats. Fly fishing is an option here as well, so bring your waders.

What to expect in each season?

Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee is a great place to visit throughout the year. Each season has its own unique features and attractions to offer. Here’s what to expect in each season:black bear


Spring in Cherokee National Forest is a beautiful time to visit, some would say the best time because the weather gets nice early but crowds don’t really arrive until summer. The forest comes alive with vibrant colors as the trees and flowers bloom. Visitors can expect mild temperatures, with average highs in the 60s and lows in the 40s. Spring is also a great time for hiking and exploring the forest’s many trails. Trails might be a little muddy, but very passable.


Summer is a popular time to visit Cherokee National Forest, especially for families with children. Visitors can expect warm temperatures, with average highs in the 80s and lows in the 60s. The forest is bustling with activity, and visitors can enjoy swimming, fishing, camping, and other outdoor activities. However, summer is also the busiest time of year, so visitors should expect crowds and plan accordingly. Lots of people we know use Cherokee National Forest and the Great Smoky Mountain together as a joint trip to the area.


Fall in Cherokee National Forest is beautiful, as the foliage shows off. The forest is transformed into a sea of red, orange, and yellow as the leaves change color. Visitors can expect mild temperatures, with average highs in the 60s and lows in the 40s. Fall foliage is a major attraction, and visitors should plan their trip accordingly to catch the peak colors.


Winter in Cherokee National Forest is going to be much more quiet, but that can make it a nice time to visit if the weather holds up. Visitors can expect cold temperatures, with average highs in the 40s and lows in the 20s. Snow is not uncommon at higher elevations, and while it isn’t exactly like Rocky Mountain snow packs, visitors can sometimes enjoy some cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and other winter activities.  Lower elevations usually don’t have snow stick around for more than a couple days, though.

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