Maggie Harney

A Mountain Gap

Maggie Harney
A Mountain Gap

My Smokies are a little bit nostalgic. 

More than just nostalgic over a walk along the Appalachian Trail looking for old ruins and long buried arrowheads, but nostalgic of the times when the Great Smoky Mountains were the chosen destination of middle class America; the summer escape from the city heat, the place to unwind your hair in the streams.

The first way I deviate from the norm is my chosen place to make camp. While a lot of people opt for the cabin experience, or one of the bigger hotels in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, I like to keep away from the heavily touristy places and stay in Cherokee, North Carolina. When it’s low season at the casino, no one is in Cherokee, which is why it’s my favorite. Plus, on the North Carolina side you can always take a side trip to Asheville for apple picking, or to the Biltmore Estate—but for me, it’s not the real draw, only one of the perks.

I try to find myself breathing in the crisp mountain air of Newfound Gap at least once a year—what can I say, it recharges weary souls—and every time I discover something new that I can’t believe I hadn’t found before. But every time, without fail, I visit my old favorites, just to catch up with some very old, very dear, friends.

The Logistics

Where To Stay

Pink Motel. This vintage motel in Cherokee is situated between the river and the road to the Smokies, giving it a great location for easy hiking access as well as a riverbed view. Let the waters lull you to sleep and the vintage finds inside fill up your Instagram to the brim. 

Where To Eat

Peter’s Waffles and Pancakes. Without a doubt this diner is one of my favorite places in the world. No fancy, frothy cappuccinos or all-day Bloody Mary brunches, just authentic fryer cook breakfasts, drenched with authenticity. I suggest the pancakes, and taking home one of the blue speckled mugs as a souvenir. 

What To Do

Cades Cove. One of the first National Park projects during FDR’s New Deal, the Smokies are rife with tales of mountain communities discovered during the construction, and Cades Cove is one of those gems. Go wander the valley, visit old churches, or take to the trail on horseback—it’s one of those last great places in the world, amazingly preserved nature for all the world to see. 

Mingus Mill. This little side stop on the way to Newfound Gap operates a real corn meal mill during the park’s peak season, and you can wander through the 18th century building or follow the water and mill lattices upstream. Don’t forget to grab a couple of bags of corn meal on the way out! 

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian. The Cherokee Indian history is one of the most well-documented native narratives in the history of our country, and to get to know the land’s roots a little, take a tour of the museum and learn something new. You might not like all the stories that are told, but the cultural experience is one that shouldn't be missed. 

What To Buy

Handmade. The artist co-op in Cherokee, Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, is a great place to grab handmade artifacts, traditional crafts, and ceremonial pieces, and it all supports the local native artisans, making it a win-win situation. Don’t buy cheap stuff made in China, it undercuts the local economy, and I’m really invested in keeping the community alive. Plus, a handmade dreamcatcher has a much more interesting story than that boho Etsy creation you bookmarked. 

What Not To Miss

The leaves. While I haven’t been during the “season” in many years, the leaves changing in the Smokies is something that a girl can never forget. It’s at it’s peak busyness during late September and early October, but the scenery is a once in a lifetime experience; you just can’t get the colors out of your mind’s eye. If fall isn’t in the cards, make sure to go sometime in the winter—it’s equally enchanting covered in a layer of snow and glistening ice crystals.