Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina

“Land of the Midday Sun”

The Nantahala National Forest of North Carolina is a paradise for lovers of history, mountain scenery and outdoor adventures. Photo by Heidi Conrad

The Fall Leaf Change is underway in the Nantahala National Forest!

The Nantahala National Forest covers more than 531,000 acres in the mountains of North Carolina. The largest national forest in the Tarheel State, the Nantahala is known for its mountain scenery, waterfalls, hiking trails and scenic drives.

The word “Nantahala” is said to mean “Land of the Midday Sun” in the Cherokee language. Native Americans lived in these mountains for thousands of years and undoubtedly noticed that the deepest valleys only escape the shadows of surrounding heights at midday.

The Cherokee were living in the mountains when the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto arrived in May 1540. The exact route by which his army marched is fiercely debated, but chroniclers of the expedition specifically mentioned the Cherokee people in their accounts:

In seven days the Governor arrived at the Province of Chelaque, the province poorest off for maize of any that was seen in Florida, where the inhabitants subsisted on the roots of plants that they dig in the wilds, and on the animals they destroy with their arrows. They are very domestic people, are slight of form, and go naked. One lord brought the Governor two deer-skins as a great gift. Turkeys were abundant; in one town they presented seven hundred, and in others brought him what they had and could procure. [1]

The fall leaf change begins in the mountains of the Nantahala National Forest. Photo by Heidi Conrad

Conflict and war swept the mountains for centuries to come as the Cherokee resisted the encroachments of Spain, Great Britain and eventually the United States. Heavy fighting took place in the 1760s and again during the American Revolution (1775-1783). Thousands of Native American men, women and children were eventually forced to walk the Trail of Tears to what is now Oklahoma, although others continue to live in the mountains of their ancestors.

The scenery of the Nantahala has long attracted attention. The Spanish wrote of “very rough and lofty ridges” and explorers of other nations used similar terms. It was the famed naturalist William Bartram, however, who first brought descriptions of the mountains to a wide audience.

Bartram reached today’s Nantahala Nation Forest in May 1776, 236 years after the army of Hernando de Soto marched into North Carolina. A hiking trail follows his approximate route north from Rabun Bald in northern Georgia through the forest to Franklin, Tennessee. From there it turns west across what Bartram called the Jore Mountains to Wayah Bald and Nantahala Lake before terminating at Cheoah Bald. Among the Bartram sites of interest in the national forest is the Pattons Run Overlook on U.S. 74 near Topton, North Carolina. It was near here that he met the noted Cherokee chief Attakullakulla:

The Nantahala National Forest is a land of waterfalls. They range from the small to the spectacular.

Soon after crossing this large branch of the Tanase, I observed descending the heights at some distance, a company of Indians, all well mounted on horse back; they came rapidly forward; on their nearer approach I observed a chief at the head of the caravan, and apprehending him to the Little Carpenter, emperor or grand chief of the Cherokees, as they came up I turned off the path to make way, in token of respect, which compliment was was accepted and gratefully and magnanimously returned, for his highness with a gravious and cheerful smile came up to me, and clapping his hand on his breast, offered it to me, saying, I am Ata-cul-culla, and heartily shook hands with me. [2]

Bartram’s descriptions of the mountains are loved to this day and the Bartram Trail provides a less-traveled alternative to the Appalachian Trail through parts of North Carolina.

The scenic beauty that astounded the 18th century naturalist was preserved for future generations in 1920 with the establishment of the Nantahala National Forest. It now includes 531,148 acres of mountains and valleys with elevations ranging from around 1,200 feet on the Hiawassee River to more than 5,800 feet at Lone Bald. There are more than 600 miles of hiking trails, picnic areas, campgrounds, scenic byways, waterfalls and whitewater streams. Designated trails are available for horseback riding and off-highway vehicles.

Please click here to visit the official Nantahala National Forest website for more information.

Click here to download a map of the adjoining Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests.

There are many great communities with overnight accommodations in and around the Nantahala. We especially love Highlands, North Carolina. Here’s a free video preview:

To see more of the Nantahala National Forest, enjoy these free videos:


[1] Rodrigo Ranjel, Narratives of the career of Hernando de Soto, Volume I, New York, 1922: 69-71; Note: The interpreters used by the Spanish spoke a language that did not include the letter “R” so they pronounced the name “Cherokee” as “Chelaque.”

[2] William Bartram, Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, The Cherokee Country, The Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, and the Country of the Chactaws, Philadelphia, 1791: 364-365.