Cherokee, NC

Cherokee North Carolina
Cherokee looks like a tourist town straight out of the 1950s or ’60s, with plenty of neon signs and gift shops and long motels that stretch out along the road.  It doesn’t have the new flashiness of Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge (no huge Titanic replicas or roller-coasters, though there is a big casino down the road now), and I bet that it’s how most mountainside tourist towns used to look back in the day, kitschy and a little politically incorrect.

To be fair we only spent twenty minutes or so in Cherokee on our way back from Pigeon Forge to Atlanta.  We stopped to take some photos of the main drag and didn’t really take the time to dig around and really see what the town had to offer, which turns out to be a lot more than you can find in one of its many dreamcatcher-filled gift shops.

Cherokee began its life as a tourist town sometime in the 1930s, when visitors to the Smoky Mountains were coming to the area in search of Indian souvenirs to take home with them. 1   But tourism there didn’t really take off until after World War.  That’s when the newly formed Cherokee Historical Association began to create tourist attractions that would give the visitors a lesson in Native American history as well as entertain.  Their outdoor show, Unto These Hills, debuted in 1950 and can still be seen every summer, albeit with a brand new, more historically accurate script.  And the old Oconaluftee Indian Village is still there too.  Set up like an 18th century Cherokee village, it’s the one thing I remember seeing signs for and wanting to go to.

Unto These Hills’ script may be updated, but the rest of Cherokee seems frozen in time.  These days a casino brings in most of its tourists.  Cherokee doesn’t depend so much on the motels and the attention-grabbing signs that once were necessary to lure travelers in with, unlike its flashier neighbors, whose buildings and signs grow bigger and shinier by the second.  When I went through Gatlinburg for the first time I was expecting a sort of vintage kitsch wonderland only to find a Ripley’s Believe it or Not and a bunch of flashing signs. It’s not for me; I always drive right through.  But something about Cherokee makes me stop every time.  I can’t help but go inside at least one of the gift shops, even though I know exactly what I’ll find there: dreamcatchers and Minnetonkas and little woven baskets.  But I always have to stop and take photos of the signs and the motels.  And one of these days I’ll get around to seeing what the Oconaluftee Village is all about.

Cherokee North Carolina

Cherokee North Carolina
Cherokee North Carolina
Cherokee North Carolina
Cherokee North Carolina
Cherokee North Carolina

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  1. Anthe Tyndell
    Posted July 24, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Cherokee, what can I say! When we moved to NC in the 1960’s we stopped in Cherokee. My Brother Nick was so disappointed that the Indian standing outside luring in the tourist had “tennis shoes” on.
    I believe we stayed at the Wigwam Motel. We found streams to fish and of course the shops. I haven’t been
    back since the Casino’s arrived in town. Yes, it’s one of those places you just have to stop!
    And…Grandpa Tyndell (from Texas) was part Cherokee Indian!

    • admin
      Posted July 25, 2012 at 2:06 am | Permalink

      I had no idea that Drew’s grandpa was part Cherokee! So neat to know . . . and no wonder I like Cherokee so much!

      Oh wow, I bet the town looks the same now as it did when you went there as a kid. And I love that we saw a guy in Indian costume and tennis shoes too.

  2. jade fain
    Posted July 24, 2012 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    you guys have to make it up to KY in the fall. catch the keeneland meet, hit the bourbon trail, eat a hot brown, maybe go see the 21c in louisville. oh and you have to try an Ale-8-One too and some beer cheese too! there’s some great historical sites around too

    • admin
      Posted July 25, 2012 at 2:07 am | Permalink

      Thanks for these tips! Definitely going to write them down. My brother-in-law is from Kentucky and keeps telling me I need to go. He’s a big Ale-8 fan too.

  3. August Hess
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    This blog is going to make me want to take a summer-long tour of the south next year. I’m hooked!

    Beautiful photos and I love how it goes from kitschy small towns to gorgeous old parks and buildings.

    • admin
      Posted September 25, 2012 at 2:26 am | Permalink

      Thanks, August, so glad you like it!

  4. Todd
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Just came across this blog, and regarding your post about Cherokee, and the Wigwam Hotel got me excited because I thought you had come across another Wigwam Village (google it). Classic old roadside style hotel where all the rooms are in individual wigwams. In Cave City, KY, worth checking out en route to your bourbon trail tour. Bring your own pillow. Keep the posts coming.

    • admin
      Posted September 25, 2012 at 2:26 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Todd! Cave City is definitely on my list, for the wigwam motel and the dinosaur park.

      There’s also a Native American-themed village just outside of Stone Mountain that I’m really curious about. It looks closed and there are lots of ‘no trespassing’ signs, but it looks promising.

  5. Thomas Hanks
    Posted September 21, 2012 at 3:08 am | Permalink

    Shame on you for writing about Cherokee without taking in Unto These Hills and the Oconaluftee Indian Village. I spent my high school years living in Cherokee. I usually spent my summers working in one of the local restaurants by day and at “Unto These Hills” at night. Living in Cherokee gave me a rather unique world view. The next time you travel that way, stay in one of the kitchy motels (My favorites are the Pink Motel and Mac’s Indian Village. Bring a fishing pole. Take in the Village and the Drama. But believe me, you wouldn’t miss a thing by staying completely clear of the casino.

    • admin
      Posted September 25, 2012 at 2:27 am | Permalink

      Thomas, I know! We were just passing through. Next time we’ll have to stay.Never heard of Mac’s Indian Village, but that one sounds pretty good. But after reading more about Unto These Hills I do really want to see it. The Oconaluftee Indian Village as well.

  6. Posted January 13, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

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