Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In the Southern Highlands

In the Cherokee tongue, the phrase god-a-lu-chee means “wave upon wave of mountains,” and once you know that, it is easy to understand why so many places in Western North Carolina have come to bear the name Cataloochee. In every direction you look, you see long, tall mountains rolling skyward like titanic waves on a mythical sea.

All the Cataloochees I’ve visited are worth experiencing, but the one you won’t find in any guidebook turns out to be the one where you should stay throughout your trip to these mountains. Known simply as Cataloochee Mountain Cabin, it sits in a wooded enclave that is far enough from town that you’re well into the country, yet close enough that getting to town is easy. Pictures do not do it justice, but here is one I took in January 2008:

Pehaps best of all, the cabin seems to be within 30 minutes of everywhere. Hop in the car and it will not take you long to wind up in any of the places mentioned below.

* * * *

Cataloochee Valley: A high altitude valley in the remote eastern reaches of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this was once the site of a thriving pioneer community. Today its most prominent citizens are bears and elk, which are commonly seen in the fields and forest borders during the morning and late afternoon hours. Traces of the old community remain -- including churches, a schoolhouse, and a cemetery -- but nature rules.

Cataloochee Ski Area: Perched high atop Boyd Mountain, the state’s most dependable ski area has opened its season as early as October for three years running. It has 16 trails ranging from beginner’s slopes to expert runs, and also has a freestyle terrain park. Equipment rental rates are very reasonable, as are food and drink prices in the lodge.

Waynesville: This small town has an immaculate Main Street that is lined with a variety of independent shops and restaurants. In my opinion, the most noteworthy merchant is the three-story Mast General Store, which offers everything from cutting-edge outdoor gear to cheap toys from yesteryear.

Downtown Asheville: Some love it for its sidewalk cafes near the Vance Monument, or its smattering of locally owned coffee shops. Others love it for its abundant art galleries, or the smorgasbord of festivals it features throughout each year. Others love it for its Old World pubs and eclectic eateries. But the bottom line is, everybody loves it.

Biltmore Estate: Though it was built more than a century ago, the palatial “summer home” of George Vanderbilt III is still the largest house in America and still privately owned. Today tourists pay to walk through its grand rooms, but no matter how impressive they are, the house is just one speck on this 8,000-acre estate which includes restaurants, a winery, world class gardens, and 80 miles of equestrian paths. Float trips on the French Broad River are available as well.

Ghost Town in the Sky: If you have kids (or think of yourself as one) this western-themed amusement park is the place for you. Ride a chair lift 3,300 feet up and over Buck Mountain to arrive in a world where roller coasters, drop towers, Indian dances, staged shootouts, and hourly bluegrass concerts are the norm.

* * * *

While it is wonderful that Cataloochee Mountain Cabin offers ready access to so many fine places, what should not be overlooked is that it is a fine destination in and of itself. One of its porches has a picnic table and grill, which is wired into the cabin’s gas line so you don’t need to worry about running out of propane while you’re cooking. Its other porch has a bench swing and multiple chairs, and is ideal for relaxing with a book in the clean mountain air. And if that’s not relaxing enough, you can take your book to a hammock in the yard:

The cabin is big enough for families and small groups (our crew of four adults and three kids had more than enough room) but it is also cozy enough and inexpensive enough that it would feel just right for a couple on a romantic getaway. It has three bedrooms, two baths, and a living room whose defining feature is a middle-of-the-room fireplace that separates it from the dining room. Unlike other rentals we’ve stayed in, you are actually allowed to use the fireplace, and you don’t need to buy firewood because the owners have a copious supply waiting for you.

Uphill from the cabin you can walk to one of the best views I’ve ever seen, by taking the first left turn on the gravel road and then the first right you come to next. A minute later you will crest the ridge and find yourself gazing over a wide valley rimmed by mountains. Meanwhile, downhill from the cabin is a pasture with donkeys that will calmly eat from your hands, and a pond where Canada geese like to hang out.

In other words, if you don’t feel like driving to one of the area’s renowned wilderness trails, there is decent enough hiking right here. And if you are here when it snows in the winter, Cataloochee’s sloping driveway (the cabin is situated below the road) makes for the perfect sledding hill.

With a fully equipped kitchen at your disposal, you can stock up on groceries and prepare some of your own meals, which saves money compared to eating every meal out. And with a washer and dryer at your disposal, you can pack fewer clothes and won’t have to be overly cautious about not getting them dirty when you’re in the outdoors.

To top it all off, the owners are accommodating and very easy to work with. Regardless of whether you’ve been to Western North Carolina dozens of times or zero times, you will find that Cataloochee Mountain Cabin is the perfect place to stay. To inquire, go here. And in closing, here is a picture of it in the early fall.

The picture immediately above, and the one of the hammock, are courtesy of the owner.


  1. Love that place...good memories of friends, food and beer!


  2. What great times we have had there! Great review LOML!

  3. lovely photos of interesting places..your lucky to travel the whole America! how I wish too.

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