Adjacent to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, a track of verdant reservation land has been sculpted into an outdoor adventure area featuring 10.5 miles of hiking, biking and running trails.
Fire Mountain Trail System on tribal land in Cherokee, North Carolina, recently opened to the public to much fanfare. Situated within close proximity to downtown Cherokee, the loop is accessed via Oconaluftee Indian Village, the tribe’s living history village, and trails offer easy connectivity to different parts of town. “This is really a leaping-off point for Cherokee and our move into ecotourism,” Principal Chief Richard Sneed said at the grand opening, The Smoky Mountain News reported. Sneed, an avid cyclist, rode on the 2014 Remember the Removal ride, Cherokee One Feather reported.
The tribe invested $356,000 on the project through a Cherokee Preservation Foundation grant, and there are already plans to create more trailheads. The Cherokee Nation hired Cherokee-based Aniwaya Design & Planning, which teamed up with trails specialist Valerie Naylor, to map routes of varying levels of challenge geared at everyone from the novice to expert. The trail was constructed by Trail Dynamics, LLC, professional trail builders from Pisgah Forest, North Carolina.
The 10.5 miles of trail loops offer 2,736 feet of elevation change. Reviewers on Alltrails.com, a site were biking enthusiasts rate mountain trails, have already hailed Fire Mountain as an “awesome” track, featuring green (beginner), blue (intermediate), and red (difficult) routes. “All the trails have ups and downs with … not a lot of roots and few rocks except for the rock gardens…,” one reviewer described.
“There’s been a lot of hard work and dedication to make this a reality, to make this trail system a reality — and the reality we’ve created is a premier trail system for the region,” said Jeremy Hyatt, secretary of administration for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Leading from the upper parking lot of Oconaluftee Indian Village, Cherokee’s Fire Mountain Trail System begins with Tinker’s Dream, named in honor of Tinker Jenks, the tribal member and Cherokee Preservation Foundation who was instrumental in conceiving the idea for the trail system. Winding down a sloped mountainside, the experience is either peaceful, or on fast-spinning wheels, an adrenaline rush.
While more than two million people pass through Cherokee each year on their way to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the majority of them don’t stop to explore the reservation offerings. Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort draws the most tourists, but the tribe hopes its move into ecotourism will attract an untapped audience.
“I see Cherokee as a golden opportunity because of where this is located, because of how beautiful it is,” trail builder Ed Sutton, of Brevard-based Trail Dynamics, told The Smoky Mountain News.
Thoughtful engineering of the trails will make them easy to maintain for years to come. “The main thing that tears up a trail is water, and so a clever trail builder will build trail in such a way that water is constantly running off of it so it doesn’t collect on the trail,” Norman said.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee’s continued foray into eco-tourism makes sense, considering they’ve been preserving the land for time immemorial while living in harmony with nature: its mountains, woods, rivers and falls. Check out other outdoor sites on visitcherokeenc.com.