Nestled into the Oconaluftee River Valley in western North Carolina, the Eastern Band of Cherokee have been utilizing their incredibly beautiful surroundings for years. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, trails to Mount Guyot, the Oconaluftee Indian Village, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the Qualla Arts & Crafts Center, and the performance of Unto These Hills, the third oldest outdoor historical drama in the United States, staged annualy at the 2,800-seat Mountainside Theatre (recently outfitted with a $1.8 million renovation) are some of the attractions that draw visitors to Cherokee, North Carolina.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee’s success at making the most of their surroundings makes sense, considering they’ve been perserving a culture older then the country that surrounds their land. The Cherokee have long lived in harmony with nature, and nature is in abundance in western North Carolina. The mountains, woods, rivers and falls of the region are accessible and perserved, thanks to the protective instincts and tourism operations maintained here in Cherokee.
One such natural wonder capitalized on by the tribe is bird watching (or birding.) Birding experts call western North Carolina, and Cherokee specifically, one of the best spots for bird watching in the southeastern United States. Trails in the Smoky Mountains offer the joy of spotting a pileated woodpecker drilling for a meal in a tree and the tranquility of the vividly green habitats the Eastern Band of Cherokee’s bird trails snake through. From cove forests to waterfalls, spruce fir forests to rivers and streams, floodplain forest to mixed hardwood and pine, Cherokee is a veritable one-stop shop for serious birding that also, conveniently, doubles as beautiful hiking.
The birds make their homes in the low elevations around Cherokee itself and then right on up the elevation chart to wooded foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Spring is the best time to visit Cherokee if you’re interested in doing some serious bird watching. Starting in May, the migratory birds return from South American and begin filling the forests foothills of the Smoky Mountains with song. Cherokee is home to a staggering array of birds—the wood thrush, Louisiana waterthrush, scarlet tanager, veery, rose-breasted grosbeak, red crossbill, pine siskin, ruby-throated hummingbird, hooded warbler, spotted sandpiper, belted kingfisher, and indigo bunting to name a few. One of the major reasons this area is so fantastic for birding is that Cherokee is home to large tracts of contiguous forest, which attract good numbers of breeding species.
There are miles of birding trails to choose from (check them out here), from out in Smoky Mountain National Park to the Mingo Falls to the Indian Village Botanical Gardens, from Oconaluftee Island Park to the Riverwalk at Riverbend that runs parallel to the Oconaluftee River, all the way to the wetlands at Ferguson Fields (home to swamp sparrows and willow flycatchers), birding in Cherokee can be down out in the parks, forests, along the rivers or right in town.
You don’t have to be an ornithologist to enjoy birding in Cherokee, you just have to enjoy the great outdoors and fresh air. If you happen to also the loud and sudden kyow of a green heron’s call, all the better.
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