The Oconaluftee heads up between Indian Gap (elevation 5,286 feet) and Newfound Gap (elevation 5,048 feet) and generally flows beside US 441 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, until it confluences with the Tuckasegee River east of Bryson City. The run above Cherokee is one through many rock gardens in crystal-clear water. Below Cherokee, the water quality diminishes considerably because of sewage being dumped in.
The approximately 4.5-mile stretch above the reservation boundary can be paddled at any time. In order to paddle it, one should check in at the ranger station at Park Headquarters, which is located at Pioneer Structures on US 441 north of Cherokee, to inform them of plans to canoe the river. This might save one from being “pulled” off the river by park rangers. This actually happened to a friend of mine several years ago. It could not only prove embarrassing but could also lead to a rather long hike.
© Bob and David Benner/Menasha Ridge Press. All Rights Reserved.