Oconaluftee. “By the river” is the old native meaning for the word. And by the river it is.
The Oconaluftee Visitors Center is near the eastern entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Oconaluftee Area is located in North Carolina with the nearest city being Cherokee, NC. If staying in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, or other areas nearer to the western edge of the Park, the 31 mile drive down US 441/Newfound Gap Road is well worth it. Though it may take well over an hour to make the trip, thanks to beautiful vistas and chances to stop and enjoy the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, visitors will be well rewarded when they arrive at the Oconaluftee Visitors Center and Mountain Farm Museum.
The Oconaluftee River runs along the edge of the Visitors Center and the Mountain Farm Museum. A wonderful, interesting place, visitors have much to learn about early mountain life with many things to see and experience.
The new Visitors Center was built in 2011 and no government or taxpayers funds were used to construct the multi-million dollar building. The cost of the buildings came from donations made to The Great Smoky Mountains Association and to Friends of the Smokies. Those two groups in turn donated the buildings to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
At the Oconaluftee Visitors Center there is a large parking lot near the main building and restrooms. Friendly Rangers are available inside the Visitors Center to answer any questions you may have and direct you to the informational and historical exhibits located inside the modern facility. Brochures, maps and guide books are also available. Ask a Ranger for a free map and they will happily supply one for you. The Visitors Center is open from 8 AM to 6 PM year round. The fully accessible restroom building adjacent to the Visitors Center is open 24/7, as is the available orientation kiosk. Don’t forget to visit the gift shop inside the Visitors Center and browse their well-stocked shelves.
Also nearby the area is the Blue Ridge Parkway. Not only does the area boast the Visitors Center, the Mountain Farm Museum, and Cherokee, NC there are many other things to see and do nearby.
The Mountain Farm Museum is an open air museum consisting of farm buildings, most dating from around 1900, that have been moved from their original locations throughout the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The buildings come together to make a scene of what it would have been like living in the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains over 100 years ago. Visitors can take a step back in time by exploring a log farmhouse, a large barn, an apple house, a spring house and a working blacksmith shop. It’s very beautiful to walk among the buildings with the Smoky Mountains as a backdrop.
Almost all of the structures were built in the early 1900’s and moved to the Mountain Farm Museum site in the 1950’s. The farmhouse, named The Davis House, is a rare opportunity to experience a log home built from chestnut logs. The house was built before the chestnut blight hit our forests during the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. The house was originally located in the Indian Creek/Thomas Divide area just north of the Bryson City, NC area. Take a stroll through the other buildings on the farm and see how they lived generations ago while enjoying the day. The Cantilever barn is of great interest in its size and structure. Larger on top than on the bottom, it looks as if it shouldn’t be standing but it is very sturdy and has stood the test of time. In the summer months, farm animals roam the outdoor museum, enhancing the experience of being on a working Smoky Mountain farm. Caretakers at the museum also raise a crop in the field in the summer months and tend to the apple trees and other year round plants. There is a self-guided walking tour of the farmstead and you can rent headphones for an audio tour at the Visitor’s Center. The walking tour includes the buildings, keeping bees, and vegetable gardening along with other activities that deal with running a farm. During summer months, the Park Service also gives demonstrations dealing with farm life.
You also might be treated to the sight of some elk in the fields of the homestead and Visitor’s Center. Elk are dangerous so please keep your distance. Mid to late afternoons are best to see the elk.
The Oconaluftee River Trail is an easy trail that follows along the river for one and a half miles one way, and then it’s a one and a half mile return stroll. The trail begins near the Mountain Farm and Visitor’s Center and is stroller accessible and bike friendly. It’s also one of the two pet friendly trails in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The trail follows the river from the Oconaluftee Visitors Center to Cherokee, NC. Along the trail are beautiful views of the river and the trail is very family friendly. Joggers, bicyclists and families with pets alike find it an enjoyable trail as will families with young children. The beautiful Smoky Mountains bordering the area, the shady tree-lined path with glimmers of sunlight kissing the rippling, clear water of the river makes for a pleasant visit to the Oconaluftee Visitors Center and Mountain Farm Museum.
Oconaluftee Visitors Center and Mountain Farm Museum are only 2 miles from Cherokee, NC, and 30 miles from Gatlinburg, TN and 50 miles from Townsend, TN.
Just a half-mile from the Oconaluftee Area is the historic Mingus Mill. Go north on Newfound Gap Road, toward Gatlinburg, TN, and the sign for Mingus Mill will direct you to the parking area. Mingus Mill is different from Cable Mill of Cades Cove due to the fact that Mingus Mill doesn’t use a water wheel but instead uses a water-driven turbine to power the antique machinery inside the building. Mingus Mill is not one of the buildings that were relocated, unlike the buildings at the Mountain Farm Museum. The Mill stands at its original site. Larger than Cable Mill, it rises two stories, accommodating the massive working cast iron turbine and grinding apparatus inside. One of its most impressive features is the elevated millrace where the water flows swiftly toward the mill, sometimes spilling over the side of the race in a sparkling waterfall. A walking path follows the millrace back to the source along a stream where wildflowers bloom in the spring.
Inside the building of the mill, a Miller demonstrates how corn is ground into cornmeal with an interesting exhibition. It’s a delight for visitors to be able to purchase the cornmeal ground by the massive turbine and other grist mill products produced in the old style right at Mingus Mill. Visitors can ask the attending Miller questions and learn about the history of how the early homesteaders nearby brought their grains to the mill for processing.
If you’ve visited Mingus Mill first on your drive from Gatlinburg, TN to Cherokee, NC be sure to stop at the Oconaluftee Visitors Center and Mountain Farm Museum also and vice-versa if you’ve come from the other way.
There is much to see and learn in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and you’ll want to extend your stay when you see just how much there is to do in the area. There are many cabins for rent in the areas surrounding the Park. Renting a Smoky Mountain cabin can make your stay feel as if you are part of the rich history of the mountains and will keep you close to the heartbeat of the way of life in and around the Great Smoky Mountains.
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