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If you want to visit the Smoky Mountains but escape the tourist crush, Tellico Plains is just the place for you. Celebrated for its rustic charm, this mountain town sits at the crossroads of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cherokee National Forest; it’s also an easy drive across the North Carolina state line to Nantahala National Forest. Tellico Plains is positioned along two scenic byways — Tail of the Dragon, with its 318 curves in a tight 11-mile stretch, and Cherohala Skyway — that are popular motorcycle routes, bringing an eclectic mix of vacationers to make their base here.
Though there are a handful of small businesses that lend the town its charm, make no mistake: You’re booking a rental in Tellico Plains to spend some one-on-one time with Mother Nature. In neighboring McMinn County a century ago, state representative Harry Burn went down in history as the tie-breaking vote in the 36th and final state to ratify the 19th Amendment, meaning there’s plenty of women’s suffrage history in this area, too, for those who like their vacation to have a little educational value.
The closest airport to Tellico Plains is McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS), which is 46 miles northeast in Knoxville and has daily nonstop service to cities across the United States. If you’re flying in from overseas, you may be arriving via Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), which is 150 miles south, or Nashville International Airport (BNA), which is 200 miles northwest of Tellico Plains. Though much smaller than the area’s other airports, Chattanooga Airport (CHA) has direct service to a handful of U.S. cities each day and is 69 miles southwest of Tellico Plains. You’ll need a car to get to and around Tellico Plains, as well as to explore the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Thanks to its altitude, Tellico Plains doesn’t get as unbearably hot as other parts of Tennessee, and summer couldn’t be a more ideal time to take advantage of all the nearby waterfalls in the Smokies and Cherokee National Forest. Early fall is undoubtedly one of the prettiest times of year to visit the hardwood forests and the mountains, and lucky for travelers, September and October are typically warm and dry before Tennessee’s rainy season starts closer to winter. The colors are particularly bold at the peak of foliage season each autumn.
Today, the Lost Sea in Sweetwater bears the distinction of being America’s largest underground lake, but its documented history has been traced back many millennia. Once used by the Cherokee — and with fossilized animal bones found here that date back 20,000 years — the Lost Sea has been open to the public for more than a century, first as a nightclub with a dance floor and now as a popular guided tour by glass-bottomed boat.
Many of the waterfalls in and around the Smokies require a long drive, then several hours by foot to reach, but Conasauga Falls Trail is an easy 1.5-mile round trip. Around 30 feet in height, this series of cascades empties out into a shallow pool that’s perfect for wading in the warmer months.
Winding its way 41 miles from Tellico Plains through the lush landscape of Tennessee and into North Carolina, Cherohala Skyway — or “the Mile High Legend,” as it’s also known — bypasses the crest of the Smokies and some of the prettiest land of the Cherokee National Forest.