When someone mentioned Cherokee, North Carolina, to me in the past, I used to think of the big casino. Cherokee turns out to have much more to offer than gambling. The town combines kid-friendly Native American education with natural beauty.

Located at the entrance of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Cherokee borders Jackson County, North Carolina and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. When visiting the tourism website, I was surprised to see authentic educational sites such as the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and the Oconaluftee Indian Village.

On the way into Cherokee, we drove through several small towns in Jackson County, including Sylva and Dillsboro. Sylva, the county seat, has the quirky college town vibe influenced by nearby Western Carolina University. You’ll find craft brewing, funky little shops and used bookshops. Sylva’s tiny neighbor, Dillsboro, is a village of arts and crafts stores. Some places are the type of store where you’d buy your granny a gift, but the Tree House Pottery was a cool shop featuring several potters. We chatted with the owner about bear safety while he threw clay on his wheel.

Another stop was Juduculla Rock, a huge boulder carved in ancient Cherokee hieroglyphics. It’s a bit out of the way from the main highway, but only by a few minutes. It’s a must-see for anyone who is interested in archeology or ancient ruins. A boardwalk around the rock protects the carvings. Visitors shouldn’t touch the rock.

Upon entering Cherokee, we saw Oconaluftee Islands Park where people enjoyed splashing and wading in the water on a warm day. The Visitor Center also overlooked the river, and many people lingered in rocking chairs off the back porch overlooking the river. They told us about several special events, including a free Saturday night bonfire weekly during the summer, and it’s definitely worth stopping by to find out what daily events might be happening.

Our first educational experience was outside the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Although there is an admission charge for entry, that day the museum was holding free demonstrations for visitors. We saw three men in traditional clothing cooking buffalo meat on a rack that, at first, I thought was bamboo, but I later discovered it was river cane. We learned more about river cane when we participated in a weaving activity. A Cherokee museum employee showed children how to weave paper strips into traditional patterns. Another man did beadwork, while a different man showed us how to man a fire with a stick and a rock. He actually used the grease off my child’s nose to help start his fire! He had her rub her nose into a divot in his rock. Then, he created smoke with a piece of tree bark that he’d worked with his hands into fibers like a cotton ball.

Oconaluftee Indian Village attracted our attention. The attraction transports visitors to the 1700s, and a guide explains the Cherokee way of life. Unfortunately, we had limited time, and the admission fees for these attractions add up quickly. We’ll have to go another time. Instead we found some street performers who danced for a crowd. Their garb was more showy than traditional, so it’s hard to know how authentic some of the dancing was. There was, however, a hoop dancing champion, a 20th century Native American dance, and its origins are not Cherokee. In fact, you’ll see several individuals dressed up in the costumes you’d see in cowboy movies, but these guys are just out to appeal to tourists. The traditional Cherokee clothing has more earth-tones than flashy colors.

We practically had to drag our kids out of Twisted Sisters, a boutique you can’t possibly miss with the brightly colored metal yard art on the porch. All kinds of jewelry and quirky wares fascinated them. They didn’t want to leave.

Being so close to the national park, there are two waterfalls on Indian land. One is Soco Falls, which we weren’t able to visit this trip. The other is Mingo Falls, which was an incredible experience. Cherokee has a lot to offer to families. If you haven’t been, you should! When we first arrived, I was nervous. A set of stairs disappeared into the trees, as high as I could see. The stairs were tough, but thankfully, there weren’t more beyond what I first saw from the parking lot! Then, the rest of the trail leveled out, and it wasn’t far. We ended at a bridge overlooking one of the most amazingly high waterfalls I’ve ever seen. It was so incredibly tall, I couldn’t get the whole falls into a vertical shot from the bridge.

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