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As summer changes to autumn, there are few places as vibrant or colorful as the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.

No visit to the Smoky Mountains would be complete without a stop in Cherokee, North Carolina, where history and nature collide for a unique family-friendly experience, according to Sharri Pheasant, community and public relations supervisor of commerce at the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“We’re located right in the heart of Western North Carolina and it’s also the base camp for hiking here in the Great Smoky Mountains,” she said. “Here in Cherokee itself, we’re a culture, we’re a people and it’s a place that’s actually a sovereign nation and home to a history that spans millennia. There aren’t many other nearby opportunities like this for families in the Upstate to have fun while learning firsthand about another culture and its history.”

September and October are also great times to visit, Pheasant added, because of a handful of events happening only in the fall. If you’re planning a drive to the mountains to see the changing of the leaves, here are five reasons to pack some bags and plan to stay a few days in Cherokee.

Oconaluftee Indian Village

Open through Nov. 12, the Oconaluftee Indian Village is a one-of-a-kind living history exhibition that shows how the Cherokee lived two and half centuries ago. Families can experience live reenactments and interactive demonstrations while kids can participate in hands-on arts activities. The village is open 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Mondays – Saturdays with guided tours every five minutes.

“As you enter the village, you’re immediately transported to the 1760s,” Phesant said. “The faint tang of wood smoke wafts by as you are led by a Cherokee cultural expert on an interactive journey through Cherokee lifestyle and history. Your guide will show you the way through the winding paths, flanked with traditional Cherokee dwellings, work areas and sacred ritual sites.”

You’ll pass by villagers hulling canoes, sculpting pottery and masks, weaving baskets and preparing for war.

The cost is $18.40 for adults, $10.40 for children ages 6 – 12, and free for children ages 5 and younger.

Cherokee Bonfire

Sit by the waters of the Oconaluftee River with your family as you listen to stories and songs and watch dances presented by Cherokee Indians dressed in traditional wear.

Presented 7 – 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 1, this free event presents native myths, survival skills and history passed down through generations of the Cherokee people at the intersection of U.S Highways 441 and 19 in Oconaluftee Island Park.

“Don’t forget to stay for the marshmallow roast,” Pheasant said.

Free marshmallows and beverages are included.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian

A Walt Disney Imagineering representative once called the Museum of the Cherokee Indian “a model for museums,” and if you expect to walk into a building full of dusty displays, you’ll be very disappointed, Pheasant said.

“Inspired by the beauty and ingenuity of the Cherokee people, this is a cultural and historical tour without equal, one fused with interactive video, intriguing displays and a full sensory experience,” she said.

This one-of-a-kind museum lets visitors experience the 11,000-year-old Cherokee story vividly, even allowing visitors to opt for Cherokee Experiences, special workshops and events that include making arrowheads, weaving baskets, making pottery or enjoying a traditional Cherokee meal of chicken, beanbread, greens, potatoes and cobbler.

Cherokee Experiences are in addition to museum admission and might require advance notice. Contact the museum at 828-497-3481 or visit CherokeeMuseum.org for more information. General admission to the museum is $6 – $10.

The Cherokee Indian Fair

The 104th annual Cherokee Indian Fair is Oct. 4 – 8 and is a centuries-old celebration that showcases a cornucopia of sights and sounds, Pheasant said.

“It’s a carnival and an agriculture show,” she said. “It’s an art show and a game show. There’s food, music and rides. It’s pure, unfiltered fair entertainment with that unmistakable Cherokee touch.”

The nearly week-long event includes a Ferris wheel, fireworks and stickball, which is the Native American game on which lacrosse is based.

“Stickball has long been known as the Little Brother of War, and you’ll find thrilling demonstrations of it mixed into all the traditional fair fun and food,” Pheasant said. “In fact, you’re going to find ample amounts of all sorts of authentic Cherokee culture, including archery and blowgun demonstrations, local art, dance, music and more.”

Tickets are $10 per person and will be available for purchase at the gate, located at 545 Tsali Boulevard. Children ages 5 and under will be admitted for free.

Oconaluftee River Trail

Families can enjoy a walking tour along the Oconaluftee River Trail, which is attached to the Mountain Farm Museum, a historic farmstead within the mountains.

Start at the trail head and wander along the banks of the river, heading past natural quiet spots and informative trail markers before arriving at the Mountain Farm Museum, a collection of some of the oldest cabins and log buildings in all of Cherokee.

The structures — including a barn and apple house, spring house and working blacksmith shop — have been carefully preserved, Pheasant said.

“This museum is nestled at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains, and in October, is only more spectacular with the colorful fall leaves surrounding it,” she said. “You may even get to experience an elk sighting.”

The Oconaluftee River Trail and Mountain Farm Museum are a part of the National Park Service and have free admission. At the visitor center, park rangers are available to answer questions.

Where to Stay

Yogi in the Smokies: Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park in Cherokee is an ideal place for families to stay, Pheasant said. Featuring 38 air-conditioned cabins and 138 RV and tent campsites, the Jellystone Pak caters to families by offering a game room with arcade, free Wi-Fi, craft center, playground and more. Rates vary. Call 877-716-6711 or visit www.jellystonecherokee.com for more details.

KOA Campground: This resort-style campground is a must for fishing enthusiasts, surrounded by the Raven Fork River and three tribal ponds. It features cabin rentals and RV and tent sites with air-conditioned kennels for dogs available. Rates vary. Call 828-497-9711 or visit Koa.com.

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