Plan a Day (or More) in Cherokee, NC and Experience
June 10, 2022
Have you thought about Cherokee, NC for a fun day trip or vacation? We are always looking for exciting day trips near Upstate, SC, which are fun and great experiences to teach our children about our local history. For this reason, when Visit Cherokee invited us to visit and experience their Yona (Bear) Package that included a visit to The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the Oconalufee Indian Village, and tickets to Unto These Hills, we were excited to go and share this valuable nearby opportunity to learn about the Cherokee with you.
Here’s what we saw in Cherokee, our thoughts on visiting with children, and some suggestions for places to eat and stay in the Cherokee region.
Cherokee, NC, is located a little over 2 hours from both Greenville and Spartanburg. It’s past Asheville, NC, and you will drive through Maggie Valley to get there. The route is scenic, running through the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The region is part of The Qualla Boundary, owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Unlike a reservation that the US Government owns, the Cherokee people purchased their land, and the US Government holds the land in trust on behalf of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI). Permanent residence in the area is limited to citizens of the EBCI.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are comprised of the families of the Cherokee people who were able to avoid the Trail of Tears or returned to the Qualla Boundary after forced removal.
The first stop on our itinerary was visiting The Museum of the Cherokee Indian. This museum tells the history of the Cherokee people from the Paleo time period to modern-day Cherokee.
The exhibits include many artifacts, stories, and replicas to illustrate Cherokee history and culture. The range of displays has many thought-provoking signs and audio descriptions that will provoke great conversations between children and adults. The museum also has opportunities to learn through touch and exploration, such as a large basket weaving exhibit and a Cherokee language interactive display for younger children.
This museum is not large and can be easily explored in an hour if you read the signage. Younger children will likely explore it faster.
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian has won national recognition, including being voted one of the Top Ten Best Native American Experiences by USA Today.
The Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual Co-op is near the museum. We missed visiting during their open hours, but we want to mention it as it’s the top local spot to find authentic, high-quality Cherokee arts and crafts, including carvings, quilts, baskets, pottery, and jewelry. (Be sure to make a note to visit early in the day as they close at 4:30 pm.)
Oconaluftee Indian Village was one of my favorite stops on our trip. This replica village offers a guided tour every 15 minutes to take your family through the village for a living-history experience.
Visitors follow a trail with stations where local Cherokee artisans make baskets, carve masks, mold pottery, bead, and more using historical techniques. The tour guide stops at each station and explains the process and use of each form of art, and there are opportunities to ask questions and interact with the artisans.
The village also includes replica houses from different Cherokee periods, sample animal traps, a large dugout canoe, etc. As you visit these replicas, the guide shares how the Cherokee lived, their families, governments, and beliefs.
After the living history portion of the tour, the tour will end at the Council House and Square grounds, where lectures on Cherokee history and culture take place each half-hour.
We did not get to experience it, but if you visit the village close to noon and 3 pm, you might also have the opportunity to watch either a traditional dance or a war re-enactment on the Square grounds.
A Botanical Trail is also adjacent to the village, where you can see and learn more about the native plants in the region.
Unto These Hills
You need to include a performance of Unto These Hills to complete your trip to Cherokee, NC. Families have watched this outdoor show now for 70 years, and I remember seeing it when I was a child.
Note: Different versions of Unto These Hills have been performed. Currently, the production is the original version by Kermit Hunter with some changes to make the performance more historically accurate and shorter.
Things to Bring to Unto These Hills
The performance is outdoors, so we recommend bringing your bug spray, ponchos, and a light jacket (those mountain nights can be chilly). While the show is not very loud, there is gunfire and cannons, so if your children are sensitive to loud noises, you may want to bring ear plugs or ear mufflers.
A small shop inside the performance sells earplugs, bug bands, and other essential items. You can also purchase upgraded packages that include popcorn, water, ponchos, and seat cushions.
What is Unto These Hills About? Is Unto These Hills Appropriate for Children?
This performance tells the story of the Cherokee from the appearance of Hernando DeSoto (1540) through the purchase of The Qualla Boundary. Much of the performance focuses on the Trail of Tears through the story of a man named Tsali who resists the removal but, in the end, offers his life to preserve the lives of his people.
The performance shows death, war, and violence as the Cherokee have suffered immense injustice and loss. However, this performance does an excellent job of telling the Cherokee story in an appropriate, serious way that is still accessible to even children. The messages of human rights, the pursuit of peace, the evil of greed, and the tenacity of the human spirit in fighting for what is right were prominent in the play. The performance also offered many colorful glimpses into Cherokee life, including their traditional dances.
My children are eleven and thirteen, and both paid close attention to the entire performance. They both commented on how much they enjoyed it, and it provided great opportunities to talk about these serious topics as a family.
How Long is Unto These Hills? Would Younger Children Be Able to Sit Through It?
The performance is 2-hours long with a 15-minute intermission. There is also a half-hour pre-show before the performance that features local music and is well worth arriving early.
If your child can sit through a 2-hour performance and is old enough not to be frightened by the war scenes, they would be old enough to enjoy Unto These Hills. The story is not difficult to follow, and there is a lot of music, dancing, and action on the stage.
The performance is very late, though. Our show started at 8 pm and ended around 10. We visited Cherokee on a day trip, so we did not arrive back home until after midnight. If you have small children, you might consider the Saturday matinee if your kids aren’t old enough to stay up that late.
Our Backstage Tour was canceled due to an approaching storm, but it’s a great option to add on to your package (weather permitting). The backstage tour lasts about 15-20 minutes after the show and allows your family to go on stage and experience the lights and set action first-hand. You will get to see how the stage changes from one scene to another, learn about the behind-the-scenes technical tricks that bring the show to life, and ask questions.
Oconaluftee Visitor Center
Another fun place to visit in Cherokee is the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, where you can find live demonstrations on a path that includes historic structures, including two operational grist mills. This visitor center is part of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and is a great place to view elk.
We entered Cherokee hungry for lunch and picked Wize Guyz Grille since they had a wide selection of choices, from a pizza counter to a full grill with burgers and sandwiches. We knew we had picked a good choice the second we saw the line to order almost outside the door. The food was excellent, and the service was quick and friendly.
68 Big Cove Road #8 Cherokee, NC
El Cajelito Mexican Restaurant
For dinner, we chose El Cajelito, which was near the main attractions in Cherokee. We liked that they had plenty of choices, including a full vegetarian menu, and our meal was delicious.
1681 Acquoni Road Cherokee, NC
Sassy Sunflowers Bakery & Cafe
While we didn’t get a chance to try it, we noticed that Sassy Sunflowers Bakery and Cafe had great reviews and a wide selection of sandwiches & salads.
1655 Acquoni Road Cherokee, NC
Places to Stay in Cherokee, NC
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