West of Maggie Valley, the Blue Ridge Parkway and US-19 join up 40 miles west of Asheville at touristy Cherokee (pop. 2,138), commercial center of the 56,000-acre Cherokee Indian Reservation, which was established here by a small band of Cherokee Indians in 1866, long after the rest of this once-mighty tribe had been forcibly exiled to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. Cherokee is a last gasp of commercialism at the edge of the national park, a traffic-clogged gauntlet of places where you can “See Live Bears,” “Eat Boiled Peanuts,” “Pan For Gold,” or ride the “Rudicoaster” at the pricey but kid-friendly Santa’s Land Theme Park and Zoo (828/497-9191, $21.16 adults). The biggest draw hereabouts is the ever-expanding Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort (828/497-7777, $109 and up).
The upscale casino, the region’s biggest draw, looms over a fading roadside lined by tacky old-time souvenir stands like the “Big Chief.” But amidst the tourist-taunting sprawl is at least one worthwhile stop: the Museum of the Cherokee Indian (daily, $10 adults), which traces tribal history from pre-conquest achievements—the Cherokee used a natural version of aspirin centuries before western chemists “discovered” it, for example—to their forced removal after gold was discovered here in the 1830s. There’s also a living history village and a big outdoor pageant.
Museum of the Cherokee Indian (589 Tsali Blvd.)
Santa’s Land Theme Park and Zoo (571 Wolfetown Rd.)
Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort (777 Casino Dr.)