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 Eastern Cherokee Indian Reservation, which was established here by a small band of Cherokee people in 1866, long after the rest of this once-mighty nation 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,” or ride the “Rudicoaster” at the pricey but kid-friendly Santa’s Land Fun Park and Zoo (828/497-9191, summer only, $23 adults). The biggest draw hereabouts is the ever-expanding Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort (828/497-7777, $139 and up).
The upscale casino, the region’s biggest draw, looms over a fading roadside lined by tacky old-time souvenir stands. But amid the tourist-taunting sprawl is at least one worthwhile stop: the Museum of the Cherokee Indian (daily, $11 adults), which traces the history of the Cherokee people from preconquest achievements—the Cherokee used a natural version of aspirin centuries before western chemists “discovered” it, for example—to their forced removal in the 1830s. There’s also a living history village and a big outdoor pageant.