Graham County is rich in history and if you are a history buff, you should consider exploring some of the historical sites of the area while you are here. One of the easiest sites to visit is the “Bas Shaw” Gravestone off 129 (The Dragon).
The story of the man buried there goes back to the notorious Kirkland Raiders during the Civil War.During the Civil War, Graham County (then part of Cherokee County) offered scant support to the confederate cause, allegedly because the region was not financially dependent on slavery. However, there were passionate Confederates and Unionists who lived here.
History indicates that most families wished to remain neutral but were pressured into choosing sides. It was a terrible time. Families were split,and churches divided when choices were made. The people in this region suffered from both Union and Confederate raiders. Renegades or “bushwhackers”were a huge problem because of the rugged terrain that offered convenient hiding places.
John Jackson “Bushwhacking” Kirkland mounted a reign of terror in these mountains. He started out as a second lieutenant in the Third Tennessee as a confederate. Apparently, he deserted early on. The Union Army burned his family grist mill on Turkey Creek near Tellico Plains. At that point, Kirkland swore revenge and everyone in the area became his prey.
Bas Shaw was John Jackson Kirkland’s uncle by marriage. Shaw’s wife and Kirkland’s mother were sisters. Not that it seemed to matter. Around 1863 or 1864, John Kirkland ambushed a Union Army Unit on the Little Tennessee River. During the ambush, two of Bas Shaw’s sons were killed.
On December 7, 1864, the Raiders, on their way to rob a grist mill and general store, met up with a Union outfit. Bas Shaw was taken prisoner along with his 17-year-old son Joe Berry Shaw. Joe was only 17 and was released because of his age. The Confederate soldiers took Bas Shaw, telling him they were taking him to Asheville.
He never made it. The captors may have just decided to kill him, or he could have attempted escape, but his grave site is now known as Shaw Grave Gap at the Big Poplar Turn above U.S. Highway 129.
The location of Big Poplar Turn is 6.5 miles past the Tennessee/North Carolina Line close to Deal’s Gap. There is a pull off on 129 where you can park. The grave is located on the right-hand-side, at the end of a very short trail up the hill.
A visit to this grave site gives you a chance to appreciate the remoteness of the area and the daily danger and violence that residents lived with at that time. Surrounded by huge trees, it can feel like you have stepped back in time. The ancient poplar tree that marks Big Poplar Turn may very well have witnessed the truth of what happened to Bas Shaw.
Please be very careful parking and turning around on the “Dragon”. The traffic on the road can be heavy at times, and the tight curves make it difficult to see oncoming cars and motorcycles.
When you envision renting a mountain cabin, you usually don’t think about doing it in the winter. However, consider what holidays fall between January and Easter. Often, the time when we most need some quiet recharging is in the dark of the winter, after all the holidays conclude and the bleak months stretch out endlessly before you. I discovered this myself one February when I rented a mountain cabin in Graham County.
Picture yourself stretched out on a comfy couch with your favorite book, a crackling fire in the fireplace, and some hot cocoa on the night stand. It’s quiet. If you look out the window you can see the surrounding mountains and streams. Details that you miss when the leaves have not yet fallen, seem to jump out in stark relief. You might see an owl perched in a maple across the way. Gazing back at you! Numerous places are available to rent in the winter, sometimes at reduced rates. In this crazy busy world we live in, stepping away from the chaos for a weekend or even longer can give you a new perspective on life, relationships and career. The Druids called this time of the year “The return of the light”. Around February 2nd is the time when our creative juices begin to flow once more and we begin to see new possibilities. It is much easier to realize this when you have a day or two of stillness and can un-plug.
Bundled up in a warm jacket, long walks on a brisk day can be invigorating. If you are lucky, you can experience the taste, sound and feel of a freshly fallen snow. Whether alone, with a loved one for a romantic getaway or with your family, the winter woods have so many surprises to offer. Did you know that Brook Trout are most plentiful in the winter mountain streams? Tracking the footprints of birds and small animals in the snow is fun for the whole family. If you are lucky, frozen fog and hoar frost will form on the tops of the mountains and you will be very glad you brought your camera.
A variety of rental cabins and homes are available in Graham County. You can have your pick of a small, secluded hideaway in the deep woods or a large home with many rooms on the lake shores. If you enjoy hiking there are Bed and Breakfast accommodations and Inns that you can make your home and return to after you spend the day in the wilderness. The trails in Graham County are delightful in the cold months and range from simple strolling trails to the opportunity to hike for days on the Appalachian Trail, the Benton MacKaye Trail or the Bartram Trail. Sunsets and Moonrises are more easily seen and are rumored to be the most striking during the winter months. You can watch them without having to peer through branches filled with leaves. The trunks of the trees stand out like the masts of sailing ships, moving back and forth in the wind.
Our Travel and Tourism office is open year-round and staff can help you design the perfect time away. You can pick up maps, brochures and access the times for River Releases while you are there. Check out the Graham County Travel website and browse through the available rentals and lodges. Treat yourself to some rejuvenation and recovery and return home refreshed and filled with new inspiration. You may find you like Graham County so much, you’ll decide to stay!
Winter in Graham County holds secrets for lovers of beauty. Bring your cameras and dress warmly! Wear long underwear. For those of you who have never experienced the mountains in winter, you are in for a delightful discovery. There is little that compares to a winter walk in the woods. To begin with, quite often the temperatures of the air, water and earth differ greatly. When that happens, fog, mist and ice do unusual things.
Cheoah Lake, Lake Santeetlah, Calderwood Lake and Lake Fontana will consistently have “smoke on the water” and the views from Stecoah Gap in the winter are outstanding. From October through January you have the added bonus of being able to view the moon rising from Stecoah Gap. On some winter days you can watch fog creep down the mountains, twisting and turning as if stretching long tendrils out to capture you.
My favorite winter drive and hike starts at Wolf Laurel Trailhead. If you hike to the Hangover from the trailhead, you will be treated to a 360-degree panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. To reach Wolf Laurel when there is snow and ice or the potential of snow falling, you must have a four-wheel or all-wheel drive car. U S Forest Service Road 81-C begins at the intersection of the beginning of the Cherohala Skyway and Joyce Kilmer Rd. Follow 81-C and bear to the right on what is called Wolf Laurel Road. Wolf Laurel Road will end at the Trail Head. The drive in the snow is exquisite, hiking up the trail into the Wilderness holds wonders. This hike is not for the faint hearted. Make sure you bring warm blankets, food and water in case of emergencies.
For everyone, whether hiking the wilderness or strolling along the lake shore, there are visions of beauty. On a day when the ground is covered with pristine snow everything seems brand new. Close up or far away, the trees show their bones. The infinite variety of the textures and color of bark catch your eye and the rocks that are usually hidden by leaves and vines in the summer are laid bare. All is not white, grey and brown, however.
In the winter, greens pop. This is the time of year when perennial ferns and mosses really shine. They are so easily overlooked at other times of the year. Running Cedar, Club Moss and Partridge berry can be seen contrasting with the fallen brown leaves. The green mosses that cling to the rocks of streams just beg to be photographed. Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel keep their green leaves throughout the winter months and provide wonderful backgrounds for pictures of the mountains and hillsides.
The winter birds can be easily photographed as they forage for tiny insects in the bark of trees. Animals can be spotted miles away and they leave clear footprints in the snow. Best of all, you need have little concern about snakes or stinging insects. They aren’t out!
Take advantage of the special gifts a cold, winter day brings. Stretch your legs, capture pictures of ice crystals and hoar frost, and then reward yourself with some hot chocolate in front of a crackling fire in the fireplace.
Come to Graham County if you are at a crossroads in your life. If you have discovered that your life is too hectic. If you are recovering from an illness or you want some time to just think, then it is time for you to experience “Forest Bathing”.
The Japanese practice of “Forest Bathing” is scientifically proven to improve your health. It has been proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system and improve overall feelings of well-being according to an article written by Ephrat Livni in Quartz magazine. Since 1982, Forest bathing, literally just being in the presence of trees, has been a national pastime in Japan.
Qing Li, a professor of the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, measured the activity of NK cells in the human immune system before and after exposure to the woods. These cells respond quickly to virus-infected cells and react to cancer cells that are growing out of control. The amount of NK cells increased dramatically after a weekend visit to the woods and the positive effects lasted a month after returning home. Wow. It is believed that this is due to exposure of Phytoncide, a chemical that is emitted from plants and trees to protect them from insect pests and fungal infection. The air in the forest is filled with this chemical and current research supports that it seems to have a positive effect on humans too.
Japan is taking this research very seriously. They have designated 48 therapy trails based on the results of a 4-million-dollar study from 2004-2012. The trees seem to positively effect both physical and psychological health. Although California appears to be the first state to act on this new research, the mountains of Graham County would be a wonderful place to designate therapy trails. The two mile double loop trail in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is the perfect place to go.
Additionally, “Listening to the sounds of nature also may help people recover more quickly from stress or trauma, according to a 2015 study by psychologists at Pennsylvania State University published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.”
Graham County’s mysterious mountains, pristine streams and reflective lakes are waiting for you. Rent a kayak or bring your own and plan to set off on Lake Calderwood for a three day, two night camping adventure. Stay out one of the rental cottages or local lodges and take day hikes into the southern Smokey Mountain National Park or the Snowbird Mountains. Pack a picnic lunch and plan an afternoon at the top of Huckleberry Knob off the Cherohala Skyway, picking fresh strawberries and blueberries or flying kites. Explore the trails around Fontana and fly fish the famous streams near Hazel Creek or in the Snowbird Wilderness. Graham County is the perfect place to immerse yourself in the sounds and tranquility of the natural world. Take a break and come visit. You may leave with a new attitude and new insights to bring back home, or you may just decide to stay!.
This spring many people have been asking if the wildflowers are blooming in the areas that were burned by forest fires last fall. I am very happy to announce that not only are the flowers blooming, but in many areas the wildflowers are more prolific than they have been in years.
Areas adjacent to the beautiful Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest Loop Trail, blackened by fires last fall, are covered with blooming white trilliums emerging from the ashes. The Loop Trail itself was untouched, thanks to the arduous work of the firefighters who defended the ancient trees with rakes and leaf blowers. Much of the fire burned only the “duff” or upper six inches of the forest floor. Although many wildflowers have shallow roots, plants like trillium and ginseng have roots that lay as much as a foot or more below the surface of the forest.
In 1773, the famous botanist William Bartram described a very different forest than the ones that we walk through today. He wrote, “My first descent and progress down the west side of the mountain was remarkably gradual and easy, through open forests for a distance of two to three miles…Next day proceeding on eight or ten miles, generally through spacious high forests and flowery lawns.”
Today our hardwood forests don’t really resemble Bartram’s description. There are far too many trees and a great deal of understory and brush. Not enough light hits the ground. Forest fires last fall burned up a great deal of the heavy brush, briars and undergrowth and cleared the forest floor, leaving much more room for the spread of the glorious wildflowers that we love.
It is expected that for the next few years in the forests of Graham County the wildflower show will be extraordinary. From early April through mid-June visitors will be able to see a vast array of colorful flowers, including lady slippers, many species of trilliums, bellflowers, and violets. Caterpillars will more easily find food plants and more butterflies will be seen. Birds will feast on the insects that are busily breaking down the fallen trees and will increase the number of broods they can support each year.
Make plans to come visit Graham County and walk the trails. This is a wonderful opportunity to see the forests and meadows in the process of naturally recovering from a forest fire. You will not only have the chance to see many flowers, birds and insects that you may never have seen before, but you can teach your children all about the natural role of fires in a forest.
(Photo courtesy of Kim Hainge)
Bird watching, often called birding, is the largest spectator sport in America. The rich and abundant bird life in Graham County arises from the varied climate and topography. Summers are warm and winters are mild. Western North Carolina is positioned in the middle of the migratory route used by a variety of birds, and the high mountains of Graham County attracts the unusual and beautiful Cerulean Warbler. These little birds prefer the high forests and migrate through them each early spring. Two useful links for birding in Graham County are; Http://birdventures.com/Stecoah%20Gap%2017) and the North Carolina Birding Trail website; http://ncbirdingtrail.org/.
Graham County offers some of the best birding in the Smokies, including Stecoah Gap, The Cherohala Skyway and the Fontana Dam area just to start.
Three days of outstanding birding -
Spending three days in Graham County will enable you to explore several outstanding areas and see both migratory and local birds.
Every year, people drive by the Stecoah Gap, where the Appalachian Trail passes over NC 143. The gap, known for its outstanding overview of the surrounding mountains, has a small parking area which leads to a forest road of about three miles. The road dead ends, so you get the chance to view the birds both walking in and walking back
In Late April and Early May, if you walk along the road, not only will you be treated to beautiful views, and various spring wildflowers, but you will be high enough to see the tops of the trees and look down on Cerulean, Golden-Winged and Cerulean Warblers.
After early-morning birdwatching, have a picnic breakfast at the picnic table at Stecoah Gap or drive into Robbinsville for breakfast. You might choose to visit the Stecoah Valley Center Gallery and shop for nature-related gifts, including some wonderful ceramic art based on our birds. Stecoah also offers a wonderful world-renowned art gallery called Bee Glow Studio where you can buy beeswax candles and luminaries.
Lunch in Stecoah at the Stecoah Diner and have one of their famous burgers, or head directly over to Fontana for lunch. Stop at the Fontana Village Resort for directions to twenty miles of hiking trails for a lovely afternoon of birdwatching. Oh, and don’t forget to treat yourself to some ice cream at the Fontana Village General Store.
Start your day with breakfast in Robbinsville and make sure you have a full tank of gas for the day, then head out to the Snowbird Mountain Lodge or Thunder Mountain General Store to pick up a picnic lunch. Make sure to call the night before to place your order at Snowbird Mountain Lodge.
Your first birding stop will be the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Hike the gorgeous double-loop trail, which covers two miles through some of the last virgin forest in North Carolina. Picnic at the tables along the stream or drive a few miles more towards the Maple Point Observation Deck and stop at one of the picnic tables along the way.
After lunch, head out along the Cherohala Skyway. Drive and birdwatch along the way. The Cherohala Skyway is located between Robbinsville and the town of Tellico Plains, TN. There are numerous pull offs along the way to stop and watch for birds like the Broad-Winged Hawk, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, the high-altitude loving Veery and the Blackburnian Warbler.
Enjoy an early dinner in Tellico Plains and then head East, back to Graham County, with the sun setting behind you and the mountains back-lit with glory. Stop and watch the sunset from any of the pullover areas or, even better, plan a 2 mile hike out to the top of Huckleberry Knob. Don’t forget a flashlight for the return hike to your car!
Birdwatch at sunrise at the end of the Sunrise Trail at the Snowbird Mountain Lodge. Plan to have breakfast there (reservations are required) and then head out and explore the numerous trails in the area. Many people stay at the lodge for the night to enjoy the migrations of tanagers, grosbeaks and warblers.
When you are ready, cut across the road that leads to 129 and the Tapoco Lodge for lunch. Spend the day enjoying the top ten trails at Tapoco, Yellow Creek Falls Trail and the beautiful Cheoah River. Bald Eagles and Osprey are often seen by diners at the lodge as they sit outside at tables along the river front.
FOR A HANDY BIRDING CHECKLIST, CLICK HERE.