Birdfinding in the Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee

Excerpted with permission from Birdfinding in Forty National Forests and Grasslands, American Birding Association, 1994. Colorado Springs. Information updated by local Cherokee National Forest staff.

HOW TO GET THERE-- This guide describes birding sites along three auto tour routes. For the two northern tour routes, from Knoxville, drive east on Interstate 40 for 28 miles to the junction with Interstate 81. Turn north on I-81 for 56 miles to the junction with I-81 near Johnson City. Exit onto I-26 south and follow the directions below for the Unaka Mountain and Roan Mountain tour routes. The Forest Supervisor's Office is in Cleveland, which is about 80 miles southwest of Knoxville off Interstate 75 and is the starting point for the southern Tellico tour route.

THE HIGHLANDS of the southern Blue Ridge Mountains offer cool havens from the sweltering summer heat of the surrounding valleys. Within the 636,000 acres of the Cherokee National Forest, you can visit northern conifer forests, high grassy meadows and rhododendron gardens, clear coldwater streams lined with hemlocks, and a variety of hardwood and pine forests.

Moisture-loving red spruce-Fraser fir forests clothe the few mountain peaks above 5000 feet, nourished by some of the heaviest rainfall (up to 80 inches annually) in the eastern U.S. These dark, dense stands are relicts of Canadian Zone forests that extended southward during glacial advances. Where sunlight is able to penetrate the canopy, green carpets of apron moss, shield ferns, and wood sorrel cover the ground.

High-elevation meadows, known locally as "grassy balds," are covered knee-deep with mountain oat and hair grasses and a variety of wildflowers. No one knows exactly how these balds came to be. They may have been created by bison and elk, by Native Americans who burned sections of the woods, by early settlers grazing cattle, or by natural climatic conditions; possibly all four factors played a role.

The endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel inhabits the ecotone between the spruce-fir and northern hardwood forests. Occasionally, black bears are seen. Here, too, are woodchuck, red squirrel, Eastern chipmunk, and bobcat.

Bird Life

The Forest is host to at least 262 species in a unique mix of northern and southern forms. Click here for a checklist. Some of the northern birds reach the southern limits of their breeding-range in the spruce-fir forests of the southern Blue Ridge: Northern Saw-whet Owl, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Veery, Blue-headed Vireo, Chestnut-sided Warbler (disturbed areas or heath thickets), and Dark-eyed Junco. Here, too, is the Common Raven; listen for its distinct cronk calls as it soars and rolls playfully overhead. Red Crossbills and Pine Siskins may occur anytime; both have nested on Roan Mountain. In winter, northern visitors may include Evening Grosbeak.

Photo by Charles P. Nicholson

Birding Routes

Three routes are suggested. To experience the red spruce forest and a grassy bald, take the 30-mile Unaka Mountain Wildlife Viewing Loop (also called Unaka Mountain Auto Tour) located on the northern portion of the Forest. Roan Mountain, east of Unaka Mountain, gives the visitor a chance to explore spruce-fir forest, grassy balds, and heath balds. In addition, the Tellico Wildlife Viewing Loop (Tellico Auto Tour) on the south end of the Forest offers open water, riparian, and hardwood forest communities.

Unaka Mountain Auto Tour/Wildlife Viewing Loop

From the junction of I-81 and I-26, follow I-26 South for 28 miles to Erwin's Main Street (Exit 19). Follow signs to Tennessee Route 107 West to 10th Street and Tennessee Route 395 and turn left. Drive east on Rte. 395 toward the Tennessee-North Carolina state line for 3.3 miles to Rock Creek Campground. Look and listen here in spring and early summer for Black-throated Green, Worm-eating and Swainson's Warblers, Ovenbird, and Louisiana Waterthrush in the dense rhododendron and hemlock thickets. You may also see Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Acadian Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, Blue-headed and Red-eyed Vireos, and Scarlet Tanager.

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Continue 3.1 miles on Rte. 395 to the state line at Indian Grave Gap. Turn left onto gravel Forest Service Road (FS) 230. [Note that this road is likely to be closed during the winter due to snow and ice.] Follow FS 230 for 2.2 miles to Beauty Spot Observation Site (4437 feet); Ruffed Grouse may occur anywhere along this route. You will see a grassy bald beyond the parking area. Search the edges of the bald for Cedar Waxwing, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Rufous-sided Towhee, Song Sparrow, and American Goldfinch.

You are likely to see white-tailed deer during the evening hours and might catch a glimpse of a red fox or a bobcat. Also watch for Appalachian cottontail, meadow jumping mouse, and southern bog lemming. These small mammals attract raptors, so be on the lookout for Sharp-shinned, Cooper's, Broad-winged, and Red-tailed Hawks during the daytime, and Great Horned, Barred, and Northern Saw-whet Owls after dark. The saw-whet owls call from late March to June, but are very rare and local.

To hike through the red spruce forest, continue on FS 230 another 2.4 miles and park on the roadside at a tight switchback. As you face the rock bluff, the trailhead to the Appalachian Trail will be at the right. You can hike up to Unaka Mountain on the trail from here (it will take 30 to 40 minutes). At high elevations in the Forest (i.e., greater than 3500 ft) there are five species of characteristic high-elevation nesting warblers: Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Canada, and Blackburnian, and their numbers are in that order of prevalence - most to least likely; Blackburnians, in fact, are rare in the north Cherokee. The narrow trail first traverses a hardwood forest at 4600-feet elevation, where you may find Blue-headed Vireo, and next passes through thickets of blueberry and laurel, a good place for Chestnut-sided Warbler. Once in the higher red spruce forest, watch for Hairy Woodpecker, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Winter Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Veery, Gray Catbird, Eastern Towhee, Magnolia Warbler, and Dark-eyed Junco. Red Crossbills have been regular visitors for the past five years.

Return to your vehicle and continue up FS 230 about 0.7 mile to the Unaka Mountain Overlook; turn left into the parking area. Here you may spot Peregrine Falcon or Common Raven. Young Peregrines have been released at hacking-sites nearby in recent years, and sightings should be reported to the Forest Service. Broad-winged Hawks as well as other migrating raptors pass through in late September.

Continue on FS 230 for 1.1 miles to the Stamping Ground Ridge pull-off. Summering Magnolia Warbler and Northern Saw-whet Owl have been found here in recent years, and towhees and catbirds are common. Also watch carefully for spruce-forest mammals and amphibians. Red- backed voles and cloudland deer mice, and pygmy and Yonahlossee salamanders, live among the moss-covered talus slopes and near spring seepages along the roadside.

In another 6 miles, turn west onto Tennessee Route 107 to return to Unicoi and Interstate 181, which will become Interstate 26 in four or five years. To find Grasshopper Sparrows, go west on Rte. 107 for 2 miles, turn right (east) onto Tennessee Route 173, and park in the Community Center parking lot. From early to mid-May through June, listen for the buzzy songs of the Grasshopper Sparrows that nest in the overgrown field and a privately owned blueberry farm located behind the Community Center. Then continue west on Rte. 107 to 1-181 to complete the loop.

Roan Mountain Route

Begin at the Roan Mountain State Park Visitors Center. To get there, from the junction of I-81 and I-26 take I-26 South. Exit from I-26 onto U.S. Route 321 in Johnson City. Go 7 miles east to Elizabethton, drive 18 miles south from Elizabethton on U.S. Route 19E, and turn south onto Tennessee Route 143 at the village of Roan Mountain. Go 3 miles to the state park and stop 1.7 miles beyond the information station at Picnic Area No. 1. From May through July, the wet willow thicket and old orchard, located between Picnic Area No. 1 and No. 2, are excellent for Cooper's and Red-tailed Hawks, Ruffed Grouse (in rhododendron thickets), Acadian Flycatcher, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Carolina Wren, Gray Catbird, Red-eyed Vireo, Golden- winged, Chestnut-sided, and Hooded Warblers, Indigo Bunting, American Goldfinch, and Field and Song Sparrows.

Continue another 4 miles to the Twin Springs Picnic Area (elevation 4300 feet), located in an older forest of beech, buckeye, and red and striped maples. Stop for Barred Owl, Least Flycatcher, White-breasted Nuthatch, Veery, Blue-headed Vireo, Black-throated Blue and Black-throated Green Warblers, Ovenbird, Scarlet Tanager, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. As you progress to higher elevations, listen for Winter Wren and Canada Warbler along the roadway

Carver's Gap, located on the Tennessee-North Carolina border at 5512-feet elevation, is 3.7 miles beyond Twin Springs Picnic Area. The Gap is good for migrant raptors in fall. Possibilities include Osprey, Bald and Golden Eagles, Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks (fairly common), Northern Goshawk (rare), Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon. The Gap is also an excellent place to observe fall migrant passerines from late August through September.

By hiking east along the Appalachian Trail from Carver's Gap, you can experience a long stretch of grassy balds, running 4.8 miles (intermixed with forested areas) from Carver's Gap to Hump Mountain. Cedar Waxwings are attracted to berries and buds along the edge of the grassy balds in spring, summer, and fall. Roan Mountain is the only regular nesting site in Tennessee for Alder Flycatcher, which frequents the alder thickets. Horned Lark and Vesper Sparrow can be found in the tall grass, and Chimney Swifts zip around overhead. Note that natural encroachment of trees and shrubs is causing the balds to shrink. Look for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy's donation box at Carver's Gap and consider making a contribution to help maintain the balds. Photo by Charles P. Nicholson

After returning to your vehicle, go right and follow the signs for 1.7 miles to Roan Mountain Gardens. (The road is closed in winter, but visitors may walk or cross-country ski.) Turn left into Gardens Road to reach the fee parking area for a Forest Service information station (open May through October) and wheelchair-accessible nature trail. The trail passes through a red spruce-Fraser fir forest and the largest natural rhododendron garden in the U.S., a 600-acre display of spectacular purple Catawba rhododendrons. The elevation at Roan High Knob is 6285 feet.

Photo by State of Tennessee: Tourist Development

The trail winds through the heath bald, or "rhododendron garden," where you may see Ruby-throated Hummingbirds visiting the purple flowers at their peak bloom in mid-to-late June. Gray Catbird and Chestnut-sided Warbler are common in the gardens.

Where the trail penetrates the spruce-fir forest you are likely to see and hear Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Veery, Hermit Thrush, Canada Warbler, and Dark- eyed Junco. At night, you might hear the whistled toot of the Northern Saw-whet Owl. In winter, a number of northern species are possible: Snow Bunting on the grassy balds and Red and White-winged (very rare) Crossbills, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, and Evening Grosbeak among the surrounding conifers. During years of cone-crop failure in northern states, these finches sometimes move south to winter in the boreal forests of Roan Mountain. Southern "bumper cone-crop" years provide excellent opportunities to see large numbers of these birds.

During the peak rhododendron bloom the main trail may be crowded. If so, there is a gravel road located between the turnoff to Carver's Gap and the Gardens that is less traveled and provides additional spruce-fir birding opportunities.

To view Golden-winged Warblers, visit Hampton Creek Cove State Natural Area between early May and late June. This area is off of Route 143. More information about the Natural Area, including a map and directions, is available here.

Tellico Auto Tour/Wildlife Viewing Loop

From the junction of U.S. Route 64 and Tennessee Route 40 east of Cleveland, go east on the two routes for 7 miles to U.S. Route 411. Turn left onto U.S. 411 and go about 35 miles north to Rte. 68. Turn right and drive about 16 miles to the town of Tellico Plains. If you are coming from Knoxville, leave Interstate 75 at Exit 60 (County Road (CR) 322, Sweetwater); go east about 2 miles to Rte. 68 and drive 26 miles to Tellico Plains.

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Turn left on Tennessee Route 165 East (Cherohala Skyway). After approximately one mile Rte. 165E begins to parallel the Tellico River. Scan the snags for Osprey and Belted Kingfisher. Oosterneck Creek is 4.3 miles farther on Rte. 165E, where you can bear right on FS 210 to the Tellico Ranger Station for information and maps. Or, you can continue east on Rte. 165 for 9 miles to the entrance of Indian Boundary Recreation Area. This was the site of a boundary line between the U.S. and the former Cherokee Indian Nation, imposed by treaty in 1819.

The recreation area includes a campground, picnic area, and a 96-acre lake for swimming and fishing. A 4-mile hiking and bicycling trail encircles the lake and provides good birding opportunities. In spring and summer, watch and listen along the trail for Great Blue and Green-backed Herons, Osprey, Black-billed and Yellow- billed Cuckoos, Whip-poor-will, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Belted Kingfisher, Acadian and Great Crested Flycatchers, Wood Thrush, White-eyed, Yellow-throated and Red-eyed Vireos, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated, Black-and-white, and Hooded Warblers, Ovenbird, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Scarlet Tanager. A visitor may even spot a brood of Wild Turkeys "bugging" in the tall grass and clover openings along the trail in summer or hear a male gobbling in spring. Flame azaleas bloom here in early to mid-May

View from Cherohala Skyway
Photo by Mary Hughes Frye, USFS

Continue east on Rte. 165 for another 8.4 miles to the East Rattlesnake Rock parking area. For an easy hike, follow the trail from the parking area, bear left at the trail fork, and continue for about one mile to traverse a northern hardwood forest of American beech, yellow birch, black cherry, and sugar maple at 4000-feet elevation. This forest has a diverse herb layer of spring wildflowers that bloom from April to June as well as shield ferns and mosses. Look here for such northern birds as Black-billed Cuckoo (on territory), Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Carolina and Winter Wrens, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Veery, Blue-headed Vireo, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Dark- eyed Junco. The only recent Tennessee nesting record of the sapsucker is from this area. Other species to watch for are Broad-winged Hawk, Common Raven, Wood Thrush, Gray Catbird, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue-winged (on territory), Golden-winged, Chestnut-sided, Hooded, and Canada Warblers, Northern Cardinal, Indigo Bunting, and Eastern Towhee. Reverse to return, or continue walking another mile until the trail loops back into the Cherohala Skyway, and return to your car via the skyway.

Drive east on Rte. 165 for 3.3 miles to Stratton Gap (4500 feet), cross over the bridge, and make an immediate left turn, looping back under the bridge. (Note: between Beech Gap and Mud Gap, the highway crosses into and out of North Carolina.) Park near the bridge and walk down gravel FS 217 through a forest of Eastern hemlock, Carolina silverbell, and buckeye. Watch for the brilliant orange flash of a male Blackburnian Warbler and look and listen for Red-breasted Nuthatch, nesting Golden-crowned Kinglets, Black-throated Blue and Black-throated Green Warblers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The rapid drumming of a male Ruffed Grouse can often be heard in spring or occasionally in fall.

Photo by Charles P. Nicholson
There are two options for travel at this point. If you wish to continue east on Rte. 165 to see Whigg Meadow, a scenic grassy meadow, continue 1.8 miles to Mud Gap. You can park here and walk up FS 61B, 1.5 miles to Whigg Meadow (5000 feet). This is a moderately difficult hike. Northern Saw- whet Owl is a possibility here in late April or early May. Keep an eye out for Ruffed Grouse taking dust baths in the road. The grassy bald is good for Broad-winged Hawk, American Woodcock, Common Raven, Eastern Bluebird, Gray Catbird, and Chestnut-sided Warbler. In the surrounding northern hardwood forests are Pileated Woodpecker, Winter Wren, Veery, Blue-headed Vireo, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and a few Blackburnian Warblers. Mammals to watch for include black bear, coyote, wild boar, red squirrel, and chipmunk. An alternative route to Whigg Meadow is to take FS 217 southwest from Stratton Gap for 1.1 miles after you cross under the Rte. 165 bridge. Turn left onto FS 61 and stay on it until it ends at Whigg Meadow.

The second option from Stratton Gap is to continue southwest on FS 217 for 1.1 miles after you cross under the Rte. 165 bridge. Turn right at this point to stay on FS 217 (North River Road). In 11 miles, turn right onto the paved Tellico River Road and continue to Rte. 165, following signs to return to Tellico Plains. This route crosses several clear coldwater streams lined with mountain laurel and rhododendron; watch here for Acadian Flycatcher, Black-throated Green and Swainson's Warblers, and Louisiana Waterthrush.

Accomodations * Weather * Other Attractions

WHEN TO VISIT: There is good birding all year. Nesting season peaks from May to early July; April, early and mid-May, and September through early October are best for migration. Several fall migrant banding stations are staffed by the Tennessee Ornithological Society in mid-late September. Fall color peaks in October. Rhododendron bloom is best from mid-to-late June.

WHERE TO STAY: Numerous campgrounds are located in Cherokee National Forest and in adjacent State Parks. Rural areas offer rental cabins, bed & breakfasts and camping with the charm of quiet country settings. Johnson City, Elizabethton, Knoxville, and Sweetwater are the larger cities nearby with urban conveniences. Birders will find accommodations to suit their tastes and travel plans. For tourism information, contact:

Northeast Tennessee
Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association
P.O. Box 415-VG
Jonesborough, TN 37659-0415
Southeast Tennessee
Tennessee Overhill
P.O. Box 143
Etowah, TN 37331

For more information.
National Forest: Office locations, campgrounds, trails, maps, bird list, migrant banding dates.
Cherokee National Forest
2800 North Ocoee Street
Cleveland, Tennessee 37312

TRAIL MAPS: By National Geographic Trails Illustrated. (1) Map 783, covers Roan and Unaka Mountain area, South Holston and Watauga Lakes; (2) Map 781, covers Tellico area, Cherohala Skyway, and Tellico and Ocoee Rivers; (3) Map 782, covers French Broad and Nolichucky River areas, north of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and south of the area covered by Map 783. For sale at Forest Service offices or

Tennessee State Parks Roan Mountain State Park map.

BIRD LIST: Available at Forest Service offices or by clicking here.

General Birding Opportunities, Events, Tours, Literature:

General WildlifeViewing: Tennessee Wildlife Viewing Guide. Paul Hamel, 1993. Falcon Press, Helena, MT. Detailed directions and information on Tennessee's best sites for viewing wildlife and wildflowers. For sale at Forest Service offices, bookstores, or direct from the publisher. Go to and enter "Tennessee Wildlife Viewing" in the search field at the top of the page.

WEATHER AND ATTIRE: Some high roads (above Carver's Gap at Roan Mountain, Unaka Mountain Road, and Route 165/Cherohala Skyway east of Indian Boundary) close periodically in winter due to snow and ice. Avoid exposed areas at high elevations during lightning-storms. Summers are warm and humid, but high-elevation weather is subject to rapid and frequent change. A warm jacket and rain-gear are recommended all year. The Cherokee National Forest is black bear country; for more information about bears and safety in bear country, see the Cherokee National Forest website or the Center For Wildlife Information site.

WHAT ELSE TO DO: Hiking the Appalachian Trail and other trails; whitewater sports on the Tellico, Ocoee, Hiwassee, and Nolichucky Rivers; 300 miles of trout waters, both wild and stocked fish; cross-country skiing, sledding, and snow-shoeing on Roan Mountain some winters. Other points of interest include Ocoee Whitewater Center (1996 Olympic Whitewater Venue), scenic byways, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, near Robbinsville, North Carolina (one of the few remaining old-growth forests in the eastern U.S.), Erwin National Fish Hatchery, and Pheasant Fields Fish Hatchery near Tellico Plains.

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