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Little Tennessee River


Aside from the many creeks and streams that gently roll through Macon County, there are 3 main rivers that flow through the County. The Cullasaja River flows from Highlands, NC into The Little Tennessee River which flows right through the center of Franklin, NC. The Nantahala River is a river in western North Carolina and touches Macon County, within the Nantahala National Forest, and near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Two-lane U.S. Highway 19/74, once part of the Trail of Tears, runs along the Nantahala River, picnic areas dotting the route.The word "Nantahala" comes from the Cherokee language and means "Land of the Noonday Sun." The river runs through a narrow and steep gorge where in some areas the sun only reaches the ground when it is directly overhead during the middle of the day.

The Nantahala River is a very popular trout fishing destination. North Carolina Game and Fish has named the Nantahala River one of North Carolina's ten best trout streams. It has also been touted as a Top 100 trout stream by Trout Unlimited (please see photo below of the Nantahala River).

Rafting Down the Nantahala River

The Cullasaja River is a short river located entirely in Macon County, North Carolina. It is a tributary of the Little Tennessee River (and in turn the Tennessee River, Ohio River and Mississippi River), into which it flows near the county seat of Franklin. It originates to the southeast, near Highlands, the county's only other town. It flows from the manmade Lake Sequoyah, which is fed by Mirror Lake and other creeks and streams originating on the western side of the Eastern Continental Divide, which runs through the east side of Highlands, NC (please see photo below of the Cullasaja River). (5)

"Having fun on a hot day on the Cullasaja River"

A two-lane highway called Mountain Waters Scenic Byway, which is the combined route of U.S. 64 and NC 28, runs through the Cullasaja Gorge, which is mostly protected as part of the Nantahala National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service has designated this to be a National Scenic Byway because of the river, and its numerous waterfalls, including:

Bridal Veil Falls, actually from a tributary creek

Dry Falls, which visitors can walk behind without getting wet

Quarry Falls, also known as Bust-Yer-Butt Falls

Cullasaja Falls, the major cascade of falls

The road between Franklin, NC and Highlands, NC is known as the Franklin Road near Highlands, and Highlands Road near Franklin. There are 3 townships located in the valley below the gorge: Cullasaja, Gneiss, and Sugar Fork. The Cullasaja's largest tributary is most likely Buck Creek. (5)

There are also several former Cherokee towns located along the Cullasaja River. The town of Ellijay was on Ellijay Creek, a tributary of Cullasaja River. Several Cherokee towns were called Kulsetsiyi (or Sugartown), abbreviated Kulsetsi, including one on Cullasaja River near Ellijay Creek. "Cullasaja" is a variant spelling of the Cherokee town name "Kulsetsi". This Cherokee town's name is also the origin of the name "Sugar Fork". (5)

One of the largest and most important Cherokee towns, known as Nikwasi or Nucassee, was located at the confluence of Cullasaja River with the Little Tennessee River. The town of Franklin grew on the former site of the Nikwasi town. (5)

The Little Tennessee River starts in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the Chattahoochee. National Forest in northeast Georgia's Rabun County. After flowing north through the mountains past Dillard into Southwestern North Carolina, it is joined by the Cullasaja River in Franklin, then turns northwest, flowing through the Nantahala National Forest along the north side of the Nantahala Mountains and past Lauada. It crosses into eastern Tennessee and joins the Tennessee River at Lenoir City, 25 miles (40 km) southwest of Knoxville. The Little Tennessee River is 135 miles long and is a tributary to the Tennessee River (please see photo below of the Little Tennessee River). (3)

The Little Tennessee River - Greenway Bridge in Franklin, NC on a Foggy Spring Morning

The lower part of the Little Tennessee River is impounded in several places by sequential dams, some created as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) system, forming a string of reservoirs in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee down to its confluence with the Tennessee River. Near the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee, it is impounded by the 480 feet (146 m) high Fontana Dam, completed in 1944, forming Fontana Lake along the southern boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is also impounded by Cheoah Dam in North Carolina, and by Calderwood and Chilhowee dams in Tennessee. The reservoirs provide flood control and hydroelectric power. (3)

The Little Tennessee River and its immediate watershed comprise one of the richest archaeological areas in the southeastern United States, containing substantial habitation sites dating back to as early as 7,500 B.C. (1) Cyrus Thomas, who conducted a mound survey in the area for the Smithsonian Institution in the 1880s, wrote that the Little Tennessee River was "undoubtedly the most interesting archaeological section in the entire Appalachian district." (2)