South to Georgia from Franklin
South from Cherokee and the Great Smoky Mountains, US-441 runs through the giant Nantahala National Forest, which stretches all the way to the Georgia border. It’s a fast, mostly divided, four-lane freeway, passing through a fairly developed corridor of towns and small cities.
The biggest town in this part of North Carolina, Franklin (pop. 4,007) was founded in the mid-1800s on a shallow ridge overlooking the Little Tennessee River. Along with lumber milling, Franklin’s main industry has long been the mining of gemstones—garnets, rubies, and sapphires. Now a light industrial center, spread out around the intersection of US-441 and US-64, Franklin has a compact downtown area packed with gemstone and jewelry shops like Ruby City (130 E. Main St., 800/821-7829 or 828/524-3967, Tues.-Sat.), which also has a small free museum.
US-441 races south to Georgia from Franklin, while Hwy-28/US-64 heads southeast through the heart of Transylvania County, known as the “Land of Waterfalls” because of its many cascades. The biggest of these is 15 miles or so from Franklin. It’s named Dry Falls because it’s created at the point that the Cullasaja River projects over a cliff, allowing you to walk behind the falls without getting wet. From the well-signed parking area, follow a short trail that ends up underneath and behind the impressively raging torrent, a powerful white-noise generator you can hear long before you reach it. Another waterfall, known as Bridal Veil Falls, is less than a mile south from Dry Falls. A portion of old US-64 runs under Bridal Veil Falls, so motorists can drive under the cascade of water.
From Bridal Veil Falls 3 mi (4.8 km) south, US-64 enters the resort community of Highlands (pop. 939). Here Hwy-106 loops back to the southwest, giving grand panoramic views over the forested foothills before rejoining US-441 across the Georgia border in Dillard.
Alternate Route: Detour to Chattanooga
Mixing traditional Southern hospitality with fascinating history, cultural vitality, and a stupendous natural setting, Chattanooga is an unexpected treat. Best known to older generations as the home base of Glenn Miller’s 1940s big band swing anthem “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” this midsize city stretches along the banks of the Tennessee River, where a pleasant promenade of footpaths and bike trails ties an array of tourist attractions into local history. Markers, fountains, and plaques commemorate everything from Civil War battles to the sorry story of the banishment of the native Cherokee westward along the Trail of Tears in the 1830s.
The opening of the ever-expanding Tennessee Aquarium (800/262-0695, daily, $35), one of the largest and most popular in the country, was key to Chattanooga’s current renaissance. Along with an IMAX theater, the excellent Hunter Museum of American Art, and a baseball stadium for Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts, the aquarium has energized a wholesale reconstruction of the Chattanooga riverfront. On a nice summer’s day, cross the river on the Walnut Street Bridge, gazing down at kayakers and rock climbers before hopping on the dollar-a-ride historic carousel in idyllic Coolidge Park.
While the aquarium and related attractions have given the city a new lease on life, one of the country’s most enduring tourist attractions, Rock City (800/854-0675 or 706/820-2531, $22), has been tempting travelers here for nearly a century. Standing six miles south of town atop 2,392-foot-tall Lookout Mountain, Rock City is one of the most hyped sights in the United States. From the 1930s through the 1960s, hundreds of rural barns from Michigan to Texas were painted with the words “See Rock City,” “World’s 8th Wonder,” and “See 7 States.” (The claim that one can see seven states from Rock City is disputed, but in order of distance they would be Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia.) Rock City itself is terrific, with paths winding through oddly shaped limestone canyons at the edge of heart-stopping cliffs. Even better are the other attractions atop Lookout Mountain, especially the beautiful limestone caves, 145-foot-high Ruby Falls (423/821-2544, $22, and the historic Incline Railway (423/821-4224, $15 adults). All-inclusive tickets are available.
Gardens of Revelation
Winding back roads that have run quietly through woodlands or along cotton fields can be suddenly marked by giant crosses or hand-lettered signs. These intensely personal creations, built by eccentric and often outcast individuals, usually spout scripture, warning about Judgment Day.
The best known of these “Gardens of Revelation,” as scholar John Beardsley has called them in his excellent book of the same name: Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden Foundation (200 N. Lewis St., 706/808-0800, 11am-5pm Tues.-Sun., $15). Famous for his primitivist paintings, which appeared on album covers by R.E.M. and Talking Heads, Finster created a series of Gaudí-esque shrines, embedding seashells, bits of tile, and old car parts into concrete forms. Paintings of Elvis, Jimmy Carter, and Finster himself are arrayed alongside dozens of signs quoting scripture. The spirit of the place is summed up in Finster’s own verse:
“I built this park of broken pieces
to try to mend a broken world of people
who are traveling their last road.”