If being inside isn’t what you really thought you were going to be doing on a trip to the mountains, first of all, you definitely have the moral high ground there, and secondly, here’s a list of some great FREE stuff to do that will get you and your non-hiking relations outdoors even if it is pouring rain and everyone else just wants to movie marathon at the cabin.
Working Water Without a Wheel: Mingus Mill
The Mingus Mill, (built in 1886), located just up the road from the Oconaluftee Visitors Center in Cherokee, NC is a short walking trail and historical exhibit. Yes, the mill does in fact work, and it is in fact water powered. But you won’t see a water wheel! This mill runs on a much cooler historical turbine located under the mill itself, (you can walk underneath to see it). The turbine looks like a thick metal sewer pipe with a rod coming out of it that drives the classic stone grinding stones in the mill.
The turbine itself is driven by water just like a wheel. The water enters first via a long and high maintenance raceway and then falls into a very tall and frankly terrifying wooden square pipe known as a penstock. The pressure of all this water, (22 foot/pounds), inside this wooden pipe that I can’t believe isn’t leaking, drives the turbine and provides about 11 horse power. It’s a really cool and unexpected piece of engineering that I am really proud our park service had the foresight to purchase and maintain. Much of the land in this area that is park land was purchased in the 1930s at the height of the Great Depression as low yielding farm acreage became extremely unprofitable. The mill met a similar fate – it was purchased by the park service, leased back to the operator, and when the operator died it was put out of service until restoration in I believe the 1960s.
The Mountain Farm Museum
The Mountain Farm Museum sits behind the Oconaluftee Visitors Center. Animal highlights include live pigs, (if you’re into that sort of thing), a flock of roaming chickens, and the huge field next door that is frequented by elk. The museum has most of the essentials of farm life, including a house, an orchard, a meat house, corn crib, lye production, sugar cane crushing, pasturage, honey bee hives made out of hollowed out logs, and this really awesome barn. Seriously, love the barn. It’s like my dream goat barn.
Hunt Down Some Elk
Elk have been reintroduced into the Great Smokey Mountains National Park after over a century and a half of absence. Their original extirpation was by over hunting and habitat loss, sources of extinction that are no longer a major threat in the first world. Frankly, seeing an elk walk down the side of Big Cove Rd in Cherokee is incredible – they are easily 3 times the size of a typical white tail doe, and stand about as tall as a show jumper horse. These are HUGE animals, and incredibly beautiful. The privately funded reintroduction plan will put about 400 elk into the area by the time it finishes, making Cherokee and the surrounding area a mecca for wildlife photography.
Interested in seeing elk up close? The best locations are the grassy areas near the Cherokee Town School off Big Cove Road, the field near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, driving over to Cataloochee Valley (this is an all day trip – elk are best spotted in the early morning), and I found a few heading out of town on Hwy 19 towards Deep Creek.
Other Not So Free Options
Oconaluftee Indian Village – Save this for when it’s not raining and you will need to purchase tickets for this one. The village is a partially guided, partially wander around by yourself tour of historical cherokee dwellings, tribal buildings, and crafts. The blow gun demonstration is generally considered the highlight, but everything else is pretty good too. There is a small arboretum next door, but it has fallen into disrepair since my childhood. Instead, check out the Fire Mountain mountain biking trails if you brought a bike or walk up to the fire tower.
On To These Hills – An outdoor drama about the removal of the Cherokee Indians via the Trail of Tears. In general, pretty moving, but not suitable for extremely small children who won’t get what is going on. At the age of 8 or so I enjoyed it.
Cherokee Indian Museum – A good option in the rain because it is completely indoors, this museum centers around the history of the Cherokee from prehistory up to the 1800s. Big kid favorite overall, but be prepared for the very outdated CG in the intro movie.