The Nantahala National Forest, established in 1920, is a national forest located in the American state of North Carolina. The word "Nantahala" is a Cherokee Indian word meaning "Land of the Noonday Sun." The name is appropriate as, in some spots, the sun only reaches the floors of the deep gorges of the national forest when directly overhead at midday. The Spanish Conquistador Hernando de Soto explored the area in 1540, as did William Bartram in the 18th century. The Nantahala National Forest is home to the famous Nantahala River and the Nantahala Outdoor Center, voted the #1 water tourist destination by National Geographic Magazine.
The Nantahala National Forest is administered by the United States Forest Service, part of the United States Department of Agriculture. The forest is managed together with the other three North Carolina National Forests (Croatan, Pisgah, and Uwharrie) from common headquarters in Asheville, North Carolina.
Nantahala National Forest is the largest of the four national forests in North Carolina, lying in the mountains and valleys of western North Carolina. The terrain varies in elevation from 5,800 feet (1,767.8 m) at Lone Bald in Jackson County, to 1,200 feet (365.8 m) in Cherokee County along the Hiwassee River below the Appalachian Dam. It is the home of many western NC waterfalls. The last part of the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway travels through this forest. The total area under management is 531,286 acres (830.13 sq mi; 2,150.04 km2). In descending order of land area it is located in parts of Macon, Graham, Cherokee, Jackson, Clay, Swain, and Transylvania counties.
Nantahala National Forest is divided into three range Districts: the Highlands (now Nantahala Ranger District) Ranger District (now consolidated with the Wayah Ranger District), the Tusquitee Ranger District, the Cheoah Ranger District, and the Nantahala Ranger District.
The Highlands Ranger District (now named Nantahala Ranger District) covers an area of 105,084 acres (164.2 sq mi; 425.3 km2) in Macon, Jackson and Transylvania counties.This district contains the 40,000-acre (62.5 sq mi; 161.9 km2) Roy Taylor Forest located in Jackson County, southwest of and adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway, that it acquired in 1981. The rugged and scenic Tuckasegee Gorge is within the Roy Taylor Forest.This district is headquartered in Highlands, North Carolina. This ranger district was consolidated with the Wayah Ranger District in 2006 to form the Nantahala Ranger District. This ranger district is now headquartered in Franklin, NC. This makes the consolidated district now the largest.
The 158,348-acre (247.4 sq mi; 640.8 km2) Tusquitee Ranger District is no longer the largest district and is located in Cherokee and Clay County,Clay and Graham counties as well. The district's features include the Hiawassee River, Jackrabbit Mountain as well as Lake Chatuge, Lake Hiawassee, Lake Appalachia. All the lakes on or bordering the Tusquitee Ranger District are managed by TVA. Tusquitee is Cherokee for "where the water dogs laughed." The highest point on the district is Tusquitee Bald (5,280 feet (1,609 m)) located in Clay County. This Tusquitee Ranger District is headquartered in Murphy, North Carolina.
The Cheoah Ranger District has 120,110 acres (187.7 sq mi; 486.1 km2) in Graham and Swain counties. These lands adjoin four large mountain reservoirs and contain numerous streams. Cheoah is the Cherokee word for "otter." The Appalachian Trail winds through the Cheoah Ranger District after leaving the Nantahala Ranger District on its way to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This district's features includes the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and part of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness and is headquartered in Robbinsville, North Carolina.
The Wayah Ranger District (Now named Nantahala Ranger District), named after the Cherokee Indian word meaning "wolf," contains 133,894 acres (209.2 sq mi; 541.8 km2) adjacent to the Cherokee Indian Reservation in Macon, Swain, and Jackson counties. The district is headquartered in Franklin, North Carolina. The Appalachian Trail enters the Wayah Ranger District from Georgia. This district's features include the 5,499-foot (1,676.10 m) Standing Indian Mountain, the Nantahala Gorge and Wayah Bald.
Three Wilderness areas are located within the Nantahala National Forest. Ellicott Rock Wilderness is located near Highland, North Carolina at the intersection of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, with 3,900 acres (16 km²) in the North Carolina portion. The Southern Nantahala Wilderness includes 10,900 acres (17.0 sq mi; 44.1 km2) in the North Carolina portion and lies in the Tusquitee and Wayah Ranger Districts. Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness which includes another 13,100 acres (53.0 km2) in North Carolina. These wilderness areas provide an opportunity for solitude in a rugged, natural setting. The Forest manages two Off - Highway Vehicle areas. The most famous being Tellico OHV area located on the Tusquitee Ranger District an additional OHV areas is located on the Highlands Ranger District (Nantahala Ranger District). Many miles of trout water exist on the forest.
The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest within the National Forest was dedicated on July 30, 1936 to poet Joyce Kilmer.
Several areas of old-growth forest have been identified in the Nantahala National Forest, totaling some 30,800 acres (125 km2). The Joyce Kilmer Wilderness in particular contains nearly 6,000 acres (24 km2) of old-growth forest.