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A hike along the Cherokee Medicine Trail in Robbinsville
could be just what the doctor ordered

Need something for an early spring sore throat? Be on the lookout for spicewood. How about a cure-all for everything from the common cold to a major stomachache? Ginseng would be just the thing. These plants and more can be found along the Cherokee Medicine Trail, which displays an entire range of pharmaceuticals and is a testament to American Indian culture and the healing power of plants.

Located in western North Carolina, in the Graham County seat of Robbinsville, the Cherokee Medicine Trail is well worth the drive--and the walk. This fascinating two-section trail totals only a quarter-mile or so, but it can actually take hours to complete and its healing power may be felt for much longer.

“It’s amazing how popular the trail is, since we don’t do any advertising and it’s all word-of-mouth,” says T.J. Holland, manager of the Junaluska Museum, where both the Cherokee Medicine Trail and the Junaluska Memorial Site are also located. “People really seem to enjoy it.”

Healing Plants

Medicinal plants used by the Cherokee people make for fascinating reading or research--and trail walking. In their fascinating small book, Cherokee Plants and Their Uses--A 400 Year History, Paul B. Hamel and Mary U. Chiltoskey write, “The Cherokees as a group have enjoyed an intimate and beneficial relationship with their environment for centuries. Nature and natural things filled the people’s day to day life.”

The authors outline a wide variety of plants and their uses, even providing a massive 40-page summary  listing many of the plants that can be viewed on the Medicine Trail. This list is a compilation of 12 sources spanning three centuries, from a 1740s journal by Antoine Bonnefoy to interviews on the Qualla Boundary (commonly called the Cherokee Indian Reservation) by Chiltoskey from 1942-1973.

In the book, Hamel and Chiltoskey also reprint an interesting excerpt from The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees, written by James Mooney of the United States Bureau of American Ethnology in 1891. In the excerpt, called “Origin of Disease and Medicine,” Mooney tells a story that outlines the importance of the medicine man (or shaman) and even provides a formula for treating rheumatism (boil the roots of six unique plants and apply  warm to hands for four nights).

Research by Mooney and others revealed that medicine men typically knew 300-400 medicinal plants and their special uses and the accumulated knowledge of several medicine men in a village might reach 800 or more plants. He wrote that Cherokees often used plants to heal wounds and ailments, but would consult a medicine man if their home remedies didn’t work. According to Mooney, the medicine man could even tell if the illness was real or just in his patient’s mind.

The Trail

The Medicine Trail was completed and opened to the public in the fall of 2002 and each season sees more bountiful growth of a wide variety of plants. Visitors can park by the museum, located on a peaceful hillside just off Robbinsville's Main Street, or further up the hill around the Junaluska Memorial (the trail has a moderate climb to it).

From either parking spot, it’s best to start the trail on the lower section. Near the beginning of the Lower Loop, a symbolic traditional “Medicine Wheel” is displayed and described. The medicine wheel symbolizes the seven basic directions  -- north, south, east, west, above, below, and within -- as well as the powerful effects of spiritual medicine.

For physical medicine, the living examples of medicinal plants and their accompanying descriptions and various uses are what make this trail so fascinating. Approximately 75 varieties of plants can be found along the trail, and 34 (and counting) of them are marked and described. Holland says about half of the plants were already growing along the hillside when the museum came up with the idea for the trail, and those who tend the trail try to keep non-native and invasive plants out of the area.

Along the path, visitors may find yellow root, which makes a poultice for sore eyes; jewelweed, which has juice in its blossoms that cures poison ivy; sassafras, a blood purifier; joe pye weed, which helps with kidney trouble; rattlesnake plantain, good for a toothache; doll’s eye, which soothes itchy skin; hydrangea, recommened for kidney stones; persimmon, which treats diarrhea and dysentery; wood fern, a remedy for rheumatism; and wild ginger, which treats colic.

Other interesting tidbits are often included in the plant descriptions. For instance, American Indians often used black birch for sore throats, but they also would cut off small branches to use as toothbrushes.

An overview at the beginning of the trail's Lower Loop lets visitors know that combinations and concoctions of two or more plants were often used to heal certain illnesses and that “We do not advise of recommend use of herbal medicines unless under supervision of experiences persons.” In other words--don’t try this at home.

Along with the plants and descriptions, there are ten benches along the trail that are dedicated to deceased members of the Snowbird Community, a nearby Cherokee enclave. Trail walkers can learn, for instance, about Snowbird resident Maggie Wachacha, who was recognized as a “Beloved Woman” (the highest honor a Cherokee woman can achieve), attended the 1910 Junaluska Memorial ceremony , and practiced herbal medicine throughout her life.

The Lower Loop leads uphill to the Upper Loop, where more plants, descriptions, and memorial benches await. There’s another symbolic medicine wheel at the start of the Upper Trail as well.

The site also has three apple trees of special interest. These were donated by Clemmons resident, Tom Brown, who has a love of vintage apples and re-discovered a variety called Junaluska. “The Junaluska makes an excellent apple pie,” he says. “It’s subtle rich flavor goes perfectly with the teaspoon of cinnamon I include.”

Community Effort

Building the Cherokee Medicine Trail was a community effort involving many Robbinsville citizens, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, and the North Carolina Arts Council. It also wouldn’t have been built without the help of an organization called Junaluska’s Friends

“The trail was the brainchild of myself and Iva Rattler and was really a labor of love for many members of Junaluska’s Friends,” says Robbinsville resident Jim Bowman. “About ten committed members were involved with the construction of the trail, which continues to involve hundreds of hours of labor by volunteers throughout the year.”  In fact, one of the resting benches along the trail recognizes Dan and Dinah Gloyne, who were primarily responsible for the formation of Junaluska’s Friends and, ultimately, the museum and the trail.

The Medicine Trail is the third part of an interesting Cherokee trio in Robbinsville. Constructed in 1997, the Junaluska Memorial Site features seven granite monuments for each of the Cherokee clans--each monument tells about the life and achievements of Junaluska, the revered leader of the Snowbird Clan. The monument surrounds a large rock plaque erected in 1910 to mark the gravesite of Junaluska who was buried there in 1858.

Just down the hill, the Junaluska Museum--which opened in 2001--has many highlights worth exploring while visiting the area: an original flint and striker attributed to Junaluska for his fire-making; a display of replica and original arrowheads, some of which date back 3,000 to 10,000 years; and a display of traditional rivercane baskets. Visitors should also ask about viewing a fascinating video produced by Friends of Junaluska that features interviews with more than a dozen elders from the Snowbird Community.

Located on Cherokee land, the trail, the monument, and the museum are all part of the Cherokee Heritage Trail System. “This is a very popular stop for those interested in the Cherokee culture and the trail makes it even more interesting,” says Judy Jones, head of Graham County Travel & Tourism.

But just walking the Medicine Trail can actually be quite healing. Whether it’s communing with nature, learning about the Cherokee people through words and pictures, or simply reading about the usages of various medicinal plants, this is a trail that brings hope instead of tears.

If You're Going

Cherokee Medicine Trail
Junaluska Memorial Site
1 Junaluska Drive
Robbinsville, NC 28771
(828) 479-4727
Museum hours: April-October, Monday through Saturday, 7:45am-4:30pm; November to March, Monday through Friday, 7:45am-4:30pm.
The Cherokee Medicine Trail and Junaluska Memorial Site are open for exploration anytime