Though it’s evolved over the years, the focal point of the center remains the old Walasi-Yi Inn (pronounced Wa La See Yee) built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) between 1934-37 on the site of an old tea room and inn previously owned by the Pfister-Vogel Land Company.
This site on Blood Mountain (elevation 4458) was known as Frogtown Gap until the completion of the highway around 1924, when it was changed to Neel (or Neel’s) Gap to honor the highway engineer. It’s been suggested that Walasi was a great mythical frog in Cherokee lore who was the chief of the animal council and made his home high on this gap. The CCC inn and restaurant operated until the 1960s and the structure fell into disrepair. Slated for demolition in the 1970s, it was saved by locals. The Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center building is also significant as the only place the Appalachian Trail passes through a structure over its 2100+ miles.
These days, you’re likely to be greeted by one of the center’s famous tabby cats, who seem to have no care in the world and don’t mind the hoardes of tourists and hikers passing through. Since 1983, the center has been an outfitter and store known as Mountain Crossings at Neel Gap.
Appalachian Trail stickers and kitsch are evident everywhere here. One of my favorites is the “Cell Phone Booth”, an old pay telephone booth minus the telephone, that was left behind to afford hikers a covered spot to use their cell phones in this often wet locale.
Hikers who have done 30 miles on the trail leave their worn out boots and shoes in an old tree at the center. Those who have completed at least 500 miles can hang their shoes and packs inside to inspire other hikers.