Esther Blakely, owner of Cataloochee Valley Tours, never planned to start a business. Yet she has successfully turned her passion into a success.

The idea to start the business came to Blakely while volunteering with the Elk Bugle Corps in the Cataloochee Valley. She was asked the same question over and over again from visitors to the area.

“The visitors who reach the valley are white-faced and white-knuckled from the drive over the mountain,” she says. “The number one question we receive is ‘Is that the only road out of here?’”

After hearing this question repeatedly, Blakely started thinking, would these visitors like to have someone bring them in here and relieve the stress of that crazy mountain drive?

Blakely is a Certified Master Naturalist through the University of Florida. In addition, she is a certified interpretive presenter who incorporates responsible and ethical wildlife viewing practices. She practices and promotes Leave No Trace.

“Nature nourishes me,” Blakeley explains. “I hope my tours help my guests make a deeper connection with nature thereby, nourishing them too.”

The mission of Cataloochee Valley Tours is to provide memorable nature-based eco-tours by utilizing responsible and environmentally friendly business practices.

In starting Cataloochee Valley Tours, Blakely says one of the biggest obstacles was how to price the tours. After finding out about Haywood Community College’s Small Business Center in a local paper, she turned to the center for help.

“A Small Business Center workshop on ‘How to Price Your Product’ helped bring my business out of the red and into the black. Attending other free workshops through the center have also been extremely beneficial.”

The HCC Small Business Center offers a wealth of seminars designed to address the needs of both existing and budding business owners. If you have thought of owning a business, are preparing to launch a new venture or are currently a business owners these workshops are an excellent opportunity to add business skills to your toolbox for success.

“Esther is an excellent example of true entrepreneurial spirit. She has taken her passion for the mountains of Western North Carolina and used it as inspiration to build a successful agritourism business that not only inspires tour goers, but generates awareness of our natural resources,” said Katy Gould, Director of the Haywood Community College Small Business Center.

This year marks Cataloochee Valley Tours’ sixth year in business. For 2014 and 2015, the business has received the certificate of excellence from TripAdvisor. It was featured in Southern Living Magazine as one of the top 10 secrets of the Smokies. Officially authorized by the National Park Service, Blakely operates hiking and guide services throughout the park.

Cataloochee Valley Tours is open year round and offers several guided eco-tours. Offerings include an Evening Elk Eco-Tour, Spring Wildflower Hike, and June Journey for a Synchronous Firefly Night Walk. Participants are transported by SUV over the mountain road to then be led by Blakeley on the tours.

Locals know that the Cataloochee Valley is steeped in history, laced with abundant wildflowers, and rich with wildlife. Through Cataloochee Valley Tours, this hidden gem is shared with all. Tours are available by appointment only and limited to five people per tour. To learn more, visit

Thinking about starting a business in Haywood County or growing an existing business? Take advantage of the programs, services and resources provided by the Small Business Center. The NC Community College’s Small Business Center Network assists in starting an average of more than 600 businesses each year. Small Business Centers have an economic impact in 90% of all NC Counties each year, helping to create and retain nearly 3,000 jobs annually. Visit or call 828.627.4512 for additional information.