Nantahala is an Indian name meaning "Land of the Noonday Sun." This name is most appropriate as the sun only reaches the floor of the deep gorges and valleys when directly overhead at midday.

The Spanish Conquistador, Hernando DeSoto, explored the area in 1540 and in 1920 the Forest was established. It is the largest of the four national forests in North Carolina, with elevations ranging from 1200 feet to 5800 feet at Lone Bald.