We might be headed into winter, but with today’s 80 degree temperature in New Orleans, it reminds me of our late summer vacations to North Carolina. Nearly every August, we make a last ditch effort to escape the heat in Highlands, North Carolina. Just over the border from Georgia, Highlands is right at 9 hours from New Orleans. And at an elevation of 4,117 feet, the town is always a good 20 degrees cooler than home. Aside from the climate, Highlands is known for its proximity to waterfalls and hiking trails. (And upscale shopping and top-rated spas and restaurants, for those looking for a different type of vacation!)
We tend to go the outdoors route while in town, staying at an Airbnb on the outskirts of town and spending our days salamander hunting in streams. After years of visiting, we’ve perfected our itinerary to hit all of our favorite spots.
A Day in Highlands
Highlands Nature Center
One of our top choices in Highlands is the Nature Center and Botanical Garden. We normally head straight there on the morning of our first day. You can find it by following Main Street east until it turns into Horse Cove Road. The Nature Center features exhibits identifying local animals – both alive (such as the turtles and snakes in aquariums) and stuffed (a wall of birds and a black bear). It’s a good place to learn how to find salamanders and how to identify the area’s wide-ranging rocks and gems.
Once you exit the back of the Nature Center, you can pick up the trail in the Botanical Garden. The Wetland Zone brings you to a small lake with a boardwalk over a bog. Often, lily pads are blooming here and frogs can be heard (and sometimes seen). Our favorite trail follows a small creek through the Woodland Zone, ending at a waterfall perfectly sized for exploration. This is a hot spot for salamander hunting, as many of the amphibians can be found resting underneath rocks in the cold water.
Offering beautiful views anytime of day, Sunset Rock is a must for any trip to Highlands. The road/trail begins across from the Nature Center. On our first few visits to Highlands, we would drive up to the top. There’s limited parking but we always managed to find a spot. This last year, however, deep ruts in the road made it nearly impassable by car. It’s a short, half-hour hike up, though, with parking at the base of the road.
You never know what to expect when you arrive at the top. One year, the entire area was lit by votive candles and we saw the sweetest wedding proposal take place. Another year, a mama bear and her two cubs wandered up the side of the mountain, straight up to a couple taking a nap on the rocky ledge. We all hightailed it off the mountain that day, with my youngest screaming, “We’re going to be eaten alive!”
Horse Cove Poplar Tree
Continue out of town on Horse Cove Road, and after a series of hairpin turns, you’ll get to Rich Gap Road on your right. About 200 feet up Rich Gap, you’ll see a sign on your left and a trail to your right leading to a giant poplar tree. The Bob Padgett Poplar Tree is around 400 years old and various accounts list it as the second or third largest poplar tree in the country.
Back in town, we usually allot a few hours for visiting the Highlands Historical Society Museum and shopping at our favorite stores. We first stop by Calders Coffee Cafe for an iced coffee to go. Then we split up and conquer. Our top spots are Kilwins for fudge and chocolate goodies to bring home to family, the Spice and Tea Exchange for amazing smell discoveries (try the Emperor’s Chai), the Toy Store for loads of browsing and excruciating decision-making, Colonel Mustard’s for a tasting journey of a lifetime (no kids allowed though), Silver Eagle Gallery for megalodon teeth, the always enjoyable used bookstore The Bookworm, and Highlands Hiker for all the hiking materials you could ever want.
We tend to steer clear of restaurants, as our youngest has an aversion to sitting in a chair for more then 17 seconds at a time. But we have managed to try a few casual places in Highlands, such as the gourmet pizza at Mountain Fresh Grocery, The PIzza Place of Highlands (see a theme?), burgers from the Ugly Dog Pub (we get these to go and picnic by Harris Lake Park), and Mexican at El Manzanillo (although I have to say it drives me crazy that Restaurant is misspelled on their sign!). More often than not, though, we stop by Bryson’s Food Store, Dusty’s Rhodes Superette, and August Produce to pick up groceries to cook back at our Airbnb.
East to Cashiers
Take U.S. 64 east to head to the nearby artsy town of Cashiers. Along the way, look for signs for Whiteside Mountain. It’s a steep, two-mile loop with some gorgeous views at the top. Peregrine falcons use the rock ledges for nesting sites, and you can sometimes see them flying about. There is also a nice viewpoint on Highway 64, but it’s best to stop on your way back from Cashiers as the pull-off is more easily accessible then.
Silver Run Falls
One of our favorite waterfalls, Silver Run Falls is south of Cashiers on NC-107. A short hike leads to the 25-foot tall waterfall with a bone-chilling swimming pool at its base. The boys have braved the chilly water, but I prefer to wade in the shallow edges or sun on one of the large rocks. We always find salamanders here in the cliff face near the falls, and on nearly every trip, we’ve located at least one snake curled up in the sun or slithering across the creek flowing away from the pool. There are even small crawfish lurking in the sand if you look hard enough to find them.
Continue south on NC-107 and enter South Carolina before turning back north to reach Whitewater Falls. Watch the signs as it can be tricky finding where to turn once in South Carolina. Dropping 811 feet, Whitewater Falls is the highest waterfall east of the Rockies. A 1/4-mile walkway leads to a view of the upper falls, while the lower falls can be accessed via a steep, half-mile trail. If you have some extra time in the day, you might want to visit the Walhalla State Fish Hatchery in South Carolina. The boys love to feed the fish and watch them jump and vie for the food, so we always try to squeeze in a fish hatchery wherever we go.
North of Cashiers on NC-107 brings you past Lake Glenville. It’s one of the few places you’ll find warm water to swim in. We like to stop at the Pines Recreation Area at the north side of the reservoir. Here, we can swim in a shallow swimming area, fish from the fishing pier and enjoy a nice picnic.
Across the street from the Pines Recreation Area is a parking lot by the trailhead for High Falls. The 3/4-mile trail down countless stairs is not too bad, but be prepared for some strenuous hiking going back up. The view at the bottom is well worth the hike, though, and there are plenty of large rocks to climb around on. A few days a year, Duke Energy opens the dam to allow more water to flow over the waterfall. It becomes a rushing river down below, giving whitewater kayakers a rare treat.
Northwest to Franklin
If you take Highway 64 west, you’ll have a leisurely drive from Highlands to Franklin. The town of Franklin is known for gem mining and features a Gem & Mineral Museum (as well as a Scottish Tartans Museum!). There’s also an Indian Mound right off Main Street. The drive from Highlands to Franklin runs along the Cullasaja River for much of the way and offers several spots to pull over and view the area’s beauty.
Lake Sequoyah Falls is more of an overflow from a dam than actual falls, but it’s still a nice site to stop and take a photo of. It’s right on the edge of HIghland’s city limits, so if you’re heading out of town, you’ll need to look back to spot it. Shortly past Lake Sequoyah, you’ll come to Bridal Veil Falls on your right. At one time, cars were allowed to drive underneath the roadside attraction, but now you need to park and walk over to it.
The next pullover (on your left) will be for Dry Falls. As you walk down the path, you’ll hear the falls before you see them. They plummet 75 feet over the cliff. Take the walkway all the way around behind the falls, giving you a whole new perspective. Farther down the road, Bust Your Butt Falls is a local swimming hole where the bravest swimmers enjoy a very bumpy rock slide or jump off the cliff into the pool below. The hardest falls to spot is the Cullasaja Falls between Bust Your Butt Falls and the town of Franklin. It’s easier to see on your return trip from Franklin.
Southwest to Scaly Mountain
Water gushes down a series of three waterfalls at Glen Falls, with a trail leading to four viewpoints along the way. The hike down is easy, bringing you from the top of the waterfall to the base. The kids normally fly past the upper waterfall, taking a brief glance before make their way to the favorite middle waterfall. Here, we normally let them skirt the viewing deck and go exploring on the rocks. They stay close to the wall face where every tiny crevice seems to hide a salamander peeking out. The walk back up, though, always elicits quite a few groans. And we’re all a bit winded by the time we make it back to the car.
The trout pond at the Scaly Mountain Outdoor Center is generally on our itinerary each year when we travel to Highlands. It’s perfect for young kids without the patience to fish for hours, as you’re pretty much guaranteed to leave with as many trout as you want to pay to catch. They’ll even clean them for you there if you don’t want or have a place to do it yourself. While we go for the fishing, the main attraction at the Outdoor Center is the tubing, available in both summer and winter.