Highlands, North Carolina

Highlands, North Carolina

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

HIghlands Nature Center and entrance to Botanical Garden

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.


Sunset Rock

View from Sunset Rock in HIghlands

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.

Black bears at Sunset Rock

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

Horse Cove Poplar tree outside Highlands, North Carolina

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.

In Town

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

Whiteside Mountain

View of Whiteside Mountain

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

Silver Run Falls, south of Cashiers

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.

Whitewater Falls

Whitewater Falls

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.

Lake Glenville

Lake Glenville, north of Cashiers

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.

High Falls

High Falls near Lake Glenville

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.

Sequoyah Falls

Sequoyah Falls in HIghlands, North Carolina

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.

Dry Falls

Dry Falls outside Highlands

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

Glen Falls

Glen Falls near Highlands, North Carolina

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.

Scaly Mountain

Kids with fish

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.








Vacation Time: North to the Smokies and DC

Vacation Time: North to the Smokies and DC

Scrambling to get in a vacation before the first day of Kindergarten, we escaped the summer heat and pointed our car north, spending two weeks frolicking in the cold streams of North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains and the air conditioned museums of Washington, DC. If I captured a day-by-day journal of our travels, I’m afraid this blog would turn into a book, so instead I’ll share some of the highlights and memorable adventures.

Our Cabin

Alarka Creek Cabin 2

When the listing on our Alarka Creek Cabin said Bryson City as the location, I pictured a small cabin on a creek just on the outskirts of the town’s main street. However, when the directions arrived via email, we found ourselves driving deep into the woods 15 minutes from the nearest cell phone and Internet connections. I must admit, at first it took a little adjusting. But after a day or so of being completely unplugged, we began to relish in our daily duties of exploring the creek running through our backyard, collecting fireflies in the nearby field and passing away the evening playing board games. The giant black snake eating his dinner off our back porch was an added bonus for the kids as was the family of frogs living underneath the garden water hose.

Waterfall at Deep Creek in Great Smoky Mountain NP

The Views
As we stood on the Blue Ridge Parkway gazing at the fog hovering between the blue-shaded rows of mountains before us, we remembered what draws us back year after year. Perhaps those who live in these parts are accustomed to the daily beauty of the Smoky Mountains, but to a family growing up on the Gulf Coast’s flat horizon, it’s a rare and awe-inspiring site. It’s a place that spurs the imagination, where a walk through an old homestead creates amazement at the hardiness of early settlers and quick moving fog prompts a five-year-old’s questions as to where the smoke machine is located. Throw in a few magical waterfalls at Deep Creek, hikes through Joyce Kilmer’s old growth forest and displays of mad kayaking skills at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and you have the prime setting for a place where dreams are brought to life.


One of the many salamanders we found

After last year’s disappointment at not discovering a single salamander, a staffer at our favorite nature center in Highlands, NC, let us in on the secret. These shyest of creatures are found “under” the rocks, not on top. So low and behold, our five-year-old led us on daily excursions into icy cold streams to lift every accessible rock present. We were rewarded with countless salamanders, some black, some blue with spots and some so fast their color was a blur. Our best searching spots were at the end of the path leading out from Mingus Mill, in the pool at the base of Indian Creek Falls at Deep Creek, at the Highlands Botanical Garden and on the moist, loop trail behind the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center.

The City

Great Falls as seen from Maryland

We don’t often take our kids to big cities, for obvious reasons starting with their tendency to wander off on a whim. Yet, after previously living in DC, we felt comfortable shuffling them around the metro to some of our favorite haunts. To ease them into the transition from wilderness to concrete, we started off at Great Falls, where the Potomac River drops 77 feet in less than a mile. The walk along the C&O Canal reminded us of our wish to bike the entire 184.5 miles and started the wheels spinning on how old the kids would need to be before we could embark on this trip.

U.S. Capitol

Next, we were off to visit our old friend Abe, who despite recovering from a recent vandalism attempt, still sat as impressive as ever. On the opposite end, we walked the Capitol steps on our way to the Botanic Gardens, one of our all-time favorite places. Of course, there was the dinosaur exhibit at the Natural History Museum (twice!), the Carousel ride on the National Mall and a tour at my husband’s previous employment – The Phillips Collection (one of the best art museums NOT on the Mall).

Unexpected Finds
No matter how well you explore an area, there are always unexpected surprises that pop up in every trip. This time we ventured off the highway to Virginia’s Grayson Highlands State Park, where wild ponies run free and a hike through the forest leads to a rock outcrop with outstanding views of the state’s two highest mountains.  On the road there, we nearly missed the state’s Marion Fish Hatchery and made a quick u-turn to stop by. It was our lucky day, as a bear had ripped the feeder off the wall the night before, so instead of buying a handful of fish food for a quarter, we were rewarded with a whole bucket of food to feed every fish in the hatchery. The kids squealed as the fish splashed and jumped at the food, and our oldest found a new best friend in the manager who gave us a personal tour of the facility.


Monticello’s Gardens

Our other surprise was in Charlottesville, Va., where we stopped off for another look at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Years ago when we visited here, you could drive straight to the house, park beside the bookstore/gift shop and snap a few photos without even buying a tour ticket. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage Site greets visitors with an expansive entrance, complete with a movie, children’s Discovery Room, cafe and gift shop. The home itself is hidden from view, accessed by a shuttle ride up the hill. Despite our surprise, we paid the $24/person fee and embarked on a journey through his home and extensive gardens. If you’ve never been, it’s still well worth the visit to learn about this fascinating president.

Walled garden at the University of Virginia

Below his mountain, on the campus of the University of Virginia, we picnicked on the main lawn and then set off to investigate the walled gardens of the Academical Village. It was a private, magical place, where individual gates led from one small manicured garden to the next. Here, in the middle of campus, tiny bunnies raced across the grass to hide in thick bushes, and we found ourselves not able to stop exploring until we had found each and every garden.

A Few Parting Photos
Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Visitor Center at Smoky Mountains NP
One of our scenic hiking trails
And one of the beautiful creeks in the Smokies
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
Can you spot the salamander?
A tranquil pool at Great Falls


Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum
Abraham Lincoln Memorial


Feeding ducks by the reflecting pool and Washington Monument


Feeding the fish at the Fish Hatchery


Enjoying the view at Grayson Highlands


Early Summer Vacation: Great Smoky Mountains

Early Summer Vacation: Great Smoky Mountains

Occasionally our wanderings across Louisiana lead beyond the state’s border, taking us farther out into the rest of the country. Last week, we rooted our jackets out of the far reaches of the closet and kicked off the arrival of summer heat with a trip to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.

We’d been to this area a few times before, staying in cabins or a lodge along the Blue Ridge Parkway. This time, however, we landed a Groupon deal at Balsam Mountain Inn and spent five fantastic days there. The first overnight guests to the three-story inn arrived via railroad in 1908 and carried their trunks up the steep hill to the front porch Balsam Mountain Inn


More than 100 years later, the original 100 rooms have been converted into 50 rooms, each with private bathrooms, but the rustic charm still remained. Rows of rocking chairs graced the first and second story porches, providing a relaxing spot to sip wine and gaze out at the mountains. The inn offered neither TVs nor telephones, but a cozy library and armoires overflowing with puzzles and board games provided hours of entertainment. The kids loved the claw-foot tub and window seats in our third-floor suite, and I looked forward to waking up every morning to a phenomenal breakfast served in their bright and cheery dining room.

Our days were filled with short hikes, picnics beside mountain streams and, of course, bug-filled adventures. Every afternoon coffee cup was recycled as a bug catcher, and by the end of the week, 4-year-old Charles had lined our window seats with tadpoles, snails and butterflies. The cricket had become his best friend and was allowed to sit on his shoulder–walking back and forth across his back, while the salamanders were lucky enough to slither away.

Abandoned church in Cataloochee Valley

We explored the far reaches of the national park, driving up and over the mountains to enter the secluded Cataloochee Valley. Once home to a thriving community of 1,200 people, they all left in a mass exodus when the U.S. government began buying up land to form the national park. Today, their homes, churches and schoolhouse stand as quiet reminders of earlier times. Like others before us, we walked through the empty rooms, imagining the children’s laughter that once echoed in the halls. Our hike to one abandoned home led us across small footbridges, a splash through the river bed and down a trail frequented by wild turkeys.

Waterfall along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Another day’s adventures brought us to the waterfalls of Deep Creek, where countless locals and tourists were braving the excruciatingly freezing waters to glide down the river in inner tubes. We watched in amazement, comparing our attire of long jeans and long-sleeve shirts to their bathing suits, and shaking our heads, continued on to play beside the peaceful pool at the bottom of Indian Creek Falls.

Outside Brevard, we discovered the Cradle of Forestry–the birthplace of forest conservation in America, and afterwards the kids fed the hundreds of trout growing up in the Pisgah Forest Fish Hatchery down the road. Just beyond Cherokee, a visit to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill brought a fleeting longing for simpler days, followed by a new appreciation for the conveniences we have today.

On our final evening, we stood at the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway and watched the setting sun cast a brilliant glow over the famously hazy mountains. It was a trip to remember and one we’ll most likely take again to break up the long, hot days of a New Orleans’ summer.

Sunset over the Smoky Mountains