At the place Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina all meet, surrounded by Nantahala National Forest within the famed Blue Ridge Mountains, adventure awaits. The appropriately-named mountain town of Highlands, North Carolina sits 4,118 feet above sea level and is the highest town east of the Mississippi River. The perfect mountain retreat, Highlands boasts incredible views for hiking enthusiasts and five-star restaurants, shopping and spa experiences for everyone else.
Though the population swells from 1,000 to 18,000 in the summer from Southerners looking for respite from the heat, Highlands fully experiences all four seasons and is worth the three-hour drive from Atlanta no matter the time of year.
We’re going to assume that if you’re headed to Highlands, hiking is in the cards. With trails for beginners to experts, there are dozens and dozens of waterfalls and majestic panoramic views to suit your every need, many within five miles of downtown. Start the day with an easy, half-mile hike to Dry Falls at the Cullasaja River. Hence the name, hikers can stay miraculously dry on a path that goes behind the waterfall.
Located only three miles outside of town is the popular Glen Falls triple waterfall, featuring multiple scenic stops along the two-mile round-trip path. Getting to the base of the 145-foot falls requires a little determination, but is worth the effort. We also recommend ascending Whiteside Mountain, which peaks at 4,930 feet and is on the eastern continental divide. Geologists guesstimate Whiteside to be between 360 and 490 million years old, making it one of the oldest mountains in the entire world. Not into hiking but love the view? Take a drive three miles outside of town to Bridal Veil Falls, where the road actually passes underneath the waterfall (the only one on North Carolina!).
If you’re one of those “The mountain is calling, so I must climb it” people, be sure to check out Granite City. It’s a tumbled mass of giant boulders. But wait, it’s cool, you can climb them! This is a popular bouldering area, so at very least, go watch the local crazies have fun.
After all that mountainous fun, reward yourself with personalized ice cream from SweeTreats Deli. Starting with a base of chocolate or vanilla, blend in whatever tickles your fancy: fresh fruit, chocolate, candies, nuts – go nuts!
If your visit coincides with football season, The Ugly Dog Pub is the perfect place to cheer on your Saturday or Sunday favorite. Whether you’re there for lunch (try the Ugly Dog guacamole burger, topped with chips!) or the 3:30 p.m. game (loaded tater tots), the elevated bar food is extremely satisfying. Be one of those cool people who always try the local brew and order the Bryson City Brown from Nantahala Brewing. Don’t let the dark brown color scare you, it’s actually a smooth, chocolatey lighter beer.
If the weather is uncooperative, or you just need a little break from the great outdoors, The Bascom Center for the Visual Arts offers a plethora of exhibits and activities for all ages. The beautiful rustic exterior resembles a barn, but you won’t find any livestock inside; just gorgeous, locally-made artwork on display in an exhibit gallery. Consider taking one of the many workshops in everything from photography to woodturning to ceramics, if you’re staying a few days.
For a luxurious European-inspired dinner, try the adorable Meritage Bistro or Madison’s inside the Old Edwards Inn for farm-to-table elegance. If you haven’t had your fill of the outdoors, be sure to consider the southern classic cuisine served al fresco at The Wine Garden. With a view of both a waterfall and a large-screen TV, it’s the epitome of patio dining.
On your way out of town, stop at nearby Cashiers, just on the other side of the mountain. The Village Green offers a charming playground for little travelers who may need to work off some energy prior to hitting the road. For big travelers with similar problems, make your way up to Whitewater Falls. At 811 feet, these falls are the highest east of the Rocky Mountains. The Upper Falls plummet 411 feet; catch the Lower Whitewater Falls downstream in the Jocassee Gorges area in South Carolina.
Stay: Old Edwards Inn gets all the attention, but for a (much) better price point, check out the Wells Hotel. Previously the Chandler Inn, this super cute boutique hotel was recently renovated and located a short walk from Main Street, but still retains mountain charm.
Taste: Mountain Fresh Grocery offers a little bit of everything, but we love their upscale, seasonal dinners-to-go. The menu changes weekly; Monday through Friday brings a different hot, ready-to-eat meal that can be picked up between 4:30 and 7:30 p.m.
Shop: The gift shop arm of the museum, The Bascom Shop offers the opportunity to purchase unique pieces of art and crafts created by local artisans. It’s the perfect way to support the local art scene and buy the perfect one-of-a-kind Christmas gift for your most finicky friend.Stroll: Located along the Bascom Nature Trail, the Read2Me Story Walk offers a creative take on hiking with kids by adding “reading stops” throughout the hike. The trail is easy on little legs, and the frequent stops to read different pages from Carol Diggory Shields’ The Bugliest Bug keeps less-enthusiastic outdoorsmen interested.