If you're looking for a place to enjoy cool breezes and high mountain scenery in the southeastern United States, it would be difficult to find a better destination than Highlands, North Carolina. According to RomanticAsheville.com, the "mountain resort town" has long been a favorite "mountain respite" for visitors to enjoy. There are many outdoor activities in and around Highlands, plus opportunities to enjoy fabulous shopping, dining, culture and art.
Getting to Highlands
While there isn't a way to get to Highlands directly by commercial airliner, the destination is less than a half day's drive from major southeastern cities that have major airports. By car, Highlands is less than three hours away from Atlanta, Georgia and Knoxville, Tennessee and it's less than four hours away from Charlotte, North Carolina.
Highlands is very close (day-trip distance) to a number of other popular tourist destinations in North Carolina, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Highlands is also an easy day-trip from North Georgia vacation destinations, like the towns of Dillard and Clayton.
Things to See and Do
A number of lovely waterfalls can be viewed along the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway, which is the stretch of U.S. 64 that goes from Franklin to Cashiers, North Carolina, with Highlands sitting pretty much directly in the middle. The Franklin Chamber of commerce provides a complete list of area waterfalls. Highlights include:
- Bridal Veil Falls is different. It is directly on Highway 64, and you can even drive your car directly beneath it. The size of the falls varies with the amount of rain the area has been getting; it will be most impressive just after a rain but is always beautiful.
- Dry Falls: Located about one mile away from Bridal Veil Falls, you'll find Dry Falls. While you will need to park and walk a bit to see this 75- foot waterfall, there is a designated parking area and you'll only need to take a short, easy stroll down a designated trail to get to the falls, which you can walk behind. There is even a wheelchair accessible observation area at the edge of the parking lot.
- Glen Falls: If you are willing to walk a little over a mile along a trail that HikeWNC.com describes as "more difficult" with a "moderately rough" trail, you'll be rewarded by views of this spectacular multi-tiered waterfall, the tallest of which reaches a height of 70 feet. HikeWNC.com states that Glen Falls is "one of the spectacular waterfalls of the Blue Ridge Escarpment."
Highlands offers numerous opportunities to enjoy being active in the great outdoors. Examples include:
- hiking trails in Highlands and the surrounding area, with options ranging from "easy" to "difficult" in terms of how strenuous they are to hike. Easy options include the two-mile round-trip Chattooga Loop Trail and the Chattooga Narrows Trail, which is just under three miles round-trip. The most difficult hike in the area is the Yellow Mountain Trail, which is almost ten miles round-trip on "one of the highest mountains in the Highlands Ranger District."
- Motorcycling: Motorcycle enthusiasts who enjoy riding in the mountains are sure to love the curvy and steep roads in and around Highlands. MotorcycleRoads.com states that the entire area surrounding Highlands is "a motorcyclist's paradise." The site particularly recommends the 19 mile stretch of Highway 64 between Franklin and Highlands, a stretch that falls within the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway.
- Fishing: If you are a fishing enthusiast, you will delight in the opportunity to go fishing in this area where you will have an opportunity to catch a few varieties of trout (rainbow, wild brook and brown). You can enjoy shoreline fishing or fly fishing. HighlandHiker is the sole fly fishing outfitter in Highlands. They offer a fly fishing guide service and lessons to individual or pairs of anglers. Note that you must have a state-issued fishing license to do any type of fishing.
- Zip Lining: If you want to get a view of the mountains from above, visit Highlands Aerial Park where you can enjoy a bird's eye view from a "world class zip line." Choose among a high and fast experience appropriate for the most adventurous visitors or the "Brave Indian" course which is suited for less daring adventurers, as well as kids and seniors. If you don't want to zip line yourself, you may enjoy watching the zip liners, something you can do at no cost from the park.
There is a thriving cultural community in the Highlands area. Be sure to enjoy:
- The Bascom: A Center for the Visual Arts is a Highlands attraction that you won't want to miss. The center features rotating exhibitions of both artists from the local area and "world-renowned artists," providing you with a way to see work completed in the area, as well as other displays that you'd typically expect to find in a larger urban setting. They also have a shop and offer workshops and classes for kids, adults and families on various arts-oriented topics such as ceramics, photography, drawing and more.
- Highlands Playhouse: During the summer months, you can enjoy live theater at the historic Highlands Playhouse, which is operated by the non-profit Highlands Community Theater, Inc. According to the group's website, Highlands Playhouse "is the oldest theatre in North Carolina." The group has been performing summer plays since 1938, in the same location, interrupting the schedule only for two years during World War II. Most recently, the group has added a 35-foot movie screen, which is used to show current and classic movies at various types throughout the year.
Though you won't find outlet malls or major retail stores here, there are plenty of places to shop in Highlands. There are great places to shop for antiques and art gallery items, as well as upscale boutiques, places to purchase gear to enjoy outdoor adventures in the area, spots to purchase necessities like hardware and food and much more. Plan to spend at least one day during your trip strolling through the shops of the downtown area.
Places to Eat
As with many resort areas, you'll find plenty of wonderful places to eat in Highlands. Options range from upscale and elegant to casual and family-friendly; a list of most dining options can be found on the website for the Highlands North Carolina Chamber of Commerce. A few great options to try include:
- Wolfgang's Restaurant and Wine Bistro: Visit Wolfgang's Restaurant and Wine Bistro on Highlands' Main Street restaurant to enjoy exquisite cuisine from Chef Wolfgang Green, who was formerly employed as executive chef with a top New Orleans restaurant. This is an ideal spot for romantic dinners - including engagements - and other special occasions, or just to enjoy a gourmet meal in an upscale setting while on vacation. Entrees range from just under $20 to more than $40 per person. The restaurant is Highlands' top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor and has received recognition from Southern Living and Wine Spectator. It was also recognized by readers of The Highlander as the "best restaurant" and for having the "best wine list."
- Mountain Fresh Grocery & Wine Market: For a more casual experience, visit Mountain Fresh Grocery & Wine Market, where you'll find an eat-in and takeout restaurant tucked inside an upscale gourmet market-type supermarket. Ranked in the top ten places to eat in Highlands on TripAdvisor, this is a great spot to enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner. Breakfast sandwiches are $4 or less and you can get complete breakfast meals for under $10. They offer wood fire and New York style pizzas ranging from $11 to $20 depending on size, as well as a variety of grill items like burgers, hot dogs, fresh fish, salads and more - all for under $11.
While you won't find big-name hotels in Highlands, there are a number of charming places to stay in the resort community. Highlights include:
- Old Edwards Inn and Spa: Sitting firmly at the top spot on TripAdvisor's list of the best places to stay in Highlands, the Old Edwards Inn and Spa is an upscale "European style resort" that offers numerous upscale amenities (including a full-service spa, outdoor heated mineral pools and golfing) in the middle of the town's vibrant downtown area, where you'll find excellent shopping, dining, and cultural experiences. The property has received numerous "awards and accolades" over the years, including recognition as a top spa hotel and top business hotel in the Condé Nast Traveler's Readers Choice awards. Sister-property 200 Main by Old Edwards opened in the summer of 2014 and offers a more casual atmosphere than the inn.
- Highlands Inn is a 31-room historic hotel often referred to by locals "as the Crown Jewel of Highlands." It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Some of the rooms are in the original historic inn (which has been operating for more than 130 years), while others are in newer parts of the property. Each room is uniquely decorated; you can choose the suite that best meets your needs when making reservations, based on availability. The property is open from April through November and is an ideal spot for those who enjoy cozy, intimate accommodations, as it is small by hotel standards and large for a bed and breakfast.
There are a few great camping spots near Highlands ideal for tenters, and there are a few options for people with small RVs that are not concerned with electricity or hookups.
- Van Hook Glade is beautiful but has fewer than 20 sites, no hook-ups and no electricity. It is an ideal spot for those who really want to get back to nature and is about four miles from Highlands. This campground is best suited for tent campers. A few of the campsites will work with RVs under 34 feet, though Recreation.gov indicates that a "sharp curve inside (the) campground loop may make maneuvering an RV difficult." Registered guests can use the day-use facilities at nearby Cliffside Lake Recreation Area at no additional charge. It is open annually from April 1 through October 31.
- Blue Valley Dispersed Camping: If you're looking for a hike-in camping experience, Blue Valley Dispersed Camping is a good option. Located on National Forest Service land, this camping area has 22 dispersed campsites that require campers to backpack in and out. Pit toilets are available, and many of the sites have picnic tables and rings campers can be used to build fires. This camping area is located a little less than six miles outside of Highlands and is open all year.
- RV Alternatives: There are no campgrounds in the immediate Highlands area for those who have large RVs, nor would you want to drive a large RV on the road to Highlands. For people in those situations, the Highlands Chamber of Commerce recommends Franklin RV Park in Franklin, North Carolina and River Vista RV Resort in Dillard, Georgia. Both facilities are very nice; it takes about an hour to drive to Highlands from Franklin and a little less from Dillard.
Wonderful Mountain Escape
Once you visit Highlands for the first time, you'll quickly come to understand what makes this small mountain community appeal to visitors who often return to the area again and again, and why some (like Forrest Gump author Winston Groom) decide to make the high mountain town their home.