I love finding small mountain towns with plenty to do all day but quietly peaceful all night. I had found delicious coffee, found some cool items while shopping, and ate my heart out. Just past sunset, sitting on the balcony overlooking Main Street, I realized there wasn’t another soul in sight and barely any vehicles on the road. Yes, I liked that a lot.
The captivating town of Highlands isn’t exactly a secret but it’s definitely a hidden destination. Located over an hour from the nearest interstate you have to want to find the town. Bob Kieltkya, director of the local Chamber of Commerce, pointed out, “Highlands isn’t on the way to anywhere. It’s the destination. People find Highlands and they stay here.”
That is exactly what I did for three days in late spring 2019. I’m a road tripper so I had passed through Highlands twice before while exploring Western North Carolina. But this was my first time to slow down, stop, and spend some earnest time in the town. Here is what I discovered while exploring, shopping, and dining in downtown Highlands, North Carolina.
Did you know? Highlands was founded in 1875 by Truman Kelsey and Clinton Carter Hutchinson. They believed this located in the middle of the largest population centers in the east would become valuable one day.
The traffic light intersection at Main Street and Fourth Street is the “center” of downtown Highlands. It’s one of the few traffic lights in town because they’re just not really needed. Out of town visitors swarm Highlands almost year-round now but it’s still a small, quiet town with clocks I swear run just a little slower than anywhere else.
I’ll never forget my first time seeing Main Street in Highlands. It’s a bit iconic. The two-way traffic splits around angled parking in the middle. Overflowing flower baskets hung from the utility poles, railings, and windows. Either side of the street was lined with unique storefronts, inns, and churches.
The wide brick sidewalks afforded an easy walkability. Even at the peak of pedestrian traffic it was easy to walk the streets and explore the shops. Alcoves beckoned me to wander off the street and explore even more shops.
Highlands is a very southern town. By 6pm most of the shops in downtown had closed up and the owners gone home to their family. That first evening I took a walk along the street about an hour before sunset and found it delightfully devoid of people or cars. I’m not anti-social, mind you, I just enjoy a town that knows when it call it a day.
When you travel what do you like to shop for? Before you finish reading this head down the bottom and leave me a comment! I’d love to know what people look for when visiting a destination.
The first shop I hopped into was the Highland Hiker. It’s now owned and operated by the second generation of Wilkes and they couldn’t be happier to be there. Located inside a Joe Webb log cabin at one end of Main Street the retail shop is a really great place to start any outdoor adventure in Highlands. They have clothing, shoes, hiking gear, and fly-fishing equipment. I also found the owners, Chris and Hilary, along with the staff to be a pretty good Alternate Visitor Center to Highlands.
Looking for some new threads? Highlands is a great town for picking out a new outfit. Rosenthal’s Boutique features designer clothing for women, TJ Baily’s offers designer sportswear for men, and Nancy’s Fancys and The Exchange for Men caters to both men and women under one roof. All the shops have an eclectic blend ranging from plaid wool shirts to fine cashmere, an interesting mix that seemed to define Highlands.
Dutchman’s Designs is one of those stores that makes me want to buy a mountain home just so I could decorate it. I wonder how many people come to Highlands and do just that? The store features rustic and modern décor and furnishings for every room in the house. Not everything is giant pieces of furniture, though; they have lots of small items that could easily fit in your car when you go home.
Mountain Heritage is about as close as you’ll get to a gift shop in Highlands and that’s alright. This quirky little shop has all kinds of trendy gift items that lean more toward a great Christmas gift than a simple tourist trinket.
Out of all these, though, my favorite discover was the local used bookstore, The Bookworm. Come on you know how much I love bookstores! It’s located in the shopping center between Highland Hiker and Highland Hiker Shoes. I bought a used copy of Strangers in High Places: The Story of the Great Smoky Mountains by Michael Frome. Has anyone read this?
From morning ‘til night I never went without a great meal in Highlands. The only fast food joint in this town was Subway and a deli at a local gas station and I loved that! Time to delve into some fantastic local cuisine.
Calders Coffee Café was my first breakfast in town. Their coffee was delicious and the premade breakfast sandwich wasn’t bad at all. The table in the lower seating area was the perfect place for me to get a little work done before starting my day of adventure in downtown Highlands. My last breakfast at Blue Bike Café wasn’t bad either; a delicious sausage and cheese biscuit that melted in my mouth.
The biggest breakfast in Highlands is made-to-order from Mountain Fresh Grocery. Eggs, sausage, hashbrowns, oh my it was a great start to the day! They also have a pretty good coffee and espresso bar. While they had some great selections I went with the Mountain Fresh Shake: espresso, chocolate, and ice cream. The interesting grocery store, complete with a wine market, enormous cheese selection, and snack foods, also came with a shopping mall-style food courtyard. Pizzas are cooked up fresh along with baked bread at one kiosk while another served made-to-order meals all day. The cheeseburger and fries I had for dinner one night is now a contender for best burger I’ve ever eaten.
Madison’s Restaurant, located at Main Street and Fourth Street, is the perfect place to grab lunch. They offer salads, flatbread pizzas, and burgers along with a selection of wine by the glass. Sit outside in the Wine Garden to really enjoy the day in Highlands.
I’ve been to The Ugly Dog Pub twice now and each time enjoyed fantastic food, great service, and an exciting atmosphere. When I visited this time, I delved into their Bourbon BBQ Sandwich with tater tots. I love that they offer tater tots as a side! They also have a pretty great selection of craft beers so you just might find a new favorite.
Where to Stay
If you wanted to spend some time exploring, shopping, and dining in downtown Highlands you could stay at The Park on Main, Main Street Inn, or the Old Edwards Inn. Each of these have high quality accommodations and amenities.
During my stay in Highlands I had a rather nice room at 200 Main. The property used to be an older hotel before the Old Edwards Hospitality Group purchased the property, renovated the existing buildings, and added two more. Located at the west end of Main Street it was a fantastic place to enjoy downtown for a couple of days.
The hotel is spread out through five buildings on the property. The first three were the original hotel; during renovation that were stripped to the stud and completely remodeled, but within the space of the original rooms. The last two buildings were built from scratch and have a different layout with more space in each room. The heated outdoor mineral pool, fitness facility, and large game room round out the general amenities.
I stayed in a King Room with Balcony and Fireplace. The flat screen television hanging over the gas fireplace, minifridge with espresso coffee machine, and high vaulted ceilings were features I had not expected. The bathroom with heated tile floor, rain shower head with body jets, and dual sinks made the bathroom one of the best features.
Inside Tip When booking a room online I recommend the “King Room with Balcony and Fireplace”. At the very least you’ll enjoy the amazing shower, but hopefully you’ll also have a good time with the fireplace, balcony, and spacious room. Book as early as possible; these rooms tend to sell out on the weekends months in advance.
My mornings were spent on the balcony overlooking the large grassy yard and Main Street far below. Hammocks strung up between the trees looked inviting but I needed to stay near the coffee. My evenings were spent snuggled into the comfortable Adirondack chairs beside the firepit. Even in the middle of summer the elevation of Highlands affords a coolness after sunset that makes a firepit enjoyable year-round. I could have gotten used to that.
Getting to Highlands
The adventure of getting to Highlands is all part of the fun. It’s remote, but not isolated. Some people come to Highlands because it’s a hidden destination in the woods while others are skeptical about the curvy roads getting there.
To be honest it doesn’t matter which direction you take to get to Highlands you will end up on narrow, curvy two-lane roads. Some routes are better than others. But none of them are really that bad so please don’t let that discourage you from discovering this charming mountain town!
Asheville, Charlotte, Brevard, I-26 From this direction take I-26 to the Airport Road exit near Asheville. Drive through Brevard and then on to US Highway 64. The 60-mile drive through Cashiers takes about two hours. The only really curvy section is between Rosman and Sapphire and a short section after Cashiers.
Knoxville, Gatlinburg, Cherokee, I-40 This is my favorite direction to take when traveling to Highlands. From points in Tennessee take Highway 441 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Cherokee and then on to Sylva. From I-40 take the exit onto the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway and exit Sylva. From here it’s a short drive along the four-lane Highway 23 into Franklin. (see Chattanooga next)
Chattanooga The drive along US Highway 64 from Cleveland, Tennessee to Franklin, North Carolina is one of the most beautiful in the state. It’s an easy drive along a two-lane road without many curves or twists. Those come after reaching Franklin and exiting onto Highway 64 toward Highlands. From there the road passes through the Cullasaja River Gorge on a very narrow, curvy two-lane road. I think it’s absolutely gorgeous but some people don’t like roads with a sheer rock wall on one side and drop off on the other.
Atlanta, North Georgia, I-985 I think more people from Atlanta visit Highlands than any other major city because it’s so easy to get there. The drive starts out easy enough on I-985 before transitioning into US Highway 23. After that the highway remains four lanes through Clayton before turning onto Dillard Road in Dillard, GA. This final 15-mile drive through Sky Valley and Scaly Mountain is a curvy two-lane road but isn’t all that bad to drive at all.
Best Route into Highlands: I-40 in Waynesville, NC on US Highway 74 and 23 through Franklin. The drive includes four-lane highways through Franklin and only the last 11 miles are really curvy.
Worst Route into Highlands: US Highway 64 from I-26. A portion of Highway 64 is four-lane before and after Brevard, but the last 35 miles are two-lanes. The curvy section begins 25 miles from Highlands near Lake Toxaway. In the last year or two they have worked to straighten and widen a section of the road, but only a section.