8 Things to Do in Highlands, NC

Discover hiking trails, waterfalls, shopping, and a few other things to do while visiting Highlands, North Carolina.

Written by

Jason Barnette

on

July 26, 2019

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COVID-19 has changed the world. The tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit areas of the global pandemic. Local restaurants, museums, state and national parks have all changed hours of operation, procedures, and some have gone out of business altogether.

Please verify current operations of any places you want to visit mentioned in these articles, and contact me if a business has permanently closed so I can update the article. Thank you and stay safe out there!

Everywhere I went I saw people with big smiles and heard bubbling laughter. Everyone was so happy. At first, I thought it must have been something in the water supply. But then I realized it was actually in the air. The cool, clean mountain air at 4,118’ above sea level. I reckon that’s why they named the town Highlands, North Carolina.

I had traveled through Highlands a few times on US Highway 64 and most recently spent a few nights with a comfortable room at 200 Main. During all those visits I realized there is quite a lot to see and do around Highlands. It’s perfect for a weekend getaway or much more.

Large covered shelters surrounded by a dense forest on a rainy day at Cliffside Lake Recreation Area in Highlands, North Carolina
It rained all day one time when I visited Highlands. These covered shelters at Cliffside Lake were perfect for reading a book.

1. Hiking

Located in the Nantahala National Forest there are plenty of gorgeous places to get out for a day hike. But before you do that you need to visit the Highland Hiker on Main Street. Local owners Chris and Hilary are passionate about helping people find the right gear for the hike or fly-fishing excursion. Their shop, located inside a 1929 Joe Webb log cabin, is stocked full of outdoor equipment, clothing, shoes, and accessories.

Grab a copy of Guide to Day Hikes, Fly Fishing, and Mountain Biking. Written by Chris the book the is updated annually with information on local trails and rivers. For a more in-depth look along with some local history get a copy of The Summer Times by Nancy Turner. This spiral bound guide is perfect for the road tripper!

Read More: Exploring, Shopping, and Dining in Downtown Highlands, NC

Sunset Rock One of the most popular hiking trails in Highlands is the short 1.4-mile out and back trail to Sunset Rock. The spot gets its name from the rocky outcropping overlooking the town to the east, offering a good spot to watch the sunset over the town. You can’t quite see the town and both days I hiked up there were cloudless so please give it a try and show me something amazing.

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Cliffside Lake Recreation Area This small national forest recreation area is located on US Highway 64 about fifteen minutes outside of town. The 0.75-mile Cliffside Loop Trail is an easy hike around the small lake. Be sure to find the small picnic area with beautiful log shelters; it’s the perfect place to enjoy an evening of light summer rain.

Whiteside Mountain For a more strenuous adventure with an incredible payoff try the 1.9-mile Whiteside Mountain Trail. With a 500’ ascent in a short distance it’s a bit of a hefty trail but the views from the edge of the Highlands Plateau are amazing. The trail loops around the mountain. The easier hike is to take the entire loop that is longer but a less steep ascent; if you’re in a hurry to catch sunrise you can the exposed area in about half a mile.

Water pours over a rocky ledge at Dry Falls along US Highway 64 in Highlands, North Carolina
If you look close enough you can see the handrail along the trail behind Dry Falls.
Water pours over a rocky ledge at Dry Falls along US Highway 64 in Highlands, North Carolina
If you look close enough you can see the handrail along the trail behind Dry Falls.

2. Waterfalls

Do you enjoy chasing waterfalls? There are plenty within a half-hour drive of Highlands. Some require a bit of a hike while others can almost be viewed from your car. Here are a few favorites.

Lake Sequoyah Falls Located at the west edge of town it almost doesn’t qualify as a waterfall because really it’s just the lake overflow on the dam. But still it’s pretty to see and there is a small gravel parking area right in front of it.

Glen Falls Located about three miles outside of town this is the only waterfall in the area I have not visited yet. The 2.4-mile out and back trail is strenuous with an almost 800’ elevation change.

Read More: 7 Waterfalls Near Highlands, NC

Bridal Veil Falls This is the easiest waterfall in the area to view literally located on the side of US Highway 64 about three miles from Highlands. There is a small area to pull off on the side but the road behind the falls has been closed for a few years now.

Dry Falls I have always loved the ironic name of this majestic waterfall. Located in the Culasaja River Gorge about 4 miles from town. The hike to the waterfall takes about 10 minutes along a concrete path and dozens of steps. Once there you can walk behind this waterfall to a scenic overlook on the other side!

Bust Your Butt Falls Visit this waterfall just once during the summer and you’ll see how it gets the name. This cascading waterfall is the perfect place for sliding down the rocks and swimming in the shallow water below. It’s about seven miles from Highlands along the scenic US Highway 64.

Cullasaja Falls This is the most difficult waterfall in the area to view which is ironic considering it doesn’t require any hiking. Located about nine miles from Highlands at the other end of the Cullasaja River Gorge there are only two very narrow parking spaces beside the waterfall. If you manage to snag one all you have to do is look out the window to see the waterfall.

A lone person ziplines down a long line with views of the mountains in all directions at the Highlands Aerial Park in Highlands, North Carolina
This long zip line started in grove of trees before breaking out into an open descent with gorgeous views.

3. Highlands Aerial Park

Do you feel a need for speed? Highlands Aerial Park has you covered with two ziplining experiences on a mountain top with breathtaking views.

Their “premium ziplining experience” includes 8 ziplines up to 250’ above the ground and 1,550’ long. These ziplines whisk you through corridors carved into the tree canopies and across wide open spaces with some of the best views I’ve ever seen from a zipline.

Clothing on dislpay racks and outdoor gear hang on the walls of the log cabin retail shop at Highland Hiker in Highlands, North Carolina
The inside of the Highland Hiker is a gorgeous space for an outdoor retail shop.

4. Shopping

Downtown Highlands around Main Street and Fourth Street is lined with boutique shops on either side. The wide sidewalks afford an easy walkability but there is also plenty of parking just in case.

You’ll find plenty of shops for clothing, jewelry, antiques, furniture and home décor, and gifts. My favorite shop in town was The Bookworm because I love used bookstores, but I also enjoyed window shopping at Dutchman’s Designs and Mountain Heritage.

Read More: The Western North Carolina Road Trip Collection

A delicious cheeseburger wrapped in brown paper with fresh cut fries for dinner at Mountain Fresh Grocery in Highlands, North Carolina
This burger from Mountain Fresh Grocery was one of the best I’ve ever had.

5. Food

Everybody’s gotta eat. When that time of day comes around there are options in Highlands.

For breakfast head over to Calder’s Coffee Café for the best coffee in town. The recently-opened Blue Bike Café had a pretty good breakfast biscuit. The best breakfast in town comes courtesy of Mountain Fresh Grocery where you can order coffee, espresso, and made-to-order breakfast platters.

For lunch Madison’s Restaurant in the middle of downtown is a great place to hop in for a salad, sandwich, or flatbread pizza. Sit outside in their Wine Garden with a glass of wine and enjoy the trickling water fountain.

For dinner the casual place to hang is The Ugly Dog Pub where they have an enormous menu ranging from entrees to burgers. They have an excellent selection of craft beers from the region where you just might discover a new favorite. For a more formal and quiet dinner head over to Wolfgang’s Restaurant and Wine Bistro. The chef is doing some pretty amazing things with American and Cajun food and you can order wine by the glass.

The rustic barn style of The Bascom art center in Highlands, North Carolina
How cool is this beautiful building at The Bascom?

6. The Bascom: Center for the Visual Arts

The beautiful rustic building of The Bascom resembles a barn but inside you won’t find any livestock; instead you’ll find gorgeous locally-made artwork on display in an exhibit gallery. The large giftshop is a wonderful place to buy some arts and crafts for your home or Christmas gifts (cause it’s never too early to shop for Christmas).

If you are spending more than a few days in Highlands check out their list of workshops. They have classes ranging from photography to ceramics and wood turning.

7. Highlands Playhouse

The Highlands Playhouse began with a group of amateur performers in the late 1930s and has continued ever since. Each year local and visiting professional actors put on about 3-4 plays. They also feature indie movies on a wide screen with state-of-the-art sound system.

Keep an eye on this attraction in town. They are set to move into some new digs later in 2019. I’ll have to come back and visit when they do so I can see what it’s all about!

View looking up a tall tree at briliant green leaves at the Highlands Nature Center in Highlands, North Carolina
It was hard to believe this peaceful setting at the Highlands Nature Center was just minutes from downtown on an easy trail to hike.

8. Just Relax

Why are people always in such a hurry to continually do things on vacation? I can’t count how many people I’ve heard complain how tired they are after a vacation. After years of travel I have learned to take a break every once in awhile and Highlands is a great place for that.

Highlands is very much a southern town. Most of the shops in downtown close up about 6pm and the owners go home to their family. One of my favorite things to do was take a stroll along Main Street about an hour before sunset. It was quiet, peaceful, and gave me a great chance for some window shopping.

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I stayed at 200 Main during my most recent visit. They have a few hammocks strung up between trees overlooking Main Street. In between two of the buildings is a gorgeous fire pit with Adirondack chairs and a nearby trickling water feature. After a day of hiking, shopping, and dining this was exactly where I wanted to spend an hour or two.

I have a confession to make: I’ve never been a guest at a day spa. I asked a few of the visitors I met during my trip and they couldn’t stop talking about the Old Edwards Inn and Spa. With amenities like a sauna, whirlpool, a fireside lounge, and a café I could certainly see myself relaxing there. Guys can enjoy day spas, too, right?

One of my favorite places to relax in town was the Highlands Nature Center. The nature trail wound through the trees and alongside a small lake. Along the way I found a bench beneath the shade of massive trees and surrounded by a muteness I often enjoy in nature. Hard to believe it was only minutes from downtown!

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6 Responses

  1. Thank you for visiting and writing about our home away from home! We stumbled into Highlands North Carolina 15 years ago quite by accident and came back again year after year until we decided to purchase our second/retirement home there in 2018.
    While your list is a fine example of what can be experienced on a weekend stay, we found as we stayed longer and longer each year that there is so much more to do and see in Highlands! We encourage everyone to do as you have, and come stay a few days and get to know the area; then, come again and stay a little longer. Check with The Highlands Chamber of Commerce for a calendar of wonderful events such as fairs and festivals throughout the seasons. Maybe you too will fall in love with Highlands as we did and decide to make it your home away from home as well!
    Safe and Happy travels to all!

    1. You are very welcome! I also stumbled upon Highlands while road tripping along US Highway 64 between Brevard and Franklin. I remember turning the corner in downtown that very first time and my jaw hitting the floor! I like your idea about coming back to Highlands for longer periods each time because you’re right; there is SO MUCH to discover in that area! Maybe I’ll see you around town the next time I visit!

  2. Highlands is fun for everyone. Recreational sites, variety of shopping, dining from picnics to feasts and lodging from tents to luxury suites. Youthful families roam the streets with affluent retirees and the mix is perfect for people watching from the many benches available. Comments often heard are “my family has been coming here for generations” and “ this is our first visit, but we’ll be back often”

  3. My wife and I DISCOVERED HIGHLANDS 13 Years ago. It’s a magical little town! We bought a house and moved here full time 6 years ago. We never want to leave! We love the distinct 4 seasons and the incredible beauty of the mtns. Only when you visit here will you fully appreciate this magical place! You will never want to leave here either!

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