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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Restaurants & Coffee
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 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.
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!
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.
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!
Where to Stay
The upside of visiting Highlands is a bevy of wonderful local hotels and bed and breakfasts to spend a few nights. The downside is a lack of anything on a friendly budget or even mid-range. Spending a night in Highlands will cost you, but it’s worth the splurge for the amenities you get along with the room.
The Old Edwards Inn & Spa is the most luxurious place to stay in Highlands. Book a comfortable room at the historic inn, lodge, cottages, or residences – homes that are perfect for traveling families. Enjoy on-site dining and treat yourself to a visit to the spa.
200 Main is a sister property to the Old Edwards Inn. The former hotel has been completely renovated, expanded with additional rooms in separate buildings, and features a more budget-friendly option than staying at the Old Edwards Inn. 200 Main features comfortable rooms with walk-in showers and balconies, fire pits on the ground level, and an outdoor swimming pool.
Inside Tip When booking a room online at 200 Main, 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.
The first thing the folks at The Park on Main want you to know about their boutique hotel is that dogs are very much welcome. The comfortable rooms feature quaint balconies overlooking downtown Highlands and is perfectly located for walking to everything in town.
Highlands Inn is located inside a gorgeous building resembling a stagecoach inn from the 1800s. Inside, the modern rooms are comfortable, spacious, and offer balconies overlooking downtown Highlands.