Highlands sits higher than any city east of the Mississippi River, with an elevation of 4,118 feet, and this popular mountain getaway has served as a respite from the hustle and bustle of daily life for more than a century.
Breathtaking waterfalls are only a brisk hike away, and since the town is located in one of the few temperate rainforests in North America, the flora and fauna are sure to astound. The area also provides a multitude of private golf courses and trout fishing opportunities.
If you bring the kids, don't forget to take them to the Shadow of the Bear, where locals say a unique image appears from behind Whiteside Mountain several weeks a year.
*X MARKS THE SPOT
*Highlands was born when two Kansas developers, Samuel Truman Kelsey and Clinton Carter Hutchinson, took a map of the United States and drew a large X reaching from Chicago to Savannah and from New Orleans to Baltimore. They predicted that the spot where the lines intersected would one day become a great commercial crossroads, and developed a resort town there in the 1870s.
- Population: Year-round population on the Highlands Plateau is a little over 900, but it more than doubles in the summertime.
- Best things to do: Highlands’ crown jewels are its waterfalls. Drive your car under Bridal Veil Falls, or walk behind Dry Falls. The area is also home to some world-class golf courses with spectacular mountain views. In town, there is plenty of boutique shopping, fine dining and cultural events. See an exhibition at The Bascom, the town’s new fine arts center, or catch a show at the Highlands Playhouse.
- Geographic features: The town is bordered by the Nantahala National Forest and Pisgah National Forest. Nearby rivers include the Cullasaja and the Chattooga.
- Most famous resident: Bobby Jones, successful amateur golfer in the 1920s and ’30s who also co-founded the Masters Tournament, helped make the Highlands Country Club a golf mecca.
- Unique traditions: Come hungry for the town’s annual Culinary Weekend, a four-day festival for the tastebuds held in November. Relish wine tastings and gourmet cooking demonstrations by the area’s top chefs. Prices vary.
- Fun fact: Highlands is located in a temperate rainforest — meaning that in the summer it rains every afternoon. Because of this, it’s become a hub of biological research, and been dubbed both the “Lichen Capital of the World” and “Salamander Capital of the World.” The forest is about 20 degrees cooler during the summer months than anywhere in the Southeast. The cool climate has fostered a lush fairyland of tall pines, laurels, rhododendrons, mosses and ferns.
*Whether you’re looking for a nail-biting adventure or a leisurely stroll through the forest, Highlands offers outdoor fun for every pace.
- Get a birds-eye view of the mountains at Highlands Aerial Park, touted as the highest zip line course in the Southeast at 3,420 feet. There are different courses available for family members of all ages. Find out more at highlandscanopytour.com.
- The Nantahala Outdoor Center offers guided whitewater rafting and kayaking on seven rivers, including the nearby Chattooga and the Nantahala. Find out more at noc.com.
- Whiteside Mountain is a popular hike, with the top offering magnificent vistas from 700-foot-high granite cliff walls. The hike, which is just 2.5 miles, offers plenty of bang for your buck. To get there, follow U.S. 64 East from Highlands for 5.4 miles. Turn right onto Whiteside Mountain Road. Follow for 1 mile to the signed parking area on the left. There is a $2/day area use fee at Whiteside Mountain Recreation Area.
- Bust Your Butt Falls in Gorges State Park is a favorite swimming hole and is also home to a boulder that makes the perfect launch pad into the Cullasaja River. On U.S. 64 West from Highlands, it’s 6.5 miles from Highlands.
- Drive under Bridal Veil Falls, which spills over old 64 West, located off U.S. 64, 2.5 miles west of Highlands. Or visit the majestic Cullasaja Falls, located off a small roadside pull-off along U.S. 64, 9 miles from Highlands. Or head to Glen Falls, where a triad of waterfalls cascade 640 feet, located off Highway 106 South about 2 miles from downtown Highlands.
- Spend a few hours at the Highlands Biological Station to explore a wide variety of almost 500 native species of wildflowers, shrubs and trees in natural forest and wetland environments. It is free and open to the public year-round from sunrise to sunset, though program fees may apply. (265 N. Sixth St.; highlandsbiological.org)
- Go fishing or plan at family picnic at the kid-friendly Cliffside Lake Recreation Area, which has a beach area and a swimming dock. The lake is also regularly stocked with trout. From Highlands, take U.S. Hwy 64 West/N.C. Hwy-28 North (Franklin Road) for 4.2 miles to the entrance on your right. Parking fee is $4.
*Highlands may be off the beaten path, but it has gained a reputation as a vibrant place for the arts and for unique shopping.
- Highlands Playhouse has kicked off its 78th season and offers a variety of musicals and plays each year in an intimate setting. (362 Oak St.; highlandsplayhouse.org.)
- The Bascom: A Center for the Visual Arts offers a wide range of art exhibits and classes at its six-acre, park-like campus that includes walking paths, a studio barn and a three-story central building that showcases works by regional artists. (323 Franklin Road; thebascom.org.)
- Be serenaded during concerts at the annual Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival, now in its 35th season. (507 Chestnut St.; h-cmusicfestival.org.)
- Stroll down Main Street and browse a range of antiques shops, art galleries and upscale boutiques offering everything from unique gifts to handcrafted apparel to classic toys.
*SIP AND SAVOR
*Appetite whetted with that fresh mountain air? Luckily, Highlands has become a magnet for some top-tier chefs, with at least five restaurants in town being awarded the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.
- The decor at Wolfgang’s Restaurant & Wine Bistro may be rustic-themed, but the dining at this upscale restaurant is nothing short of sophisticated. Both German and Cajun influences make for an adventurous menu. Start with a caprese salad and a basil martini, followed by the lavender-crusted salmon or the crawfish etoufee. Top it off with some apple strudel. (474 Main St.; wolfgangs.net.)
- Paoletti’s, an upscale Italian restaurant, has been a Highlands favorite since the mid-1980s. Next door to the Highlands Inn and across the street from the Old Edwards Inn, Paoletti’s ambient atmosphere is the perfect way to end your day. The bar boasts a large wine list, and the menu is full of delicious pastas and mouthwatering meats — from filet mignon to spiced Cervena elk rib chop. Be sure to save room for tiramisu or the double-chocolate chunk gelato. (440 Main St.; paolettis.com.)
- Not that hungry? Kick back with a flight of locally crafted beer from Satulah Mountain Brewing Co., which boasts the largest local draft beer selection in town along with tapas. (454 Carolina Way; satulahmountainbrewing.com.)
*After you’re worn out from your full day in Highlands, it’s time to get cozy. Highlands has a range of accommodations for the weary traveler.
- The Old Edwards Inn and Spa bills itself as a luxurious mountain oasis. The European-style resort includes plush rooms or cottages, a full spa with private rooms and suites, a range of inn-based eateries and a golf course with mountain views. (445 Main St.; oldedwardsinn.com)
- If you’d rather go rustic, book a stay with Whiteside Cove Cabins. Each secluded cabin offers a spacious interior that can sleep six, including a full kitchen and a gas fireplace. River views and trailheads are just a walk away. (5078 Whiteside Cove Road; logcabinrentalsinhighlandsnc.com)
- The Park on Main is located located in the heart of Highlands, but the 24-suite luxury hotel still feels away from it all with spacious suites that include window views of the hotel’s garden terrace. The hotel is pet-friendly, and is home to a beloved Scottish terrier mascot named Mr. Pickles. (205 Main St.; theparkonmain.com)