North Carolina has a lot to offer within its borders. There are the beautiful and scenic Outer Banks and beaches that dot the coastline. There are big cities with leading universities and industries.
But the Western side of the state, bordered by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Nantahala National Forest, is home to a handful of scenic little mountain towns chock full of sightseeing, hiking and waterfalls as well as fine dining, lodging and shopping; just with a bit of a scaled-down pace.
Just a two-hour drive from Atlanta, the town of Cashiers (which we learned while there is pronounced “Cash-urs,” not “Cash-eers”) is the perfect home base for a weekend of adventure in the North Carolina Mountains.
Here is our must-do list for everything your Western North Carolina trip needs to include to maximize your mountain experience.
Where to Stay
When you drive through the entrance to High Hampton, you are immediately taken back to a simpler time. This beautiful resort began as a family retreat in the 1830s and still offers the same “get away from it all” vibe it did back then. Most rooms don’t have air conditioning, but ours didn’t even need it thanks to the cool June mountain air and a screen door.
Families gather on the main house’s massive wrap-around porch to enjoy its rocking chairs, cool breezes and scenic views. High Hampton’s grounds are very reminiscent of the fictitious “Kellerman’s” for all the Dirty Dancing fans, dotted with cabins and bungalows just a short walk from the main house.
Internet service is spotty at best at High Hampton, but it’s almost by design. You need to be out kayaking on the lake, playing a round of golf or taking a hike up Rock Mountain instead of trying to sneak in a little work on your smartphone anyway. Wanna catch up on your latest Netflix binge? Not this weekend, because High Hampton doesn’t have TVs. Now get outside and play already.
Where to Play
Not sure where to start as far as outdoor adventures in the wilderness of Western North Carolina? No worries. Play On Adventures was designed to bring the experts — the kids who have been hiking and playing in their backyard mountains their entire lives — to show you the way. Play On can arrange guided hikes, fly fishing adventures, whitewater rafting, kayaking, ziplining and mountain biking adventures for your entire family. Another great resource for information on what to do and where to go is Play On NC, the website for Jackson County, which houses many of these beautiful mountain towns.
We hiked the Panthertown Valley Trail in Panthertown, which sits in the middle of the Nantahala National Forest. Our Play On Adventures guide, Robin, took the guesswork out of navigating the trails and led us straight to a beautiful waterfall at the back of the trail while filling us in on much of the history of the area.
Another must-do on the hiking list is Whiteside Mountain. Its two-mile, moderately challenging loop takes hikers to some of the most scenic panoramic vistas east of the Mississippi. We recommend doing the hike backwards from the parking area and saving the steps for the way down at the end of your hike.
For an easier and shorter hike that still has a reward at the end, hit Silver Run Falls. The 40-foot-high waterfall at the back of the trail offers a photographer’s dream and a splash pool at the bottom that will delight kids of all ages.
Looking for something a little more low key? Head over to Signal Ridge Marina in Cashiers and rent a pontoon boat for the day. We spent a morning kicking around on scenic Lake Glenville taking in three different waterfalls that are only visible from the lake, as well as mentally purchasing some of the amazing waterfront homes that line its shores. At an elevation of 3,494 feet, Lake Glenville is the highest major lake east of the Mississippi. It is also the only lake in North Carolina that qualifies for the highest clean water designation.
Where to Eat
Just as important as getting out and enjoying the scenery in Western North Carolina is keeping yourself fueled. We found a great range of eating options in and around Cashiers from local coffee shops to high-end restaurants and even intimate private party options.
Start your day off with some brew from Buck’s Coffee Shop, which has locations in Cashiers and neighboring Highlands. If you are looking for something a little more substantial, head over to the Zookeeper Bistro for a stack of caramel apple French toast or a grilled ham, egg and cheese sandwich.
A must-do for lunch is local favorite Cornucopia. The open-air restaurant offers just as much to look at as it does to eat. The building dates back to the late 1800s and has been used as a school, post office, tack shop and a private residence. Right now, it just feels like the world’s coolest back porch that serves food. The menu includes everything from sandwiches and salads to soups and a nice assortment of vegetarian items.
Another great lunch stop is a new addition to the Cashiers scene. Whiteside Brewing opened in June of 2018 right on the main drag and offers wings, soup, salads, sandwiches and burgers along with its assortment of craft beer by local brewmaster Dieter Kuhn. Offering indoor and outdoor patio seating, this brewery is a great stop for lunch, dinner or, let’s face it, just for the beer that Whiteside refers to as “mountain life in a glass.”
For dinner, definitely make time for a meal at The Orchard. Set in a 100-year-old farmhouse situated adjacent to an apple orchard, the restaurant features chef-driven menu items using local and regional seasonal ingredients. In addition to menu items such as Appalachian trout amandine or Dark Cove garden risotto, there are nightly chef specials and a wine list that complement anything you order.
Where to Explore
While you visit Western North Carolina, be sure to take time to drink in the ambiance of each of the little mountain towns. In addition to the charm of Cashiers, other must-do towns are Highlands (think a smaller version of downtown Telluride or Park City); Sylva, which has a bit of a mountain hippie vibe (and the prettiest hilltop courthouse you’ve ever seen); and Dillsboro, which is lined with small pottery shops and eateries.
And as you commute from town to town, don’t try to make good time because you won’t. The roads are twisty and windy and beautiful. Roll your windows down and take in the views, vistas and even the smells that you can only find in the fresh mountain air of Western Carolina.
To learn more about Western North Carolina and to start planning your trip, visit discoverjacksonnc.com.
All photography by Melonee Hurt.
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