Things to do in Highlands: A Cool High Altitude Escape in North Carolina
At 4111 feet, Highlands is one of the highest elevated towns in North Carolina. The small community of just over 1000 residents is located within the beautiful Nantahala National Forest. The cool summer temps (typically in the mid 70’s) make Highlands an ideal escape from nearby hot and humid southern climates like Charlotte, Atlanta, and Greenville (SC). The small-town charm, proximity to outdoor attractions, and beautiful isolated mountain setting make Highlands a wonderful summer vacation destination.
When summer temps soar past the 90’s on a regular basis in the above mentioned cities, Highlands remains attractively cool. The mountain oasis is popular with retirees, second-home owners, and tourists fleeing the intense summer heat of nearby cities. After months of brutal heat and humidity, a cool mountain respite like Highlands comes in as a real treat. Here you can enjoy the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains in a more comfortable setting.
Take a look at 5 wonderful things to do in the Highlands region
1. Hike to 3 gorgeous waterfalls via Glen Falls
The best thing to do in Highlands is embarking upon the short, yet intense Glen Falls hike. Featuring 700 feet of elevation gain, this is no easy trek. A leisurely downhill climb through the lush Nantahala National Forest leads you to a 60, 70, and 15 foot waterfall. All 3 are absolutely mesmerizing. Along the way you will also come across a breathtaking overlook of the Blue Ridge Mountains, as well as several areas where you can observe the creeks.
While the 1 mile trek to get to the waterfalls is quite relaxing, the uphill climb back is pretty rough with lots of staircases. Take your time, take breaks if necessary (a number of benches are located throughout), and enjoy the lovely scenery and attractive mild summer temps. If you prefer something a bit easier, simply go out to the first or second waterfall and turn back. Overall, Glen Falls is one of the best waterfall hikes in Western North Carolina, a region known for its’ dazzling waterfalls.
Tip: Bring with a hiking stick, wear sturdy hiking shoes, pack plenty of water, and use a restroom before arriving (no facilities at the trailhead).
Location: 1091 Glen Falls Rd, Highlands, NC (No fee to park, spaces limited). Note: 1 mile long bumpy dirt road to get to the falls.
2. Walk underneath Dry Falls
Dry Falls, a 65 foot waterfall wonder located on US 64 just 10 minutes outside of Highlands, is one of the few NC waterfalls which you can walk underneath. This really sets it apart from others in the region. Another benefit of this waterfall is the easy accessibility. First off, it is located just off the highway. Second, it’s a perfect option for those looking to keep the hiking to a minimum as the trail is only a quarter of a mile long. Third, there is a handicap accessible viewing platform.
This waterfall is really powerful and visually appealing especially after a heavy storm. On a warm summer day, it’s so refreshing to feel the mist of the waterfall. The drive over on scenic Hwy 64 is a treat in and of itself. This “Waterfall Byway” is loaded with scenic stops. If you have the extra time, there are a lot of great places to explore on this 98 mile stretch.
Location: US 64/28 (3.5 miles west of Highlands). Fee: $3 (also good for 1 day at Upper Whitewater & Whiteside Mtn)
3. Enjoy fabulous mountain scenery via the Whiteside trail
Whiteside Mountain is a wonderful hike which is beautiful year-round. Summertime is the best time to venture out on this trail so you can enjoy the greenery, however, this is one of the few trails which is mesmerizing anytime of the year. Assuming there is no snow/ice, Whiteside is incredible all year thanks to the stunning mountain vistas.
The loop is just 2 miles, however, this one would be considered moderate/difficult due to the steepness. White Mountain, at 4930 feet, is one of the most impressive sights on the Eastern Continental Divide. According to the USDA Forest Service, the mountain is estimated to be between 390 to 460 million years old! As for the name, it comes from the cliffs which appear to be sheets of ice covering the mountains.
Location: SR 1600 & US 64, Highlands, NC. Fee: $3
4. Drive to a roadside waterfall
There are a number of beautiful roadside waterfalls along US-64 which conveniently begins just outside of Highlands. Bridal Veil falls has a pretty unique history as at one point it was the only waterfall you could drive underneath. Sadly, you can no longer drive under it, however, you can park your car and stand underneath it for a pretty cool photo opp. This waterfall is definitely at its’ best following heavy rainfall.
Also in the region: impressive 150 footer Toxaway Falls and Cullasaja Falls, a very spectacular 200+ foot stunner.
Location: US 64 (3 miles west of Highlands) -Bridal Veil Falls, US 64 (22.5 miles east of Highlands) – Toxaway Falls, US 64 (9 miles west of Highlands) – Cullasaja Falls. Free parking at all/limited spaces.
5. Marvel at the state’s highest waterfall
As the state’s tallest waterfall, a trip to Upper Whitewater Falls should definitely be added to your to-do list. Located a mere 30 minutes outside of Highlands, this is any easy daytrip to incorporate into any itinerary. Upper Falls soars 411 feet, while the lower falls (a harder hike on the border of SC) stands 400 feet tall. The combined 800 foot drop makes it one of the tallest waterfalls east of the Rockies.
Fortunately, this is one of the easier waterfall hikes in the state, and thus, pretty much accessible to anyone. The main walk to the falls follows a paved quarter of a mile path. It’s one of the few NC waterfall trails which is handicap accessible. For a closer look, those up for a workout have the option of trekking down a few staircases. Nothing too outrageous and definitely worth the extra effort, both for the great workout (skip the gym!) and the wonderful viewpoint! This waterfall is at its’ best during the lovely spring and summer season when surrounded by lush greenery and again during peak fall foliage.
Location: Hwy 281. Sapphire, NC. Fee: $3