Ristorante Paoletti

Best Things to Do in the Highlands, N.C.

BY Jennifer Kornegay | October 1, 2022

Welcome to Fifty Grande’s Best of the U.S. Bucket List series. This is your one-stop travel guide to the best, most unique and quintessential experiences of a city, state or event. Want to know how to “do” the Highlands, North Carolina? We’ve got you covered. Curated by experts, vetted by in-the-know locals, this is all you need to have the best trip ever. If we’ve written a Bucket List, we recommend you go. If it’s on this list, it’s the best the city has to offer right now. Consider this your one-stop answer to “What are the best things to do in North Carolina’s Highlands-Cashiers Plateau?”

With every inch of altitude climbed on your journey to North Carolina’s Highlands-Cashiers Plateau, you’ll get a sense of serenity that permeates your body like the crisp mountain air. The area has two main towns: Highlands, a tiny hamlet that sits on the highest crest of this Western North Carolina plateau in the Southern Appalachians, at 4,100 feet above sea level. And Cashiers, 10 miles to the east, which is slightly lower in elevation but just as charming and rejuvenating.

The two towns and the area between them are packed with majestic mountain scenery that provides a natural high: bubbling streams slicing through serene woodlands, sparkling waterfalls tumbling into glassy pools and multiple stunning vistas from atop mountain summits, plus all the associated outdoor activities. Throw in delicious dining, luxe shopping and a wide range of accommodation options, and you’ve got a restorative escape. And one that is also accessible: the area’s only two hours from Atlanta and about an hour and a half from Asheville.

You’re Here for Waterfall Walks

Sparkling cascades of all sizes are abundant in the area thanks to ample rainfall and the rocky terrain. 

Glen Falls Trail in Highlands, North Carolina
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Glen Falls Trail in Highlands, North Carolina

Glen Falls

Glen Falls, North Carolina, USA

A glimpse of this glittering waterfall is just a short downhill trek away, but if you’re feeling energetic, continue on the trail to the bottom where you’re rewarded with a view of the rushing, tumbling waterfall in its full glory. But just remember, what goes down must hike back up.

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Dry Falls near Highlands, North Carolina. Photo by Shutterstock.
#2
Dry Falls near Highlands, North Carolina. Photo by Shutterstock.

Dry Falls

Dry Falls, North Carolina, USA

Right off the side of Highway 64, Dry Falls is simple to see and experience. It thunders over an extended rock ledge, allowing you to stroll behind the milky curtain without getting wet (hence the name).

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Sliding Rock in western North Carolina near Brevard in the fall. Photo via Shutterstock.
#3
Sliding Rock in western North Carolina near Brevard in the fall. Photo via Shutterstock.

Sliding Rock

Sliding Rock, North Carolina, USA

Near Cashiers, this gently sloping waterfall lets you immerse yourself in the action. The multileveled swath of cold, crystal stream rolling across wide, moss-covered rocks creates a natural waterslide that — in summer — begs you to take a ride.

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Whitewater Falls. Photo via Shutterstock.
#4
Whitewater Falls. Photo via Shutterstock.

Whitewater Falls

Whitewater Falls, Cashiers, NC, USA

On the opposite end of the scale, this magnificent waterfall is a can’t-miss. It plunges 411 feet, making it the highest waterfall east of the Rockies. A relatively flat paved walkway leads to a good lookout, but a trip down steep wooden stairs will let you marvel at its size from a more humbling perspective.

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Take in the Views of the Attitude-Shifting Altitude

With so much natural beauty to explore, hiking in this area is a given, so lace up your walking shoes. But if you’d rather soar above it, there’s an option for that, too. 

Whiteside Mountain in autumn at dawn in North Carolina. Photo via Shutterstock.
#5
Whiteside Mountain in autumn at dawn in North Carolina. Photo via Shutterstock.

Whiteside Mountain Trail

Whiteside Mountain Trail, Hendersonville, NC, USA

Total distance: 2.1 miles

Rating: Moderate to hard

Whiteside Mountain is a massive hunk of granite sitting between Highlands and Cashiers that some geologists say is the oldest mountain in the world. On one side, it exposes a sheer rock cliff (one of the highest in the Eastern United States) that gave it its name. A two-mile loop hike to its peak at almost 5,000 feet requires a little huffing and puffing but promises a big payoff: jaw-dropping, long-range views of surrounding mountains and lush valleys. Your time at the top is made only more tranquil if you score a sighting of the endangered peregrine falcons that nest there floating just feet above you.

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Sunset Rock Trail
#6
Sunset Rock Trail

Sunset Rock Trail

Sunset Rock Trailhead - Highlands Cashiers Land Trust, Horse Cove Road, Highlands, NC, USA

Total distance: 1.4 miles

Rating: Easy

Take the easy, short walk up to Sunset Rock, a stony outcrop that rewards you with an  unobstructed view of downtown Highlands that would be worth a harder hike. Plan your trek for late afternoon/early evening; the panoramic vista is at its best when the sun starts sinking below the horizon.

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Highlands Aerial Park
#7
Highlands Aerial Park

Highlands Aerial Park

9625 Dillard Road, Scaly Mountain, North Carolina, USA

Whiz through a bird’s-eye view of the area on a zipline here, where experienced guides lead over and through old-growth forest and slices of open sky and between mountain peaks. The 1,550-foot Screaming Mare zip earns its name with a thrilling combo of height and speed that will leave you speechless (except for your shrieks).

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Shop Mountain Boutiques and Sport Stores

Both Highlands and Cashiers have pretty compact and walkable “town” areas. A stroll along Highland’s Main Street and its offshoots offers diverse options: boutiques, sporting goods stores, multiple art galleries and antiques shops. Places to definitely pop in include Dutchmans, two stories of cute gifts, kitchenware, linens, lamps and other things you do not need (but desperately want); Annawear, full of flirty dresses, fun accessories and whatever the “it” brand jeans are; and Kilwins, a sweet-treat nirvana, where indulgences like squares of dark chocolate dusted with hot-chile-infused sea salt and peanut butter fudge are always tempting. In Cashiers, hit J. Gabriel for unique home décor objects, Highland Hiker for your fleece vest needs and Buck’s Coffee for a flavorful jolt.

Try Stellar BBQ and Local Beer

For two pretty small towns, Highland and Cashiers boast an impressive array of eateries, everything from fine-dining to casual delis and ’cue joints. 

#8

Mountain Fresh Grocery

521 Main Street, Highlands, NC, USA

Fuel up for outdoor excursions with a hefty pressed sandwich on house-made bread at this casual joint in Highlands. The shop stocks basics plus a huge wine selection, an espresso bar, a deli, wood-fired pizza ovens and a bakery.

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Whiteside Brewing Co.
#9
Whiteside Brewing Co.

Whiteside Brewing Co.

128 State Route 107, Cashiers, NC, USA

Grab a picnic table outside at this hoppin’ brewery and eatery in Cashiers. Dig into pub grub like smash burgers and flash-fried Brussel sprouts dunked in chile sauce anchored by the brewery’s dark stout, and wash it all down with a cold Whiteside Moon Unit Hazy IPA.

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Slab
#10
Slab

Slab Town

45 Slab Town Road, Cashiers, NC, USA

This is the place for pizza in these mountains. Start with a laugh and some Shrute Farms beet salad before several meat-heavy slices of the Duke. 

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Highlands Smokehouse
#11
Highlands Smokehouse

Highlands Smokehouse

595 Franklin Road, Highlands, NC, USA

Want more meat? This barbecue bastion will provide the fix with pork ribs, tender pulled pork and beef brisket cooked low and slow in an underground pit. Homey sides like silky collards, gooey mac ‘n’ cheese and slightly sweet baked beans are standouts here too.

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Ristorante Paoletti
#12
Ristorante Paoletti

Ristorante Paoletti

440 Main St, Highlands, NC, USA

If you’re feeling fancy, make a dinner reservation at this local favorite for heaping helpings of romantic, candlelit atmosphere and Northern Italian cuisine, like Bolognese-smothered crepes stuffed with roasted veal, spinach and ricotta or North Carolina rainbow trout sauteed with lemon and butter. Pair your pick with a bottle pulled from the wall of wine. 

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Where to Stay

The list of places to rest your head in the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau is diverse, with options ranging from elegant and “in town” to laid-back and tucked into the scenery.

Old Edwards Inn
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Old Edwards Inn

Old Edwards Inn

445 Main St, Highlands, NC, USA

This four-star, historic property never disappoints with its top-notch hospitality, sophisticated (yet cozy) rooms plus an award-winning spa. The original art and antiques in every room are nice, but the staff members’ dedication to elevating every guest’s experience is what earns it consistent rave reviews. Its prime location fronting Highlands’ Main Street is a bonus.

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Highlander Mountain House
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Highlander Mountain House

Highlander Mountain House

270 Main St, Highlands, NC, USA

The rustic-meets-refined boutique hotel is also right on Highlands’ main drag. Its 18 rooms are tucked into an 1885 clapboard farmhouse that’s been outfitted in “English countryside” style, complete with deep blues and hunter greens and bold floral wallpaper. Snag a seat on the front patio with a cocktail from prime people-watching.  

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#15

Skyline Lodge

470 Skyline Lodge Road, Highlands, NC, USA

Out from town, this option delivers midcentury-modern style plus an on-site restaurant, Oak Steakhouse, that rivals the other good eats in the area. Its different take on the traditional lodge look makes it a standout. So too does its mountain view. See our full overview here.

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High Hampton
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High Hampton

High Hampton

1525 State Route 107, Cashiers, NC, USA

In Cashiers, this beloved resort, which first began welcoming guests a century ago, was recently refreshed and reimagined. The team behind the luxury Blackberry Farm resort in Tennessee oversaw the overhaul, and the result is upscale. But they also took great care to preserve the property’s homey, family-friendly charm. 

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