Land of Waterfalls: A hiker gazes at 40-foot Dry Falls, near Highlands, N.C. Photo: Ashley Woodring
The Cashiers-Highlands plateau of Western North Carolina is an off-the-beaten-path oasis of incredible beauty. A long-time destination for the Greenville, Asheville, and Atlanta retirement communities, the area also draws outdoor athletes of all ages. Often referred to as the “Land of Waterfalls,” the area boasts abundant rainfall and unique geology, which creates some of the most spectacular cascades in the South. No matter what your outdoors passion, this area has something to fit the bill. Here are a few of our favorite getaways.
Hiking and Climbing
Whiteside is a marquee feature among the stacked list of natural scenic attractions in the area. Its massive North Face is impossible to miss by anyone making the drive on 64 between Cashiers and Highlands. While this mountain hosts some of the most challenging and committing trad and sport climbing routes in the South, it also has beautiful hiking options available to hikers of all skill levels.
There are several options available to hikers wanting to access the top of the granite escarpment that reaches 4,930 feet of elevation. The most popular is a two-mile loop that utilizes an old roadbed to wind up, and a steeper trail on the way back down to treat visitors to one spectacular view after another. From these vantage points, hikers can gaze into the piedmont of South Carolina and Georgia and view peregrine falcons nesting in the cliffs. These are actually the fastest animals on earth, capable of diving for their prey at speeds of 200 miles per hour. Another option is to visit the Devil’s Courthouse, where you will be treated to 360-degree views, and the loop will be extended to four miles. Access to Whiteside can be obtained in Wildcat Cliffs Country Club for a $2 fee.
While the hiking on Whiteside Mountain caters to people of all fitness and ability levels, the climbing is not for the faint of heart. Whiteside is known as some of the most challenging and dangerous climbing in the South. The routes have a runout character, and some have 10 or more pitches, so bring your game face, and go with climbers who have prior experience out there.
The North Face is the most visible, but the majority of climbing occurs on the South Face. This is a plus for year-round climbing, since the sun keeps you warmer in the winter. The most popular route, Original Route, is a 5.11a, or a 5.9a if you use the bolt ladder at the crux. Be wary of the first pitch, which is comprised of 140 feet of 5.7 with no protection.
Additional options include the three-pitch ice climbing routes available on the North Face, and a number of 5.11 routes up to Devil’s Courthouse.
One other consideration is the falcon nesting grounds. Parts of the mountain will sporadically close to climbers as the birds move around; check CarolinaClimbers.org to stay updated.
The Cullasaja originates near the town of Highlands, and is one of the epicenters for recreation in the area. The river offers excellent options for waterfall viewing, trout fishing, swimming, and picnicking. One popular pastime is the waterfall tour starting from Highlands and consisting of Bridal Veil Falls, Quarry Falls, Dry Falls, and Cullasaja Falls.
Bridal Veil is located on the way from Highlands to the Cullasaja on Highway 64. This waterfall is a classic because it is possible to drive your car underneath the drop for a photo op. Visit in the wintertime for impressive icicle displays. Quarry Falls is the classic Cullasaja destination for picnics and swimming. The multi-tiered 20-foot drop is usually bathed in sunlight, and if you are lucky, you may catch a view of kayakers descending the drop as they paddle this class IV section of river.
Continuing on, Dry Falls is a special one because of its ease of access, and the very intimate way in which you can experience it. While it is possible to view the waterfall from the top and side, you can also walk behind the curtain and soak in the feeling of an entire river cascading 75 feet over your head. More great views are available on the other side after passing underneath the falls.
Cullasaja Falls is the largest waterfall on the river, but is logistically more challenging. It is best to approach this one from the Franklin side, and there are a couple of primitive parking spaces on the side of the road. Once there, you will be treated to views of a multi-tiered, 250-foot cascade. The road here is almost a destination unto itself as it carves through the steep gorge.
Hiking and Camping
Panthertown is a picturesque valley flanked by granite domes and sheer slopes, and is dubbed by locals as the “Yosemite of the East.” This area, which is the headwaters of the Tuckaseegee River, is a true adventurer’s destination. The trails are not marked, and it’s easy to get lost in the 30-mile network. Hiking and biking abound amid the myriad falls and overlooks of the area, and primitive camping is also allowed within the 6,700 acres of protected land. Rare ferns, mosses, and liverworts are part of the mountain bog ecosystems, and you may be lucky enough to see one of the protected members of this bear sanctuary.