Highlands sits right above the Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina borders. You can only access it by winding ribbon backroads with sneak peaks of the rounded mountain tops you’ll be sleeping next to. Beautiful churches bookend the main street and chime on the hour to remind you of the passing time, even though it seems to slow down here. We visited during a shoulder season when the shoppes have odd hours and the multiple Christmas stores don’t have their sparkle lights shining. With a humble population of under 1,000 in the off-season, it feels like you already know everyone after walking around for just a few days. Once the tourist season gets kicking, over 20,000 people can reside in Highlands, dipping into the kitschy shops and enjoying the ice cream on the corner.
Things that make us feel at home in Highlands
-Sitting at 4,118 feet, it’s almost as high as Denver, Colorado (5,280 ft).
-Two health food grocery stores where Roxy would prefer to sleep instead of the van.
Things that make us feel like tourists:
-Highlands is considered a rainforest with over 100 inches of rain due to an orographic lifting effect. It’s a literal rain forest! Denver, however, is a high desert.
-You can buy a bowtie in every other shop on Main Street.
This town sits right outside the “Land of Waterfalls,” and we think they may have drawn the borders incorrectly. The roller coaster roads that lead you into the town pass by plenty of waterfalls, and there’s even one right off the road that you can stand under named Bridal Veil Falls. For a bigger waterfall, check out Cullasaja Falls, a short drive out of town.
For a more physical adventure, we highly recommend a guided whitewater rafting trip. Our new friend Will at Wildwater Chattooga Adventure Center located just across the border in South Carolina took us out on the rambunctious Chattooga. The family friendly mini trip included mostly class II rapids with a few small class III sections and one killer class IV grand finale. Coincidentally, the class IV rapid (Bull Sluice), was the same area where we cleaned up trash just a few days earlier. We can’t say enough nice things about Will and the entire Wildwater crew. Throughout the day they showed extensive knowledge and appreciation of the river, wildlife, and the surrounding area.
One of the things we loved most about Highlands is the abundance of trails, secret overlooks, and winding streams. A little adventuring can get you to some incredible places. Here are a few suggestions of where to start: Lake Jocassee and Jocassee Gorges, Caesar’s Head State Park, and DuPont State Forest. Highlands is a great jumping off spot for all of these!
Just like any good tourist town, eating options are aplenty. Unfortunately for us, most restaurants had winter hours in effect and they didn’t quite mesh with our hectic schedule. We managed to grab a killer homestyle breakfast at a small cafe called Bake My Day. The no-frills menu featured all your normal breakfast staples and the food was delicious. It’s not easy to make a plate of eggs, hash browns, and sausage stand out from the crowd, but Bake My Day has it all figured out. No matter what time of day, we recommend visiting Mountain Fresh Grocery and Wine Market. This all-in-one grocery store/pizza place/coffee shop/wine market had everything we were looking for. As we sat in the cafe to catch up on some morning writing it was obvious that this is a top spot for locals to get their morning fuel. They offer full-service breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
If you plan on entertaining or would just rather cook at home, Rhodes Superette is the place for you. Locals say this place sells the best hand-cut steaks in North Carolina. You can get anything in this small roadside grocery. They have a bakery in-house that you can smell from a block away. On the day we visited a woman stopped in and asked the baker if they had scones, the baker smiled and said she’d bake some for the woman and have them ready that afternoon. That’s service you just won’t find at a normal grocery store.
Highlands has a slew of quaint hotels located right on Main Street. Even in the off-season, they were a little more expensive than we typically like to spend on lodging. If you’re feeling extra fancy and willing to fork over the cash, there are some vacation rentals available with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.
For those looking for something a little less glamorous, there are three great campgrounds just a few miles outside of town. The Van Hook Glade Campground is the most developed option. Located about 15 minutes from town in the heart of Nantahala National Forest, the campground has 18 sites each for $20 a night. You’ll be in close proximity to hiking trails, scenic views, waterfalls, and a nearby lake. You can reserve your site in advance here.
Blue Valley Campground (we spent a few nights here) is a wonderful area with several free primitive campsites. We saw at least ten sites but locals in the area told us there were much more down the road. Each site comes complete with a fire ring, lantern post, and a picnic table. You won’t find cell service here, so you can relax and enjoy quality time with friends and family. There is no trash service so please respect the land and observe leave no trace practices.
Ammons Branch Campground has five primitive campsites and a single pit toilet. The spots are fairly small, close together, and might not be ideal if you have a large vehicle. There are hiking trails leading right out of the campground that connects to the nearby Ellicott Rock Wilderness Trail.
Highlands was founded by drawing a line from Chicago to Savannah, and from New York City to New Orleans, figuring where those lines met would one day turn into a popular trading center. While it didn’t become the commercial crossroads that was expected, the golfing community did claim it as its own and from there it grew into a unique town.