A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

I pause my uphill climb and look up. I’m completely enveloped by a sea of old-growth oak trees. Young leaves gently rustling in the wind fill the air along with

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

I pause my uphill climb and look up. I’m completely enveloped by a sea of old-growth oak trees. Young leaves gently rustling in the wind fill the air along with

A Locals’ Guide to Jackson County

I pause my uphill climb and look up. I’m completely enveloped by a sea of old-growth oak trees. Young leaves gently rustling in the wind fill the air along with my breathing — I feel a world away from civilization on Sylva’s certified Forest Therapy Trail, the only one in North Carolina and one of 20 in the world.

“Forest therapy is about immersing yourself in nature and slowing down. It’s about being able to be in a place and letting your senses come alive and experiencing nature through what we can hear and smell and touch,” says Dr. Mark Ellison, who leads guided hikes along the Forest Therapy Trail in Pinnacle Park and was instrumental in the trail’s certification process.



Unlike some mountain destinations where you must choose between the call of the wild or touring around town, Jackson County locals have mastered the art of balancing their days with both. Talk to people who live here, and many will tell you that their ideal day is hitting up a coffee shop and then heading out for a long hike, paddle trip, or bike ride, before unwinding at a brewery or over excellent dinner. Luckily, that’s my ideal day, too.

The towns of Cashiers, Dillsboro, and Sylva share the county they call home and their mountainous landscape, but their personalities are wildly distinct: Cashiers emanates laid-back luxury, Sylva feels more like a hip neighborhood than a town with fewer than 3,000 residents, and Dillsboro is a little riverside enclave where you’ll want to ditch the car and explore on foot. Beyond these towns’ draws, the collection of epic waterfalls, mountains, and nearby Blue Ridge Parkway make Jackson County a nature lover’s paradise where you can be as relaxed or active as you could want.

 

For one of the best views in Jackson County, follow Pinnacle Park Trail to the summit of Blackrock Mountain, where hikers are rewarded with 360-degree views. Photography courtesy of JACKSON COUNTY TDA

Forest bathe, eat well, and take in the small-town experience in Sylva

The Forest Therapy Trail is just one way to experience Pinnacle Park. “This is a place that almost anyone can access, whether you’re older or have mobility impairments,” Ellison says, referring to the wide trail that slopes upward and crosses over trickling streams and past small waterfalls. When he’s not leading guided hikes, Ellison says, “I love to go up to Blackrock Mountain, hang my hammock and have lunch and read a book.” The seven-mile out-and-back hike may seem daunting, but locals will tell you that the 360-degree views at almost 5,000-feet elevation make this one of the premier hikes in Jackson County.

But the natural beauty is just half of Sylva’s appeal. The small downtown at the foot of the mountains is rich with home-grown businesses, and the local community is fiercely loyal when it comes to celebrating the place. “The identity of Sylva was always very colorful and open-minded,” Crystal Guzzetti says, who grew up in Sylva where her late stepmother owned a family-style eatery, Meatballs. Crystal moved to New York where she met her chef-husband, Santiago, while working as a sommelier. When the couple decided they wanted to open their own place, the draw of Crystal’s hometown pulled them back to Sylva, and they opened their hyperlocal, seasonally driven restaurant Ilda inside the space that formerly housed Meatballs.

“The community here welcomes you from day one and wants you to be successful,” Santiago says. “We have everything we need, and we get to know everyone on a deeper level. You can walk downtown and get what you need and eat great food and have a conversation with someone you care about. The feelings are different than in a bigger city.”

When the couple has a rare day off from the restaurant, they like to support the other independent eateries in town. That usually means a slice from Meatballs Pizzeria for lunch — conveniently attached to Innovation Brewing’s flagship location — and settling in on the patio at Dalaya Thai for dinner, enjoying khao soi while Scotts Creek rushes past.

 

Share barbecue, celebrate Appalachian folk art, and cast your line in Dillsboro

“Wowee, that is good,” grins the gentleman next to me at Haywood Smokehouse. Our server just brought him a sample cup filled with brisket. He’s not been here before, but errands brought him up from nearby Georgia, and he always makes a point to find the best barbecue wherever he goes. He tells me he can’t wait to bring his kids here.

It’s worth the trip, too. The smell of brisket, pork butt, ribs, and chicken smoking to juicy, tender perfection fills the air in this one-stoplight town. On any given Saturday, residents, college students, and day-trippers file in for meat-and-three platters. Don’t be intimidated if there’s a line out the door to get in — food comes out fast (get the brisket quesadilla).

The wide, shallow waters make the Tuckasegee perfect for easy wading. Photography courtesy of JACKSON COUNTY TDA

A quick walk around the corner from Haywood Smokehouse, Dogwood Crafters has served as a haven for Appalachian folk art since 1976. The woven baskets, lovingly stitched quilts, ceramic tableware, handmade jewelry, and homemade jams all represent the handiwork of more than 40 local artists featured in the store. As a co-op, Dogwood Crafters is also run by these artists, who take turns manning the register, leading classes and workshops, and giving shoppers the backstory of the pieces that fill the gallery.

You’ll be outside as you stroll through the picturesque downtown, but locals will tell you that Dillsboro’s main outdoor activities center around the water. The river is a fly-fishing haven throughout the year, says guide Dale Collins of Tuckaseegee Fly Shop; it’s stocked with brown, rainbow, and brook trout and wide enough for easy wading. Come warmer weather, it serves as a channel for everything from leisurely floats aboard innertubes to whitewater rafting over the rapids. Dillsboro River Company can help you plan your river escapades according to how adventurous you feel.

 

A steep, rocky descent takes you to the base of High Falls. You can continue along the path for more waterfall views and access to fly-fishing spots.   Photography courtesy of JACKSON COUNTY TDA

Chase a waterfall, climb a mountain, and grab a drink in Cashiers

You’ll find some of North Carolina’s most photogenic waterfalls in Jackson County, and Cashiers is your best homebase for exploring them. Experiencing the falls ranges from highly accessible to highly adventurous, depending on what you’re looking for. “A short but beautiful hike is High Falls (also known as Cullowhee Falls),” says Bernadette Peters, an avid mountain biker who moved to the area in 2010. “You do a four-mile hike and see two waterfalls, and then you can continue your day,” which, for her, usually involves a bike ride. The trailhead is about a six-mile drive from downtown Cashiers. Follow the well-marked trail along the steep descent through a rocky forest to reach the base of the falls, which rush from the West Fork of the Tuckasegee River.

For mountain views, I loved the two-mile loop trail around Whiteside Mountain so much I completed it twice in a weekend window (never mind my screaming legs). Unlike other hikes, where you march out to a solitary, fabulous view and then back to your car, the reward here — sweeping vistas of the valley floor and surrounding mountains — is present as you loop around the east, south, and west sides of the mountain. The hike takes only an hour, so you can complete it at sunset to see a spectacular sky and still make it back to your car before dark.

The made-to-order pies from Slab Town Pizza come in 16-inch and 8-inch sizes depending on if you want to share (or how much of an appetite you worked up while hiking). Photography courtesy of JACKSON COUNTY TDA

At the end of the day, kick up your feet by settling into the deep armchairs at the Lobby Bar at Hotel Cashiers, a cozy hangout where locals commune over craft cocktails and share area recommendations with hotel guests. Even if you go alone, you won’t be by yourself for long — it took me and my book only 10 minutes before getting called over to join a group by the fireplace, and soon we were swapping suggestions for hikes, waterfalls, and breweries and ordering pizza from Slab Town Pizza next door. That’s just the sort of place it is.

There’s a reason locals love the first few weeks of spring in Jackson County.

“This time of year is a time of new growth,” Ellison says. “It’s a special time of year — my favorite time — you can experience it right as everything’s about to come back to life.” Make plans to discover these towns yourself to get a glimpse of these mountains awakening to spring. With mild temperatures, fewer crowds, and foliage poised on the verge of an explosion of greenery, you’ll see why spring fever just might rival leaf-peeping season.

This story was published on Mar 28, 2024

Hannah Lee Leidy

Hannah Lee is a born-and-raised North Carolinian and the digital editor for Our State magazine. Her contributions have appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, Epicurious, Culture, and the Local Palate. When not parenting her Bernese mountain pup named Ava, she's visiting the nearest cheese counter.