Drive through the heart of Nantahala National Forest to more than 4,000 feet, and you’ll reach the hamlet of Highlands. Here, the air is cooler, nature’s closer, and each of the town’s four stoplights is quick to change in your favor.
You won’t find any chain restaurants or big-box stores to remind you of home — that’s part of Highlands’ charm. As Hilary Wilkes, who moved to Highlands from New York City almost six years ago, points out, “Most people are drawn to Highlands because it’s nothing like their day-to-day life.”
But don’t let the town’s size fool you: What it lacks in square miles, Highlands more than makes up for in award-winning restaurants, locally owned boutiques, and opportunities to explore nature. Take a stroll through downtown or in the great outdoors; Highlands is waiting to be explored.
When you arrive in Highlands, take an hour or so to get the lay of the land with an easy hike up the shady, rhododendron-lined Sunset Trail. Park your car downtown — the trail starts less than a half mile from town, down Horse Cove Road.
At the top of the gravel trail, choose the trailhead on your right for a bird’s-eye view of Highlands. Despite the name, it doesn’t have to be sunset for you to appreciate this storybook vista, complete with church steeples rising from the treetops and mountain homes dotting the valley.
Tip: Plan ahead with a blanket and a picnic basket. At Mountain Fresh Grocery on Main Street, you’ll find a delicious selection of cheeses, artisanal crackers, wines, fruits, baked goods, and house-made pizza.
Sunset Rock 521 East Main Street mfgro.com (828) 526-2400
The Bascom: Center for the Visual Arts
It’s hard to pin down the biggest draw of The Bascom, an arts space less than a quarter of a mile from downtown. Entering from Franklin Road, you’ll cross one of the U.S.’s oldest covered bridges, which leads to six acres of rolling hills dotted with sculptures, and the nationally recognized Dave Drake Ceramics Studio.
Tip: Call ahead to sign up for a pottery class in this traditional-meets-modern, rough-hewn barn. Or spend some time meandering through the museum’s contemporary collections.
The Bascom: Center for the Visual Arts 323 Franklin Road thebascom.org (828) 526-4949
Carve out at least three hours for Justin Kingsland’s backroads tour through Highlands. From his 50-year-old “clean, green,” open-air vintage army truck, Kingsland and his dog, Aussie, take passengers on a custom tour of the very best of Highlands.
Kingsland has spent years in the library scouring guidebooks and old maps for untold stories and undiscovered off-road sites — and he’s done the legwork to rank the most spectacular. “We see waterfalls, we take short hikes to vistas and overlooks, we go on picnic lunches,” Kingsland says. “Sometimes, we stop in at the REM rock star Bill Barry’s old house for 20-mile vistas of the valley and Whiteside Mountain.”
Tip: You don’t know what you don’t know — until you know. “I’ve taken locals who’ve lived here for 15 years and shown them things they didn’t even know about their own backyard,” Kingsland says.
When Hilary Wilkes and her husband, Chris, moved to Highlands with their 15-month-old, the timing was right for the couple to take over the day-to-day operations of Highland Hiker, a shop that Chris’s family has owned and operated since 1982. Make this your first stop for camping equipment, activewear, and what Hilary likes to call “mountain chic” apparel — Barbour jackets, Dubarry boots, Pendleton wool capes. “We live in a climate that lets us have fun dressing up in our winter clothes,” Hilary says.
Tip: Check out the impressive stone fireplace, built by famed Highlands builder Joe Webb in the early 1900s.
John Woods, the general manager of the 24-suite Park on Main hotel, doesn’t see any reason why people should leave their dogs behind when they go on vacation — especially to a town as dog-friendly as Highlands. “You walk down Main Street, and 80 percent of businesses have dog bowls sitting outside,” Woods says. “When you go through the bank drive-through, they hand out dog treats right along with suckers for kids.” The trend continues at Park on Main, where four-legged friends are welcomed with an all-natural cookie and treated to a MacKenzie-Childs dog bowl and a plush Orvis therapeutic dog bed. Their owners are in for an opulent experience, too. Each sparkling room comes complete with heated Italian marble floors, balcony and garden-terrace views, and high thread count Italian Frette sheets.
This warm, European-style inn stands in the center of downtown, and it’s a must-visit on every Highlands itinerary — whether or not you’re actually staying there. In addition to spacious rooms and a luxurious spa, the inn is known for its world-class cuisine and inventive cocktails. After a day of hiking or shopping, kick back in a plush easy chair in the Hummingbird Lounge and Library, or indulge in dinner at Madison’s Restaurant and Wine Garden.
Tip: In the Hummingbird Lounge and Library, order the signature Honey Bear cocktail, made with apple brandy, sage, local honey, and lemon juice.
It’s not often that you look at a menu and narrow your selection down to the Bavarian sampler, braised beef short ribs, and venison au poivre. But thanks to Chef Wolfgang Green’s German heritage and Cajun influences — he spent 13 years as the executive chef at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans — Wolfgang’s Restaurant offers a delightful mix of gourmet fare. As you cozy up by the fire in the intimate dining room, choose from more than 700 wine offerings.
Tip: Save room for apple strudel a la mode — Chef Green’s mother’s recipe.
Wolfgang’s Restaurant and Wine Bistro 474 Main Street wolfgangs.net (828) 526-3807
The Ugly Dog Pub
At the end of the day, this is locals’ favorite watering hole. “It’s the heart of the town,” Hilary Wilkes says. In addition to regional craft beers, a lengthy wine list, and creative cocktails, The Ugly Dog Pub serves high-end pub food (the menu features entrées like roasted salmon with Parmesan risotto alongside staples like the Ugly Dog guacamole burger) and boasts a robust kids’ menu.
Tip: Ugly or not, well-behaved dogs are welcome on the patio. And check out the wall of dog pictures — you can get your own pooch up on the wall if you provide a donation to an animal charity.