A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Murphy to Manteo: Finding new adventures, historic detours, and the soul of North Carolina on the state’s longest highway: U.S. Route 64. Read the series. Here’s a little tip: When

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Murphy to Manteo: Finding new adventures, historic detours, and the soul of North Carolina on the state’s longest highway: U.S. Route 64. Read the series. Here’s a little tip: When

Embracing the Rugged & Refined Spirit in Highlands

Hikers in Whiteside Mountain, a 10-minute drive from downtown Highlands, NC

Illustration of Highway 64 traversing North Carolina

Murphy to Manteo: Finding new adventures, historic detours, and the soul of North Carolina on the state’s longest highway: U.S. Route 64. Read the series.

Here’s a little tip: When you’re winding your way down U.S. Highway 64 from Franklin to Highlands, make sure to stop for gas before you pass Whistle Stop Depot Antiques. If you don’t, you may find yourself sandwiched between the side of a mountain and the Cullasaja River as you hug hairpin curves — with your tank on E and nary a turnoff in sight. Except maybe that one you passed by the waterfall back there. No, the waterfall before that one. Wait, was that a turnoff?

Clearly, it’s too late for me to take my own advice. I turned down the volume on the radio ages ago so that I could think better. Now I’m starting to sweat. I grip the steering wheel, maneuvering along the (dented!) guardrail as a car zips by in the opposite lane, missing me by inches.

Half-Mile Farm overlooks Apple Lake in Highlands, NC

From Half-Mile Farm’s inn, you can follow the sloping green down to Apple Lake. Photography courtesy of Half-Mile Farm

King suite at Half-Mile Farm in Highlands, NC

A luxurious stay in a king suite at Half-Mile Farm. Photography courtesy of Half-Mile Farm

But the next morning — having somehow safely reached my destination — I awake in a king-size bed in a cozy guest room at Half-Mile Farm, a century-old farmhouse turned luxury country inn, feeling so far away from Cullasaja Gorge that I wonder if it was all a dream.

I venture down to the inn’s living room, pour myself a cup of coffee, and step out onto the back deck. Down the green, sloping lawn, past the flowers and the stone firepit and the canoes, fog slowly rises off Apple Lake. It looks like a painting. Yeah, not helping my reality check. I look down at my dusty hiking boots. Ah, there we are.

My reverie is gently interrupted by the inn’s manager, Paige Tillung. “My very favorite thing to do is drink my coffee down there when the sun is rising,” she says, nodding toward two white Adirondack chairs on a little dock. “Just make sure to bring a blanket for the dew. And if you want to fish, you can borrow a pole.”

Highlands is like that — a dream, I mean. You emerge out of the woods and into civilization, but instead of simply finding a hot meal and a dry place to lay your head, you discover luxurious hospitality and a main street lined with award-winning restaurants. And even in a pair of old hiking boots, you still feel welcome.

• • •

Situated on a plateau astride the Eastern Continental Divide, Highlands is a kind of island. Surrounded by forests and peaks, rivers and waterfalls, the far-western town in Macon County — elevation around 4,000 feet — requires travelers to be intentional about visiting. A bit ironic, considering its origins: It was founded in 1875 by two developers who apparently drew lines on a map, predicting interstate trade routes that, they believed, would one day give rise to a major population center near the southern border of North Carolina.

In the late 1800s, Highlands, then the highest incorporated town east of the Rockies, was home to just a few hundred people, and by the early 20th century, it was best known for a tuberculosis sanatorium on a nearby hillside. Then, a spectacular, scenic road to Franklin was cut into Cullasaja Gorge; the river was dammed, forming a lake; and, in 1928, the Highlands Country Club opened with a course designed by Donald Ross. Highlands soon became a summertime retreat for Southerners who flocked to the area for its cool temperatures, fresh air, and clean water.

Every year, vacationers arrive seeking both a refined getaway and a rugged mountain adventure.

Over the years, Highlands’ reputation as an upscale resort community continued to grow in a way that the town itself couldn’t. The surrounding Nantahala National Forest, rocky terrain, and, eventually, laws put in place to protect the area’s natural grandeur restricted further development — making Highlands even more exclusive. An exquisite secret tucked into the wild beauty of western North Carolina.

In a way, those early developers were right. Highlands’ population does swell — every summer, when thousands of vacationers arrive seeking both a refined getaway and a rugged mountain adventure.

• • •

After a leisurely three-course breakfast at Half-Mile Farm, I’m feeling a bit like a (very comfortable) fraud. I need to hit the trail and earn my outdoors badge for this trip! I hop in the car and follow Highway 64 toward Cashiers in search of the trailhead for Whiteside Mountain. I find it a little more than 10 minutes from downtown Highlands. A steep but short hike brings me to the summit, where I’m surrounded by mountain laurel, in awe as I gaze out over miles of peaks and valleys. But I’m really left breathless just a bit farther down the trail, where, looking back the way I came, I can see the craggy 750-foot cliffs that jut out from the mountainside.

I take a deep breath of the cool air that made this area so prized at the turn of the century. My pulse steadies as I watch a peregrine falcon soar beyond the cliffs, buoyed by the breeze. Here, there are no car horns or hairpin turns — although an acceptance of heights is helpful. There’s only the wind and dappled sunshine and Technicolor-green slopes rolling away in the distance. I close my eyes and smile. And I’ll even have time to make it to my massage appointment at Old Edwards Inn and Spa.

Guests sit at the dock at Apple Lake at Half-Mile Farm

Apple Lake, located on the grounds of Half-Mile Farm, beckons guests to fish, canoe, or just relax on the dock and enjoy sun-soaked views of the water. Photography courtesy of Half-Mile Farm

Once I trade my boots and backpack for spa slippers and a robe, I no longer feel like a fraud. I only feel … relaxed. Later, while boutique-hopping on Main Street, I marvel at how this little mountain town has more wine gardens, high-end clothing stores, and chic patrons with shopping bags than towns twice its size. There are three Wine Spectator award-winning restaurants — on the same block! With its flower beds and hanging baskets, it looks less like a hub for outdoor adventures and more like a perfectly curated movie set.

After a cocktail hour spent cozied up by the fire at Half-Mile, and wine and steak by candlelight at the elegant Madison’s Restaurant, I snuggle up in bed and plot my waterfall hikes for the following morning. Highlands, I know, welcomes high heels and hiking boots, because this town pulls off a perfect balancing act — of rugged and relaxing, nature and nurture. It’s not so unusual. The spectacular view from a mountain summit and a sumptuous day at the spa are two sides of the same coin, offering the same allure to a weary traveler: beauty and rejuvenation.

More to Explore: Plan your own Highlands getaway using our guide to the town’s hotels and restaurants at ourstate.com/guide-to-highlands-nc.

This story was published on Apr 16, 2024

Katie Schanze

Katie Schanze is an associate editor and digital content editor at Our State.