What We Love About Franklin & Nantahala This cozy mountain town in far-western North Carolina isn’t just for avid hikers — outdoor fun awaits every age at every
What We Love About Franklin & Nantahala
This cozy mountain town in far-western North Carolina isn’t just for avid hikers — outdoor fun awaits every age at every turn, whether you’re unearthing gems, hiking above the treetops, or soaking in the scenery from a zipline. In Franklin’s vibrant downtown, folks gather ’round the square for live music, stroll along Main Street, and enjoy farm-to-fork cuisine, and nearby rivers like the Cullasaja, Nantahala, and Little Tennessee beckon travelers to kayak, raft, cast a fly, or just relax by the water with a local craft beer. Your gateway to adventure starts here.
Where to Take the Family
Gem Mining: Roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty in the “Gem Capital of the World.” Tiffany & Co. once mined here for rubies and sapphires, and lucky treasure hunters have also discovered garnets, emeralds, moonstones, and other precious gems. Check out Rose Creek Mine, in operation since 1952. Or Old Cardinal Gem Mine, which became famous in 1995 when a 10-year-old dug up a 1,061-carat sapphire. Finders keepers!
Zip Line Canopy Tour: Get an adrenaline rush while zip-lining through the trees. Highlands Aerial Park offers eight thrilling zip lines, a ropes course, and a four-story swing. Young adventurers can take on the Brave Indian Challenge Course, complete with suspension bridges, a balance beam, and a floating platform.
Alpine Roller Coaster: Take a joyride on the Highlands Outpost Scaly Mountain Screamer, North Carolina’s longest mountain roller coaster. Controlling your own speed, you’ll twist and turn through the forest and down the mountain — but don’t close your eyes, or you’ll miss the view.
Little Tennessee River Greenway Trail: This five-mile paved trail meanders through meadows, wetlands, and woodlands, and crisscrosses the river via three picturesque bridges. Along the National Recreation Trail, walkers are rewarded for keeping their eyes to the sky — it’s an official North Carolina Birding Trail and a recognized North American Monarch Waystation. Take the kids to Wesley’s Playground and the splash pad at Big Bear Park, as well as StoryWalk, which features a children’s book along the route.
Where to Explore More of the Outdoors
Appalachian Trail: Stretching 2,220 miles from Georgia to Maine, the world’s longest hiking trail has topped the bucket list of serious hikers for more than a century. Franklin, a Certified Appalachian Trail Community since 2010, is located at mile marker 110 and is known for its hospitality to hikers.
Bartram Trail: Named for 18th-century botanist William Bartram, this scenic trail runs for 80 miles through Georgia and North Carolina and right into downtown Franklin. A popular four-mile round-trip trek from Wallace Branch to William’s Pulpit rewards hikers with incredible vistas.
Wayah Bald: An old stone lookout tower at Wayah Bald stands watch over the sprawling Nantahala National Forest. Take a short walk from the parking lot for stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains as far as the eye can see. On a good day, you’ll see three states. The Instagram-worthy spot is also accessible on the Appalachian Trail or Bartram Trail.
Cullasaja Gorge: Just south of Franklin, Cullasaja Gorge is a popular seven-mile stretch of the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway known for its spectacular waterfalls. Be sure to slow down at Cullasaja Falls, which dramatically drops 250 feet just beyond the highway. Next, pull over at the Dry Falls Parking Area and a short path will take you right underneath the 75-foot waterfall. Near the town of Highlands, whitewater cascades down 120 feet at Bridal Veil Falls.
Where to Eat, Sip, & Shop Downtown
Local Eats: For the last 45 years, Sunset Restaurant has been serving a hearty breakfast, lunch, and dinner with an assortment of freshly baked pies for dessert. Get a blast from the past at Motor Company Grill, a 1950s-themed diner with more than a dozen specialty burgers, grilled hot dogs, hand-spun milkshakes, and fountain sodas. At Gracious Plates on Main, the chef sources pork, beef, cheese, and produce from local farms. A power lunch, cocktail and dinner, or leisurely weekend brunch are equally satisfying.
Local Breweries: Bring along the kids and dogs to Franklin’s breweries, where community is just as much a focus as the beer. Lazy Hiker Brewing Company on Main Street includes a taproom, patio, and outdoor space, perfect for enjoying live music and food trucks. Currahee Brewing on the Little Tennessee River is the ultimate place to unwind. Meaning “stand alone,” the name pays tribute to the U.S. armed forces and the Cherokee Indians.
Year-round Festivals: The Town of Franklin has hosted Pickin’ on the Square for more than three decades, where live music fills the streets the second and fourth Saturday of the month from May through October. Other popular events include the July Fourth parade and fireworks, Hometown Heritage Festival, PumpkinFest, and Winter Wonderland.
History & Heritage: Get a history lesson at Macon County Historical Society and Museum with artifacts dating back to 10,000 B.C. Then walk in the footsteps of nine female pioneers on the Women’s History Trail. Celebrate the city’s Celtic roots at the Scottish Tartans Museum, a nod to the patterns of plaid that distinguished one family from another. Prepare to be wowed by the unique and exquisite collections at Ruby City Gems and the Franklin Gem & Mineral Museum.
Nantahala Community: Located about 18 miles west of Franklin, the Nantahala Community encompasses 42 miles of shoreline from the Nantahala River Gorge downstream to Lake Nantahala. Meaning “Land of the Noon Day Sun,” the community gets its name from the Cherokee Indians who lived so deep in the forest that their lighting was best mid-day when the sun was directly above.
Lakes End Marina: In 1942, the Nantahala Power Company constructed a dam on the Nantahala River, which not only generated electricity for war efforts but created a beautiful lake. Today, the pristine reservoir is a watery wonderland. After a day exploring the lake on a jet ski, canoe, or pontoon boat, refuel with North Carolina pan-fried trout and fried okra at Lakes End Cafe & Grill.
Nantahala River: With Class II and III rapids controlled by Duke Energy, the Nantahala River has become one of the Southeast’s most popular whitewater rafting destinations. Roller Thunder River Company offers guided trips for ages 7 and up. If that’s not your speed, the Upper Nantahala is a year-round fly-fishing destination known for its bountiful river trout.
Luxury Cabin Rentals: StayNantahala and Cherokee Mountain Cabins offer glamping at its finest with modern amenities in natural, peaceful settings. Choose from luxury yurts to lakefront and mountainside cabins, with extra features like private docks, soothing streams, hot tubs, game rooms and expansive porches — the perfect place to rest your head after a day of mountain adventures.
Explore More in Franklin & Nantahala
This small town is a destination for gem enthusiasts, history buffs, and Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, which gives residents plenty of chances to share their beloved mountain home.
Take a scenic drive through stunning fall colors, look for waterfalls, go fishing in crystal-clear water, explore kid-friendly hikes, and roll a pumpkin in this mountain town within Nantahala National Forest.
Celebrate the season in this mountain town — no matter what time of year you visit.
This story was published on May 11, 2023