Retreat to the Quaint Little Mountain Town of Highlands, NC

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Advisor - Joslyn Weaver
Curated By

Joslyn Weaver

  • USA

  • North Carolina

  • Active Travel

  • Arts & Culture

  • Domestic Travel

  • Food & Wine

  • Nature Escapes

  • Road Trip Travel

  • Hiking

  • Mountain Town

  • Scenic

Waterfall surrounded by bright green plants and black rocks with light shining through.
Curator’s statement

Highlands is a small mountain town located in the western tip of North Carolina. It borders both Georgia and South Carolina just down the mountain. The entire town consists of only a few traffic lights. Don't let that fool you because this little town is packed with things to do. Downtown Highlands likely has everything you would need during your vacation without the need to use your car. Surrounded by nature, there is an abundance of opportunities for outdoor adventure just a short drive away. Be sure to pack layers and a rain jacket; the climate is like that of a temperate rainforest. Highlands is often a destination wedding location because of all it has to offer couples and groups alike. At an elevation of 4,118, you will see that it dubs itself as "The Height of Happiness" for a reason.

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Where to stay Highlands, North Carolina

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Things to do in Highlands, North Carolina

Fall foliage amongst yellow, red and orange in highlands valley from top of peak.

Shopping in Downtown

Downtown is about four blocks long and three blocks wide. Since Highlands is a plateau, Main Street is relatively flat and easy to walk. Some of the side streets have a pretty steep incline, so pack your walking shoes for a day on the town. Highlands is home to many small business owners.

Locally-owned stores can be found throughout downtown, and it is worth spending a day exploring all of them. You will find jewelry and gem shops such as the Silver Eagle Gallery with handmade, wearable works of art.

Unique clothing and shoe boutiques such as McCulley's Cashmere will send you home feeling cozy and warm. You can peruse antiques and even attend an auction. Gear up for the outdoors at Highland Hiker.

Bring home some décor to remind you of your trip at Dutchmans Casual Living and don't forget to collect some gifts for friends and family at The Dry Sink.

Outdoors and Nature

A ten minute stroll outside of downtown, you will find the Highlands Nature Center and Highlands Biological Station. Stop in the nature center for a quick education on the natural wonders of the area.

Wander the trails through the native plant botanical garden, duck through rhododendron tunnels, listen to the buzz of pollinators busy about their work amongst the wildflowers and stop to rest on a boardwalk by a lake full of water lilies.

When you leave, the entrance to hike up to Sunset Rock is right across the street from the nature center. It is an easy gravel trail that is 1.5 miles up and back with a fantastic view of downtown at sunset or any other time of the day. I suggest packing a picnic and enjoying it on the rock outcropping at the top as you take in the view.

A fifteen minute drive outside of town will take you to the base of Whiteside Mountain Trail. I recommend going early because the parking lot tends to fill up quickly later in the day. The hike is a steep, 2 mile loop that I do not recommend if it has been raining. The panoramic view at the top is off the side of a mountain that has white rock cliffs.

A five minute drive from town, you will find Bridal Veil Falls where you can actually drive your car behind the waterfall. Continue another minute down the road, and you will find a staircase down to Dry Falls where you can walk under another waterfall.

Another fifteen minutes down the road, you can pull off to see Cullasaja Falls which is a postcard-worthy waterfall view. Just past that is the Cullasaja Gorge, and this section of the road is not for the faint of heart so feel free to head back to town.

If golf is more your thing, play a round at Old Edwards Club or High Hampton Inn and Country Club.


There are various seasonal activities going on depending on the time of year that you visit. Kelsey-Hutchinson Founders Park is the hub in town for many activities such as ice skating in winter, craft shows, Fourth of July fireworks, farmer's market and seasonal live music on weekend evenings.

During Halloween on Main, shops hand out candy and kids of all ages get dressed up and go dancing in the street. The Highlands Food & Wine festival is in the fall, and tickets for this event sell out fast.

If you are in town from mid-October through early November, be sure to take a drive up the street 5 miles to the Rhodes Big View Overlook on a sunny day. You will see the “shadow of the bear” phenomenon which is a giant shadow cast onto the mountainside that looks like a bear. It is visible for 30 minutes daily between 5:30-6:15pm.

Fall in Highlands is a sight to behold. With so many deciduous tree species, the spectrum of fall colors is endless.

Arts and Culture

The Mountain Theatre Company at The Highlands Playhouse has both movies and performances throughout most of the year. I recommend catching a performance while you are in town, but be sure to book it in advance.

Stop by The Bascom Center for the Visual Arts to visit their art and sculpture gallery and gift shop.

Places to eat & drink in Highlands, North Carolina

Vegetarian dish in nice rustic restaurant.

Highlands is a foodie paradise, and there are really too many great places to try in just one trip. Highlands has allowed very few chain restaurants, so your experience will be unique no matter where you decide to eat.

I highly recommend making advance reservations for any of the fine dining restaurants you wish to try.

Calders Coffee Cafe: Whether it's a morning wake-up or afternoon pick-me-up, this coffee house is in the center of town which makes it easy to stop in and grab some caffeine.

Blue Bike Cafe: Plan to have breakfast here during your stay. They have cinnamon roll pancakes. Need I say more?

Ristorante Paoletti: An Italian restaurant that has been in town for over a half-century. It is only open for dinner, and it has an extensive wine list with a sommelier on staff.

Lakeside Restaurant: Great location just a block off Main Street on Harris Lake. It is family-owned fine dining with an excellent staff and many seafood options.

Madison's Restaurant and Wine Garden: I recommend dining here if you are staying at Old Edwards. Reservations are for guests of the inn and members only. There is often live music to accompany your dining experience.

Midpoint Highlands: This restaurant features an international menu with flavors from around the globe. Although the menu changes often with the seasons, my favorite is the Cuban Churrasco Steak. I like to finish it off with a super fancy pastry that has layers of flavor and could be mistaken for a work of art.

Four65 Woodfire Bistro + Bar: I love the outdoor seating here, and the pizza is fresh and tasty with unique toppings.

Wild Thyme Gourmet: I recommend lunch and outdoor seating here on a nice day. It is located in a cozy nook of a shopping square. They serve American food with an Asian influence.

Highlands Pizza Place: If you are looking for a quick meal to energize you for the rest of the day, their pizzas are large and fresh. The casual setting is welcoming for all.

SweetTreats: This is where you can create your very own custom-designed ice cream or yogurt. They blend up the flavor of your dreams made-to-order for a unique and delicious experience.

Bridge at Mill Creek: This is a fun spot to grab drinks and a lite bite. It has a nice bar area and overlooks a trout creek.

Ugly Dog Public House: If you are not ready to call it a night, this place is open late for drinks and pub fare.

Other places to dine that are worth mentioning are: The Secret Garden for grab-and-go picnic lunches, Primary Restaurant and Bar, Wolfgang's Restaurant and Wine Bistro and Highlands Wine Shoppe with a self-pour wine bar and outdoor seating to people-watch downtown.

Day trips in Highlands, North Carolina

Highlands canyon with fall foliage on a clear day.

Some of my favorite day trip ideas are white water rafting, horseback riding, renting a pontoon boat and tubing on Lake Glenville, picnicking at Cliffside Lake Recreation Area, snow tubing and gem mining. Extend your trip by traveling on to Asheville, an artsy city that is only a 1.5 hour drive away.

Craving even more adventure? Visit the Highlands Aerial Park for zip lining and a challenge course. Take a sightseeing tour or hike with Highlands Excursion who will pick you up right in downtown. Plan a guided fly fishing trip.

Looking to explore more of North Carolina? Check out my guide to a romantic long weekend getaway in Asheville.

Need to Know

Looking for more inspiration on getting away in the East Coast? Read this luxury and relaxation guide to Virginia or a family-friendly guide to Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA.

Advisor - Joslyn Weaver

Travel Advisor

Joslyn Weaver

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