With Mardi Gras right around the corner, it’s time to start thinking about where you’re going to go—if you don’t plan on going to any parades this year. But if drunken reverie isn’t your style, I submit to you a viable alternative—a sleepy mountain town in southwestern North Carolina; it is the exact opposite of our loud, frenetic carnival season. It’s a place of rest that we happened upon quite by accident: Highlands, North Carolina.
In November 2017, during the Thanksgiving holidays, Caleb and I decided to travel north for some hiking. We were growing tired of wandering the hills of West Feliciana parish—the terrain provided only some of the challenging hiking we were looking for. We’d exhausted most hiking spots near us, and after day-hiking a portion of the Appalachian trail in Tennessee the summer prior, we were eager to set foot on it again.
I started Googling Appalachian trail towns, and came across Franklin, North Carolina. After a few weeks of research, we booked an Airbnb, packed our bags, and embarked on an 11-hour drive north.
It was dark by the time we got to our cabin, so the scenic views had to wait till we woke up the next day. But when the first rays of sunlight began to filter through the trees, we knew that we had made a good decision.
We crammed a few granola bars down our throats, filled a thermos with coffee, and hit the road. We had a map of all the local trails and only a few days to see them all, so there was no time to waste.
Franklin is a good 45 minute drive away from the little village that is the focus of this travelogue, and we happened upon it while we were exploring the mountains.
The quaint little town of Highlands: population, less than 1000, elevation: 4,188 ft., appeared quite suddenly after we drove through a maze of switchbacks blanketed by a thick patch of fog.
We drove in stunned silence through the heart of town, completely struck by how picturesque it was. (The fact that there are no pictures of the town in this post is a testament to how distracted I was by its beauty.)
“It’s a literal postcard,” I remember saying. Caleb laughed and made to pull over so we could get out of the car and explore. I squashed this notion by complaining that I wasn’t well-dressed enough. I was in muddy, stinky, sweaty hiking garb. We’d have to come back after we finished hiking for the day. And we did. During our stay, we split our time equally between exploring Highlands and hiking the trails just outside of town.
By the end of our trip, we knew one thing for certain: that we would be back to North Carolina, and when we did return, we knew that we would be staying either in or nearer to the little mountain village we’d discovered by chance. So, when the Mardi Gras break (along with our wedding anniversary) rolled around, we jumped on the opportunity to return to Appalachia, this time booking a small cabin in the valley adjacent to Highlands.
We’d already scoped out the things we wanted to see and do. We had dinner dates planned, hiking trips plotted and mapped, and a spa day booked. (The first of its kind.)
We hiked to waterfalls we hadn’t yet seen.
We woke up with the sun and wandered the woods.
We explored the tiny mountain town we’d come to adore.
Ate way too much food.
And—oh yeah, about that spa day.
We chose the only package that allowed you to give yourself your own treatment—as neither Caleb nor I have ever gotten a massage, or heck, even a pedicure or manicure. Being massaged or primped by strangers is not something that appeals to me. Thankfully, the spa had a package that could accommodate.
Upon entering the spa, we were assigned an attendant who gave us a tour of the facilities and explained to us the benefits of the spa treatment we were about to receive. We listened meekly, tried to pretend that we were fancy enough for the place, and made a valiant effort at masking our slack-jawed awe as he led us through dizzyingly large rooms, each equipped with smiling staff, citrus-infused water, and robe-clad forty-somethings who, to their credit, said nothing about our (clearly out-of-place) presence.
After the tour, we were guided to the treatment wing of the spa, where we were greeted by a room that hosted an intermittent steam-and-rain shower, and a tray full of masks, lotions, and scrubs. We were then left to our devices for half an hour. Which, to someone who may be more interested in a massage or some other assisted spa treatment, doesn’t sound like much—but trust me, it’s still an experience that needs to be had.
There are no pictures of the inside of this place, because, despite my tendency to take pictures of everything everywhere, I decided to heed the request to leave our phones in the locker room. Even as a photographer, I recognize that there are some places that must be experienced. The Old Edwards Spa is one of those places.
After a brief venture to our respective locker rooms, we exited to the solarium: where we sat, sunned ourselves in relaxed silence, read books, and probably napped. (I have no memory of doing this, as it was then that I experienced a meditative state so deep and complete that I left the spa in a dreamy haze.)
Will we be back? Absolutely. As mentioned previously, I’d never been to a spa before, but I can’t help but assume that not all spas are like the one in Highlands. We were stunned (in a good way) by just how nice it was. Between Caleb's teacher's salary and whatever I can scrounge up whilst freelancing, our usual excursions are... well, free. When we travel, we hike a lot, and usually sleep in our little two-person tent. We consider anything with a roof to be luxurious accommodations. This trip was definitely a foray into the unknown.
Old Edwards Inn and Highlands, in general, felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (Although we fully intend to go back.)
On to the recommendations!
Food & Shopping:
-Top of the list: Old Edwards Inn and Spa. I mean, of course. Everything about it—the sleeping arrangements (which we did not partake in but fully intend to, one day,) the restaurants, the shops, and spa—all are expertly curated and literally world-class. (Yes, literally.)
-Madison’s Restaurant and Wine Garden. (Cheating a bit, as it is also located at Old Edwards Inn.) This restaurant has food and service down to an art. Go there. That is all.
-Mountain Fresh Grocery. Get the grits. You will never be the same.
-Bear Mountain Outfitters. These guys saved us when we arrived in Highlands equipped for cold, dry weather and discovered ourselves in the middle of one of the most persistent rainstorms the area had seen in a while.
-Buck's Coffee Cafe. Great coffee, beautiful local art, and an all-around nice place to get your wifi fix after being cooped up in a one-bedroom cabin for a week.
-If you go in the fall, you need to drive up to Whitewater Falls. Not only will you see the fall colors (as we did during our first trip to the region back in November,) you will also have breathtaking views of the highest waterfall east of the Rockies. If you don’t go in the fall, drive up there anyway. It is so worth it.
-Highlands Nature Center. We discovered the place during our second trip, and it was beautiful even in the middle of winter. I’m sure it’s even moreso if you go in the spring!
-Cullasaja Falls. Actually, pretty much any waterfall you find on a map. (The visitor's centers in either Highlands or Franklin will give you a free map and great recommendations as well.) Dry Falls is also a must-see—you can walk behind the waterfall on an elevated footpath.
-Best hikes: any trail you see on the map, but especially the hike to Glen Falls.
Don’t forget to take the time to just drive around the mountains of Nantahala National Forest. You’ll find yourself stopping to take in the views every 50 yards. Luckily, the roads are well-maintained with ample turnouts and picnic sites dotting the landscape, so you'll have no problem doing so!