In the economically challenging times in which we live, vacations have often become “staycations” or mini-vacations where one doesn’t spend the night away from home. Also known as “day trips” this area features many interesting places to visit for the price of a picnic lunch and a little gas in the tank.
Our trip begins on a stretch of roadway that shows up on maps as Highway 64 going east from Franklin to Highlands, N.C. In this neck of the woods it is more simply known as, “The Gorge,” a twisting, winding, narrow stretch of road stuck on the side of a mountain. The mountain rises straight up on one side of the road, and the other side looks down sheer, deep drop-offs into the gorge below. This is the Cullasaja Gorge through which the Cullasaja River flows, showcasing numerous magnificent waterfalls and cascades. This 16- to 18-mile drive is also appropriately labeled “The Mountain Waters Scenic Byway.”
Plan for this day trip to be a leisurely drive (a picnic lunch would be a refreshing touch to complete a beautiful experience). This is a stop-and-smell the roses kind of day with hundreds of postcard quality snapshots all around. Enjoy and be absorbed in all the surrounding beauty.
Ten miles from Franklin is the first stop where a cascading waterfall and swimming hole can be viewed on the right side of the road. The swimming hole is deep and, yes, people do jump into the pool and swim. The falls themselves can be dangerous (as any falls will be), so enjoying the pool may be the safest activity here. It is also known as Quarry Falls, and Bust-Yer-Butt Falls.
The next waterfall is only a mile or two past Bust-Yer-Butt, and you have to look quickly so you don’t miss one of the most spectacular views in The Gorge. Cullasaja Falls is 250 feet of cascading white water, which must be viewed from the car. No adequate pull off is available, and this marvelous sight passes by too quickly. It is a breathtaking moment that begs for more time, but necessity will not allow a lingering view.
Fortunately, the crown jewel of this stretch of The Gorge is only a short distance away. Dry Falls is likely the best-known and most visited falls on Highway 64. This is a wide falls, with thousands (or even millions) of gallons of water blasting over the cliffs and dumping into the Cullasaja Gorge waiting 75 feet below. As spectacular as the view is from the observation deck, the biggest thrill of this stop is the ability to walk behind the falling water and look out at the falls from the backside.
During the past few years, Dry Falls has been upgraded and is much more visitor friendly than in the past. The parking area was paved and expanded and a new observation deck was built to allow a great view of the falls without having to walk down the steps and pathway. Dry Falls is only a short walk from the parking lot down an improved path and steps. Rest spots are on the walkway for those who need to take a break along the way.
For those who would like to go behind the waterfall without getting out of the car, then the next waterfall fills the bill. The waterfall is on the left side of Highway 64 and has a water drop of about 120 feet, with a circular drive passing under the waterfall. This attraction has neither the breadth nor power of earlier falls, but has a delicate, lace-like airy quality – hence, the name Bridal Veil Falls.
Approaching Highlands is a series of 18 small falls within a quarter- mile stretch below Lake Sequoyah Dam, running parallel to Highway 64. The multiple cascades here are known as the Kalakaleskies. Roadside access is available, but getting closer to the series of cascades can be a strenuous, somewhat dangerous hike. It is definitely not a place to take a young child.
Now that the tour has arrived in Highlands, the next order of business might be to take a deep breath and relax for a while. It could be a good time to find some food before finishing the waterfall sightseeing trip. From here a couple of options do exist.
The first possibility is an excursion two miles south of Highlands on US 28 to Lower Satulah Falls, also known as Clear Creek Falls. These falls have a high, narrow drop of 100 feet, best viewed from the overlook on Highway 28 just south of the falls.
The last stop for today is Glen Falls, which is off Scaly Mountain Road (NC106) about three miles south of Highlands. A dirt road identified by USFS signs leads into the Blue Ridge Valley area to the parking area near the falls. Glen Falls is actually a series of three waterfalls about 60 feet in height.
Access to the falls is gained by walking a fairly steep one-mile foot trail down to the falls, with some additional hiking to see all three sections. There are a couple of things to remember here. Don’t start your hike too late in the day and do remember that the steep trail goes downhill and is a steep uphill hike back to the parking lot.
This area has many worthwhile waterfalls waiting to be visited. Macon County waterfalls have been highlighted, but one Jackson County waterfall does deserve to be mentioned. That waterfall is on the border of Jackson County, North Carolina and Oconee County, South Carolina – Whitewater Falls. It is the highest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains with a drop of 411 feet in North Carolina and 400 feet in South Carolina. It is more remote than some of the other falls and has remained more unspoiled and undeveloped, but the view is spectacular.
Whitewater is open year round from dawn to dusk. Good parking facilities, picnic tables and shelters, and flush toilets are a definite plus. A minimal parking fee is charged. If you are into waterfalls, then Whitewater Falls is a must see attraction.
Waterfalls are spectacular, wild and beautiful, but they do require some common sense and safety consciousness when viewing them. The safest place to enjoy waterfalls is from the front, not from the top. Go out and enjoy the enormous beauty of this creation, but above all, be safe.