Black bears, waterfalls, and pastrami: 14 stops on a Highlands-Cashiers Plateau road trip

Nestled in the southwestern corner of North Carolina, surrounded by parks and scenic drives, these mountain towns bring plenty of charm

Photo: Ashley Rossi

The mountain communities of Highlands, Cashiers, Lake Sapphire, and Lake Toxaway offer an escape for city dwellers from Atlanta and Charlotte. But there’s more to do here than just stay for a weekend getaway. Located about 1.5 hours from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Oconaluftee Visitor Center and less than 2 hours from Asheville, this section of North Carolina is an ideal home base for day trips to national forests and the most visited national park in the U.S.

From quaint Main Streets to scenic drives and epic foliage come fall, here’s where to eat, sleep, and hike near the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau. 

Things to do

Nantahala National Forest

The Highlands-Cashiers Plateau is situated in the largest of the state’s four national forests in the southern Appalachians. There are more than 600 miles of trails that offer plenty of roadside waterfalls and easy hikes, like Bridal Veil Falls, Dry Falls, Silver Run Falls, and Whitewater Falls. For something a bit more moderate, consider trails like Glen Falls, High Falls Waterfall at Lake Glenville, Secret Falls, or Whiteside Mountain.   

View of waterfall amongst leaves changing color for fall
View of Dry Falls | Photos: Ashley Rossi
Rushing water from the backside of a waterfall

Gorges State Park

Located near Cashiers is one of North Carolina’s newest state parks. The 3-mile round trip hike to Rainbow Falls is a popular day hike option—or push your limits on the park’s section of the Foothills Trail, which includes a long suspension bridge and primitive campsites. 

The American Museum of the House Cat

For something quirky, stop at the American Museum of the House Cat on your way from the plateau to the national park. The museum houses a private collection of more than 5,000 cat collectibles. Note that due to pandemic-related restrictions, the museum is only offering curated tours by appointment (made via phone at 828-476-9376).  

Visitor center at national park
The Oconaluftee Visitor Center at Great Smoky Mountains National Park | Photo: Ashley Rossi

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

There’s no shortage of day hikes and scenic drives to take in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but if you’re coming from the plateau, you’ll want to enter at the park’s Cherokee entrance. From here, drive the Newfound Gap Road, climb Clingmans Dome, or choose a moderate day hike, like Alum Cave Trail. 

Related: An insider’s guide to hidden gems in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Blue Ridge Parkway 

This popular route is at its best come fall, but is fun to drive at any time of year. It connects Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks, spanning 469 miles. If you’re looking to drive part of the route on a day trip from the plateau, you can enter at the southernmost point, Courthouse Valley Overlook, about 1 hour away from Cashiers at milepost 423.5. From here, drive northwest to Great Smoky Mountains National Park or northeast toward Asheville. 

Related: RV campgrounds near the Blue Ridge Parkway

Sign showing the elevation and points at mountain outlook
A lookout point at the Pisgah Inn | Photo: Ashley Rossi

Pisgah National Forest

Another activity-filled national forest abuts the plateau to the northeast, offering even more opportunities for day hikes and waterfalls. Make stops at Looking Glass Falls, a popular, roadside waterfall; Pisgah Inn, a National Park Service concessionaire-managed lodge with a restaurant, gift shop, and lookout (open seasonally); and the Cradle of Forestry in America, a heritage site with educational programming (also open seasonally). 

Where to eat

Blue Bike Cafe

Grab breakfast at this no-nonsense diner in downtown Highlands. Coffee is served out of mugs donated by customers and the pastrami is smoked in-house. 

Mountain Fresh Grocery

From coffee to pizzas made freshly in an 800-degree wood-fire oven, this specialty grocery store is a must-stop for those needing to stock a vacation rental or campsite, or looking for a roadside pit stop. 


This bustling lunch (and Sunday brunch) restaurant offers counter service in an expansive cottage in Cashiers. It’s a crowd-pleasing spot in its 43rd season and it surprises with delicious and fresh daily specials. 

Highlands Smokehouse

Don’t miss this roadside BBQ joint with the largest underground pit in the U.S. Enjoy your ribs, or other meat of choice, on the expansive deck area. Don’t miss out on the sides—they might be just as good as the smoked meats. 

Where to stay 

Old Edwards Inn & Spa

The historic inn at Old Edwards feels like you’ve traveled to the English countryside. With a spa, pool, fitness center, and onsite dining options, you won’t want to leave this mountain retreat. But if you do decide to venture out, the property’s Volvo Test Drive Program allows you to take a new car for a complimentary spin to nearby hikes and waterfalls. 

Highlander Mountain House

This 18-room boutique hotel charms with Victorian-era taxidermy, wood-burning fireplaces, and an all-day tavern serving regional comfort food. The back bunkhouse is also pet-friendly for those bringing their pup along. 

Hotel keycard "Skyline Lodge" held up in front of courtyard entrance
The courtyard at Skyline Lodge | Photo: Ashley Rossi

Skyline Lodge

Designed by Arthur J. Kelsey, a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright, this newly renovated lodge has 40 rooms and an onsite steak house. It’s slightly removed from downtown Highlands, but surrounded by water features, hiking trails, and yes, some black bears. 

Highlands Hidden Creek

For RVers, splurge with a stay at the secluded Highlands Hidden Creek RV resort. Amenities include full hookups, WiFi, laundry, and a communal fire pit and outdoor kitchen, all within walking distance to downtown. Glampers can book a stay at one of the two stationary Airstreams that come fully stocked.   

Take this trip: