spring sunset from waterrock knob

Beginner’s Guide to the North Carolina Mountains

Western North Carolina is one of the most scenic regions in the country, with some of the best views, waterfalls, and hiking trails. With all these outdoor activities, it’s essential to know how to safely explore trails, wildlife, and more. Our Beginner’s Guide to the North Carolina Mountains highlights the best ways to enjoy outdoor recreation, sunsets, the best times to visit to avoid crowds, and even how to earn a free souvenir!

Located about an hour west of Asheville, our small towns of Cashiers, Cherokee, Dillsboro, and Sylva are nestled between America’s two favorite National Park sites, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Let our quaint mountain towns serve as your hub for regional adventure and consider these tips before you explore.


Waterfalls | Hiking | Elk & Wildlife | Sunsets | Panthertown Valley | Pet Friendly | Free Souvenir |

Leave No Trace® | Regional Attractions | Best Time to Visit


1) Chasing Waterfalls

Jackson County is home to some of the best waterfalls, with access ranging from a short stroll to rugged treks. Some of the easiest to access include Mingo Falls in Cherokee and Silver Run Falls, Whitewater Falls, Dry Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls in Cashiers. Make sure to remember these top tips when visiting.

  • Plan a weekday visit to avoid the crowds.
  • Be waterfall-wise. Always pay attention to posted signage, stay on designated trails and viewing platforms, and never climb in or above the falls. Rocks are slippery and people have died. To learn more about waterfall safety, visit our Safety Page.
  • Whitewater and Dry Falls require a small $3 parking fee. Bring along some cash or scan the QR code at the entrance.


2) Enjoying the Hiking Trails

There are several hundred miles of trails to choose from in Jackson County, ranging from leisurely & accessible strolls to rugged backcountry treks. Simple strolls include the Tuckasegee River Greenway, Oconaluftee River Trail, and the Whiteside Mountain Trail. Check out Pinnacle Park’s West Fork Trail or the Yellow Mountain Trail for those looking for serious adventures. No matter what level of adventurer you are, there are some things to remember for every hiker.

  • Stay on the trail to avoid unwanted contact with snakes or wildlife and keep the delicate plant and wildflower species from being disturbed. Most snake bites occur when wandering off-trail.
  • Wear adequate footwear for the trail of your choice. Our outfitters have tons of selection in every size and brand if you forget your hiking boots or sandals.
  • Pack a snack and extra water to fuel your adventure!
  • If you plan on hiking at night, bring along a headlamp.
  • Preload offline directions into your GPS to find the trailhead, as some locations have limited cell phone service.
  • Let people know where you’re going and when to expect you back.
  • When camping, use a bear-proof food container.
3) Wildlife Watching

Wildlife as large as elk and as small as salamanders can commonly be spotted in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Oconaluftee Visitor Center is one of the best places to see the elk herd in the Smokies. If you encounter wildlife, keep these tips in mind:

  • When viewing wildlife such as elk or bears, bring along binoculars or a spotting scope. Never get too close to these creatures, as it is illegal to willingly approach wildlife in the Smokies at 50 yards (or 150 feet).
  • How close is too close? Use the ‘Rule of Thumb’ to ensure you’re at a safe distance. Hold your thumb up to the creature. You’re too close if you can still see it around your thumb.
  • Smaller critters such as salamanders can be spotted along the river, and several species are so small that a magnifying glass can be helpful. Keeping these critters safe can be as easy as not stacking rocks and not touching them with your hands.
4) Best Places to Catch a Sunset

It’s tough to beat the stunning views of a sunset in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As the sun sinks below the mountains, a golden glow appears, creating a magnificent display of color. Some of the best places to witness a sunset are the endless vistas along the Blue Ridge Parkway which can easily be accessed by simply driving to an overlook. Check out our Top 8 Golden Hour Spots for more inspiration.

  • Check the Time: open the weather app on your phone to see when sunset occurs. Sunsets can be as late as 9 pm in the summer and as early as 5:30 pm in the winter.
  • Bring along some warm clothes or a blanket. Due to the varying elevation along the parkway, temperatures can get cool quickly. It’s also good to bring folding chairs to relax as some overlooks don’t have benches on site.
  • Don’t get hangry: Since many sunset spots are remote, bring along a picnic. Check out our non-chain restaurants for delicious carryout options.


5) The Only Way to Explore Panthertown Valley

Panthertown Valley is known as the Yosemite of the East due to its stunning views, dozens of waterfalls, and over 30 miles of trails. Panthertown is not a National Park – it’s a rugged backcountry wilderness area for serious adventurers. In addition to our other safety tips, we recommend the following before exploring the valley.

  • Never go without a map! With so many trails and waterfalls, it’s impossible to navigate this area without one—purchase one at the Highland Hiker in Cashiers or online here.
  • Preload the offline maps. The trail is in remote areas where cellphone service can be limited. Find directions to the Salt Rock Gap entrance here.
  • With such a wide variety of trails and terrain, consider your skill level before entering the valley and plan your routes ahead of time.
  • If exploring by mountain bike or on horseback, pay attention to posted signage about which trails are accessible for those activities.


6) Bringing the Pup Along?

Four-legged friends ‘wuff’ the NC Mountains and Jackson County is an excellent place for dogs. With pet-friendly restaurants, breweries, and trails, you’ll always find fun adventures for you and your pup.


7) Drink Craft Beer 

Jackson County is known for its abundance of local craft breweries, and now you can experience over 120 locally crafted ales just in Downtown Sylva. Learn more here.

8) Leave it Better Than you Found it

It takes all of us to help keep our mountains clean and green. Here are some helpful tips to remember when exploring:

  • Follow the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace®: Plan ahead and prepare, travel on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife and be considerate of other visitors.
  • Participate in #TrashTag: Take a bag to collect trash along your hike, post a photo of what you find, and use the hashtag #TrashTag.
  • Fly Fishing Sportsman’s Pledge: Everyone who enjoys the WNC Fly Fishing Trail® is asked to make the following pledge: “As a true sportsman, I pledge to never litter and to avoid trespassing on private lands. I will respect the rights of property owners, and always leave the streams in better condition than I found them.” 
9) Regional Attractions

Make the most out of your trip to the NC Mountains by exploring regional attractions:

10) Best Times to Visit

The best time to visit during the spring and summer months is during the midweek, when you’ll experience less crowded trails, lower wait times at your favorite restaurants, and more mountains for your money with the best room rates. Plan your Midweek Getaway here.

Plan Your Trip

Visiting Jackson County is a great way to disconnect from screens and reconnect with nature. From exploring the great outdoors or relaxing in a hammock by the river, your next great adventure awaits in the Appalachian Mountains. Check out our complete list of lodging for every style and budget. Ready to plan your road trip? Check out our Travel Guide for even more inspiration.

Header Image Courtesy of Jeffery Luke Sutton

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