We’re all looking to satisfy our sense of adventure and reconnect with authentic experiences, and Jackson County is just the place to do it.
Located about an hour west of Asheville, the towns of Cashiers, Cherokee, Dillsboro, and Sylva are your basecamp for regional exploration in the western North Carolina Mountains. From secret lakeside waterfalls only accessible by boat to endless miles of hiking in pristine National Forests, explore these top 12 hidden gems.
- Balsam Lake – If you can imagine a lake that truly is as “off the beaten path” as advertised, Balsam Lake is just that. This tiny jewel is nestled in the Roy Taylor National Forest and delivers a relaxing escape from the region’s crowded and more popular lakes. Bring a kayak, paddleboard, or fishing pole to enjoy a lake experience uninterrupted by the sounds and waves of motorboats, and soak in the gentle sounds of chirping birds and the breeze rustling through the trees. On-site, have a picnic at the public day-use area, relax on the lake loop trail, and in the evening turn in at Balsam Lake Lodge for an overnight stay (advance reservations required).
- Panthertown Valley – is revered as being one of the most beautiful backcountry areas in the country. Known as the ‘Yosemite of the East,’ Panthertown is home to over 30 miles of multi-use trails, over a dozen waterfalls, and a wide array of backcountry campsites for backpacking. Iconic waterfalls include Schoolhouse Falls, Granny Burrell Falls, and Greenland Creek Falls. If you plan to explore, be sure to pick up a map first, either online or at the Highland Hiker in Cashiers.
- Shadow of the Bear – Fall is right around the corner, and now is the best time to make your plans to witness an international phenomenon that can only be seen in Jackson County, NC – The Shadow of the Bear. On sunny days between mid-October and early November, as well as between mid-February and early March, the setting sun casts a bear-shaped shadow off of Whiteside Mountain into the valley below. The shadow can be witnessed along U.S. Highway 64 between Cashiers and Highlands from the Rhodes Big View Overlook. Due to its popularity, we recommend visiting on a weekday, or during the Bear’s ‘Secret Season’ showing from February to March. Keep in mind, The Bear doesn’t make an appearance on cloudy days.
- Cashiers Sliding Rock – During the summer months, one of the best ways to cool off is by experiencing a swimming hole in the NC Mountains. Cashiers Sliding Rock offers the perfect place for families to enjoy a day in the water without the crowds or the intimidating size of neighboring Sliding Rock in Brevard. Located a short drive from the village of Cashiers, Sliding Rock is located on Whiteside Cove Road near Grimshawes Post Office (which we’ll get to in a minute).
- Pines Recreation Area – Located on the scenic shores of Lake Glenville, the Pines Recreation Area provides the unique opportunity to enjoy the best of the beach in the mountains. Complete with a sandy swim beach, an accessible fishing pier, picnic benches, and restrooms, you can pack a picnic and relax the day away at this lakeside oasis. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the cool mountain breeze on a sandy shore without worrying about riptides, sharks, or jellyfish. For the best experience, make sure to visit on a weekday when the crowds thin out.
- Lake Glenville Hidden Waterfalls – Lake Glenville’s 26 miles of shoreline are made even better with its four hidden cascades. Norton, Hurricane, Mill Creek, and Hidden Falls are accessible only by watercraft and well worth the paddle or pontoon ride. Rentals are available at Signal Ridge Marina or Lakeshore Marina.
- Soco Falls – is one of the best-kept secrets in the mountains. This awe-inspiring dual cascade is one of a kind and requires a short, but very steep, hike to access the base of the falls. Be sure to pack a pair of sturdy hiking boots or shoes for this one! The falls can be found off the Blue Ridge Parkway Soco Gap exit to onto U.S. Highway 19 (Soco Road). Head towards Cherokee on Soco Road for 1.4 miles and keep your eyes peeled to the left for a small parking area with a sign for ‘Soco Falls.’
- Sylva Murals – If you’ve visited downtown Sylva, you know about its vibrant art scene. The Sylva Arts Council has assisted in bringing the funky and fun vibes to life in a visible display downtown with several murals on Mill Street (also known as back street). Starting from the corner of Mill and Main Street, where Ilda and Innovation are, you can head right down Mill Street to see the first of four murals. The “Wings” mural is located to the left on the backside of Livingstons Photo and is a great place for a photo op (without the hour-long wait at Nashville’s wing mural!). Directly across the street, you’ll see the iconic ‘Sylva’ mural on the backside of Ward’s Plumbing and Heating. Head further down Mill Street to see the ‘Rainbow Wall’ mural, the oldest of the three, which has always brought a fun splash of color to our downtown. Finally, head back up to Main Street and find Lulu’s On Main, where there’s a fun mural of a cat with some mice stealing cheese – a “pur”-fect stop for kids and cat lovers!
- Grimshawes Post Office – was America’s smallest Post Office for 75 years, from 1878-1953. It can be found along Whiteside Cove Road, just a short drive from downtown Cashiers and on the way to Cashiers Sliding Rock. It now stands as a quirky roadside attraction, informational display and family photo op.
- Judaculla Rock – Located just outside of Cullowhee towards Cashiers on NC-107 South, Judaculla Rock is a Cherokee landmark that dates back thousands of years. This soapstone boulder contains one of the most defined petroglyph collections in the state and is completely free to visit. Cherokee legend states that the rock was used as a landmark of the Hunting god Tsukalu (Judaculla). The story is told vividly on several kiosks located around the rock.
- Museum of the Cherokee Indian/Oconaluftee Indian Village – Both of these museums offer unique ways to learn the history and heritage of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian vividly tells the story of the Cherokee people through interactive displays, ancient arrowhead collections, and so much more. Located just up the hill behind the museum, the Oconaluftee Indian Village offers the unique opportunity to become immersed in Cherokee culture. Witness live demonstrations of basket weaving, canoe building, and other historical traditions of the Cherokee.
- Mingus Mill – A mile from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee at the entrance to the Great Smokies, Mingus Mill has been grinding cornmeal for over 135 years. Now as a museum, it tells the story of early settlers of the Appalachian Mountains. If you want to stretch your legs a bit, you can hike the Mingus Creek/Deeplow Gap Trail near the mill and follow the creek that powers it.
Shops and More to Explore
Dillsboro – is an artisan village providing a great place to stroll, along with some retail therapy! Home to several locally-made arts & crafts shops, you won’t want to miss Dogwood Crafters. This charming store is a co-op of over 100 local artisans and has been selling crafts for more than four decades in the heart of Dillsboro. Dillsboro is also home to several non-chain dining options, including one of America’s favorite BBQ restaurants, Haywood Smokehouse. Also check out Foragers Canteen, Rivers and Rails Tavern, and Front Street Takeout.
Sylva – Charming, walkable, and vibrant represent this small town’s characteristics. Towering over it is the Historic Courthouse (now library), one of the most photographed buildings in the state with views from atop the steps providing views for miles of the Plott Balsam Mountains. Sylva’s charm continues as you’ll find shops around every block worth exploring, including four antique stores, three bookstores (including a rare finds bookstore), and several award-winning dining options. A Sylva staple, The Coffee Shop has been serving up homemade pies and traditional southern breakfast with all the fixins’ since 1926. Make sure to stop by for a plate full of southern-style goodness!
Cashiers – sits on a high plateau at 3,484 feet. Its elevation keeps it around 10 degrees cooler than in Sylva, and its home to elevated shopping, home decor, art galleries, and fine dining. Make sure to explore the Village Green, a 13.5-acre park in the heart of the Cashiers Crossroads. There you’ll find a relaxing escape in the center of town with walking trails, picnic tables, exquisitely kept gardens, and for the kids, the Village Play and Story Walk®.
Jackson County – Your Hidden Gem
The NC Mountain towns of Jackson County offer unique experiences, big flavors, and the relaxing off-the-beaten-path vacation you’re looking for. The best part – you can rest assured with some of the best room rates in the region, you’re paying up to a quarter of what you would in Asheville, with even more to explore! Check out our lodging options ranging from boutique hotels, resorts, vacation rentals, hotels, and more. Be in the middle of the most and start planning your low-key escape today using our Trip Planner
Header image courtesy of @tiffanyloggins