Countless visitors flock to Jackson County, NC every year to experience the area’s unbeatable hiking trails. Considering the temperate mountain climate, natural beauty and diverse wildlife, it is not hard to see why it is such a popular destination for novice and advanced hikers alike.
Wind through a variety of landscapes ranging from picturesque peaks to rolling valleys, and past cascading waterfalls by hiking these eight recommended trails. Each hike offers a unique experience, view and sense of accomplishment, so why not check them all off the list!
Grab a Jackson County hiking map and work your way UP from the relatively easy scenic strolls to the heart pumping mountain climbs. Any route you choose will be a great way to spend time outdoors while playing on in Jackson County.
Panthertown Valley Loop: Cashiers, NC — Distance: 3.3 miles
Panthertown Valley is known as the Yosemite of the East and hosts more than 30 miles of backcountry trails in its 6,295 acres of the Nantahala National Forest. With so many miles of scenic trails, it’s hard to decide which path to take. The Panthertown Valley Loop (trail 474) is the most popular and gives an all-encompassing taste of what Panthertown has to offer, taking you from the east entrance at Cold Mountain to the west entrance at Salt Rock. The hike rolls moderately through the valleys and rocky granite outcrops, and hikers will cross over Panthertown Creek and Greenland Creek.
Hop on one of the many different side trails from Panthertown Valley Trail to see some of Panthertown’s most popular waterfalls including Schoolhouse Falls, Granny Falls, Frolicktown Falls and Wilderness Falls. It’s recommended to grab a copy of Burt Korneygay’s A Guide’s Guide to Panthertown before setting out on the trails. Visit www.panthertown.org to learn more.
Pinnacle Park: Sylva, NC — Distance: 7 miles round-trip
Known as one of the more difficult hikes in the area for both its elevation and distance, Pinnacle Park’s strenuous climb to the summit reaches almost 1,800 feet of elevation gain. The final ascent ends at a rocky outcrop that juts out showcasing a 270-degree view of the surrounding towns of Balsam, Cullowhee, downtown Sylva and Franklin.
Don’t stop short! When you get to the top and reach a flat, narrow clearing surrounded by mountain laurel, keep going straight and to the left through a narrow path of rhododendron to reach the spectacular view.
If hikers are up for an even more challenging option, they can take the 0.3-mile spur trail near the top of the mountain, where they will climb almost 650 feet in elevation to the peak of BlackRock Mountain. Some portions of this trail require hikers to pull themselves up by tree branches and to scramble over rock formations. After a strenuous hike, the reward is an incredible 360-degree view of the Plott Balsams mountain range. Extreme adventurists are encouraged to participate in the epic spring trail race, Assault on BlackRock Mountain, where participants run up and down the steep mountain.
Whiteside Mountain: Cashiers, NC — Distance: 2-mile loop
Ever wanted to hike along the Eastern Continental Divide? The moderate 2-mile loop at Whiteside Mountain takes you on a trek over rocks that are estimated to be 390 to 460 million years old. The ridgeline features a number of overlooks where hikers can stop to take in the incredible views from Georgia to North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains. Known as the Jewel of the Appalachians, the mountain’s name is inspired by the bald, rocky, white-streaked quartz and feldspar on the south-facing rock. At the summit, hikers will reach the highest vertical drop (750 feet) in the eastern United States, where they can safely look over the wire fencing and down the steep granite rock face, that was caused by years of erosion. During the spring and summer, hikers should keep an eye out for the endangered peregrine falcons which are known to occasionally soar above, or nest on one of the many rock’s outcrops.
High Falls Trail at Lake Glenville: Cashiers, NC — Distance: 3 miles round-trip
During certain times of the year, the normally dormant High Falls waterfall turns into a powerful flow of whitewater during the Glenville Dam release. Those who aren’t up for paddling the Class IV rapids can hike down to the 150-foot High Falls, and watch the kayakers take on the challenge. The hike descends steeply down to the river’s banks in a total of 650 feet in 0.75 miles on 75 flights of manmade stairs. The rushing waters of High Falls can be heard long before reaching the fall itself. When the hike is done, head across the way to Pines Rec Area and take a dip at Sandy Beach for a little R&R. After this trek, you deserve it!
Yellow Mountain: Cullowhee, NC — Distance: 9.6 miles round-trip
Looking for a more challenging climb to the top? The Yellow Mountain Trail will take trekkers on a difficult hike over the forests and through the woods ending at an old stone and wood fire tower. The tower can be climbed for an even better overhead view of the mountainous terrain below. Hikers will go through gradual ups and downs through thick forests and thickets of rhododendron before having to tackle the final climb from the Yellow Mountain gap to its 5,127-foot peak, where the fire tower awaits. On the way back down, be sure to stop off at the spur trail overlook on Shortoff Mountain (about 1.5 miles on the right side of the trail), to enjoy the views of the Nantahala National Forest in the distance.
Richland Balsam: Waynesville, NC — Distance: 1.5-mile loop
Richard Balsam is the highest peak on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and is located right here in Jackson County! At 6,410 feet, the summit is the highest in the Great Balsam Mountains as well. While hiking this easily navigable loop hike, it is unlikely to see the same thing twice. The trail will wind through spruce forests filled with Fraser and Balsam firs and mountain maples. Being this high up in the mountains has its perks, as the peaks are often much cooler than the valley towns below. No matter what time of year, the summit will offer a spectacular view, whether it’s of lush greenery in summer or the vibrant reds and golds in fall. This is the perfect hike for an outdoor family adventure.
Waterrock Knob: Sylva, NC — Distance: 2.4 miles round-trip
The hike to Waterrock Knob is a fairly steep 1.2-mile climb, but the views along the uphill trek make the ascent worth every step. As you approach the summit, you’ll see the Great Smoky Mountains, Maggie Valley and the Blue Ridge Parkway in the distance. We recommend heading out for this hike early in the morning or evening to catch a breathtaking sunrise and/or sunset. Insider tip: Pack a picnic basket and enjoy dinner with a view!
Wet Camp Gap: Tuckasegee, NC — Distance: 2.6 miles round-trip
Known as a popular local blueberry-picking destination, Wet Camp Gap is an easy, family-friendly hike with about 60 feet in total elevation gain. The grassy trail gets its name from the relatively wet surfaces, where moisture gathers on the mountains. The narrow trail cuts through a spruce-filled forest, descending to the grassy field of Wet Camp Gap after 1.3 miles. This trail is perfect for those looking to explore Jackson County’s natural beauty through more of a leisurely stroll, rather than a heart-pounding climb.
Jackson County’s comprehensive hiking map features 19 waterfalls, nine hiking trails, three multiple-use trails for riding or biking, five semi-private or public golf courses, three whitewater rafting and water sports outfitters and three horseback riding locations. Find it online or at Visitor Centers in the area.