Whether you’re looking for a change of scenery, an escape from the heat, or challenging outdoor adventures, Jackson County, North Carolina is an easy getaway to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The four quaint communities of Cashiers, Cherokee, Dillsboro and Sylva in Jackson County, North Carolina welcome you with small-town hospitality in the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains. Just 2 ½ hours northeast of Atlanta, the area is a hidden gem in the Blue Ridge Mountains’ natural paradise. Options for active exploring, tranquil relaxation or extreme sports allow you to choose your own adventure.
Take a Hike
With summits of 6,000+ feet, hiking in Jackson County offers incredible views, challenging elevation gains and cooler air. You’ll enjoy blooms for days depending on when you go—delicate ephemerals such as trillium and lady slipper orchids this time of year, redbud and dogwood later in the spring, then the mountain laurel and rhododendron fill the forests in May and June. Do stop and smell the flowers.
Trails are everywhere, and you can choose from several moderate to strenuous hikes that lead to breathtaking summits. At Pinnacle Park in Sylva, an elevation gain of around 3,000 feet over a 7-mile loop trail provides the ultimate reward—360-degree, panoramic views of the valley and mountain peaks rising beyond.
The mountain streams offer more than two dozen waterfalls in and around Jackson County. It’s a short walk to the lovely Silver Run Falls just outside Cashiers. The 25-foot waterfall cascades into a cool, clear swimming hole.
For the ultimate immersive nature experience, slow down and take a guided forest therapy walk. Mark Ellison of Pinnacle Forest Therapy is trained in the Japanese practice of forest bathing, which is a calm, mindful stroll through Pinnacle Park, staying at lower elevations and experiencing the restorative power of nature.
If you enjoy testing your limits with extreme trail running, sign up for the 10th annual Assault on BlackRock, a 7-mile trail race to the summit and back. The March 21st uphill-downhill run on rocky dirt trails benefits the Humane Society of Jackson County.
Ride it Out
If you’d rather see the sights on two wheels, Western North Carolina is known for some of the best mountain biking in this part of the country. Cherokee’s Fire Mountain Trails, which opened in 2017, have a multi-use trail system with more than 10 miles described as “fast, flowy” singletrack with “quick hits of elevation” and 20+ switchbacks.
If your speed is more leisurely or family-friendly, the Tuckasegee River Greenway near Sylva is a mostly shady, paved one-mile trail with a scenic bridge crossing.
Bicycle rentals are available from Motion Makers Bicycle Shops in Cherokee and Sylva.
“It’s a little more climbing than Santos, but still really fun,” asserts owner Kent Cranford. Many mountain bikers from North Carolina come to Ocala for the Santos Fat Tire Festival, he explains, and points out that the Tsali trails, known as the “granddaddy single-track system of the Southeast” are just down the river in nearby Whittier.
For extreme endurance racing, the Fire Mountain Inferno held in early May is a weekend of mountain bike cross-country racing with levels from the beginner 8.7-mile route to the expert 16-mile strenuous route.
Equestrians know that the only thing better than seeing the sights on two wheels is viewing the scenery from between two ears. In Cherokee, Smokemont Riding Stables offers one-to-four-hour waterfall and trail rides at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as well as an all-ages wagon ride along the river.
Down the road from Cashiers, in nearby Sapphire, Whitewater Equestrian Center offers scenic rides along Native American trails and historic logging roads with mounts that include striking Gypsy Vanner horses.
The Tuckasegee River, known as the “Tuck,” flows through nearly the entire length of Jackson County. This mountain river is the hub of eco-tourism, a favorite for fishing, paddling, kayaking and rafting.
Even first-time rafters and families can enjoy a float downriver here, and Dillsboro River Company promises “mom-approved whitewater” with Class I and II rapids. Several people can hop in an inflatable blue “duck” raft for a fun, exhilarating guided trip or you can rent a two-person kayak for a self-guided paddle.
The company even rents the two-bedroom guest suite above the shop for a cozy, convenient lodging option to stay right on the river.
To kick it up a couple of notches, plan your trip when the Lake Glenville Dam releases whitewater into the Tuck, creating class IV rapids. There are six releases planned for this spring and summer.
Cast a Line
The 50-mile-long Tuck is the heart of the Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail, which boasts 15 prime spots to catch trout, and Jackson County claims the title North Carolina Trout Capital.
Both Dillsboro and Sylva participate in the Mountain Heritage Trout Water program, which allows visitors to purchase a super-affordable three-day fishing license and borrow a rod, reel and mini-tackle box for the day.
Or, for the ultimate fly fishing experience, let an outfitter such as Brookings Anglers in Cashiers take care of everything. The expert guides consistently get rave reviews for their friendly assistance and patience with first-time fishermen and women. They also offer a historic, five-bedroom hilltop rental cabin for a peaceful mountain escape.
No matter which adventure you choose, you’ll come back hungry, and all four towns offer an array of eateries with plenty of fresh, farm-to-table options.
If you want to fuel up for a big day of adventure, the landmark Sylva Coffee Shop serves hearty, cooked-to-order breakfasts the same way they have since 1926.
With all menu items under $10, you can afford to come back later for a burger and a delectable slice of pie.
There are numerous options for lunch and dinner, including craft breweries, which are popular throughout the region.
Guadalupe in downtown Sylva offers a funky, farm-to-table, tropical fusion menu in a restored 1920s drugstore and soda fountain. Their signature dishes are as diverse as curry goat, buffalo burgers and mango pork tacos with blackened plantains.
Just down the street, Innovation Brewing has an impressive 32 handcrafted ales on tap, including local mainstay brews like Bear Lake Brown and Black Balsam Porter as well as “funky” sour ales and seasonal rotations including Apple Butter Brown and Peach Jalapeno Ale. There’s even an alcohol-free homemade ginger ale that’s a favorite with all ages.
After a river trip in Dillsboro, head to the historic downtown train depot that’s now home to Foragers Canteen, where almost everything on the menu “traveled less than 200 miles.” Unique entrees include chicken and waffle tacos and the Chili Mac Burger topped off with a macaroni and cheese medallion. Don’t skip the appetizers—they offer a charcuterie board with extras like pickled vegetables and local honey. For a unique salty-savory indulgence, order A Toast to Bacon! to share. It’s a rustic wood platter with a mountain of candied and smoked bacon served with fresh pesto and pimento cheese for dipping.
In Cashiers, Whiteside Brewery is a fun place to enjoy a casual brew inside, with views of the brewing operation, or under a rustic, dog-friendly outdoor pavilion. The unusual and delicious concoctions they call “mountain life in a glass” may include Choco-Lime Porter or Two-Layer Cream Ale, which is brewed with real birthday cake. Their beer cheese makes its way onto small plate pairings such as warm pretzel bites with beer cheese and barbecue pulled pork and beer cheese nachos, and they offer a full menu of burgers, sandwiches and salads. Friendly owners Bob and Lise Dews also operate the Laurelwood Inn next door, with traditional rooms, log cabin suites and a private log cabin that sleeps up to four.
For an unforgettable date night dinner, head to Cashiers’ Lonesome Valley, where Food and Wine’s Most Romantic Restaurant in North Carolina offers Executive Chef Ken Naron’s award-winning nouveau Southern cuisine. Start your dining experience with “nature’s aperitif”—a signature cocktail created with local spirits such as Sutler’s Small Batch Gin enjoyed while strolling the rolling meadow or taking in the sweeping mountain views from an Adirondack chair on the expansive lawn. You can glimpse the picturesque kitchen gardens where they grow much of their own produce. The four-course prix fixe menu changes daily with the freshest flavors artfully garnished with just-picked herbs.
After dinner on a summer Friday evening, both Sylva and Cashiers host free, open-air concerts. Concerts on the Creek in Sylva feature live country, rock and bluegrass to be enjoyed from your lawn chairs or blanket, and Groovin’ On The Green in Cashiers offers a variety of musical programs to enjoy on the dog-friendly Village Green.
Stay the Night
Halfway between Sylva and Cashiers is a perfect lodging option for families and groups—the secluded Bear Lake Reserve, a vacation home community general manager Craig Smith calls “down-to-earth excellence.” The houses are dispersed through the woods along a road that climbs to a Nicklaus-designed golf course at the top. That’s where residents and guests gather to view striking sunsets and panoramic views. Be warned, however, you may not want to leave this sprawling resort, with its scenic lake, swimming beach and Lake Club for dining and poolside drinks like their signature Jackson County Redhead. Just two hours down the road from where Dirty Dancing was filmed, Bear Lake continues a full schedule of the kind of activities Baby enjoyed at the fictional Kellerman’s Resort—from guided hikes and paddleboard lessons to wine tastings and family movie nights.
Do you hear that? It sounds like rushing water—way off in the distance. It’s the mountains calling, and adventure awaits.