Highlands is laced with trails perfect for the tenderfooted novice as well as the steel-soled strider. These are some of our favorites:
Sunset Rock is an easy 1.2 round trip hike that’s a stone’s-throw from downtown Highlands (please don’t throw stones). At its summits, it offers breathtaking views of sunset over Highlands and Brushy Face and the pastoral grandeur of Horse Cove.
To locate the trail, take Main Street east from the intersection of Highways 28 and 64 a half-mile to the Highlands Nature Center. Park here and follow the sign indicating a gravel road to Sunset Rock and Ravenel Park. Although the trail is marked "Hiking Trail Only" it is a private drive so do not park as to block it. The road ends at a monument for Ravenel Park. Sunset Rock is to the right.
If you’re traveling from Cashiers, take US 64 west to Highlands -- at the light on Main Street turn left.
This excellent loop, designated a National Recreation Trail, climbs to the top of Whiteside Mountain, with its spectacular 700' high cliff walls lofting the hiker for amazing views. Take a camera, as the cliff-top views are lined with beautiful mountain laurel which blooms in mid-june. See relics from the past, when Whiteside Mountain was a tourist attraction. You'll pass through some pleasant woods along the way.
From the corner of Main Street and NC 106 in Highlands, follow US 64 East for 5.4 miles. Turn right onto Whiteside Mt. Rd. (SR 1600). There is a sign for Whiteside Mountain Recreation Area. Follow for 1 mile to the signed parking area on the left. There is a $2.00/day area use fee at Whiteside Mountain Recreation Area.
Across the street from Sunset Rock is the Highlands Botanical Gardens, an endlessly fascinating stroll that features a little waterfall and a wetlands boardwalk. The unique members of the Highlands botanical community are labeled for convenience. The Botanical Garden offers 12 acres of native plants in a diversity of natural habitats, from upland woods to cove forest and wetland. Special features include a native azalea garden, Plants of the Cherokee, a butterfly garden, and the station’s own self-guided Bartram Trail consisting of 30 native plants associated with 17th century naturalist William Bartram.
Satulah Mountain Summit is a one-mile roundtrip hike down an old road bed to the 4,543-foot crown. The peak is classified as a heath bald and offers vistas of three states. Ascending the trail, you first encounter a forest of northern red oak, white oak, and chestnut oak. At the first switchback there’s a remarkable stand of mountain pepperbush overhanging the trail. Both chinquapin and witch hazel are common shrubs here. The trail leads to a stunted, virgin oak forest. At the trail fork, go right.
As you approach the summit, the forest becomes heath (rhododendron) with stunted white oak. The dwarf white oaks at the summit are 200 years old. This is a zone with dwarfed pitch pine, where a 200-year-old tree may be only 10 inches in diameter. The first purple rhododendron is encountered along with the first pines. Chinquapin is abundant. The summit provides the best look at unusual plants growing only on the bare granite rock so characteristic of the cliffs of this area and those along the Chattooga headwaters. Twisted hair spike moss forms large, thick mats on the upper cliffs. Sand myrtle grows only at the outer edge of the ground cover extending onto the rocks. A rare juniper forms low-spreading, wind-pruned growth.
The summit provides the best look at unusual plants growing only on the bare granite rock so characteristic of the cliffs of this area and those along the Chattooga headwaters. Twisted hair spike moss forms large, thick mats on the upper cliffs. Sand myrtle grows only at the outer edge of the ground cover extending onto the rocks. A rare juniper forms low-spreading, wind-pruned growth.
Exploring the summit, you’ll find curious potholes, the basement of a former fire tower, and patches of soil forming in moist depressions in the naked rock. Often on other outcrops, the niche of the pitch pine is filled by the nearly extinct table mountain pine, and hemlocks include the rare Carolina hemlock. In the spring the evergreen heaths on these balds present unequalled wildflower displays. The mountain summit is protected and offered for public use and education by the Satulah Summit and Ravenel Park Inc.
From downtown Highlands, turn south on NC 28 and proceed up Fourth Avenue to Satulah Road. Follow the Satulah Summit signs, bearing right at the fork. Walk about .5 mile to the end of the pavement and continue another .3 mile to a set of steep wooden stairs just before the road dead-ends into a gated private drive. The stairs begin the trail to the summit. When the trail forks, take the right fork.
If rare botanical treasures pique your interest, travel east on Highlands’ Main Street in Highlands into Horse Cove. You’ll come to Rich Gap Road on the right.
Approximately 200 feet up Rich Gap Road on the right is the path to a giant poplar, the second largest in North Carolina and one of the three largest in the country. There is a direction sign to the tree. Back on Horse Cove Road, continue east to the fork at the end of the pavement. The right fork is Bull Pen Road, a beautiful, one-lane, gravel road that is something of a hiking trail for cars. Bull Pen Road crosses the Chattooga River on an iron bridge (named, astonishingly, Iron Bridge). By the bridge is a good place to stop and view the river. The water has worn basins in the rocks from the size of a thumbprint to larger than washtubs.
From Bull Pen Road there is access to Chattooga River Cliffs Trail, Chattooga Loop Trail, the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River, Bad Creek Trail, Ellicott Rock Trail, and Ammons Branch Campground. The road returns to NC 107 south of Cashiers.
The left fork from Horse Cove Road is Whiteside Cove Road. A fine view from the bottom of Whiteside Mountain can be found in Whiteside Cove. This road returns to NC 107 in Cashiers.
Glen Falls Trail is 2.8 miles round-trip, with a 15-minute hike to the first falls. The trail leads to a majestic series of three cascading waterfalls. One of the advantages of this trail is that you can return after seeing the first or second waterfall, and still have an enjoyable walk.
A gravel, one-lane Forest Service road approximately 1.5 miles southwest of Highlands on NC 106 leads to Glen Falls. Follow this road about a mile to the parking area and a sign for Glen Falls Scenic Area. It is a short, half-mile walk to the falls. Glen Falls is a series of three falls, approximately 60 feet each, on the east fork of Overflow Creek. A steep, one1-mile trail with steps and places to rest goes down to the bottom of the falls, where the view is better. Be cautious, as the trail has washed away in some places. The trail continues down into Blue Valley Campground (primitive). Blueberries and rhododendron grow in the area. Glen Falls offers a magnificent vista over northeastern Georgia and northwestern South Carolina, the pristine Chattooga River valley.
The 3.2 mile Chinquapin Mountain Trail starts at the Glen Falls parking area. Take the trail on the right and cross the East Fork on a large log bridge. The trail continues along a tributary, crossing it several times on rocks and logs. This can be wet and slippery.
The second trailhead for Chinquapin Mountain starts on SR 106 and makes a 1/4 mile descent to its junction with the trail from Glen Falls.
After the junction of the two trails, the Chinquapin Trail ascends to the top on a set of 10 switchbacks. On the ridge line at the top there are three overlooks with views of Blue Valley. The first two are near the trail, while the third is reached on a steep 1/4 mile trail. Continue on the trail as it begins its descent. Before a "T" intersection there are two additional overlooks which have short trails. At the intersection, turn right on a fairly level trail section to the sixth switchback to Chinquapin. This intersection completes the loop. Backtrack the remainder of the way.
Cliffside Lake Recreation Area boasts numerous hiking opportunities, including an interpretive loop trail describing shrubs and trees along the Cliffside Vista Trail. The half-mile loop around the lake offers hikers an easy walk that is quite level. This recreation area's swimmable lake, campground, and network of short, manageable trails make this an ideal location for adventurous families. You're also close to sights such as 120-foot Bridal Veil Falls, with a popular pull-off where you can drive your car under the cascade.
Take US 64 northwest from Highlands for 4 miles, turn right (north) on Forest Service Road 57 for 2 miles. There are signs for directions into the area.
The moderate Chattooga Narrows Trail offers a three-mile workout surrounded by nature’s beauty.
From Cashiers, take NC 107 South for 1.7 miles to Whiteside Cove Road. Turn right and proceed 6.8 miles to Macon/Jackson county line, look for the Highlands Fire District sign and park on left.
From Highlands, go east on Main Street, which becomes Horse Cove Road, for 4.5 miles to the intersection with Bull Pen and Whiteside Cove Roads. Take a left onto Whiteside Cove Road and proceed 0.9 miles to trailhead.
Follow an old logging road for one mile to the junction with the Chattooga River Trail. Continue on the road 0.1 miles to the Chattooga River Narrows. At the Narrows, the Chattooga River is just a few feet wide. After viewing the river backtrack 0.1 miles to Chattooga River Trail junction and turn left. In 0.3 miles, just before Cane Creek, look for the trail to the right. Turn right and follow the path upstream. After two-tenths of a mile, cross Cain Creek on a log or take the path to the right and ford the stream. Follow Holly Branch for a tenth of a mile to a logging road (FR 2025) and turn right. Follow the road for eight-tenths of a mile to rejoin Whiteside Cove Road. Turn right and walk three-tenths of a mile to the starting point.
The two-mile Chattooga Loop Trail begins to the left of the Iron Bridge. From Highlands, proceed east on Main Street, into Horse Cove to the intersection with Bull Pen and Whiteside Cove Roads. Turn right onto Bull Pen Road and proceed for 3.1 miles to Iron Bridge. The trailhead is on left just before the bridge. From Cashiers, proceed on NC 107 south for seven miles and turn right onto Bull Pen Road. Proceed for 5.4 miles to the Iron Bridge. The trailhead is on the right on the far side of the bridge.
The Chattooga River Trail is six miles and difficult enough to challenge serious hikers. The trailhead used to start from the Whiteside Cove Church, but a new trailhead and parking area has been built on Whiteside Cove Road four-tenths of a mile east of the church. From Cashiers, take NC 107 south for 1.7 miles to Whiteside Cove Road. Turn right and proceed 4.25 miles to the parking area located on the left. From Highlands, go east on Main Street for 4.5 miles to intersection with Bull Pen and Whiteside Cove Roads. Take a left onto Whiteside Cove Road and proceed 3.45 miles to the parking area, located on the right.
Bull Pen Bridge Trail is a beautiful, scenic 6.25-mile trail following the Chattooga River upstream from Iron Bridge at Bullpen Road to Whiteside Cove Road. The trail can be steep at points but is not particularly difficult. Much of this trail passes through a rhododendron canopy with numerous views of the river.
From Highlands, go east on Main Street to the intersection of Bull Pen and Whiteside Cove Roads. Turn right onto Bull Pen Road and proceed for 3.1 miles to Iron Bridge. The trailhead is on the left just before the bridge. From Cashiers, take NC 107 south for 1.8 miles and turn right onto Whiteside Cove Road. Proceed for 7.7 miles to the intersection of Horse Cove and Bull Pen Roads. Turn left onto Bull Pen Road and proceed 3.1 miles to Iron Bridge.
The trail starts at the left of Iron Bridge. At one mile is an intersection of the Chattooga Loop Trail and Chattooga River Trail. Continue straight for the Chattooga River Trail. (The left trail is the Chattooga Loop Trail that circles back to the Iron Bridge).
At 1-1/8th miles is a rock shelf overhang with the remains of a broken bridge. This is a slippery descent on the trail. Continuing on there is a cleared area with a view of the river to the right.
At 1-1/4th miles into the trail a waterfall crosses the trail with a small pool in the middle of the trail. Rough crossing leads uphill to a split tree crossing with a good view after.
At 2-7/8th miles there is a log bridge to cross Cane Creek.
At 3-1/8th miles you can see a little waterfall.
At 3-1/4th miles you come to the narrows on right. Here, two opposing granite ledges jutting out the banks channel the water.
At 3-5/8th miles there is a large waterfall river crossing at the junction of Norton Mill Creek and the Chattooga River. Cross the bridge.
At 3-3/4th miles, you come to another good river view and the trail turns sandy. At another 1/8th-mile, go up to the left and follow the riverbank.
At 4-1/4th miles, debris and a huge rooted tree ball in the water cross the trail. Climb the root ball and follow it down the trail, continuing up the bank.
At 4-3/8th miles, a huge granite rock overlooks a falls to the right. The trail goes uphill to the left.
At 4-3/4th miles there is a little waterfall and rock over the top of the trail.
At 5-1/4th miles, go left up the hill where you will intersect a logging road. Go right (the left is overgrown), following the road.
At six miles, the Bull Pen Bridge Trail intersects with another trail. Go right (the trail to the left is that old trail to the church). In approximately two-tenths of a mile, the trail comes to a fork -- take the left fork to the parking area.
Ranger Falls is the most recently constructed hiking trail in the area. The trail leads to Ranger Falls, a 25-30 foot set of falls on Skitty Creek. This trail was made possible by volunteers who helped with the clearing of the brush for the trail. After three-tenths of a mile you'll come to a fork in the trail, take the left fork (downhill) to the falls. In approx. six-tenths of a mile the trail splits again -- stay to the right and do not cross the creek via the left trail. In approximately two-tenths of a mile, you’ll arrive at Ranger Falls. Continue up past the falls where you'll come to a four-way intersection. Turn right here and continue for a tenth of a mile to a road. Turn right onto the road for approximately a quarter-mile into a clearing where the trail departs the road to the left. Take this trail through the clearing. Continue on this trail past the first fork in the trail that took you to the falls. Now head back downhill to the parking area at Cliffside Lake. Pack a picnic lunch when you visit and maybe a fishing pole. You can enjoy your lunch at one of the multiple picnic tables at the Recreation Area or try your luck at catching a mountain trout in Cliffside Lake either before your hike or after. This is a great wildflower for early to mid-Spring.
Rabun Bald Area Peak, a challenging four-mile hike, provides a gorgeous view of the tri-state area from an observation deck atop Rabun Bald, Georgia's second highest point. The deck is constructed from remnants of an old fire tower built in the 1930s. One of Georgia's rarest birds, the raven, is frequently sighted. The ascent is extremely steep.
Travel south from Highlands on NC 106 to Scaly Mountain, then just past the post office take a left turn on Hale Ridge Road. Take a right on Bald Mountain Road and look for a US Forestry sign that indicates a left on Kelsey Mountain Road to the trailhead.
Rabun Bald, at 4,696 feet the second highest peak in Georgia, is squeezed into the northeast corner of Georgia, within a few miles of North Carolina to the north and South Carolina to the east. The views are spectacular with a 360 degree unobstructed vista, so don't forget your camera.
There are two trails to the summit from the parking area. The recommended path is on the left. For the most part, it’s a dirt path in the woods. The path ascends 1,000 feet along most of its length. The jeep road on the right is longer, highly eroded, rocky, and generally less enjoyable of a walk.
The path on the left climbs through mostly hardwood forest. At approximately a quarter-mile, the Bartram Trail from the north joins the path on the left. Stay right, continuing south and uphill on the Bartram Trail. In approximately eight-tenths of a mile, the trail intersects the dead-end terminus of the rough jeep trail that began at the trailhead. There may be some vehicles parked here. The Bartram Trail to the summit continues on the left. It eventually levels out along the summit ridge within a "tunnel" of rhododendrons. Shortly afterwards the trail arrives at the summit, capped with a stone observation platform.
If you’re feeling adventurous, consider the in-and-out hike that starts at Hale Ridge Road and follows the Bartram Trail south to Rabun Bald. The Bartram Trail is named after William Bartram (1739–1823), an American naturalist who explored and documented the flora and fauna in several Southern states during Colonial times. The footpath named in his honor follows the route that the explorer used as he recorded and cataloged over 200 species of native plants in the Southeast.
The Bartram Trail offers many short or long hikes to unforgettable vistas, such as Scaly Mountain, Jones Knob, and Whiterock Mountain. This national recreation trail runs across the mountains of South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina. It stretches nearly 80 miles from Highlands to Cheoah Bald, east of Robbinsville.
Section I runs 10.8 miles – from Hale Ridge Road to Jones Gap. Heading north from Georgia, the trail skirts the Chattooga River watershed and Blue Valley; then it climbs into the Fishhawk Mountains at Scaly Mountain, crosses the headwaters of Tessentee Creek, and contours around the steep western side of Peggy Knob to Hickory Gap.
Going from south to north, Section I is divided into five parts: Hale Ridge Road to Osage Overlook (3.7 miles); Osage Overlook to Scaly Mountain Overlook (2 miles); Scaly Mountain Overlook to Tessentee Creek Camp (2.3 miles) Tessentee Creek to Hickory Gap (1.8 miles) and Hickory Gap to Jones Gap (1mile). Also, a 2-mile stretch from Beegum Gap to Rabun Bald is shown on the map. Section I has road-accessible trailheads at Beegum Gap. Also, a spur trail leads down from Scaly Mountain to a trailhead at Hickory nut Road.
The section from Hale Ridge to Rabun Bald and its return is a strenuous eight miles and requires at least five hours to complete. You’ll be treated to views from the summit of Rabun Bald.
The hike from Osage Overlook to Hale Ridge and its return is a moderate 7.5 miles. Allow yourself at least five hours. There are lots of stream crossings and open forested areas.
Osage Overlook to Scaly Mountain and its return is a strenuous four miles (with an ascent of 1,100 feet) and requires at least three hours.
To get to the Hale Ridge Road Trailhead from Highlands, head south on NC 106 for seven miles to Scaly Mountain. Turn left on Hale Ridge Road (SR1625), which makes a sharp left at 2.1 miles. In one mile, look for the NC Bartram Trail sign and bulletin board on left. Parking is on the left side of the road.
To get to the Osage Mountain Overlook Trailhead from Highlands, drive 5.7 miles south on NC 106. The paved overlook and trailhead will be on the left.
To get to the Jones Gap Trailhead from Highlands, drive south on NC 106 for four miles, turning right on Turtle Pond Rd.
After 3.3 miles, turn left on to Dendy Orchard Road. Drive 1.3 miles to top of hill, turn left onto Jones Gap Rd. (FR4522, look for large FS sign reading “BT access”), and drive two miles up to the Jones Gap Trailhead and parking area.
Just inside of Georgia from South Carolina is the beginning of the Bartram Trail. This 100-mile footpath extends from the Chattooga River along the Georgia/South Carolina border, across the peaks west of Highlands eventually terminates on top of Cheoah Bald north of Franklin.
The section described here is a short, fairly level nature hike along the first section of this trail parallel to the Chattooga River floodplain. It’s a quiet section which passes through woods, crosses the West Fork of the Chattooga River and skirts above the Chattooga River floodplain.
To get to the starting point from Highlands, take NC 28 south into Georgia and park at the parking area just before Russell Bridge, about 30 minutes from Highlands.
The hike begins on the south side of GA 28 opposite the parking area. Look for the trail sign along the side of the road. The footpath rises a short distance out of the road way and then levels out in the woods.
In approximately 0.4 miles, the trail reaches the footbridge across the West Fork of the Chattooga River. After crossing the bridge, the trail turns immediately left and parallels the Chattooga River floodplain below. After approximately a quarter-mile the trail parallels the Chattooga River for a short distance, and then turns away from the river.
In hiking this trail we turned around after approximately 1 mile from the starting point. The trail continues beyond.