Danny Bernstein photo
South of Highlands, N.C., you can climb Scaly Mountain on the Bartram Trail.
The sheer cliffs of Whiteside Mountain, between Highlands and Cashiers, rise 2,000 feet above the Chattooga River valley. But you only have to climb 600 feet on Whiteside Mountain for grand views and a good introduction to hiking in the Highlands.
The town of Highlands sits on a 4,000-foot plateau at the point where North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia meet. According to legend, two Kansas developers, Samuel Kelsey and Clinton Hutchinson, drew a line on a map from New York to New Orleans and another line from Chicago to Savannah. They predicted that these lines would become major trade routes in the future, and where they crossed, present-day Highlands would some day be a major population center. Instead, the Highlands plateau developed into an upscale, sophisticated area attracting Southerners escaping the summer heat.
Whiteside Mountain straddles the Continental Divide, with the Chattooga River flowing into the Atlantic and the Cullasaja River flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. The southern side of Whiteside Mountain is white because of the weathering due to wintertime freezing and thawing.
After World War II, Whiteside Mountain, then privately owned, was turned into a commercial venture. A gravel toll road and parking lot were built so visitors could drive almost to the top of the mountain. From there a narrow, bulldozed road through the forest included a tram pulled by a jeep that took sightseers to the very top. Motorists could drive to the top of Mt. Mitchell, Clingmans Dome, and Wayah Bald, but the Whiteside Mountain tourist attraction was not profitable, and the mountain was finally sold to become part of Nantahala National Forest in 1975. The old toll road became a foot trail.
Whiteside Mountain Trail (2.1 miles round trip with an ascent of 600 feet) starts behind the information board to the right of the fee box ($2 per car), turns left and continues on the wide, broken-up road that visitors drove up in the 1950s. From the top, you can find tremendous southern views into the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia, and Yellow Mountain is prominent to the north. Red oaks have been twisted by wind and ice storms. In the spring, reintroduced peregrine falcons may be seen resting on rock outcrops. Coming down, look to the right for a set of rock steps where tourists got off the jeep to visit the top of the mountain. The trail descends through a cool forest of mixed hardwoods.
South of Highlands, you can climb Scaly Mountain (4 miles roundtrip with an ascent of 1,100 feet) on the Bartram Trail. Between 1773 and 1777, naturalist and artist William Bartram explored the wild Southeast, recording plants and animals in a classic travelogue, Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida. Bartram was writing about a land that few people knew at the time and is considered the first native-born naturalist in the U.S.
The Bartram Trail crosses from Georgia into North Carolina on NC 106 and climbs gently to the top of Scaly Mountain. On the way, you’ll pass several outstanding rocky outcroppings, with the profile of Rabun Bald in Georgia as your constant companion. Close to the top, the trail comes out into the open on a rocky ledge, the first of several wonderful views to the south. Rabun Bald is straight ahead of you. You’ll know you’ve reached the top of Scaly Mountain when the trail continues down sharply.
Glen Falls (1.5 miles roundtrip with 400 feet of ascent) is a gem on the East Fork of Overflow Creek in the Savannah River Basin. The trail starts to the right of the information board and turns left following signs to Glen Falls. The first overlook, with a metal protective barrier, has a view of the cascading creek. At the T-junction, the trail makes a right and follows the river sounds to a second lookout, at the top of the first major waterfall. Return to the split and take the left fork, going down. The trail turns away from the water but soon switchbacks right. The third lookout should not be missed. Most times, water tumbles in two twin falls, but when the water is high, the twins merge. Then the water hits a flat rock and continues plummeting down.
For a strenuous full-day hike, take Yellow Mountain Trail (10 miles, 2,850 feet of ascent) which traverses a heavily forested area through the Cowee Mountains. You’ll climb Cole Mountain and Shortoff Mountain and skirt the western side of Goat Knob. The last climb takes you to the top of Yellow Mountain and a historic fire tower with its tremendous 360-degree views.
Whiteside Mountain From Cashiers, drive west for 4.8 miles on US 64 and make a left on Whiteside Mountain Rd. (SR 1690). Drive a mile to the parking area on the left.
Scaly Mountain From Highlands, take NC 106 south for 6 miles to Osage Mountain Scenic Overlook on the left. The trailhead is across the road.
Glen Falls In Highlands at the intersection of US 64 and NC 106, turn on NC 106 south. After three miles, turn left toward Glen Falls on an unpaved road at the National Forest sign. Drive for 1.2 miles to the parking area.
Yellow Mountain From Cashiers, drive west on US 64 for 7.9 miles and make a right on Buck Creek Rd. Drive for 2.2 miles to Cole Gap. There is a wide pull-off to the left. The trailhead is on the right.