One of the most enjoyable and scenic drives in our wonderful area of Western North Carolina. Dubbed the "Mountain Waters Scenic Byway" this byway stretches from "Lauada" (close to the Cherokee Indian Reservation & Lake Fontana) to Highlands, NC. We would like to recommend the portion of this byway that takes you from Franklin to Whiteside Mountain (Just past downtown Highlands) to make for a fantastic and scenic daytrip.
We would like to recommend having some lunch in the Franklin, NC area at one of the quality restaurants choices we offer right here on Stay And Play In The Smokies in our "Eat" category. Be sure to fill up because you have a day full of activity ahead of you! As you leave town pick up U.S. Highway 64 East towards Highlands, NC. You'll work your way through the Cullasaja community and eventually see the river that follows the road. In approx. 6.5 miles you'll leave the valley floor and begin climbing up into the Cullasaja River Gorge. In just a few more miles you'll approach the actual beginning of the gorge and Cullasaja Falls. It's OK to be a cautious driver through this section due to the narrowness of the highway. The pull-off spots for the falls are very tight and are limited to one, two or three small to medium-sized vehicles. Be careful here. Although there isn't much room, the view of the falls plunging into the gorge floor from the guard rail is tremendous! We recommend attempting to stop here. If there isn't much room, plan on catching on the way back through if you're planning a return trip to Franklin. Continuing on, you'll have multiple spots to stop and take a break at the riverside or to try your luck at some fishing. The Cullasaja is "hatchery supported" with Rainbow, Brown & Brook Trout throughout the year. Tip: If you can wade the river we suggest doing so. The obvious spots that people fish the most are well worn areas close to pull-offs and at the bridges on Goldmine Road and Turtle Pond Road. If you can wade, you can avoid these areas and you're chances of catching some fish will greatly improve.
Along the near 7-mile stretch of the Cullasaja River Gorge there are 2 roadside picnic areas. Both areas are located just off of Hwy 64 and are easily accessible. The first Cullasaja Gorge Picnic Area has three picnic tables with charcoal grills and is approx. 7.4 miles from Highlands and 9.4 miles from Franklin . The last time I stopped by this one I noticed that a couple of the grills were in rough shape and needed attention. Keep that in mind. A deli sandwich-style picnic might be your best bet. There is access to the river here and a large meadow-like setting down below the road.
The second Cullasaja Gorge Picnic Area has two picnic tables with charcoal grills that are in better shape than the first area. This one is located 4.5 miles from Highlands and 12.3 miles from Franklin. There is great river access here and would be ideal to wade and splash around in for kids, as well as yourself. This would be a nice place to fish a little as well.
Moving on up the gorge, you'll pass Cliffside Lake Recreation Area on your left. Cliffside offers a "hatchery supported" lake, designated swimming area, plenty of parking, hiking/walking trails, picnic tables/shelter, bath house w/showers, swing-set for kids, fishing pier and more. Just past Cliffside Lake is "Vanhook Glade Campground." This is a nice (and recently upgraded) frontcountry campground with close proximity to Highlands and Cliffside.
Waterfalls. As you work your way up the gorge you will have the opportunity to see 5 waterfalls, all mentioned above in "highlights." Make it your goal to stop in and view these beautiful creations. The great thing about this stretch of highway is that you can see 3 of the 5 waterfalls from the comfort of your own car. However, we strongly recommend getting out to explore them to get the full affect! Be sure to visit each individual falls page to get the local scoop on what to watch for and accessibility for each.
Also, be sure to stop in downtown Highlands for some of the most unique shops around as well as some of the best "eats" to be had!
When you're finished up in Highlands, we recommend heading on out U.S. Hwy-64 East for the final "leg" of your scenic drive, Whiteside Mountain. This is one of the oldest mountains in our area, if not the entire world. The hiking trail that loops up and around the mountain is one of the most popular around, and for good reason. Our "tip" here is to stay to the left once you come to where the backside of the loop meets the initial trail (see Whiteside Mountain Trail & Cliffs for photos). This is the easiest route and if you go right, you'll be in for a strenuous hike up the backside. Have a picnic in the parking area at the two provided picnic tables or wait until you reach the top portion of the trail to take in the tremendous views while you dine, your choice, but we would go with the latter!
Heading home, be sure to backtrack the way you came in and make sure you are on U.S. Hwy 64 WEST if returning to the Franklin area. N.C. Hwy-28 also shares this portion of the highway with 64.
From downtown Franklin, pick up the "Highlands Road" located just off of East Main Street (Hardee's & McDonald's will be at the intersection). This road will continue through some Franklin shopping and dining areas and eventually leave the city limits (past Bi-Lo grocery store/ABC store shopping center). This is U.S. Hwy-64 East once you go under the bridge overpass of U.S. Hwys 441/23. You'll see a small, green mileage sign for Highlands. It will read: "Highlands 18." This will indicate that you are on the right road. This is the start of your scenic drive... Enjoy!
From the South (Atlanta, South Carolina, Florida, etc.)
Coming into Franklin on U.S. Hwy-441/23 take the U.S. 441 Bypass of Franklin (just past Pizza Hut, Wendy's, Bojangles, Sonic, etc.) on your right. This is also called the "Sylva Road" or keep in mind that U.S. Hwy-64 merges and shares this stretch of highway for 1.9 miles at which point you will need to take the "Highlands" exit to your right (you will have crossed the Cullasaja River just before the exit). At the bottom of the exit, take a right. This is the start of your scenic drive... Enjoy!