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Four Favorite Highlands Hikes

Posted by: Jennifer Kornegay

Mother Nature really shows off in and around Highlands. Cool breezes blow fresh air through millions of leaves on abundant trees. Clear streams flow over ancient rocks and fall over stone ledges in cascades of liquid diamonds. Wildflowers color the forest floors, and mountain peaks climb toward the clouds. But you can’t truly appreciate all this beauty from a just a photo or a stop at a scenic overlook. You’ve got to get out in it, and there are plenty of well-maintained trails begging you to lace up your walking shoes and take a hike. Here are four of our favorites:

Botanical Gardens
The Highlands Botanical Gardens lets you immerse yourself in nature, and it's easy, well-groomed trails and boardwalks allow young, old and everyone in between to enjoy the outdoors while learning about the native flora and fauna. Start your exploration at the Highlands Nature Center at the Gardens, and then head into its 12 shady acres to view more than 500 species of moss, flowers, shrubs and trees. Don’t miss the butterfly garden.

Find It: The Botanical Gardens is located on Main Street, just about a quarter mile from the shops and restaurants of downtown.

Sunset Rock
The walk up to this rock outcrop is somewhat steep, but fairly short, and well worth the effort. Once at the top, you’re rewarded with a panoramic view of downtown Highlands. It’s always beautiful but at its very best when the sun begins its evening descent.

Find It: The trailhead is almost directly across the street from the Botanical Gardens.

Whiteside Mountain
At 700-feet tall, this mountain’s bald rock walls are some of the highest sheer cliffs East of the Rockies, and the two-mile loop trail to the summit winds through the woods, many spots dominated by thick stands of Mountain Laurel and delicate wildflowers. You have a choice at the beginning of the trailhead: hike both up and down the steeper trail to the right; take the gentler path to the left that follows and an old logging road; or go up one and down the other. Once you reach the top, marvel at the stunning views in all directions. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Peregrine falcons that nest on the mountain soaring across the sky. Note the signs that point to the area where the Blue Ridge Mountains transition to the Piedmont. And make sure you read about a daring rescue that took place on the mountain in 1911.

Find It: The trailhead is off Highway 64, in between Highlands and Cashiers and marked by signage.

Chattooga Loop Trail
Trek alongside the rushing whitewater of the Chattanooga River on this easy-to-moderate two-mile loop trail that begins at an old iron bridge. Several spots provide access to sandy beaches and clam pools (depending on the water level) right on the river’s banks where you can stop for a picnic or to fish and swim (use caution with young children). Watch for the sign about a mile in that keeps you on the loop and leads you back toward the bridge. If you miss it, you’ll end up on the Chattooga River Cliffs Trail, a beautiful but strenuous six-mile journey.

Find It: Reach the trailhead at the iron bridge via the gravel Bull Pen Road that’s off of Horse Cove Road (what Main Street turns into right outside of downtown).