Exhilaration and relaxation awaitBy Renee C. Gannon
The Graveyard Fields. Would the hike in the summer rain be worth it? After traipsing through overgrown rhododendron tunnels, across open fields (whose blueberry bushes would soon bear fruit), and up rock steps between hardwoods, the muddy hike and rain-soaked shirt proved worthy with the first glimpse of the Upper Falls.
And no, this graveyard does not hold buried bodies. Its name derives from wind-thrown tree trunks covered in moss that resembled grave markers. The trunks, however, were destroyed by fire in 1925, but the name remains.
With elevation ranging from 2,000 to more than 6,000 feet, Jackson County is home to 19 distinct waterfalls and too many hiking and multi-use trails to count, all located in and amongst the peaks and valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Five lakes and four major rivers also dot and traverse the county.
The county’s small towns offer relaxation and respite from outdoor activities. Balsam, Cashiers, Cherokee, Cullowhee, Dillsboro, Glenville and Sapphire all provide the “ahhh” one looks for after a hard day of hiking, climbing, fishing, golfing, skiing, rafting or boating.
Waterfalls and outdoor life
Located in the southwestern corner of North Carolina, Jackson County’s climate is ideal for adventure. Much of the county is situated within the Nantahala National Forest and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
For waterfall enthusiasts, this is the place to be. Part of the fun lies with the names: Tuckaseegee, Hurricane and Silver Run, Courthouse and Juneywhank, Turtleback and Rainbow, as well as the popular Sliding Rock, Bridal Veil and Looking Glass. Many offer easily accessible viewing, such as the highest waterfall east of the Rockies, Whitewater Falls, which drops 811 feet. The Whitewater overlook is situated along a paved path, less than a mile up from the parking lot.
Hiking trails abound, with many leading to the waterfalls, while others simply offer beautiful views across the Blue Ridge Mountains. The moderate to strenuous trails lead to views that are worth the sweat effort. But easy hikes with stunning views do exist, such as the 1.5-mile round trip excursion to Black Balsam Bald with its 360-degree view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the 2-mile loop Whiteside Mountain trail that follows alongside the Eastern Continental Divide at 4,930 feet.
Bunching small hikes in one area for a day excursion, such as Richland Balsam, Devil’s Courthouse, Black Balsam Bald and Graveyard Fields, saves hiking and drive times. A Jackson County hiking and waterfalls guide can be found at mountainloversnc.com. Local hiking trails can also be found in the Western Carolina University Trail System in Cullowhee.
For those inclined to travel above the trails, the Vordach Zip Line Park in Sapphire offers a 15-stop zip canopy tour that traverses over ski slopes and through old-growth forests. 828-743-7663 or sapphirevalley.com
If water and not hardwood is your choice for adventure, Jackson County offers four whitewater rivers with rapids ranging from Class I to Class IV, including the Tuckasagee and Nantahala Rivers. The rivers’ currents are approachable for both novice and experienced kayakers and rafters.
Jackson County also boasts the only fly fishing trail in the nation. The Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail encompasses more than 70 miles of rivers and streams, with brook, brown and rainbow trout among the top catches. A map, descriptions and GPS coordinates for 15 stops can be found at flyfishingtrail.com.
Relax and unwind
When you exit the trails, put down your paddle or fishing rod, low-key adventures abound amongst the towns of Jackson County. Locally owned inns, restaurants and shops from Balsam to Sapphire provide the key to unwind. Evolution Wine Kitchen in Sylva (828-631-9856 or evolutionwinekitchen.com), Buck’s Coffee in Cashiers (828-743-9997), Coach’s Bistro in Dillsboro (828-586-0265 or jarretthouse.com) and the Canyon Kitchen at Lonesome Valley in Sapphire (828-743-7967 or lonesomevalley.com) are just a few of the food offerings.
Sylva is the epicenter for the Jackson County Ale Trail, with three breweries downtown: Heinzelmannchen Brewery (828-621-4466 or visit yourgnometownbrewery.com), featuring crafted German ales; Innovation Brewing (828-586-9678 or visit innovation-brewing.com), featuring 20-plus tap beer options; and the just opened Sneak E Squirrel (828-586-6440), a brewery and full-service kitchen. All are located within walking distance of restaurants and often have food trucks available on site. In Cashiers, Whiteside Brewing Co. is scheduled to open in June.
The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad still arrives on a daily basis in Dillsboro from Bryson City. Dillsboro has become an arts and crafts mecca and is home to the Western North Carolina Pottery Festival. Pottery, glasswork, photography and various regional arts and crafts populate its downtown. Artists improve their techniques in galleries such as Tree House Pottery (828-226-3833 or treehousepotterync.com), where owner Travis Berning commented while molding clay: “It takes less than four minutes to throw a pot, but it takes seven years to make a good pot.”
No matter which small town you choose to visit, all beckon you to step back in time, to unplug and relax — before you slip on the hiking boots again when the nearby trails call.