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Southern Highroads Trail View
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Southern Highroads Trail Map
Picture a 364-mile scenic loop through the mountains of the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee. Picture the leaves at their height of color, the falls at their fullest… Ready to go?
Bronze leaves drift lazily down the Whitewater River, and gentle pools reflect red and orange. The river appears unintimidating as it slips beneath the N.C. 281 bridge. Barely around the next bend, though, the water will gain momentum over a couple of small drops, crash 411 feet, tumble two miles through a narrow gorge and then pour over another waterfall that’s nearly a twin of the first.
An overview of Upper Whitewater Falls, spectacular even without autumn colors, is just footsteps from a parking area off 281. A few miles down the same highway, a longer trail leads to a lower-falls vantage. For travelers riding the Southern Highroads Trail, a 364-mile scenic loop through the mountains of the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee, this series of falls – considered as a set, the highest collection in the East – is just one of many outstanding roadside attractions.
The route follows well-maintained highways, and despite staying in or very near the mountains, most stretches don’t twist and turn too much (emphasis on most). Also, these roads don’t tend to crowd up when the mountains light up during October.
You need at least a weekend to enjoy even bits of what you’ll discover along the Southern Highroads Trail. A week would be better. As a loop, the trail has no beginning or end. Pick it up at any point, make the rounds, and return home from the same point.
We’ll begin our tour at Upper Whitewater Falls. The best overlook is less than a quarter mile down an easy trail. The trail continues to the base of the falls, but there’s no waterfall view from the bottom, and the return hike climbs the same 400 feet that the falls plunges.
Back on the highway and just past the South Carolina line, parking for the 1.7-mile hike to Lower Whitewater Falls is inside a gate for the Bad Creek Hydro Station. The gate opens when cars approach it, and signs point to the trailhead.
Past the Bad Creek entrance, the Highroads Trail turns right onto secondary road 413, a short connector to S.C. 107, and then left on 107, which parallels the Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River atop a ridge. To the left, forest breaks reveal long looks off the Blue Ridge Escarpment. To the right, dirt roads and very steep trails wind toward the Chattooga.
S.C. 107 ends at S.C. 28, and the trail continues straight on 28 south. Where the roads meet, watch for Hillbilly’s, a corner store. Plan your trip to hit Hillbilly’s on Saturday evening for a good old-fashioned bluegrass jam.
Just past the junction, don’t miss Stumphouse Tunnel Park – and don’t forget your flashlight. It’s dark inside the dead-end tunnel, an abandoned railroad project. Also check out Isaqueena Falls while you’re at the park.
S.C. 28 takes the route into Walhalla, where it turns right onto S.C. 183. Antique shops and food stops line Walhalla’s old-style downtown. S.C. 183 leads to Westminster, where the trail turns right again, onto U.S. 76.
Apple orchards and old homes border 76 as it winds toward the Chattooga River, which forms the South Carolina/Georgia border. The 76 bridge divides two of the South’s premier rafting sections. Within Georgia, 76 makes a long east-to-west sweep through the mountains, connecting five mountain towns.
Just off the route, following U.S. 441 south from Clayton, the Tallulah River drops close to 1,000 feet in only two miles, between vertical walls. Each autumn, special water releases cause the river to roar through Tallulah Gorge like it did 100 years ago, prior to the damming of the head of the gorge.
Between Clayton and Hiawassee, the route crosses the Blue Ridge and the Appalachian Trail at Dicks Creek Gap. The town of Hiawassee sits on the edge of Lake Chatuge, which impounds 7,050 acres along the Hiwassee River.
Young Harris begins where Hiawassee ends and sits in the shadows of Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest mountain. Brasstown Bald, which stands apart from the main spur of the Blue Ridge, appears ablaze in its October foliage.
The town of Blairsville, just west of Brasstown Bald, wraps around a turn-of-the-century, red brick courthouse. The Highroads Trail then runs straight west through the town of Blue Ridge, passing two more mountain lakes along the way.
Ellijay, next along the route, lies in Georgia’s apple country, and numerous large orchards in and around town serve cider and doughnuts during fall. Hillcrest Orchards, located just east of Ellijay on Ga. 52, hosts an Apple Pickin’ Jamboree each fall (Sept. 22-23 and 29-30), which includes cow milking, pig races, wagon rides through the orchards and a host of other fun family stuff.
In Ellijay, the Highroads Trail finally departs 76, picking up Ga. 52 but continuing a westerly course. Outside town, the highway begins climbing almost immediately to skirt the southern edge of the Cohutta Mountains.
A couple of overlooks along 52 provide outstanding views of western Blue Ridge ranges in Georgia and Tennessee. Along 52, Fort Mountain State Park has a cool lookout tower, a mountain lake, an extensive trail system and a strange rock wall of unknown origin near its highest point.
On the other side of the mountains, the trail hits Chatsworth, where it turns right to head north on U.S. 411. Beginning in Chatsworth, the trail follows a very flat valley, with the mountains rising abruptly well to the right of the road. Several shops and restaurants in Chatsworth show off great mountain views.
U.S. 411 runs straight north, eventually carrying the Highroads Trail into Tennessee, where it will turn right onto U.S. 64. Past this turn, the Southern Highroads Trail becomes extra easy to follow, because 64 carries the entire west-to-east portion through Tennessee and North Carolina.
On 64, the trail borders Parksville Lake for a while before getting to the Ocoee’s famous paddling sections. Above the lake, the river narrows, and depending on water-flow schedules, the riverbed may be rocky and lazy or roaring and white.
The traditional Ocoee rafting section serves up two hours of nearly constant action with wild and powerful rapids. The five-mile upper section includes the 1/4-mile Olympic course. The Ocoee only “runs” on weekends through the fall, with upper Ocoee water releases even more limited.
While the Ocoee attracts the most attention along the Tennessee section of the Highroads Trail, much surrounding land lies within the Cherokee National Forest, and practically every road and trail leads to a place to hike, canoe, camp or enjoy a picnic. Past the Ocoee, 64 winds over the edge of Big Frog Mountain and dips through Ducktown before crossing into North Carolina.
In North Carolina, 64 winds gently through very a rural mountain stretch before dropping into a valley, where Murphy borders Lake Hiwassee. The Cherokee County Courthouse in Murphy, built of locally mined blue marble, is on the National Register of Historic Places, as is the entire campus of the John C. Campbell Folk School in neighboring Brasstown.
The Folk School, with its rustic setting in Brasstown Valley, long history of cultural education and outstanding craft shop, warrants a stop any time of the year. During the first weekend of October, a huge fall festival adds excitement.
Continuing east, the Highroads Trail cuts through Hayesville and then skirts the northern shore of Lake Chatuge, before beginning its climb over the Nantahala Mountains. The highway ascends to more than 3,700 feet at Winding Stair Gap, where the Appalachian Trail again crosses the Highroads Trail.
East of the Nantahala Mountains, U.S. 64 skirts the south end of Franklin. Though larger than other towns along the route, Franklin still has a small-town feel with its old downtown district. Franklin, although rich in a variety of things, is best known for its gem-rich soils. Several mines around town have flumes to allow you to sift out your own treasures. The Franklin Gem & Mineral Museum, located in the old jail, offers a good starting point.
East of Franklin, the Cullasaja River appears beside 64, and the road climbs and twists into the river’s stark gorge. The river sometimes disappears from sight as it pours over numerous drops, including 150-foot-plus Cullasaja Falls. The waterfall is unmarked, so passengers (not drivers) must watch for it. Two other falls in the gorge, Dry Falls and Bridal Veil Falls afford “inside out” waterfall views – one by car and one by foot.
At the far end of Cullasaja Gorge, the Highroads Trail goes through Highlands, which, at 4,011 feet, fits its name. Past Highlands, 64 continues to wind through the mountains, staying at high elevations and sometimes straddling the Tennessee Valley Divide.
Eventually it winds into Cashiers, a great shopping town and one unlike any other in the North Carolina mountains. Despite having numerous stores of various sorts, Cashiers has no real downtown. The businesses are scattered along two main roads, U.S. 64 and N.C. 107, which cross to form the center of the town.
Less than 10 miles past Cashiers, a right turn onto N.C. 281 takes the Southern Highroads Trail back to a bridge over the Whitewater River and then to Whitewater Falls, where we began.