While Highlands, North Carolina, is well-known for its elegant spa resort, families exploring the area can also enjoy a budget-friendly excursion of outdoor activities and even a little bit of education.
North of Highlands, visitors can take a short hike to Dry Falls, named for the cave shelter behind the falls, which kids love to experience. If you drive from Highlands to Dry Falls, look for the pull off for Bridal Veil Falls. You can drive right under this small waterfall with barely a pause in your trip.
Parking at Dry Falls can become scarce during summer afternoons, so a morning visit is wise. The walk is short and flat with only a few stairs, not at all strenuous, although it can be wet and slippery, so wear appropriate shoes. Because the walk is short though, spaces usually free up with some patience.
If time allows, continue on Highway 64 to Cullasaja Falls. The massive cascade is visible from the road, but there is no parking lot. Only limited roadside parking is available, which is still tricky because traffic flies fast and heavy around blind curves at this spot. These incredible falls are at least worth a drive-by if time allows, but the passengers may only catch a glimpse. Note that driving some distance ahead may be necessary to turn around.
South of Highlands, visitors can park at the Highlands Nature Center, located at 930 Horse Cove Road, and (carefully!) cross the highway to the trail to top Sunset Rock. Sunset Rock is a little over a mile round-trip, and the first half is uphill, but it’s not strenuous. My 3-year-old was carried a bit, but my elementary school kids had no trouble getting to the top.
Rarely can hikers experience a pay-off of views like this with so little effort! A wide expanse of granite outcrop allows plenty of room for walking around to enjoy the vista of Highlands below and mountains beyond. Of course, parents should monitor their children and warn them not to run or to get too close to the edge. While I’d love to watch the sun go down here, as the name of this picturesque spot suggests, I fear the walk to the car might be too dark for me.
Before leaving, take a moment to enjoy the Highlands Nature Center. Although the displays may not seem fancy, all the kids I’ve brought here have enjoyed the hands-on experiences — from touching snake skins to using a microscope. Call ahead at 828-526-2623 to find out what daily program is featured, such as a morning animal feeding or an afternoon nature walk, said Education Specialist Eliese Ronke.
The Highlands Nature Center also packs several garden exhibits in their outdoor space behind the building, including a moss and pollinator garden, mountain bog and Cherokee medicinal plants garden, Ronke said.
The nature center has limited winter hours, but during the summer, they are open 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon – 4 p.m. Sundays.
Those enjoying an extended stay in Highlands may want to check out the weekly summer camp offerings listed on their website at highlands