Experience North Carolina’s Secret Winter Season
The Rockwellian towns of Highlands and Cashiers get plenty of play from spring through fall, but there’s a quieter, equally special magic here in the winter.
It’s little wonder why western North Carolina’s mountain towns seduce us in the spring, summer, and fall with their siren calls of blooming dogwoods, mild temperatures, and brilliant foliage. The real mystery is why we tend to neglect these same places in the colder months, when there’s a singular allure that blankets the region like a dusting of pure snow. Yes, you’ll likely have to layer up for outdoor adventures, but this is a corner of the South that’s mastered the restorative art of cozy. Here’s how to spend a winter weekend in Highlands or Cashiers, where you’re sure to find a warm welcome even when it feels chilly outside.
Choose Your Base Camp
Only about 10 miles of winding mountain roads and breathtaking views separate Cashiers and Highlands, but each place has its own distinct personality. While you should plan to visit both, it’s smart to pick your weekend home depending on your travel preferences.
Kick Back in Cashiers
Arrive in the heart of Cashiers, and you’ll find yourself at the intersection of State 107 and U.S. 64. But unlike most proverbial crossroads in life, this is a junction where there is no wrong choice. Head north on State 107, and you’ll see Hotel Cashiers, a well-designed low-rise stay that’s within walking distance of the village center. Pop into Zoller Hardware Gift & Gadget Mercantile, which is a veritable institution where the motto is “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.” Then pick up gourmet pantry staples and pretty dinnerware at Cashiers Kitchen Company across the street. Post up at Slab Town Pizza for chopped salads and inventive pies baked with house-made dough, and sample the local craft beers at Whiteside Brewing Company.
The drive south on State 107 delivers you to other favorite area establishments. Brookings Anglers outfitters stocks all things for fly-fishing (they have a Highlands outpost too). Plus, you can book a full-day float trip with their knowledgeable guides to catch trout on the nearby Tuckasegee River. Family-owned Chattooga Gardens and nursery is also worth a tour, even if you’re not in the market for perennial s or shrubs. Settle in for a laidback lunch between stops at The Ugly Dog Pub, which also has a location in Highlands. (There is one downside of visiting in the winter: The beloved Cashiers Farmers Market is closed for the season, though you can always claim the spring reopening as a good excuse to come back.)
The jewel in Cashiers’ crown is the recently transformed High Hampton resort. While it’s only a five-minute drive from the crossroads, the 101-year-old family retreat feels worlds away, a sliver of mountain-flanked paradise entirely its own. With its bark-sided inn and cottages plus signature red rocking chairs, this is a place that seems sentimental and nostalgic even for first-time visitors. Originally opened as a seasonal destination in 1922, High Hampton hosted winter guests for the first time in 2021 and introduced them to the spot’s latest interpretation of thoughtful hospitality. It’s helmed by the team behind Tennessee’s luxury Blackberry Farm resort.
Comfortable, unpretentious elegance is the name of the game here: Rustic log bed frames are topped by fine linens and patterned quilts, guests play cards by the lobby’s stone fireplace and sip cocktails on the lawn’s plush lounges, and the breakfasts and dinners included in the nightly rate are delicious and inventive. Beyond the spa and year-round tennis courts, the amenities at the resort also include some unique to the western North Carolina mountains, like a couple of protected on-site hiking trails and an 18-hole golf course with peak views. In other words, a stay at High Hampton means you don’t have to leave the grounds to find adventure—and you may not even want to.
Hang Out in Highlands
Anchored by friendly Main Street, with its charming churches and brick sidewalks, downtown Highlands is an easy place to while away a brisk afternoon. Many of its restaurants and shops remain open through the cold-weather months, though their seasonal hours may vary. Fuel up for the day with breakfast at Mountain Fresh Grocery, which serves madeto-order sandwiches and gourmet to-go foods well suited for bundled up picnics. Catch Citizen Wilder when it’s open (“Thursday through Sunday and by chance!”), and you’ll discover a meticulously curated collection of garden accessories and home goods, including locally made Stick Candles (beeswax tapers and pillars cast from trees). Browse a mix of women’s clothing and accessories at Wits End, a shop that’s been around since 1940.
Gear up for off-road adventures with a pit stop at Highland Hiker, where they’re happy to offer intel about nearby trails. Lace your skates for a spin around the downtown ice rink, open from mid-November through early March. Warm up with artisanal pizza at Four65 Woodfire Bistro and Bar; then cap off the day with a stroll through the colorful gallery at The Bascom: A Center for the Visual Arts.
When it comes time to tuck in for the night, beyond the historic and much-loved Old Edwards Inn and Spa, there are two more recent additions to the hotel scene worth checking out. Four miles out of town, there’s Skyline Lodge, a reimagined 1930s-era stay with an on-site steak house and a cozy courtyard outfitted with fire pits. Downtown, you’ll find Highlander Mountain House, an 1885 clapboard farmhouse that was reopened in October 2020 as an 18-room boutique hotel featuring a “regionally-influenced” restaurant, The Ruffed Grouse tavern. Thanks to the vision of owner Jason Reeves, the spot itself has become a destination.
The atmospheric lobby feels more like a family living room, with a wood-burning fireplace and a kilim-covered sofa so deep you’re given no option but to sit back and relax. “That is the heartbeat of this place,” says Reeves. “Every time I come down here, I see people from different places striking up conversations…and they’re all talking like they’ve known each other forever.” The guest rooms are wrapped in wallpaper and filled with little treasures, like locally made popcorn and vintage records. They aren’t overly spacious—and that’s intentional. “You have to come to the common areas or head outside and explore,” says Reeves. “I want you to leave and then come back and feel like this is your respite from everything else. It should be the gratifying end to your journey.
Regardless of where you choose to call home for the weekend, Highlands and Cashiers are both gateways to the region’s natural beauty. Tucked in Nantahala National Forest on a shared plateau in the Blue Ridge Mountains, spectacular scenery lies around every turn here. With colder weather (last year’s February temperatures often dipped into the teens and 20s) and the potential for snow, winter may not be the most obvious time to plan a getaway to see mountain vistas. But if you’re willing to pull on your gloves and pack a few extra layers, you can experience the thrill of having popular hiking trails—and their impressive views—all to yourself.
About halfway between Highlands and Cashiers, Whiteside Mountain National Recreation Trail’s 2-mile loop meanders along 750-foot cliffs. Unlike many hikes that save the views for the hard-earned tip-top, several overlooks pepper the path’s upper portion, so for much of the route, you’ll enjoy picturesque glimpses of peaks in the distance and the rolling valley below. Four miles southeast of Cashiers, a family-friendly quarter-mile hike delivers explorers to Silver Run Falls, which plunges 30 feet and often sparkles with ice formations this time of year.
Beyond the less crowded trails, nature offers its own reward for those who make the trip during the colder months. From mid-February to early March, the sun sets behind Whiteside Mountain in such a way that a bear-shaped silhouette emerges. Fittingly dubbed the “Shadow of the Bear,” this seasonal phenomenon is visible from the Big View Scenic Overlook on U.S. 64 between Highlands and Cashiers. Be sure to get there about 45 minutes before sunset so you can catch the show.
Like the bear’s fleeting presence, western North Carolina’s winter wonders are elusive and impermanent. Miss the window, and you’ll have to return another year to experience them. But that’s part of the seasonal magic too: Good things come to those who wait.
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Read the original article on Southern Living.