Cashiers and Highlands, NC: Part II
Just down the road from Cashiers, NC is the town of Highlands. As its name implies, Highlands is quite high up there, being situated at 4118 feet above sea level. This makes it one of the highest elevation towns in the eastern United States.
Tiny Beech Mountain, NC, is even higher (at over 5000 feet, it is THE highest incorporated town east of the Mississippi.) However, Beech Mountain is one third the size of Highlands. At any rate, none of them have any claim on Leadville, CO. And even that can’t hold a candle to other places.
Whatever its vertically, we love Highlands for its small town charm and very cool downtown. It may in fact be behind only Brevard, Southport and perhaps Boone as our favorite small cities in the Carolinas.
The fact that it has easy access to hiking doesn’t hurt. How close you ask? Try right in town.
Continuing on with the ‘dog leg’ of our trip out to western part of the Tar Heel state with new team member Fitz Roy, we needed to find someplace we could take a hike with him and not be disturbed, or at least not too much. We had tried hikes at Glen Falls (just outside of Highlands) and Silver Run Falls (near our base in Cashiers, NC.) While both had been nice, they had not been right for young Fitz Roy.
Brian was of a mind to cut his losses on the last day and return home, but ever the optimist, Sylvia insisted on giving it one more try. Brian, the venerable MEP, Scratched his head, activited his remaining brain cells, went back to the books and emerged with a potentially suitable choice. One that was just outside the downtown of Highlands itself. High above Highlands, you might say.
Sunset/Sunrise Rock, Highlands NC
The hike begins just across the road from the Highlands Nature Center. For such a tiny town, Highlands has a pretty good community infrastructure, including the very fine nature center and a large recreation park which boasted the bark park we had visited earlier in the trip.
This may be due to its great appeal as a tourist mecca…the Nantahala area, and especially the corridor of US 64, are home to several huge golf resort communities. In fact, if there’s a complaint we have about this area, it’s that it’s a little too fu fu, and the original, rural Appalachian charm that it once had (which to some is called ‘poverty’) is fast disappearing.
Upon reaching the town Sylvia was quite impressed with its charm and was very cross with Brian for having “hidden this place from her.”
The drive up from Cashiers to Highlands is short, but narrow and winding, and is quite scenic. There is one curve just outside town, near the parking area for Whiteface Mountain, which is completely exposed and grants a view that rivals almost any to be had from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The trailhead is just off Main Street past the center of town, not long after it turns into Horse Cove Road and the signs threaten that the road is going to get much narrower and steeper but before it actually does. Even before we left the small parking area Fitz seemed ready to go!
The trail itself is actually a narrow gravel road, which is passable by cars (one passed us on the way) but the signs warn of washouts and clearly, the town would prefer you walked. It’s not that steep…we took the walking option and recommend you do as well
Fitz had one moment of excitement on the way up but Sylvia, the B.I.T. dog whisperer, quickly took charge and calmed him down.
The trail/road is itself unremarkable, reaching a turnabout after about half a mile where the road ends and a private drive begins. There’s no blaze or sign except at the beginning but you can’t miss it. Here is a sign kiosk for Sunset Rock on the right. Here begins is a very short trail which breaks in two directions, one passing a small bootleg campsite. Both branches lead to the same place – Sunset Rock.
The rock itself is actually a wide granite ledge recalling Looking Glass Rock and John Rock…and while not quite as impressive as those, is fine in its own right. Though only a few hundred feet above the surrounding valley, it is well situated for a prospect of the valley, and quite spacious. Dozens could sit here and not be on top of one another. The panorama is quite surprising…below the entire town of Highlands is visible, including Main Street, and beyond that the view continues west into the remote Culasaja Gorge.
In fact, the westward facing view is the reason they call it sunset rock. You can easily hike up to take in the sunset. Getting back down again in the twilight would not be difficult…a moderately fast walker could easily return to their car in twenty minutes or less.
We chanced to be there at mid-day. In fact, as we sat down to take a break and have some snack bars, a church clock in the town struck noon.
The rock itself is not as steep or slick as John Rock, or Looking Glass Rock, or many other prominent ledges we have explored. It has a rough, grooved stone face that provides good natural traction. It would take more than an average amount of idiocy to get a person killed here, but it certainly is possible, and probably someone has. If you walk down far enough, there is a dangerous drop off, so be wary.
As always we discourage tomfoolery here and the rock should be avoided in icy conditions. Nevertheless, we think this is pretty safe for children and for dogs, if they are leashed. One thing to be mindful for is that beer drinking youth obviously have known of this place for some time, so be mindful of the broken glass scattered about in some places. Looks like the people who take care of the trail have done a pretty good job keeping that under control, though.
Fitz very much enjoyed himself here! But we kept him leashed and under strict supervision.
We encountered only one other party at the top and this couple kept a respectful distance, choosing to sit in the bench that rests at the top of the rock.
When you have had enough of the views of Sunset Rock, be sure to cross the road and take the other (unmarked but obvious) trail that leaves from directly opposite – that being Sunrise Rock. If you guessed that this spot faces east and presents a sunrise view for intrepid early risers…well, most likely you have guessed right. We weren’t there at sunrise so we can’t confirm or deny. But the view here is great.
In fact, though the view from Sunrise Rock is much more restricted – this is less of a ledge and more of a few strategically placed boulders framed by trees – it’s actually a somewhat better one than sunrise rock. The abbreviated panorama is of a pastoral valley framed by granite walls, the one on left sporting a very large and impressive sheer cliff. That might be part of the Devil’s Courthouse sticking its head over that ridge with the cliff.
Fitz held it together very well on this hike, helped by Sylvia and the fact that we saw only two other parties, and only one of these at close range, and none of these had dogs.
We very much recommend Sunset and Sunrise Rocks as an easy hike which anyone, even non hikers, can do if in or near the town of Highlands. It’s one of many terrific hikes in this area…The Panthertown Valley, Whiteface Mountain, Yellow Mountain, Glen Falls…we can hardly wait to explore this area more!
Fitz had a great time on this hike and it was a fabulous learning experience for him. The car ride home however proved to be a bit much for him, and shortly after getting back, Fitz got sick. ☹
But the three of us we will return to this area for more fantastic adventures!