Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Mountain Waters Scenic Byway, Highlands to Franklin

Dry Falls

The Mountain Waters Scenic Byway is a 61-mile drive that winds through the Nantahala National Forest following the Cullasaja (sweet water) and Nantahala (land of the noon-day-sun) River Gorges. Traveling north on US 64 from Highlands, the route skirts Franklin before continuing on Wayah Road (SR 1310) and then later U.S. 19/74 until its end at Fontana Lake.

Mountain Waters is an ideal autumn cruise; in addition to spectacular views of the river surrounded by colorful hardwoods, the route has multiple waterfalls and various recreational opportunities. We were in the Highlands area on a recent trip to Whiteside Mountain, and took the opportunity to explore this portion of the western Carolinas.

Behind Dry Falls

The first 7.5 miles of the byway travels through the Cullasaja Gorge. Upon leaving Highlands you’ll see the Nantahala National Forest Mountain Waters welcome sign and map on the opposite side of the road from Lake Sequoyah (source of water for Highlands) and the Kalakaleskies, or Lake Sequoyah Dam Falls. There is roadside parking, and the water spilling over the dam provides a nice photo op.

Just another mile further is Bridal Veil Falls, a 120-foot waterfall on a tributary of the Cullasaja River. Historically visitors would have to drive behind the ‘veil’ to continue northwest on 64, but icing on the road in freezing weather caused the Highway to be re-routed around the front of the falls, and more recently the section of road under the overhang has been completely closed to vehicles.

Bridal Veil Falls

2.1 miles west of Highlands is the 75-foot Dry Falls. Stairs lead down to the base of the waterfall from the parking lot, and a trail takes you behind the falls and around for a different perspective. Another (stairless) option is the viewing platform just off the parking lot.

Dry Falls

Two miles further are the Cliffside Lake and Van Hook Glade recreation area and the Ban Hook Glade Campground. Near a picturesque lake you’ll find the historic bathhouse, picnic spots and 20 campsites, as well as seven short trails ranging from the ¾ mile loop that circles the lake to the 1.5-mile Clifftop Vista Trail. At the top is a gazebo built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

We stopped at Keener Bottoms for lunch; there are several pull-offs, picnic tables, and a couple of trails that take you through to the banks of the river. White pines tower over the picnic tables, and the sounds of the river mostly manage to block out the traffic.

Keener Bottoms

A little further on are more pull-offs, adjacent to popular swimming hole “Bust Your Butt Falls.” Also known as “Quarry Falls,” the ropes used by swimmers to climb boulders to jump off from were still in evidence. We found the traverse of the rocks to get to the river challenge enough and left testing out the waters for another, summer day.

Bust Your Butt Falls!

Another unmarked pull-off marks the spot where Lower Cullasaja Falls is visible from the highway. The 250' waterfall is best viewed in the winter when the leaves aren’t blocking a portion of the view, and despite what appear to be trails heading down to the base of the falls, visitors are advised to keep to the road for their waterfall viewing.

Top portion of Lower Cullasaja Falls

The gorge opens up into a wide valley upon the approach to Franklin, with sweeping views of the opposing ridgeline. Jackson Hole Trading Post & Gem Mine mark the final approach to town, and soon the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway turns west and continues on to Wayah Bald and the Nantahala River Gorge…

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