Monday, October 23, 2017

Whiteside Mountain

The annual fall color show is descending in elevation, now showing in the 4,000s: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Mount Pisgah, Sam Knob, and the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s also colored up considerably in the Highlands/Cashiers area, where Whiteside Mountain offers some of the best views of Nantahala National Forest and surrounding area.

The “white side” that gives the mountain its name is a result of eons of erosion; the sheer cliffs of granitic gneiss are geologically similar to other familiar landmarks such as Looking Glass Rock on the Pisgah, and our own Upstate favorite, Table Rock.

What makes the Whiteside Mountain hike so popular is that you can have the exhilaration of standing on the edge of 750 foot high cliffs, but with safety railings helping to mitigate the risk of accidents. The relatively short hike – it’s a moderate two-mile loop trail that takes hikers to the top of Whiteside – is also a feature that can make the hike attractive to families. Even with the railings and moderate rating, this hike can still be a challenge, as it has an elevation gain of about 600 feet. Hikers should exercise caution and stay on the trail; there are steep drop-offs and other hazards on Whiteside, as with most mountain hikes.

To reach the trailhead, follow the signs for Whiteside Mountain Recreation Area from US 64 for 1 mile on Whiteside Mountain Road (SR 1600), until you reach the signed parking area on the left. There is a $2.00/day area use fee at Whiteside Mountain Recreation Area, and on weekends the lot can fill up; at this point overflow traffic is directed to keep moving until spots open up.

The trail starts steeply up the hill behind the sign boards and soon merges with an old roadbed. Not too much further the loop splits off to the left up a section of stairs. We prefer to go counter-clockwise (and up the stairs), as it gets the steep section out of the way first and we don’t have to contend with it on the descent. (If you prefer a more gradual gradient, continue on the roadbed traveling the loop clockwise.) The stairs and switchbacks take you up through the hardwood forest to the top of the ridge, on the way passing some neat geological formations, including a rock overhang and a small cliff.

Then all of the sudden you emerge onto bare rock, with views stretching south across the Chattooga River valley into Georgia and South Carolina. To your right are the round domes of the Highlands-area mountains, dotted with resorts, golf courses and large homes. There are more than a half-dozen of these viewpoints along the ridgeline, each seemingly more beautiful than the last.

The summit is about halfway, with a large rock sticking up marking the spot, elevation 4,931ft. At this point the stunted oaks and pine are interspersed with mountain laurel, a good reason to return in the spring. The area is also known for wildflowers including white snakeroot, false Solomon’s seal, speckled wood-lily and wood betony.

Standing on the summit of Whiteside

From here you’ll start the descent, but there are still multiple scenic viewpoints along the ridge. Looking outward, on your left are fantastic views of the cliffs and the portion of the mountain known as Devil’s Courthouse (not to be confused with the Devil’s Courthouse up on the Blue Ridge).

A great photo op can be found at Fool’s Rock. Named after the 1911 rescue (read more about it here), a narrow gap leads down to a second viewing area. Exercise caution, there is a gap, even with the safety guidewires.

At one point a concrete slab platform juts out over the mountainside; a relic from before the Forest Service acquired the property. The old road bed used to bring tourists up to the summit for views from this spot. The ticket booth to the attraction was the former “smallest US Post Office,” a tiny 5-foot by 6-foot structure that served from 1878 until 1953 in Whiteside Cove. “Grimshawes” (as it was called because all the postmasters were named Grimshawe) was moved back down in the 1970s, and today can be seen on Whiteside Cove Road.

During your hike keep an eye out for the peregrine falcons that call the mountain their home. The birds of prey were reintroduced to Whiteside through an endangered species program in 1985, and they return annually to nest on the rock ledges on the cliffs – another good reason to stay on the trails and to mind climbing closures (posted at parking lot).

Once you reach the opening with several large boulders (where the trail makes a sharp turn) you’ve reached the last scenic viewpoint. The northeasterly view looks towards Timber Ridge, the granitic gneiss of Chattooga Ridge visible over the valley.

From this point the trail heads back down the mountain on the old roadbed, with glimpses north and northwest into the valley as you gently descend back down to the parking area. Before we knew it we were back at the car, and as it was approaching 5pm we headed back to US 64 in hopes to see the Shadow of the Bear phenomenon.

"Shadow of the Bear" via Romantic Asheville

Starting around October 15th, the shadow of Whiteside Mountain looks like a bear for 30 minutes around sunset. According to Romantic Asheville, the “shadow of the bear” is visible for 30 minutes each evening between 5:30-6:15 PM from mid-October through early November. The best place to see the shadow is from the Rhodes Big View Overlook on Highway 64. The overlook doesn’t have signs, but it does have pull-offs on both sides of the highway for cars, as well as a fantastic view of Whiteside Mountain and the Chattooga Ridge. It is only a few miles west of Cashiers, and just past the intersection of 64 with Whiteside Mountain Road. It had been partly sunny the whole day, but as the sun sank in the sky it descended into some clouds and we came up empty on our visit… Although we might not make it back to the Highlands/Cashiers area this fall, we’re planning a visit sometime in late February/early March, as the angle of the sun in the sky will once again bring the bear out of hibernation.

View from Rhodes Big View Overlook including Whiteside on the right

In addition to the nearby mountain towns of Highlands and Cashiers, there are plenty of other destinations in the area. These include the Cullasaja River Gorge, dozens of waterfalls like Whitewater & Silver Run, Gorges State Park, and endless other hiking possibilities on the Nantahala, Pisgah, Chattahoochee and Sumter National Forests. Happy exploring!


  1. We've never been to Whiteside --but should do it sometime. I love being ON TOP of a mountain!!!!!! Gorgeous views from there...

    Since you all are seasoned hikers, there are some hikes to put on your future calendar:
    -Angels Landing at Zion
    -Narrows through the Virgin River in Zion
    -Le Conte in the Smokies
    -Navajo Trail in Bryce (hiking down to the bottom of the canyon looking up at the hoodoos)

    By the way, is White Water Falls open again now --after their fire????? We usually go to the Cashiers area in March --so I'd love to see what they do to that area....


    1. Thanks for the suggestions! As far as I know, Upper and Lower Whitewater Falls are open. From descriptions, it sounds like the area is rebounding beautifully after the fire, and I can't wait to see for myself. Take care!


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