At just over 4,000 feet, Highlands, N.C. is the highest incorporated town east of the Rockies. Local lore has it that in 1875, two developers drew one line between New York and New Orleans, and another between Chicago and Savannah, and assuming that both lines would become vital trade routes, they founded a town where the two lines intersected.
Thankfully, their prophesy failed to materialize. Instead of a freeway crossroads, Highlands grew up as an affluent summer retreat for those who prized its natural beauty enough to preserve it. Just two hours’ drive from Atlanta, it’s accessible enough for a long weekend, but remote enough to maintain a vibe that’s uniquely its own: diamonds and flannel.
I have been visiting Highlands for nearly two decades, and though it’s grown up a lot in that time, it keeps pulling me back. On a recent long weekend, the opportunity to review a Mercedes G550 4x4 gave me the perfect excuse to head to my favorite mountain town, leading me to make a list of essential places to visit. Here are my top picks for anyone heading to Highlands:
See and Do
Cabins built by Appalachian builder Joe Webb in the 20s and 30s are the architectural soul of Highlands, and Highland Hiker’s flagship location occupies one such cabin at the edge of downtown. Owners Chris and Hilary Wilkes moved back here from Manhattan to take over the family business from Chris’ parents, and it’s an outdoor store elevated to an art form. The granite fireplace always burns in winter, there are stag and buffalo mounts on the walls, and an antique canoe hanging from the ceiling. The store stocks a well-chosen selection of luggage, clothing, pocketknives, camping accoutrements and fly-fishing gear. I stop in any time I’m in Highlands, even if I don’t buy anything.
This is waterfall country, and among the many dramatic falls within a short drive from Highlands, Bridal Veil Falls and Dry Falls are the most accessible––just five minutes’ drive from downtown and right off the road. If you don’t have time for a longer hike, there’s no excuse for not seeing a waterfall while you’re here.
It may seem strange to include a hardware store on the list, but this Tudor-styled corner institution on Main Street is easy to work into any downtown stroll. And there’s something undeniably interesting about a place where you can one-stop-shop a Carhartt jacket, a shotgun, a snow sled and a bag of chips.
Eat and Drink
Dusty’s may look like an unassuming roadside grocery from the outside, but every ready-to-bake dish they make is astonishingly good. There’s a butcher who looks like he may have hitchhiked to Woodstock hanging out in the back, and the local secret is that he sells prime steak end cuts for a (relative) steal. The chicken salad in the cooler and the frozen tomato pie in summer and tomato casserole in winter are standouts, but I’ve never had anything they made that I didn’t love. The small wine selection is top shelf, as per usual in Highlands.
Imagine a swanky ski lodge commissary without the slopes, and you have Mountain Fresh Grocery. It’s expensive, but it’s my go-to morning stop for a decent cappuccino and a solid breakfast sandwich. The wine section punches far above its weight, but then again, you can find Veuve Clicquot in even the mini marts around here. With a pizzeria, bakery, grill, and deli counter, this is a requisite stop every day for me, for one reason or another.
Aptly located at the middle of Main Street, Midpoint is a locals’ favorite, and the ever-revolving menu keeps it interesting for the year-rounders. The cuisine is worldly comfort food, with a 22-ounce bone-in ribeye on the menu alongside the likes of ramen and tagine. The desserts are works of art house-made by a dedicated pastry chef, and they’re not to be missed.
With so many “fancy” places on Main Street, the motorcyclists who come through town for a mountain tour pit stop need somewhere to go. That’s a niche that Ugly Dog seems to have quickly occupied, and you’ll usually see a few bikes parked out front. With unpretentious food at reasonable prices, and a beer-heavy bar in an otherwise wine-centric town, it’s a nice counterpoint to the more white-tablecloth options that surround it.
Opening in March after a winter hiatus, On The Verandah may sound like a Tennessee Williams play, but it’s actually my favorite Highlands restaurant. I can’t tell you what I’ve eaten there, but it’s always been good, and the view is spectacular. Overlooking Lake Sequoyah, it’s the place to time your dinner with sunset, but with the full bar inside, it stays lively after the sun goes down.
Half-Mile Farm is the adults-only counterpart to the luxe Old Edwards Inn and Spa––a Relais and Châteaux resort that has grown over the years to include several blocks of downtown Highlands. Half-Mile Farm is out of the downtown fray, but close enough for easy jaunts into town. Whether you stay in the farmhouse itself, or rent your own cabin on site, the property overlooks a private lake with canoes guests can use, it has a heated mineral pool and jacuzzi, and a tavern with a full bar.
Guests have access to the Old Edwards Club golf course, among other perks. At the main downtown property, I recommend the wood-fired pizza at Four65, and the wood-paneled Hummingbird Lounge for a neat scotch by the fireplace on a cold winter evening.
This circa 1940’s hotel was renovated down to the studs in the spring of 2020, and it’s a reasonably-priced boutique option a short walk from main street. The Wells’ 14 rooms are tastefully decorated in a Scandinavian modern style, and the staff cultivate a friendly vibe among the intimate number of guests. “We want you to treat this as your base camp,” says GM Ian Newell. There’s a beer and wine bar in the lobby called the Stag Lounge, and the owners just bought a six-passenger golf cart to ferry guests to their restaurant reservations downtown.
If you want to buy a mountain house here of your own, the local agents at PalmerHouse Properties have the inside track in Highlands’ tight real estate market: