Nantahala National Forest: The Complete Guide

Dry Falls near Highlands
Dry Falls near Highlands. skiserge1 / Getty Images
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Nantahala National Forest

Bryson City, NC 28713, USA
Phone +1 828-257-4200

Located in the southwestern corner of North Carolina, the 531,148-acre Nantahala National Forest is the state's largest national forest. Its name comes from the Cherokee word meaning "land of the noon day sun"—this is likely due to the park's deep gorges and valleys, where sunlight only peaks through the crevices in mid-day. Elevation in the park ranges from 1,200 feet along the banks of the Hiwassee River to 5,800 feet at the peak of Lone Bald, and the varied terrain makes it ideal for outdoor adventures. From the park's top attractions to where to stay and how to get there, here's everything you need to know to plan your next trip.

Things to Do

With mountain peaks, cascading rivers, and placid lakes, Nantahala is a year-round destination for outdoor enthusiasts. The park is divided into three distinct districts: Cheoah Ranger District (Robbinsville), Nantahala Ranger District (Franklin), and Tusquitee Ranger District (Murphy). Each one offers access to hiking and mountain biking trails, water sports, camping, and other activities.

The 9-mile stretch of world-class rapids on the Nantahala River is popular for kayaking, canoeing, and rafting. For those wanting calmer water-based activities, head to Cheoah Point Recreation Area next to Santeetlah Lake for beach access and swimming, boating, and fishing. Or opt for the 158,900-acre Tusquitee Ranger District; bridging two counties, it boasts three lakes and two rivers for canoeing, swimming, boating, water skiing, sailing, or lakeside picnicking.

For traditional hiking and backpacking, the park offers more than 100 different routes ranging from short, gently rolling paths to steep, rocky treks along the Appalachian Trail. The park also offers zip lining, guided rafting, shooting ranges, and overnight camping. Mountain biking and horseback riding are permitted on 42 miles of dedicated trails along Fontana Lake at the Tsali Recreation Area, and on 30 miles of trails past gorges and stunning waterfalls in Panthertown Valley.

To experience the park's beauty without leaving your car, drive the The Mountain Waters Scenic Byway, a 61.3-mile route from Highlands, NC to Almond; it follows US 64 through the rugged Cullasaja Gorge before winding through hardwood forest and rolling countryside hills. The 36-mile Cherohala Skyway near the park's Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is popular with sports car and motorcycle drivers.

Aerial View of Wesser Bald Fire Tower in Western North Carolina at Sunset
Eifel Kreutz / Getty Images

Best Hikes and Trails

  • Whiteside Mountain National Recreation Trail: For panoramic mountain vistas, hike to this 4,930-foot peak on the Eastern Continental Divide. The 2-mile loop course is moderately difficult, but rewards with dramatic 750-high mountain cliffs, blankets of wildflowers in season, and stunning views at the top.
  • Rainbow Falls at Gorges State Park: This nearly 2-mile loop is one of the state's most popular hiking destinations. The moderately paced hike winds through patches of wildflowers, lush and dense forest, rushing rivers, and several waterfalls.
  • Blackrock Mountain at Pinnacle Park: For a longer hike, opt for this 7-mile, round-trip route, which departs from the Pinnacle Park trailhead in Sylva. It traverses through lush woodlands and thickets of rhododendron before rising steeply more than 2,700 feet in 3.5 miles. At the summit, you can see all the way to the Great Smoky Mountains on a clear day. All hikers must register at the kiosk before their journey. For more sweeping views, add the 2.6-mile Pinnacle hike to your trip.
  • Albert Mountain Fire Tower: Hike part of the storied Appalachian Trail on this 4-mile, round-trip trail near Franklin. The path climbs to the peak of Albert Mountain and its historic fire lookout tower; from here, you can enjoy 360-degree views on a clear day.
  • Whitewater Falls: This half-mile, round-trip trail is perfect for novices and families. Hike a partly paved path to see the multi-drop waterfall, which cascades from more than 400 feet above the forest floor.

Where to Camp

Nantahala has several options for overnight camping, ranging from no-frills thru-sites to group camping areas and RV hook-ups:

  • Tsali Campground: Located next to Fontana Lake, this site offers 42 spots for RV, car, and tent camping. It's popular with cyclists and hikers looking to stay near the area's trails, as well as anglers, boaters, and water enthusiasts seeking lake access. Portable water, showers, and toilets are available; the site is pet-friendly; and no reservations are required.
  • Cheoah Point Recreation Area: Families favor this well-equipped spot, which has RV hookups and several tent pads. Guests here also have access to Lake Santeetlah for swimming, fishing, and paddling. Reservations are suggested.
  • Standing Indian Campground: This campground offers 80 tent, RV, and car camping spots just 20 minutes from the convenience of Franklin. Amenities include picnic tables, campfire rings, grills, showers, and flush toilets. No reservations are required.
  • Jackrabbit Mountain Recreation Area: With nearly 100 sites for RVs and tents, this is one of the area's largest and busiest campsites. It offers several amenities like showers and toilets, as well as easy access to the beach at Lake Chatuge. No reservations are required.

Where to Stay Nearby

If not staying inside the park, the closet hotels are in nearby towns such as Bryson City, Franklin, and Highlands. There are also numerous Airbnbs, vacation rentals, and yurts located in the area. Here are some of the best local hotels:

  • Stonebrook Lodge: Part of a trio of modestly priced local hotels, the Bryson City outpost is 14 miles from the park. All guests will enjoy free Wi-Fi, in-room refrigerators and coffee makers, and free continental breakfast, with some rooms coming equipped with jacuzzis and microwaves. The hotel's location on Main Street is close enough to enjoy the city's dining and shopping after a day of adventures.
  • The Everett Hotel: Housed in a historic building on Bryson City's picturesque town square, this 10-room boutique hotel is a great option for a splurge-worthy getaway. Amenities include free Wi-Fi and hot breakfast, on-site dining, and a rooftop terrace with a fireplace and mountain views.
  • Hampton Inn Franklin: For a clean and reliable chain experience, opt for this hotel located on the park's southeastern edge. All bookings include free breakfast and Wi-Fi.
  • Quality Inn Robbinsville: Located near the Cheoah Ranger District, this no-frills chain is close to the Cherohala Skyway as well as hiking trails and water activities around Santeelah Lake.
  • Highlander Mountain House: Near the Whiteside Mountain Recreation Area and many of the area's most popular hiking trails, this hotel has luxury amenities, on-site dining, and access to the Highlands' many galleries and shops.
Curvy Road
JillLang / Getty Images

Getting There

The park has several access points, with free surface parking available at each outpost. Trail fees are $2 per day in each location or $10 for an annual pass.

Cheoah is located at 1080 Massey Branch Road just off NC 123-W. The most popular recreation area here is Tsali, located off NC 28 in Robbinsville. Whiteside Mountain Recreation Area is located on Deville Drive off Highway 64 between Highlands and Cashiers. Located in the southwestern portion of the park, the Tusquitee Ranger District is 35 miles from Franklin. The largest access point is the Jackrabbit Recreation Area located off NC 64-W.

Tips For Your Visit

  • Obey all local parking ordinances, and know that lots for popular spots such as Black Balsam and Dry Falls fill up quickly—especially during leaf peeping season. Plan your visit on a weekday to avoid the crowds.
  • While all trails on the park require a $2 fee, note that other activities such as rafting, fishing, and canoeing often require additional fees.
  • Make reservations for campsites in advance, particularly during the summer and fall, as sites fill up quickly.
  • Dogs are allowed on some trails and water recreation areas. However, if you're bringing your pet, be mindful of leash laws and cleaning up waste.
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Nantahala National Forest: The Complete Guide