A fall weekend in Highlands, NC

27 January 2023

While I do have several goals for the year, I have just one resolution. (Saying that with a bit of a cheeky wink – the difference between goals and resolutions, in my mind, being that goals are things I plan for and track, and resolutions are simply well-meaning intentions. Needless to say I don’t go in much for resolutions :))

Anyway, here’s the resolution: I resolve to post my Em for Marvelous travel recaps in the month they happened, or the month after. I am… not known for this, which is why I’m posting our October trip to Highlands here in January. But I’d really like to be better, because it’s much easier to remember details and, I think, capture the feel of a trip when it’s fresh in my mind! The problem is usually that travel recaps loom large in my mind, since they’re some of the more laborious posts I write with all of their photos and details and linking. But I do love them for family memory keeping purposes, and I’m always delightfully surprised by the number of you who have written and commented over the years that you’ve used a travel post as inspiration for your own family’s adventures. (Thank you for letting me know – truly, a huge compliment!)

In that spirit, let’s chat about our most recent visit to Highlands, NC!

John and I had been to Highlands a few times before – most recently in 2020, when it was a welcome respite in the middle of all things pandemic. That trip was pretty darn wonderful, so it was rather bold of us to attempt a repeat so soon, ha! Our 2022 trip was delightful in its own way, but not without its challenges, as you’ll see.

Highlands is about 5 hours from our home near Raleigh, NC. We left school a bit early on Thursday, October 20 to arrive in Highlands about 6pm. We stayed in this Airbnb, which was perched on the side of a mountain just outside of downtown – with kids, it was about a 25-minute walk to the main drag, or about a 10-minute drive.

As you find with many mountain town rental homes, the driveway was a bit unnerving. I was glad John was driving :) We have an SUV, so I wasn’t really afraid we wouldn’t be able to get up the hill, but the driveway itself was gravel, steep, and did not have much turning or parking room at the top.

The house itself was lovely, though! The breakfast table was beautiful in the morning sun, and we enjoyed the games stocked on the shelves. If I could do it again I would have chosen a place without stairs for this particular year, as Annie was bound and determined to climb them and much of our time was spent chasing her down or spotting her as she climbed.

On our first night, John walked down the mountain into town with the kids to stretch their legs (above) while I drove down in the car (to ferry us all back after dark). We grabbed takeout from Mountain Fresh Grocery. We’d been there before and have liked many things we’ve gotten, but June and I both got pasta this time and were not impressed – it was pretty flavorless. Stick to the pizza, grill, or prepared foods case!

The next morning, we ate breakfast at the house before heading out to hike Whiteside Mountain. We had tried to hike Whiteside the last time we were in Highlands, but the parking lot was too full by the time we arrived. (We did, however, hike it wayyyyy back in 2011!) Well, the combo of arriving at 10am and on a Friday did the trick, because we easily found a spot this time around.

The hike was a delight with a view well worth the climb. (One thing I especially appreciate about this hike: even though you’re right up on the edge and there are steep cliffs, it is well fenced, making it less stressful with little ones.) The kids were absolute champs, especially June who – as we found out later – was suffering from the flu. Argh! Talk about a cringe parenting moment. I hate that we made her climb a literal mountain while she was under the weather, but she was a complete and total trooper.

We walked right up to The Wine Garden at Madison’s (run by Old Edwards Inn, in the center of town) for lunch, and it was one of my favorite memories of the trip! Their seating is outside, and it was a chilly day, but we were cozy and comfy with heat lamps and thick blankets at each of our seats. Though Old Edwards is generally a high-end spot, the outdoor setting, bustling atmosphere, and mini waterfall at our backs made for a kid-friendly lunch (can you spot us in the picture above?). Recommend!

After lunch, it was back to the house for quiet time. John and I probably napped, ha. Later that evening, we drove back downtown and walked the streets looking in shop windows while we waited for our table to be ready at Four65. (One thing that kind of annoys me about Highlands – the shops close really early! Even in what I assume is peak fall season, almost every shop on the main street was closed at 6 or before.)

We LOVED our dinner at Four65! Our wood-fired pizzas were delicious, we were seated at a big round table tucked in the corner (great for kids!), they brought fun coloring sheets and crayons to the table, and the service was great. Recommend!

Another morning, another hike. But first! A major Dad move. On the drive to the start, John led us on a short jaunt into the forest on the side of the road to pay our respects to a very old, very grand tree – the Bob Padgett Tulip Poplar. We talked about how it was older than America, and the kids were somewhat impressed.

We then made our way to our true destination, Secret Falls. It was an easy half-mile hike with several logs to walk across and streams to hop. And the waterfalls at the end were beautiful! It lived up to its secretive name – we passed maybe one other group on the trail and saw another in the parking lot when we got back to our car, but were otherwise on our own.

We grabbed a quick lunch at Highlands Burritos, which was fine but in the name of transparency a stressful parenting moment, as Annie was tired and hungry and not afraid to let us know it :)

After quiet time, we drove back into town, grabbed a charcuterie kit from Mountain Fresh (we learned from our experience in 2020!), and hiked up Sunset Rock to watch the sun go down. It’s a pretty easy hike even in twilight – about 45 minutes up and 30 minutes down on a wide gravel road.

That night, we ate dinner at the Ugly Dog Pub, another revisit from 2020. Unfortunately, it was another lackluster experience – the service was pretty awful, which can be a bit stressful when you’re trying to move expeditiously through dinner with three little kids after a long day. But we survived! The food was fine :)

On Sunday, we packed up and headed home, grateful for another weekend in the beautiful mountains we love.

And that’s a wrap! For more from Highlands, my recap from 2020 has lots of photos and details, too. And stay tuned, because in 2023, we’re headed to Boone for a totally new adventure! :)

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January 27, 2023 12:07 pm

Highlands has been on our list since the last time you went! Hoping to make it either this year or next.

Please let me know if you need Boone recs! I’ve been a couple of times since having Penelope (and lived there four years) and can give the low down on kid and not-so-kid friendly options :)

January 27, 2023 4:38 pm

Ahhh these mountain views! The rhododendrons! The trees! We have yet to do the Highlands and now you have me wanting to start trip planning. Can’t wait to hear what you are planning for Boone, too.

January 28, 2023 9:30 am

I love your trip posts as I live in Cary and therefore your drive-able adventures are drive-able for us, too! I kept meaning to comment and say that we stayed in the AirBnB you linked in Black Mountain–what a find! The six of us loved it. Thank you!

January 30, 2023 9:16 am

Read every word! Shep’s eyes, wondrously fixed on the poplar, feels like a metaphor waiting to be written! ????????