Spring is the perfect time to visit Jackson County, N.C. Flowers are in bloom and the trees are greening. It’s an area that’s a feast for the senses. The mountain air is crisp and clean; the magnificent roar of waterfalls is right nearby; and the fun of jumping into a cold mountain stream will take your breath away. It’s an area filled with Mother Nature’s handiwork. Then, after a full day experiencing all that Sylva and the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains have to offer, grab a beer at one of several local craft breweries, then taste the creations of talented chefs who have moved into town, opening restaurants and treating guests to a smorgasbord of delights.
Jackson County makes for a vacation filled with activity—the county’s tagline is “Play On,” after all. Sylva is a good central location for many of your daily outings, and at night, stay put and enjoy the town’s growing culinary scene.
With the Blue Ridge Mountains at Sylva’s front door, the choices for outdoor fun are endless. So grab your water bottle and a camera, put on your hiking boots and take off.
Less than 10 minutes outside town, you can be at Pinnacle Park, but get ready for some exercise. There’s a half-mile, relatively at trail that takes you over small foot bridges that keep your feet dry— there’s a beautiful creek that runs down the mountain. Or, put on your hiking boots and get ready for a climb offering breathtaking, 360-degree views from a craggy peak known as The Pinnacle.
If you don’t mind driving a short distance, there’s more outdoor fun to be found and beauty to behold.
Cherokee is just a stone’s throw away and offers casino action at Harrah’s, but there’s a more serious side to the area that can be seen at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian as well as witnessed at each showing of the outdoor drama, “Unto These Hills,” that runs from June to August.
The Cradle of Forestry is about 25 miles away, but worth taking the time. It was here that planned forestry in the United States took root. Take a guided tour and see restored buildings from the 1800s and other forestry-related exhibits. There’s something in the Cradle that will peak the interest of children and adults, and there is no admission charge for kids under 15 ($5 for adults).
Rafting the rapids is an exhilarating experience and there are several rivers good for less-experienced rafters and kayakers that, while not roaring with Class V rapids, still offer thrills. The Oconoluftee, Tuckaseegee and Nanatahala rivers are all within an easy hour’s drive of Sylva and provide a day’s worth of sweet relief from the heat. Raft guides and outfitters are easy to find along the river routes.
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad steams through 53 miles of tracks, over mountains and through tunnels, stopping in towns along the way, such as scenic Dillsboro, N.C., allowing passengers time to dine and shop. The railroad offers half-and full-day trips, letting you see the Smoky Mountains from a different view. All rides depart from Bryson City, less than 20 miles from Sylva.
Waterfalls roar through Jackson County. Best estimates record eight waterfalls of note in the area. Whitewater Falls, near Cashiers, N.C. is the highest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains, plummeting more than 800 feet over massive boulders as it makes its way down the mountainside. By comparison, Silver Run Falls located nearby, drops no more than a mere 30 feet, but is just as impressive in its beauty.
And if you want to take a drive, the most scenic roadway in the Southeast, the Blue Ridge Parkway, begins in Cherokee and follows the Jackson County border for 40 miles, so hop on the parkway and witness the spectacular beauty of the southern Appalachians.
Dining has come a long way in recent years in the “metro” Sylva area, which includes the charming village of Dillsboro where the granddaddy of all restaurants is located—The Jarrett House, just a mile outside of Sylva. Since 1884, it has been feeding hungry diners, but in keeping up with the times, it’s also added The Coach’s Bistro which serves breakfast through dinner featuring bistro-style meals. The menu includes Buffalo chicken wraps, fettuccine pasta, sliders, shrimp and grits—a far cry from the original menu still being served in the old restaurant next door: home-style meals of fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, pickled beets, mashed potatoes and homemade biscuits. You get the best of both worlds— trendy foods and classic fare.
In Sylva proper, there is not a plethora of choices, but what’s there falls into a category of the unexpected for such a small town.
Lulu’s has become part of the fabric of Sylva, having first opened in 1989. Mick McCardle bought the restaurant four years ago, and, with his son, Devin, a New England Culinary Institute graduate, the Main Street eatery now serves a menu that focuses on fusion. Background music could be Tchaikovsky or Bob Marley.
“And the food could be pork belly and fried green tomatoes, or pho noodles and Greek salad,” Devin McCardle says. “I have fun with the menu.”
Almost next door, the menu changes to one that emphasizes the strong presence of farms in the Appalachian region. Guadalupe Cafe is all about the farm-to-table experience. In doing so, Chef Perry Matthews, a Jackson County native, marries the flavors of the Caribbean with Southern cuisine in a manner that would make you think he’s an island native. The way he plays with the ingredients in dishes, such as coconut-pecan crusted trout, teases the palate and makes you question your location. Are you in the Caribbean or the mountains?
Six years ago, Bernadette Peters moved from Decatur, Georgia, to Sylva, wanting to open a restaurant that mirrored the community-focused coffeehouses/cafes she had enjoyed in the Atlanta suburbs. She’s done just that at City Lights Cafe. The restaurant opens early, serving lattes, espresso and other coffees with savory crepes, sweet breads, grilled paninis, salads, soups and other fare, feeding patrons morning through night. City Lights offers the community more than a solid meal, however. Monday nights, kids eat free. There’s Yappy Hour for people and their dogs every Tuesday. And music from local musicians fills the night air on weekends.
Go to Sleep
After a full day in the mountain air, sleep comes easy. Whether it’s a chain hotel, bed-and-breakfast, resort or inn, the choices are diverse.
There are two well-known resorts in the Cashiers area: Sapphire Valley Resort and High Hampton Inn, the latter of which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Both are full-service resorts that offer luxury getaways.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, camping—both primitive and in your RV—is an obvious choice for many in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and in some parts of the Nantahala National Forest.
For more information, visit discoverjacksonnc.com.
Photography Courtesy of Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and Visitor’s Center