Not on most mainstream tourist maps Highlands, North Carolina is known for three things. Sunset Rock, Dry Falls, and Whiteside Mountain. All three are easy to find and are within a 10 minute drive of downtown Highlands. A helpful map to have is the Trail Illustrated Map by National Geographic. Number 785 is the one for this area which will include fishing, hiking, canoeing, and equestrian trails. A good deal for about $12.
Dry Falls, located just south of town, along highway 64/28 is the easiest of the three sites to access. From a paved parking area, complete with picnic tables and restrooms, one weaves their way down steps and along a paved walkway to Dry Falls. From there the path becomes loose gravel from behind the falls over to the other side. At one tenth of a mile this is the shortest of the three hikes and the falls are visible from the parking lot. A word of caution regarding two things. Restroom is a liberal description at best. Basically an outhouse on steroids. No running water. And secondly, the spray off the falls forms a solid sheet of ice on the path behind the falls during the winter. As witnessed by the number of people who fell while standing there.
On the other side of Highlands, across from the botanical garden, is the parking lot for the hike to Sunset Rock. Sunset Rock gets it name from its westward facing and view of the sunsets. Located at the end of a 1/2 mile or so gravel drive way, Sunset Rock can be reached either on foot or by car. Once there, looking south brings into view Georgia while looking southeast South Carolina is just on the horizon. Formed by the expulsion of magma, this bare rock shows the flow of the liquid rock. On the opposite side of the mountain is Sunrise Rock. Not as well marked and very easy to overlook. But well worth the short 300-400 yard hike along a semi marked trail.
Last, but by no means least, is Whiteside Mountain. Located less than 10 miles from downtown Highlands, Whiteside Mountain is the jewel of the area. Restrooms are available in the parking area but once again a liberal definition since running water is not available. Leaving the parking lot two ways are available to get to the summit. Choosing the left fork will take longer but the climb is less difficult. Choosing the right fork is a much shorter trek to the summit but one is faced with knee high steps along the way. Once on top a sheer rock cliff is awaiting. Peregrine falcons make this their home. Rappelling and rock climbing are also allowed.
A few pieces of equipment make the stay in Highlands a piece of cake. Good hiking boots, light duty hydration pack, trekking poles, and a camera are about all that is needed. Don't plan on doing business at any of the main stream stores. Non exist in Highlands. Also, plan on shopping before 5 pm, most stores are closed by then.
But for just a good old hiking experience, Highlands is hard to beat.