There’s no more colorful, memorable meander through North Carolina’s southwestern mountains than taking U.S. 64 from Brevard to Murphy, a 110-mile, two-hour route through the heart of the Nantahala National Forest. And 100 miles of the route – from near Rosman to Murphy – is North Carolina’s official Waterfalls Scenic Byway.
From Charlotte, access to Brevard is surprisingly quick via Interstate 85/Interstate 26 through Hendersonville. Best of all, there’s an easy alternate return route to Brevard from Murphy that creates a loop. Take U.S. 74 north past Sylva, then pop onto the loftiest part of the Blue Ridge Parkway for the 20 miles from Balsam Gap to U.S. 276. Leave the parkway there and head back to U.S. 64 near Brevard for a 150-mile, 3 1/2-hour return to Interstate 26. The U.S. 276 segment of this loop is part of another byway, the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway. That adds another roadside cascade – Looking Glass Falls – and the Cradle of Forestry, a national forest historic site with a rustic campus open for tours that trace the birth of forestry in America back to the Biltmore Estate.
The array of places to stop and things to see makes it difficult to choose a single spotlight. There’s a long list of tourist towns on the route that helped start the 1800s trend of wealthy Southerners spending summer high in the cool mountains. Cashiers was one of those early places. So was Highlands.
What warrants top billing on the Waterfalls Scenic Byway section are the waterfalls and cascades between Rosman and Franklin. Fall color really ramps up the natural appeal of these cataracts, all easily reached on the roadside. Ten miles before Cashiers, pull off near Lake Toxaway and marvel at the water going over the massive slabs of Toxaway Falls.
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Cross Lake Sequoyah, and about 3 miles past Highlands, stop at Bridal Veil Falls. The old highway used to run under the spritzing water. Today you can still walk behind the spray.
Same for nearby Dry Falls. This is the major sightseeing stop in spectacular Cullasaja Gorge (with restrooms and picnic tables). But don’t expect a little trickle: These falls thunder. Take the half-mile trail and you can see down the river from behind the 80-foot curtain of water. Nine miles from Highlands, keep your eyes peeled for a drive-by view of Cullasaja Falls.
If you make the loop recommended above, not far before returning to Brevard on U.S. 276, pull off on the left at spectacular, 60-foot Looking Glass Falls.