Waterfall Row

06 Feb 2024

The Beauty of the Cullasaja Gorge

Story and photos by BRENDON VOELKER

All 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway aside, the Cullasaja Gorge between Franklin and Highlands is arguably one of the most beautiful drives in all of western North Carolina. Whether you are into waterfalls, enjoy quiet fishing opportunities, or simply want to cruise the road for a scenic drive, the beauty of the gorge will demand your attention.

From Franklin, note the vehicle restrictions within the gorge due to a particularly narrow section alongside the cliff. There are no height limitations in place though the road is not open to traditional commercial vehicles or semi-trucks. As you enter the gorge from the bottom, be mindful of all signs and warnings lest you become stuck or faced with heavy fines. Remember that those relying on the roadway as a commute also face delays when blocked. Highways 64 and 28 share the corridor as you pass by two gas stations not far from Franklin. While the entire roadway could be navigated in 45 minutes, consider topping off your gas tank in town as the prices are generally more affordable than on the plateau.

The first waterfall of the drive may be the most impressive, though one of the more difficult ones to visit as the pull-out is barely wide enough for a couple of cars, and the views are often restricted by foliage in the summer. Cullasaja Falls, the largest of the waterfalls in the gorge, earned its name from an indigenous word meaning “place of the honey locust,” though a few sources note the sweetgum trees that you also find nearby. Massive pines, hemlocks, sassafras, maples, oak, and even a few chestnut saplings are common sightings along the way. The variety makes for an extremely colorful drive in the fall as the leaves change. Local photographers, such as the Renfro family, have managed to capture this waterfall’s beauty.

Not far uphill, Quarry Falls lies along the river and offers visitors easy views and plenty of swimming opportunities. Although there are no lifeguards or warning signs, a few ropes and a faint path to the river make this one accessible for visitors of most ages. Known by some locals as “Bust Your Butt Falls,” there are endless opportunities for photos and a plentiful selection of wildflowers to view throughout the summer. Ahead, the Cliffside Lake Recreation Area is marked to the left and offers the perfect opportunity to enjoy lunch, go fishing, or utilize restrooms should you need it.

What lies ahead may be the most acclaimed waterfall in the gorge, Dry Falls. If you’ve spent any amount of time in Highlands, chances are this is one of the first places you visited. Ironically named, the falls are anything but dry. If you choose to hike the short path to their base, you can stand behind the falls and enjoy a unique perspective of the raging waters. Folklore notes how the waterfall earned its name as the cavern could provide safe shelter during times of war or severe storms, with other sources dating back to references from indigenous cultures. An accessible overlook also offers views to those who prefer or need it.

A popular roadside spot, Bridal Veil Falls sits just ahead, draining into the same river that feeds Dry Falls. While you could drive beneath the falls in the past, they were previously damaged and wooden barriers now prevent visitors from going beneath. Enjoy views from the roadside parking or embark on a short walk to stand beneath the falls while others take a photo from the roadside. Should you arrive with the barrier moved to the side, it’s courtesy to move it back to prevent unnecessary accidents with vehicles trying to enter and leave the pull-out. The blind corners into the pull-out can be dangerous to navigate on busy days.

Important to note, while this roadway is a scenic drive, locals still rely on it for daily commutes. Should you find yourself with another vehicle on your tail, politely pull over and offer them the opportunity to pass. Restrooms are available at Dry Falls, and both gas and electric vehicle charging stations are available at the bottom and top of the gorge. Local guiding companies, such as Highlands Excursions, also offer tours of the area should you want an experienced driver to guide you through the area with roadside service from your accommodations in Highlands.

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