Driving in the mountains has never been my forte, I think, as I snake my car through the narrow arteries of the Western Carolinas’ highway system. I wonder aloud more than once how the locals must abhor drivers like me; I imagine them shaking their fists in my rearview mirror, silently griping at this obvious amateur who won’t dare drive over 10 mph around the mountain’s jagged curves.
As I continue the climb toward Jackson County, North Carolina, my cellphone reception starts to snag, the little bars dropping down further and further until they’re eventually replaced by a very stern-looking “X.” No matter. It’s an even trade-off to be surrounded by the divine scenery of one of North Carolina’s most playful mountain getaways.
I once read somewhere that snakes are more afraid of us than we are of them. I don’t know how true that is, but I like to think it’s why I didn’t see a single one on my first hike in Panthertown Valley. I simply scared them all away.
Fresh Catch // While Jackson County’s rivers might be hotspots for fly-fishing enthusiasts, the area, which includes parts of the Nantahala National Forest, offers a wide range of recreational activities.
Just east from Cashiers, Panthertown Valley is a stunning slice of the Nantahala National Forest with a breadth of scenic waterfalls, manmade hiking trails, lazy streams, dipping valleys, and picturesque overlooks begging to be explored. And explore we did, looping over two miles to and from Schoolhouse Falls—a drop in the bucket for the Valley’s 6,700-acre tract of raw, unrefined land. Perhaps the most iconic of the area’s many waterfalls, Schoolhouse Falls cascades over the mossy rock face in thick sheets, pooling at the bottom in a sort of makeshift swimming hole. Our trail guide tells us that if we cut to either side, (and if we’re careful) we can actually cross behind the falls. It’s an exercise in tactile maneuvering across the slippery boulders and snarled tree roots. One hand goes here, foot goes there, step up, slide down, do the hokey pokey and turn yourself around. The outer view from between the streaks of glassy, rushing water, however, is worth any minor cuts and scrapes.
We passed other groups of like-minded travelers along the hike: young couples casually strolling hand-in-hand; weekend campers loaded down with bulky backpacks; knots of sleepy-headed Cub Scouts looking only slightly worse for the wear. Panthertown Valley’s diverse trail system is also an ideal challenge for mountain bikers, and they navigate the sloping hillsides and rough patches of rugged terrain with reckless confidence. Of course, these woods are also a playground for a plethora of non-human species that reside here, including black bears, deer, birds, and other wildlife. I jerk my head to the right when I hear a strange rustling coming from a bush nearby.
“Wild turkey,” the guide states matter-of-factly, no pause in her stride.
Oh, good. As long as it’s not a snake.
“What do you mean you’ve never been to Cashiers?” The zip line instructor is looking at me as if I’ve just instantaneously sprouted a pair of fluffy white bunny ears.
“You live in Greenville and you’ve never come up here?”
“I’ve visited Asheville a few times,” I offer halfheartedly, pretending to adjust the chinstrap of my helmet. It’s comfortable already, but I need something to do with my hands as I inch closer to the edge of the solid wooden platform. Ah, too late—they’re sweating already.
“Well, yeah,” he snorts, clipping my harness into the thick cable stretched taut between two magnificent trees. “Everyone goes to Asheville.”
Then he pushes me off the ledge.
Relax. This is just all part of the experience on the Vordach Zip Line, an exhilarating adventure on high in the Sapphire Valley Resort. Named after the German word for “canopy,” the Vordach consists of 13 steel wires threaded across the lush forest of pines, oaks, and other indigenous fauna, lending a rare bird’s-eye view of the property’s sweeping natural beauty while your heart takes the old one-two adrenaline punch. After a quick crash course in zip safety—whatever you do, don’t grab the line—we advance through a series of ascending lines of various lengths that peak at around 70 feet above the ground. Some slides are quick, barely allowing two lungfuls of crisp air before it’s time to hit the brake. Others move more moderately, during which time I muse on what life might be like if I got stuck up here and was forced to live among the squirrels. If those lofty heights make you feel squeamish, there is the option to head back on foot. But, come on—do you really want to be that guy?
The Tuckasegee River—fondly referred to as the “Tuck” by area residents—is a 60-mile swath of freshwater that flows northwest from Jackson County and on up into the Little Tennessee River. It’s also apparently a pretty popular place to be in the wee hours of a Saturday morning; many of the fishermen are already packing up their gear when we arrive around 8:30 a.m., their faces a clear indicator of whether or not the early venture was a successful one. I may look the part in my waterproof bib and wading boots, but I couldn’t tell a woolly bugger from a clinch knot. (Yes, those are real fly-fishing terms.) So when you’re a newbie to the sport, it helps to have a guide that knows what he’s doing. And carries a flask of bourbon.
Splash Guard // Fly-fishing and zip-lining are popular activities in Jackson County, North Carolina; Schoolhouse Falls (below) is one of countless hidden havens in Jackson County to catch a water spill. Other spots include Cashiers Sliding Rock, which sports a natural slide and swimming holes above and below the falls.
“I have zero patience,” I warn our instructor Alex Bell as we pick over the slick rock bottom toward one of his tried-and-true “honey holes.” The Tuck is a prime location on the Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail, a collection of some 15 rivers, creeks, and streams in Jackson County that are known for their yearlong abundance of trout. Bell helped found the trail, the only of its kind in the United States. He also operates AB’s Fly Fishing Guide Service, which is how he got stuck with me.
“See? You’re a natural,” Bell says once we are situated somewhere downstream (or maybe it was upstream) on the river. It’s taken a few tries, but I’ve gotten the hang of casting the line back and forth smoothly, watching the colorful fly bob with the water’s tempo once it lands. I admit, I can see how people find this relaxing. As the sun continues to rise, so does the hazy layer of fog that had settled on the Tuck overnight, and the sky blazes with the rich auburns, ambers, and golds reflected by the surrounding trees. A recent drought has left the water level slightly lower than average for this time of year, but it rushes forth at a steady pace and creates an organic kind of music. For a moment, I forget that I’m standing waist-deep in chilly river water. I just listen.
The tug on my line draws me back. Though Bell had advised not to yank the rod upward if I feel a bite, it’s my first knee-jerk reaction. And the small rainbow trout might have escaped if not for Bell’s agile net skills. It’s catch-and-release season, so the lucky fish is dropped back into the Tuck after posing for a picture or two—otherwise, not one of my friends would believe that I actually caught a trout. We celebrate with a nip from that flask I mentioned earlier. Naturally, it’s in the shape of a fish.
/// Library Kitchen & Bar
Near the entrance of the Sapphire Valley Country Club, Library Kitchen & Bar pairs chef/owner Johannes Klapdohr’s global menu with co-owner Marvin Gralnick’s spunky artwork—a match made in heaven.
184 Cherokee Trail, Sapphire, NC. (828) 743-5512, librarykitchenandbar.com
/// Old Edwards Inn & Spa
An award-winning, European style retreat in the heart of downtown Highlands, the Old Edwards Inn & Spa offers an elegant escape complete with golf course, pool, spa treatments, and fine dining.
445 Main St, Highlands, NC. (866) 526-8008, oldedwardsinn.com
/// Vordach Zip Line
The 10-element canopy tour provides excellent valley views as riders zip above the Blue Ridge Mountains. Come winter, the Sapphire Valley Resort transforms into a ski retreat.
Sapphire Valley Highway 64, Sapphire, NC. (828) 743-7663, sapphirevalley.com