Photo: Birch Production Co.

How To Have the Perfect Mountain Weekend Getaway in Jackson County, North Carolina

North Carolina Insider Guides
by Jason Frye Mar 6, 2023

Visitors flock to North Carolina’s mountains in Jackson County every fall for the spectacular color show put on by the trees, but the region is just as enjoyable in the other seasons, too. And in winter, visiting Jackson County means you’ll have trails, waterfalls, and vistas in the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains virtually to yourself.

From a quiet shinrin-yoku hike on North Carolina’s first certified forest-therapy trail in Sylva’s Pinnacle Park to a whoop-at-the-top-of-your-lungs celebration when your boots lead you to the summit of Waterrock Knob, it’s easy to be awash in nature in Jackson County. Plus, with plenty of great restaurants to try and an Ale Trail where you’ll find perfect pints at every turn, the outdoors aren’t the only draw.

Things to Do in Jackson County, North Carolina

Forest Therapy Hiking

Jackson County sits at the heart of the Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains, and this means more hikes than you could take on with just a weekend – or even a week – at your fingertips. While many trails lead to waterfalls and magnificent mountain vistas, Pinnacle Park’s Certified Forest Therapy Trail puts the focus on the immediate environment by immersing you in the sights, sounds, and textures of the creek, trail, and surrounding woods. Only minutes from downtown Sylva, this half-mile trail uses the principles of shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) to guide hikers on a quiet, observant stroll through the woods and reap the emotional, psychological, and physical benefits of a baptism in nature.

Forest bathing is easy to pick up: put away your phone and distractions, get quiet, and observe your surroundings on the trail. Look at the sky, the leaves, the trees, and plants around you. Listen for birds and animal calls, listen to the bubble and splash of the creek, and hear the wind sing through the branches above. Sit a while and let the forest fill itself with sound as if you aren’t there. With one of the Pinnacle Park Certified Forest Therapy Trail Self-guided Walk pamphlets in hand, even those new to forest therapy can immerse themselves in the experience.

While you’re in Pinnacle Park, you can go for a big hike as well as take the shorter, focused, forest therapy walk. A seven-mile roundtrip hike leads you to the Pinnacle, the peak that lent the park its name, and you can take an even bigger hike (12.4 miles roundtrip) from Pinnacle Park to Waterrock Knob, which is one of the highest peaks along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

See the many waterfalls

soco falls in jackson county north carolina

Photo: Nick Breedlove

This part of the Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains is full of waterfalls. You’ll find a few cascades in Pinnacle Park, but for the most memorable falls in the county, head toward Cherokee for a pair of waterfalls you don’t want to miss: Soco Falls and Mingo Falls.

Soco Falls at the edge of the Qualla Boundary, which is the ancestral home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The descendants of tribe members who refused relocation to reservations in Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears live here. Soco Falls is a twin waterfall, meaning it has two creeks that flow over twin rock outcroppings and meet in the pool below – a rare sight in North Carolina. Legend has it that Soco Falls is haunted, holding the spirit of at least one Spanish explorer executed here for trespassing on tribal land in the 1500s. You can ghost hunt if you want, or you can just admire the falls.

There’s almost no hike to get to the viewing platform for Soco Falls – it sits just a few paces off Highway 19/Wolfetown Road near the Qualla Boundary edge. But if you want to hike to the base of the falls, buckle up, because it’s steep, muddy, and more than a little bit of a challenge. First, you’ll scramble over rock outcrops and boulders until you reach a muddy spiderweb of possible paths. Using one of the ropes other hikers have strung up as handholds, carefully make your way over the driest paths and the most climbable rocks until you reach the creek’s edge. From here, you’ll be a stone’s throw from the falls. The best vantage for photos and video is just downstream where you’ll be able to frame both falls and the creek for a beautiful shot. To get back to the car, use the ropes, rocks, and roots as handholds as you climb the muddy trail back to the top.

Mingo Falls is a much easier, much less muddy hike to one of the tallest waterfalls around. To get there, drive through Cherokee – passing the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, where the stories of the Cherokee are told through displays and exhibits and through the work of tribe-member artists and craftspeople – into a valley snug in the arms of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park and follow the signs to the trailhead. The trail itself is less than a half-mile from parking lot to Mingo Falls, but to get there you’ll climb 150 stairs and cross a sturdy log bridge. Mingo Falls tumbles 120 feet over the rock face, fanning out as it goes and making an impressive sight.

Drive the scenic byway

Photo: ehrlif/Shutterstock

Just a few miles from Sylva you’ll find two outstanding drives that includes one of the best scenic byways in the country. Newfound Gap Road leads across Great Smoky Mountains National Park, connecting Cherokee, North Carolina, to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile scenic byway stretching from North Carolina to central Virginia, follows the ridgelines the whole way.

Note that both roads are seasonal, and wintry weather can shut them down. When it’s open, the Blue Ridge Parkway offers a jaw-dropping vista at every overlook (and nearly every turn of the road) as well as several exceptional hikes. If you’re looking for the best view, head to the Waterrock Knob overlook around sunset and cast your eyes west where Cherokee sits framed by the Clingmans Dome and the Smoky Mountains.

Newfound Gap Road, which bisects Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offers similar views as you climb these mountains to the place where President Franklin Roosevelt founded the park in September 1940. A dozen overlooks give you the chance to view the Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains as they undulate their way across the land. At the top you’ll reach the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, where the view is nothing short of spectacular. Hiking trails range from short “Quiet Walkways” to a visit to the historic Mingus Mill line Newfound Gap Road, so wear your boots and be ready for a hike at any minute.

Shop for local arts and crafts

dogwood crafters north carolina

Photo: Dogwood Crafters

Sylva and Dillsboro are artsy little towns in Jackson County. In Dillsboro, Dogwood Crafters, an arts and crafts co-op, shows some of the best in pottery, fiber arts, and other works by local artists and craftspeople. Focus on the pottery, as there are a number of talented clay-throwers here in Jackson County, and their work is excellent whether you’re in the market for a new mug, a showy serving bowl or platter, or a one-of-a-kind gift. You’ll find several boutiques in Dillsboro, each with a different focus. When they’re all open, it’s easy to spend an afternoon (and a few bucks) here.

In Sylva, take your time as you prowl the shelves and bins in the town’s antique stores. Dixie & Co. and the Underground at Dixie has a curated mix of antiques, ephemera, vintage goods, and odd finds. A collection of cloth and porcelain dolls stand guard over mannequin parts. Behind a rack of vintage jeans, shelves of glass ashtrays and mugs wait to be discovered. Antique typewriters, store signs, decanters, boots, and more fill the space, making for a different trip every time you stop to shop. Treasures Unknown has it all – carnival glass, antique tools, signage and ephemera, your great-grandma’s (and maybe your great-great-grandma’s) kitchen tools and bowls, even antique furniture fit for a mountaintop cabin or ready for a stylish upcycle treatment – and you’ll find it hard to leave empty handed.

City Lights Bookstore is one of the best independent bookstores in western North Carolina, and with a wide selection of popular fiction, as well as fiction and nonfiction with a local focus (from authors like Wiley Cash, David Joy, Lee Smith, Charles Frazier, to name a few), you’ll find something that calls back to this place.

Where to eat in Jackson County

Guadalupe Café

guadalupe cafe north carolina

Photo: Guadalupe Cafe / Photo: Jackson County Tourism Development Authority

Serving Sylva since 2004, Guadalupe Café’s blend of Southern, Caribbean, and Latin dishes and flavors uses a ton of locally sourced meats, veggies, and seasonings in each dish. From tried tofu triangles with peanut sauce to the spicy salsa sampler to the fried plantains with tamarind-honey ketchup, you’ll find a tasty way to start the meal before digging into your main. The adobo pork tostadas deliver layer upon layer of flavor, while the daily spin on the ginger noodle bowl offers up something that’s vegetarian-friendly. Burgers, tacos, breakfast burritos, and inventive daily specials will complicate your ordering because everything – and I mean everything – is excellent here.

Guadalupe Café: 606 W Main St, Sylva, NC 28779


Easily the best dinner in Sylva, ILDA serves up a blend of rustic Appalachian-meets-Italian cuisine. Owned and operated by a husband-and-wife team (he’s the chef, she’s the sommelier), ILDA wows at every course. Start with the cocktail list, where you’ll find a creative lineup of original drinks as well as a delicious handful of non-alcoholic options, or the wine list, a perfectly-curated collection of wines served by the glass or bottle. For dinner, the chicken liver mousse with pickled grapes, grape mostarda, and house focaccia makes for a decadent start to the meal. Other starter options include Karen’s meatballs or the quattro formaggio arancini. The grilled caesar is executed perfectly, delivering a tasty play on familiar temperatures, textures, and flavors from this classic salad. For your entrée, you’d be remiss if you skipped the mafaldini (lamb Bolognese with house-made noodles and local greens) or the red wine casarecce (wild boar, pecorino, and fried rosemary over house pasta).

Ilda: 462 W Main St, Sylva, NC 28779

City Lights Cafe

City Lights Cafe north carolina

Photo: City Lights Cafe

Downstairs from City Lights Bookstore, City Lights Cafe offers coffee, breakfast, and lunch daily. For food, go simple with the bread-n-spread (a bagel with butter, peanut butter, jam, cream cheese, or other spreadable goodie), keep it veggie-forward with the vegan brekkie (tempeh or vegan sausage, cashew cheese, spinach, and tomato on your choice of bread), or go for the delightful blend of crepe and pancake that is the crepecake (and, yes, there’s a vegan option for this one too). You can also go big with a folded, filled crepe served savory (like the chicken, spinach, and cheddar) or sweet (banana and Nutella). At lunch, it’s all about the handhelds, from a feisty ham and cheese panini with a zesty feta cheese, to the LGBT panini with lettuce, guacamole, bacon, and tomato. Salads, soups, and rice bowls are also on offer if you’d rather fork-and-knife it for lunch.

City Lights Cafe: 3 E Jackson St, Sylva, NC 28779

Lucy in the Rye

Serving breakfast and lunch to hungry diners six days a week (closed on Tuesdays), Lucy in the Rye is a go-to spot for locals. Breakfast offerings like the pillowy Belgian waffle, mouth-watering biscuits and gravy, or a simple plate of eggs and bacon (or plant-based chorizo, if that’s where you tend to graze) will fill you up and please your palate. For lunch, the bacon jam cheeseburger offers a hearty bite, the filo dough-encased spinach pie served with the strawberry fields salad makes for a lighter lunchtime bite, and the miso beet burger will please anyone looking to skip the meat.

Lucy in the Rye: 612 W Main St, Sylva, NC 28779

Lulu’s on Main

A longtime Sylva favorite, Lulu’s on Main dishes up Southern comfort classics like meatloaf in brown gravy along with steakhouse classics like salmon, a mixed grill, or a USDA prime steak. Start with the fried green tomatoes for a taste of the South and the mushrooms with whipped brown butter goat cheese.

Lulu’s on Main: 678 W Main St, Sylva, NC 28779

White Moon

white moon in jackson county north carolina

Photo: White Moon

For a truly epic breakfast sandwich and a latte, make White Moon your early morning stop. Cozy, comfortable, and welcoming to all visitors, White Moon serves up great drip coffee and cafe drinks, and the small menu of breakfast and bakery items will wow you. The 828 (soft scrambled eggs, Calabrian chili and harissa cream cheese, avocado on ciabatta) is outstanding (and filling).

White Moon: 545 Mill St, Sylva, NC 28779

Where to drink in Jackson County

Innovation Brewery

Innovation Brewing poured its first pint in 2013. Today, the brewery has a massive tap list: 28 libations on offer of various styles, including a pair of non-alcoholic kombuchas and a quartet of ciders from Noble Ciders, a renowned North Carolina producer. Innovation specializes in, well, innovating, and it was one of the first western North Carolina breweries to offer a robust lineup of sour beers — a tradition carried on today with five wild and funky brews on tap at any time that draw on things like seasonal fruit.

Innovation Brewery: 414 W Main St, Sylva, NC 28779

Innovation Station at Dillsboro

innovation station dillsboro north carolina

Photo: Birch Production Co.

Celebrating Dillsboro’s railroad history, Innovation Station at Dillsboro sits adjacent to the railroad tracks where passengers on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad (originating in nearby Bryson City) stop for a break and a beer on their train excursions. From the taproom, you can see the massive brewing operation in back. Bring in a bite from one of the food trucks posted up in the parking lot or grab some grub from the Foragers Canteen next door to enjoy with your pint or flight.

Innovation Station at Dillsboro: 40 Depot St, Dillsboro, NC 28725

Balsam Falls Brewing Co.

One of the stops on the Jackson County Ale Trail, Balsam Falls Brewing offers a variety of beers and ciders spanning styles and flavors. Seasonal offerings – like the pumpkin and cayenne-flavored Chupacabra Cucurbita and the Baltic porter Night Divides The Day – compliment an offering of blonde ales, witbiers, and IPAs. But Balsam Falls isn’t afraid to explore, offering sour beers (like Grandma’s Pickled Peaches) and cider, perry (that’s cider made with a pear), mead, and hard seltzers.

Balsam Falls Brewing Co.: 506 W Main St, Sylva, NC 28779

Lazy Hiker Brewing

lazy hiker brewing jackson county

Photo: Photo: Jackson County Tourism Development Authority

More than a dozen house-brewed beers and a guest pour or two grace the taplist at Lazy Hiker Brewing. Lazy Hiker is known for its Trail Mate (a crisp golden ale) and Lazy Session (a well-balanced English pale ale). Hopheads will love Trail Candy (a tropical IPA) and the bright, floral Slack Pack IPA. If you’re in the mood for sours, the margarita gose is a great twist on this accessible style, and the pomegranate gorge Berliner Weisse will quench your thirst with a tart punch. The taproom is home to live music, trivia, and the occasional movie, and when the weather is good you can step out onto the patio for a game of cornhole or to sip your pint al fresco with a selection of pub food.

Lazy Hiker Brewing: 188 W Main St, Franklin, NC 28734

Where to stay in Jackson County

outland chaet

Photo: Outland Great Smoky Mountains Chalet & Suites

We hope you love the spaces we recommend! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay.

When you’re in the mountains, there’s no better place to stay than somewhere with a view. One of the best spots to rest and recharge when you’re visiting Jackson County is Outland Great Smoky Mountains Chalet & Suites. The chic chalet blends Scandinavian style with Smoky Mountain charm for a space that’s comfortable and restive. Each of the chalet’s seven bedrooms features an en-suite bath and a balcony or patio. Several offer fireplaces, making things even more cozy and romantic. Add in a kitchen and lounge (open to Chalet and suite guests) and you’ve got a great stay for families and groups.

outland great smoky mountains room

Photo: Outland Great Smoky Mountains Chalet & Suites

Just up the hill from the chalet you’ll find a collection of five suites: four one-bedroom suites and one with two bedrooms that’s perfect for families. The one-bedroom suites have king beds, fireplaces, a patio or balcony, and space to spread out your gear, trail maps, and goodies. Three of these suites have soaking tubs and steam showers, while the other offers an ADA-compliant stay with an extra-large walk-in shower. The second-floor two-bedroom suite offers separate experiences: a King room with soaking tub, steam shower, and two balconies; and a Queen suite with fireplace, en-suite bath, and a balcony.

outland great smoky mountains chalet clubroom

photo: Outland Great Smoky Mountains Chalet & Suites

Outland offers more than just great rooms. There’s a pond and fire pit where guests can gather in the evenings, a lawn where bocce ball and other games rule the day, and several trails crisscrossing the property. Don’t miss the short hike to the top of the hill where views to the north and west reveal the range of the Smoky Mountains, including Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in the national park.

From Outland, it’s about a 10-minute drive to Sylva and Dillsboro, and you’re only 20 minutes from Cherokee, where you’ll find the entrances to the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s also an easy drive to Cashiers, at the southern end of Jackson County, if you feel like making a micro road trip through this gorgeous terrain.

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How to get to Jackson County, North Carolina

Visitors from Atlanta and points south will find an easy 2.5-hour drive north along US-23/US-441. Asheville, North Carolina, is 50 minutes to the northwest via US 74 (also called Great Smoky Mountain Expressway) and I-40. The Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill) are four hours away. Charlotte, North Carolina, sits 2.5 hours east via US-76. And if you’re coming to Jackson County from the west, you’ll likely cross Great Smoky Mountains National Park via US-441/Newfound Gap Road, which leads from Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, through the National Park to Cherokee.

The closest airports are in Asheville, the Greenville Spartanburg International Airport (GSP) in Greenville, South Carolina (a little more than an hour and a half away); or McGhee Tyson Airport near Knoxville, Tennessee (a little more than two hours away). Be sure to reserve your rental car before you fly.

Getting Around Jackson County

Cars are a must to fully experience the region. Rideshare services like Uber and Lyft can be hard to come by and are frequently unreliable. With so much hiking and waterfall chasing to do, you’ll want your own car anyway.

Sylva and Dillsboro are only five minutes apart and walking these quaint downtowns will give you a feel for the personality of each. And if you’re looking to make the rounds on the Jackson County Ale Trail, first establish a designated driver and to exercise moderation.

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