Guide

Nantahala National Forest

Nantahala National Forest

For Nantahala National Forest alerts regarding COVID-19, go to the National Forest Service website.

Plan responsible recreation:

  • Bring the food and water you need for the day and use the restroom before you leave home.
  • Many forest areas have no restrooms and are far from towns that offer these services.
  • Bring hand sanitizer and the supplies you need to hygienically pack out your waste and your pet's waste.
  • Know your limits and choose activities that are appropriate for your physical condition.
  • Bring a first-aid kit and extra food, water, and clothing in case the emergency response is delayed.

Campgrounds, visitor centers, picnic pavilions, beaches, restrooms, day-use areas, and many other developed recreation sites may be closed.


Nantahala National Forest is the largest national forest in North Carolina (531,286 acres), covering much of the western tip of the state. From Asheville, head west past the Blue Ridge Parkway to towns such as Sylva, Dillsboro, Cullowhee, Cashiers, Highlands, Franklin (gem capital), Bryson City, Robbinsville, and Murphy. It offers a wealth of outdoor activities and plenty of scenic views. The Indian word Nantahala means "land of the midday sun" — an appropriate name for a forest in which deep mountain gorges and valleys are illuminated only when the noon sun is directly overhead. At 5,800 ft., the Appalachian summit of Lone Bald is the highest point in the forest. It's home to many waterfalls. Download a PDF map of Nantahala National Forest.

As part of its national Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences conservation program, the National Forest Foundation (NFF) has designated the Nantahala National Forest as a Treasured Landscape in 2017.

Enjoy the panoramic views from Whiteside Mountain, Wayah Bald and Wesser Bald. Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, with its 400-year old trees, is another breathtaking sight, as is Whitewater Falls - the highest falls east of the Mississippi. Perhaps the jewels of the Forest are the Nantahala River Gorge and Panthertown Valley.

Mountain Waters National Scenic Byway
There is easy access to a wide variety of adventure on this 61.3-mile drive that winds through the southern Appalachian hardwood forest, two spectacular river gorges and rural countryside. From Highlands to Almond, the route follows US 64, old US 64, NC 1310, and US 19 through Nantahala National Forest. For the first 7.5 miles, the byway travels through picturesque Cullasaja Gorge. The winding road parallels the river's most rugged course and offers scenic views of the river and waterfalls. Two roadside must stops include Dry Falls and Bridal Veil Falls.

Cherohala Skyway
Enjoy breathtaking mountain views from this 36-mile winding National Scenic Byway are pristine with little evidence of civilization. Stop at many overlooks, including the Santeetlah Overlook at 5,390 ft. in elevation (highest point on the Skyway). It's located near Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and is a favorite for motorcycle and sport car drivers. See our Cherohala Skyway Guide.

Hiking Trails
Hundreds of miles of hiking trails wind through Nantahala. It's a great place to enjoy the peace and wonder of nature, whatever your hiking ability. A favorite hike is Whiteside Mountain, located between Highlands and Cashiers off U.S. Highway 64. Whiteside Mountain stands as a landmark along the eastern continental divide. It rises more than 2,100 ft. from the valley floor to the summit at 4,930 ft. The south face contains magnificent sheer cliffs ranging from 400 ft. to 750 ft. in height. A 2-mile loop trail takes hikers along the ridge of the mountain and provides spectacular views to the east, south and west. See our Guide to Whiteside Mountain.

Wayah Bald (pic) has a vantage point 5,200 ft. in elevation where, on a clear day, you can see north to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and south into the rolling hills of Georgia. See our Wayah Bald Lookout Tower Guide.

Panthertown Valley has 30 miles of trails. Hike, mountain bike or ride your horse in this beautiful gorge with towering granite domes and waterfalls, including the beauty Schoolhouse Falls. See our Panthertown Valley Guide.

The Appalachian Trail offers a variety of hiking options in Nantahala Forest. A great hike near Wayah Bald is taking the AT south to Siler Bald. The trail leaves the road just east of the gap at the picnic area. Go 1.7 miles to a blue-blazed side trail on the left toward the Siler Bald Shelter and expansive views from the summit of Siler Bald (5,216 ft.). The side trail is 1.1 miles and ends at the AT, about 1/2-mile farther south. Head back toward the car for a rewarding 4-mile round-trip hike.

See Gorges State Park for waterfall hikes to Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Falls. Also, see our hiking guide and read about Zipline Tours.

Camping
The Nantahala National Forest offers full-featured campgrounds as well as primitive and group campgrounds. Nearly all the campgrounds in the forest are located near a lake, river or stream — they include Chain of Lakes, Hanging Dog Recreation Area, Jackrabbit Mountain Recreation Area, Fires Creek, Tsali Recreation Area, Horse Cove Campground Area, Cheoah Point Recreation Area, The Snowbird Area, Cable Cove Recreation Area, Rattler Ford Group Campground and Big Santeetlah Creek. See our camping guide for details. Download the PDF of Official Nantahala Forest Camping Guide. And see Bear Safety Tips.

Mountain Biking at Tsali Recreation Area
Bike and horseback ride along Fontana Lake, with camping and boat launch facilities. Several loops provide up to 42 miles of challenging trails rated as "more difficult" — but even if you're just learning to pedal, you'll find a variety of low-impact routes that wind their way through the forest. The Left Loop, a 12-mile trail along the edge of Lake Fontana, was rated as one of the 10 best rides in America by Bicycling magazine. Read more about Tsali mountain biking.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest
A walk through Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is a journey back in time through a magnificent forest with towering trees as old as 450 years. Some enormous tulip-poplars are more than 20 ft. in circumference and stand 100 ft. tall. The floor is carpeted with wildflowers, ferns and moss-covered logs from fallen giants. The figure-eight Joyce Kilmer National Recreation Trail covers 2 miles and has 2 loops: the 1.25-mile lower loop passes the Joyce Kilmer Memorial plaque, and the upper 0.75-mile loop swings through Poplar Cove—a grove of the forest’s largest trees. See our Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest Guide.

Watch the video: Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness - Nantahala National Forest. 4-day Backpacking Full (November 2020).