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Although North Carolina's Nantahala National Forest was first explored by Spanish conquistadors in the 1540s, Native American tribes lived, hunted, and fished in the region for hundreds of years prior. Nantahala National Forest came into being in 1920 when President Woodrow Wilson decided that the natural beauty, old-growth woods, and picturesque waterfalls were worthy of protection and declared the region a National Park. Nantahala is derived from a Cherokee Native American word that roughly translates to the “land of the noonday sun.” Indeed, there are steep valleys, gorges, and chasms that see sunlight for only a few minutes when the sun reaches its peak. Nantahala National Forest, encompassing over 531,000 acres, is the largest of the four national forests in North Carolina.
One of the closest towns to Nantahala National Forest is Franklin. Though the town isn’t particularly large, with about 4,000 residents, it boasts a Walmart store, a small hospital with an emergency health care center, and a charming downtown retail district. The Franklin area is also especially well-known for an abundance of ruby, sapphire, and garnet stones. In addition to the Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum, the town hosts Macon County Gemboree twice a year.
Over 600 miles of trails pass by an array of waterfalls, through old-growth forests, and alongside raging rivers. Nantahala National Forest is arguably one of the most scenic parks in the state, if not the country. Though most waterfalls appear and vanish quickly in springs, a few flows - or gushes - year-round. The Whitewater Falls near Cashiers, NC, is one of the highest waterfalls on the East Coast, plummeting 411 feet into a narrow gorge.
In addition to several small groves of old-growth woods, Nantahala National Forest is home to one of the largest pristine, virgin forests in the United States. It encompasses around 30,800 acres, and some of the trees found in this swath of land are estimated to be well over 400 years old.
Rock climbing is a popular activity enjoyed by many in addition to hiking, horseback riding, and off-roading. There are several top-roping routes that lead into narrow gorges and chasms and multiple-pitch climbing crags, too, particularly at Whiteside Mountain. The routes’, some of which top over 750 feet, difficulty ranges from 5.6 (extremely easy) to 5.11 (moderately difficult). Climbers should be aware that some routes around the Whiteside Mountain are often closed in spring due to nesting peregrine falcons, which are protected.
Skip the long drive before the crack of dawn by RV camping in Nantahala National Forest. Step out the front door of an Airstream rental and watch deer step cautiously out of the woods for a drink at a nearby babbling brook. Listen to the sounds of nature as critters prepare for the coming of night. Nantahala National Forest has 14 RV campgrounds, none of which have electric hookups.
The Jackrabbit Mountain RV campground has over 100 sites for campers to choose from, some of which are lakefront. Though there are no hookups, this campground has several amenities for its guests, which include a dump station, restrooms with showers, drinking water, and flush toilets. The main appeal is the easy access to a nearby lake and several outdoor recreation activities.
Alternatively, RV camping at Standing Indian may be a good option to consider. Slightly smaller with around 84 sites, it also features restrooms with showers and flush toilets, a dump station, and drinking water. Though guests can fish from the banks of the nearby Nantahala River, there is no boat ramp.
Hop into a rental motorhome and explore the charming mountain towns of North Carolina. Full of history and quirky attractions, there are plenty of places for visitors to explore. In Sylva, NC is the American Museum of the House Cat, which was originally founded in 1990 to support a cat rescue. Since then, the museum has grown tenfold into a major roadside attraction. The museum features rare advertising art, folk art and crafts, glass cats, antique toys, and many other cat-related novelties and artifacts.
Life in the remote Appalachian mountains was and continues to be hard, particularly for women who struggled to raise their children with limited funds and resources. The Appalachian Women’s Museum in Dillsboro, NC, endeavors to illustrate how ordinary women-led truly incredible lives and handled these challenges with determination and quiet grace.
Housed at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee is one of the finest art museums in the state. The WCU Fine Art Museum at Bardo Arts Center has four galleries that spotlight international and national artists. Contemporary and modern works range from fine-art photography to intricate abstract sculptures to Native American ceramics and pottery.
At the end of a long day of exploring and adventuring, kick up your heels outside a camper rental and roast marshmallows over a campfire. Find your perfect vacation retreat in the North Carolina wilds.