Waterfalls are abundant along the brink of the Blue Ridge escarpment of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Several impressive cascades in the Nantahala National Forest are accessible within a few miles of the resort town of Highlands. This Macon County community, situated at about 4,118 feet, receives twice the rainfall of mountain-sheltered valleys. The combination of high altitude and rain-forest climate provides habitat for numerous rare plant species, including the dwarf polypody fern (Grammitis nimbata), found nowhere else in North America.
This region is the native land of the Cherokee, and many legends and names reflect that heritage. Cullasaja, for example, is the corrupted version of the Cherokee word Kaulsetsiyi, meaning "honey locust place." The Cullasaja River flows westward from Highlands, paralleled by the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway. The first 7.5 miles of this route wind along US 64/28 through the beautiful Cullasaja Gorge with spectacular scenic views of the river and its waterfalls. The Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto passed this way in 1540, as did the intrepid pioneers during the gold rush after the discovery of gold in North Carolina in 1799.
Bridal Veil Falls [Fig. 32(22), Fig 34 (11)], just 2.5 miles west of Highlands, is a gentle beauty. In Cherokee lore, a maiden who walks under the falls in the spring will be married before the turning of the year. An old section of highway routed beneath the falls provides a unique opportunity to drive under the flowing water. The 120-foot falls sometimes displays a rainbow in the afternoon, and it has been known to freeze during the winter.
Another mile or so along this curvy, two-lane section of US 64 is the plunging tumult of water known as Dry Falls [Fig. 32(23), Fig. 34(10)]. Accessible by a paved and fenced path, the rushing water falls 75 feet to the boulder-strewn river. The cascade is surrounded by schist and gneiss, rock that is estimated to be 800 million years old. The five-minute walk continues along the recessed ledge behind the not-so-dry falls. The freshness of the air and the cool spray of the roaring water is invigorating at this close range.
Beyond Dry Falls toward the town of Franklin, the highway hangs on a rock ledge over the Cullasaja Gorge in one of the most hazardous sections of road in these mountains. Below, the river cascades over the boulders in a foaming, tumbling flow, and it is worth the extra trouble to find a safe parking space (using extreme caution) for a more leisurely view of Cullasaja Falls [Fig. 32(21)].
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