Bridal Veil Falls on Moonshiner 28 nears Highlands, NC (flickr/leslie looper)
Take a Scenic Drive on Moonshiner 28 near the Great Smoky Mountains! Perhaps no image is more stereotypical of the rural South than that of the moonshine still tucked way up in the holler, shaded by the mountain forest and guarded by a pack of dogs and the loyalty of kin and customer. “Moonshiner 28,” a route once used by moonshiners who perfected their craft under a cloak of secrecy in the still of the night, is better known nowadays for its thrilling twists and turns and breathtaking scenery, including cascading waterfalls and charming North Carolina towns that attract motorcyclists and car-riding tourists alike.
“Moonshiner 28” starts where that fabled section of Highway 129 known as the “Tail of the Dragon,” a ride that offers more than 300 curves in a scant eleven miles, intersects with North Carolina 28 one mile south of the Tennessee/North Carolina line. When riders and drivers make that turn, they’ve kicked off a 103-mile adventure for nature-lovers and mountain culture enthusiasts alike!
If you go in spring or summer, you’ll enjoy a lush, green canopy with occasional mountain views that embody verdant North Carolina at its best. Not far into what will be a great deal more than a lazy Sunday drive, the adventurer will cross Fontana Bridge, immediately after which they will have the opportunity to turn onto a road leading down to the viewing area for the Fontana Dam, the largest TVA project of its kind. The dam juts 500 feet above the viewer, an awe-inspiring feat of engineering.
Back on 28, which runs parallel to Fontana Lake for 22 miles, drivers will thrill to magical glimpses of the beautiful body of water. Like other lakes in the mountains, Fontana delivers the “fairyland” feel. It’s a slice of heaven on earth, with layers of mountains bathed in differing blue hues flanking serene waters. If camping’s your thing, hop off the route at Cable Cove and follow the road to the Cable Cove National Forest Campground, where you’ll find 26 primitive campsites that give new definition to the phrase “tucked away.” Drown your troubles in nature’s peaceful tides while cutting the cord to the stress of everyday life. Fontana Village, a western North Carolina resort twenty miles north of Robbinsville, North Carolina on the western end of Fontana Lake is a special experience set in the Nantahala National Forest. The resort features dining, a lodge, cabins, RV spaces, and tent camping overlooking the Little Tennessee River. This is a piece of tranquility set in the sacred, still, soul-healing forest.
Back on 28, the adventure heats up when the driver crosses the beautiful Nantahala River. A few miles on, it’s a great idea to hop off the main route for a couple of hours to tour downtown Franklin, North Carolina. Simply hang a right at the light where Main Street crosses 28 and you’re on your way!
Franklin boasts ten separate gem mines, glutted with tourists looking for the ultimate North Carolina mountain experience. In addition to shine running, these hills were made for digging out gold! Connect with the area’s rich mining history at the Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum, which is open from May to October. The Ruby City Gem Museum is another “must-see” Franklin experience. The museum, which is free to the public, boasts the “World’s Largest Sapphire,” weighing in at 385 pounds. Shop or grab a quick bite in the quaint mountain town while soaking in the local color.
From downtown Franklin, tourists can go one block south and head east on Palmer Street to resume their trek on 28. They will now be on their way up to the beautiful resort town of Highlands with plenty to see along the way! The Moonshiner will soon make a dramatic climb, the Cullasaja Gorge showcased to the right. Motorists should keep their eyes peeled for a small pull-off on the right where Cullasaja Falls may be viewed. This natural phenomenon features water winding in a very picturesque manner before dropping in that clean, jaw-dropping manner so typical in these mountains. Beautiful in any season, the falls freeze in a dramatic display of winter’s harshness every year. The combined route of NC 28 and U.S. 64 for a short piece starting near Franklin and ending in Highlands is the first part of a National Scenic Byway designated by the U.S. Forest Service called the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway as a result of the plethora of waterfalls and bodies of water along the full 64.5 mile route. The piece between Franklin and Highlands is stunning.
Stunning Dry Falls/Nantahala National Forest NC (flickr/scott)
Beyond Cullasaja Falls, scores of drivers and motorcyclists make a quick stop at Dry Falls, so named because, after a short hike, one can actually walk behind the 75-foot falls in good weather without getting wet due to the structure of the falls, which cascade directly over a cliff. Bust-Yer-Butt Falls (also known as Quarry Falls) is a popular swimming hole where the more intrepid among us can leap from a boulder into the Cullasaja River! If swimming’s out, but waterfalls are in, the next stop should be at Bridal Veil Falls, a 60-foot waterfall you can drive behind if you so choose. The main road used to veer behind them, but icy conditions made the section of the road too treacherous and now the falls are accessed by pull-off. Another favorite stop by trekkers of the “Moonshiner 28” are the awe-inspiring Glen Falls. Three separate falls drop a combined 640 feet. The foot trail descends 700 feet in one mile, meaning that the hike back to the car or motorcycle will be steep.
Leaving the trail of waterfalls behind, the “Moonshiner 28” tourist will find themselves in upscale Highlands, North Carolina in no time. This enclave of high-end lodges and bed-and-breakfast establishments also offers fine dining and great shopping. Activities ranging from fly-fishing tours to independent birding mean the time one spends in Highlands will be relaxing and interesting. The city’s elevation of 4,000 feet, with nearby mountains rising to 4,600 feet, helps to create a unique ecosystem that attracts over 160 bird species.
Outside Highlands, the “Moonshiner 28” heads directly toward its endpoint: Walhalla, South Carolina. On the way, the driver will cross the Chattooga River, a swift water path that is often dotted with the bright colors of kayaks and rafts as outdoorsy types take advantage of the healthy currents. Stumphouse Tunnel Park, located six miles outside of Walhalla, features a 1,617-foot long tunnel started in 1852 that was originally designed as the inception of a rail service connecting Charleston to Knoxville and, eventually, Cincinnati. The Civil War and lack of adequate funding brought the project to a halt. A short hike connects this attraction to Issaqueena Falls. Legend holds that the Indian maiden Issaqueena warned a nearby fort of impending Indian attack, then hid behind this 200-foot waterfall after pretending to jump over it in order to avoid being captured by warring Indians.
Though the motoring tourist will undoubtedly be sad to have reached the end of the “Moonshiner 28,” they are in for one final treat. The Oconee Heritage Center Museum in Walhalla features an interesting array of Oconee County artifacts and lore, including the ” Depression Era Tenant Farmer’s House” exhibit and a collection of dugout canoes carefully preserved by the museum.
If one can successfully complete the full tour of the glorious “Moonshiner 28” without being wowed by nature and entertained by local charm, history and lore, they passed the 103 miles without opening their heart. It’s a road to savor.