Whiteside Mountain Hike

This excellent loop, designated a National Recreation Trail, climbs to the top of Whiteside Mountain, with its spectacular 700 ft high cliff walls lofting the hiker for amazing views. Take a camera, as the cliff-top views are lined with beautiful mountain laurel which blooms in mid-June. See relics from the past, when Whiteside Mountain was a tourist attraction. You'll pass through some pleasant woods along the way.

At A Glance

Moderate 2.5 mi round-trip

Difficulty Rating: 3.98
Tread Condition: Moderately Rough
Climb: Hilly
Lowest Elevation: 4410 ft
Highest Elevation: 4930 ft
Climb Total: 600 ft
Configuration: Loop w/ very short out-and-back extension
Starting Point: Whiteside Mountain Parking Area

Trails Used: Whiteside Mountain

Hike Start Location


From the corner of Main Street and NC 106 in Highlands, follow US 64 East for 5.4 miles. Turn right onto Whiteside Mt. Rd. (SR 1600). There is a sign for Whiteside Mountain Recreation Area. Follow for 1 mile to the signed parking area on the left. There is a $2.00/day area use fee at Whiteside Mountain Recreation Area.


Hike Description

Begin the hike on the trail that leads uphill behind the sign boards. It starts out fairly steep, but soon merges with an old roadbed which isn't as difficult. You'll cross a wet-weather stream, then reach the point where the loop splits. This intersection is signed. You may follow the loop in either direction, but I prefer going right at the split, up the log and rock steps. Going this way involves a steeper climb at first, but it's a shorter way to the top and you'll get to the views more quickly!

Staircase on the Whiteside Mountain trail
Staircase on the Whiteside Mountain trail

After starting up the steps, you'll quickly see how eroded the trail becomes in places. Although it's not terribly difficult, there are some large step-ups and deep trenches where running water has carried the soil away, and in wet weather there will be seepages and mud. (Note: from recent photos, it looks this section has been repaired with elevated trail structures - hooray! I need to go back and check it out, but it should be much easier now).

After the initial set of steps, the trail isn't quite as steep, but it still climbs. You'll be traveling through a pleasant, cool forest of mixed hardwood trees, including a few hemlocks and an understory of laurel and rhododendron in places. The trail switches back several times in this first section. One switchback happens on an elaborate staircase structure below a small band of rock cliffs.

The trail will reach the top of the ridge and the cliffs on the other side, where you suddenly catch a view through a narrow opening in the bushes. This isn't the best overlook, though - it's steep and dangerous. So skip this one and continue along the trail. The trail continues left, uphill, staying in the woods.

One of the first views
One of the first views

The climb moderates, and the trail begins traveling along the top of the mountain and the edge of the main cliffs, through a pleasant forest. From this point on, side trails to the right lead to various overlooks. At first, there is no protection - so use common sense and stay well back from the edge. Some of the overlooks are relatively safe, but sometimes the rocks are too steep after your emerge from the woods to make a safe viewing area. Since there are plenty of opportunities further on to get a safe view, avoid taking risks here!

As you climb, you'll reach the higher cliffs where the overlooks are more common. Railing has been installed along the main trail at some of the various viewpoints, as the trail climbs up and over rock outcroppings. Don't trust the rusty railing to hold you, though; rather think of it as a line behind which it is safe to enjoy the view. And what a view it is!

(Note: from recent photos, it looks like the old rusty railings were replaced with study fences and wood posts. Another hooray!)

To the right (southwest), you can see the rounded granite domes characteristic of the Highlands area, along with the small settlements, resorts, golf courses, and expensive homes for which the area is famous. Straight ahead (southeast) and to the left (northeast) are mostly mountains, with a few farmsteads lying in the picturesque valley below. On the horizon, if it is clear enough to see that far, is the Piedmont region of South Carolina and Georgia, with lakes, towns, and various other man-made landmarks visible. To the far left is a ridge leading away from the main cliffs, where it is possible to get a sense of how steep and sheer the rock faces on Whiteside really are.

Whiteside Mountain Summit
Whiteside Mountain Summit

The trail will reach the summit rock outcropping about halfway along the cliffs. A triangular-shaped overlook with a large rock sticking up marks the spot, and on the back of the rock the name of the mountain and elevation is carved in. The trees - mostly oaks with a few pines, maples and other hardwoods thrown in - are short and stumpy, and mountain laurel grows profusely all around the area. Spring - particularly in mid June when the mountain laurel blooms - is an excellent time to visit.

After going downhill for a bit from the summit, you start to get a view back toward the highest point on the mountain and of its highest cliffs. The best view of the cliffs themselves is next, from a concrete slab platform which appears on the right on a side trail, jutting out over the mountainside. This old overlook is the final safe place to enjoy the view, so get your fill before continuing on.

View of Whiteside Mountain's cliffs
View of Whiteside Mountain's cliffs

You may have noticed a wide old roadbed on your left at times on the previous section of trail. Now covered with trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and wildflowers, this old roadbed used to carry tourists to this overlook and the top of the mountain as a tourist attraction, before the Forest Service bought the mountain in the '70's. A post office was located near the top, which was a popular place for tourists to mail postcards of the views!

Just past the concrete slab, you'll reach an overgrown meadow, with a limited view to the northeast. Now you're back on the old roadbed on which the trail started. Bear left, downhill.

This final segment of the hike is much wider, since it follows the old roadbed, with no views. But you'll be traveling through a very pleasant forest, much different from the one at the summit. It's a cooler, moister place, and grass sometimes grows in open areas between the trees and rhododendron. You'll see many more northern hardwoods such as birch and beech. During wet weather, seeps and very small streams will traverse the rocky old roadbed, after trickling and tumbling down the side of the road cut.

Look above you to your left, and you might catch an occasional glimpse of the cliffs that line the north side of the summit ridge. They're not nearly as high as the ones on the south side from which you had an earlier view.

You'll reach the close of the loop before long. Return to your vehicle straight ahead to complete the hike.

All Photos from This Hike

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Average Rating: 4.2 (rated 20 times)

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[Site Admin] Jordan M. said: @Kathy Just got some new photos recently; will be updating them soon ;) Sad to see the cables are already in pretty bad condition, though.

Thursday, September 24 2020 3:35pm

Greg in TN said: Can you see the shadow of the bear from the trail? Or is it better viewed from US64?

Tuesday, July 28 2020 7:02pm

KATHY LYNCH said: You really should update your photos as all the wooden rails across the top are gone and replaced with cables.

Tuesday, July 28 2020 3:49pm

J. Pezzi said: 11/11/18 We found an earring today on the trail. It looks like it would be special to someone. Please email me at jhigpez@aol.com if you lost an earring.

Sunday, November 11 2018 11:48pm

Stephanie Massey said: I have hiked this trail many times. It is a 2.5 mile loop not 5. I recommend taking the traill to the left. It is wider and less steep for the ascent. Then you will be coming down the steeper side.

Sunday, June 3 2018 5:46pm

Mary Gail Golden said: Fun hike!! Not the most challenging but the views are amazing!

Wednesday, August 17 2016 1:03pm

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Friday, December 11 2015 8:25pm

Mary Jo Cobb said: Parents hiked 60+ years ago--where is the narrow "Squeeze Betsy?" Thanks!

Monday, August 3 2015 4:44am

Leslie Marks said: No comment. Just a question... what are the AM/PM times that Whiteside Mtn is open. All I can get is dawn to dusk. Thanks, Leslie Marks

Friday, June 26 2015 1:05pm

Mandy Griffin said: I've read that this trail is 2.5 miles round trip and 5 miles round trip. Can someone tell me for sure because I am a beginner and 5 miles would be a little much for me.

Friday, June 26 2015 11:12am

Colleen K said: Hiked on 4-26-14 Great hike, beautiful views. No water point in the parking area (that I saw) so don't forget your water.

Sunday, April 27 2014 10:51pm

colton wheeler said: well and maps yes find bigfoot yes

Sunday, August 18 2013 3:28pm

eileen bentley said: Awesome hike! 5 miles round trip and 766 calories burned. The views are amazing and it was very safe with rails and wired fences. The faint of heart should not venture here. Staying to the left means most of the steel climb is on the way down, but still a great workout.

Thursday, July 18 2013 10:03pm

Carrie B said: Great hike, but I suggest breaking to the left at the steep steps and starting the route that way then coming down the steep steps.

Sunday, November 13 2011 7:39pm

Outdoor Adventure for Life said: Great review of the hike. We did it recently and wrote up a review as well with some pictures from the summit: http://outdooradventureforlife.com/208/whiteside-mountain-hike-highlands-nc

Sunday, November 13 2011 7:39pm
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