Nestled in a valley between the Smoky Mountains and the Nantahala National Forest, Sylva, NC, is a bustling and eclectic mountain town. And this North Carolinian writer finally got to visit. It’s the perfect place for a peaceful weekend jaunt if you want a little more spunk and affordability than nearby Cashiers and Highlands.
WHERE TO STAY
While Sylva is the county seat of Jackson County, no place in the county is more than about a half-hour scenic drive away. The upscale community of Cashiers has excellent lodging options like the retro gem Skyline Lodge, The Wells Hotel, and Hotel Cashiers. But we checked into Outland, a newly revamped boutique hotel on the outskirts of Dillsboro, to be an easy ten-minute drive from Sylva. And we were so glad we did.
Outland’s private 22 acres have a fairytale-like private forest with seven hiking trails that lead to mountain views from a bench overlook. We spent hours by the quaint koi-stocked pond staring at a star-filled sky, tending to the fire pit, and enjoying wine and s’mores. Play lawn games like bocce ball, and hang in the lodge’s cozy common room with a fireplace and library filled with books and board games.
With mountains, water, and forest all over the county, Sylva is the perfect gateway to Jackson County’s outdoor fun. Hike the strenuous (with huge payoffs) Pinnacle Park trail system or the leisurely 10-minute stroll from the Blue Ridge Parkway to Black Balsam Bald for 360-degree vistas of the valleys below.
IN THE WATER
The Tuckasegee River (called the “Tuck” by locals) runs right through the county, offering wide, shallow runs for world-class fly fishing and Class IV rapids for thrilling rafting. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced angler, Dale Collins and the team at Tuckaseegee Fly Shop offer fantastic instruction on their half- or full-day guided trips. Plus, they’ll outfit you in gear and help you purchase the $8 North Carolina fishing license.
For a fastwater trip, head to Dillsboro River Company or Tuckaseegee Outfitters for a guided or self-guided seasonal float trip. Vessel options include kayaks, tubes, and rafts ranging from $25 to $40 per person. If you’re more of a spectator than a participant, the base of High Falls near Cashiers is a great place to watch intrepid kayakers run down the West Fork of the Tuckasegee Gorge. Apparently, Tuckasegee can be spelled correctly three ways, and this Grammar Guru will respectfully fail to comment on that.
We were lucky enough to visit on a special weekend in Jackson County: the Greening Up The Mountains spring festival. More than 175 vendor booths and 12,000 attendees line the streets and public spaces for a jubilant day of shopping, eating, drinking, and dancing to live music.
Downtown Sylva has many Southern boutiques and quirky specialty shops, but you can further stimulate your artistic side in Dillsboro. This little artist enclave and railroad town is filled with craft stores and pottery studios. Stop into Dogwood Crafters, a 12-stores-in-one craft cooperative featuring over 100 mountain artists.
Date Night Vibes
The best drinks-and-dinner one-two punch in Sylva is a glass of vino at Santé — The Wine Bar into dinner at Ilda next door. These spots are owned by the same married couple (more on this culinary power couple soon) and are always bustling for good reasons.
Located on the pointed corner of Main Street and Mill Street, a slice of Italian heaven was given new life again at Ilda just at the end of the pandemic. Owners Crystal and Santiago spin Appalachian ingredients into inventive dishes using Italian techniques. The cocktails were almost as delectable as the charred Caesar salad and the homemade pasta dishes we shared.
The second night, we easily walked into Lulu’s on Main for a window table with Main Street views. At this charming little bistro, local artists’ works cover the walls, and your table is filled with generously portioned dishes of rich, flavorful seafood and meat.
Pizza & Beer
Although a few blocks from the main drag, Innovation Brewing is the epicenter of Sylva’s impressive beer scene. On any weekend afternoon or night, clusters of Sylva residents gather to listen to live music and enjoy fantastic burgers from the Cosmic Carryout food truck permanently docked on the edge of Innovation’s creekside patio.
We beat the pre-festival crowds to get a parking spot on Saturday and headed straight to City Lights Cafe for a giant cup of organic coffee and a delicious “crepedilla” filled with chicken, spinach, and cheddar. On Sunday, we fueled up at White Moon Coffee before our fly-fishing excursion and stopped into the family-run Lucy in the Rye for bacon, eggs, and chocolate chip pancakes before hitting the road for Nashville.
We saw the same convivial scene at almost every brewery and eatery in town: friends catching up over bites and beers. Smiles. Post-hike gear and no-frills outfits. It was a wonderful representation of Sylva’s friendly small-town atmosphere. If you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city for a weekend, head to where the air is a little fresher, the sun is a little brighter, and the pace of life is a little slower.
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