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Wednesday, 10 January 2018 16:35

Whiteside Mountain is both spectacular and interesting

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Looking for a place to make a weekend jaunt for a little hiking and lots of breathtaking scenery? Consider the Whiteside Mountain region between Highlands and Cashiers.

Whiteside Mountain, situated between Highlands and Cashiers alongside U.S. 64, is one of the most striking landmarks in the southern Blue Ridge province. It rises 2,100-feet from the valley floor to its summit at 4,930-feet along the eastern continental divide. The headwater feeder systems for rivers like the Cullasaja on one side of this massive granite outcrop eventually flow into the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico, while waters on the opposite side flow into the Savannah and on to the Atlantic.

Retired Western Carolina University biologist Jim Horton, in his chapter on the natural aspects of the region in The History of Jackson County (1987), describes the mountain as follows: “Whiteside Mountain is a ‘pluton;’ that is, it originated as a molten intrusion probably far below what was then the surface. Its rock is Devonian in age, about 390 million years old. The fact that it is now so nearly exposed bears witness to the power of erosion, which has all but washed away the soil and softer rocks which once covered it.”

Clemson University biologist Robert Zahner, a longtime Highlands resident, wrote the definitive study of the mountain. In The Mountain at the End of the Trail: A History of Whiteside Mountain (1994). He notes that the Whiteside pluton is technically not a single mountain about one mile in length but a “massif” extending about four miles; that is, it “includes the Devil’s Courthouse on the northwest and Wildcat Ridge on the southwest (while) the width of the massif averages only about one-half mile.” And he also notes that the south-facing cliffs are more dramatic in regard to vertical relief because the “mechanical weathering of rock is greater on the sunny side.”   

Such a prominent feature of the landscape naturally attracted the attention of the early Cherokee, who called it “Unaka” — their word for white. They associated various legends with its cliffs, caves, and pinnacles. It is thought to have been an early crossroads for Indian trails that crisscrossed the mountain region. The Cherokees built their villages in river bottoms for agricultural reasons. But they no doubt frequented Whiteside while traveling and hunting.

Some have even asserted that Hernando de DeSoto and his men crossed over the mountain in the 16th century, leaving a mysterious inscription. A North Carolina state roadside marker in Highlands officially commemorates his travels “as the first tourist” (just kidding) in 1540. That improbable notion has been thoroughly debunked by T.W. Reynolds, who in his book The Southern Appalachian Region (1966) established that the “Spanish” inscription was perpetrated as a hoax by a local Highlands youth between 1925 and 1930.

Winter is an especially good time to visit the region since views are not impeded by foliage and traffic on the backroads is not great. The panoramic view down into the Chattooga River valley and into Georgia and South Carolina is — to use an overused description that is nevertheless apt — “breathtaking.”

Farther east on U.S. 64 towards Cashiers, there are clear views of the Devil’s Courthouse area. These shaded, north-facing cliffs are dark in appearance because they are covered with mosses and lichens that thrive is such a cool, moist environment. The springs and small creeks gathering in this section form the utmost headwaters of the Chattooga.

This is the upper Chattooga region, a world apart from the macho, river-riding realm of the lower South Carolina portion of the Chattooga depicted in the 1970s movie “Deliverance” based on James Dickey’s novel. The Chattooga here is at first a meandering valley stream that becomes, as it approaches the state line, a brawling, rock-strewn watercourse passing through rugged gorges.

Editor’s note: This Back Then column by George Ellison first appeared in the Jan. 16, 2002, edition of The Smoky Mountain News.

(George Ellison is a naturalist and writer. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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