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Free Things To Do in the Smokies for the Budget-Minded Traveler – Part 3

Wayah Bald

Franklin & Highlands Edition

This is part three of a five part series that will help stretch those vacation dollars a little further by exploring free things to do in the Smokies of North Carolina.

With both indoor and outdoor adventures at the ready, Franklin and Highlands invite you to choose your NC Smokies journey of discovery in both the history-laden towns and the great outdoors without spending a dime.

Museums and Shops

The Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum is housed in a historic jailhouse from 1850. Meander through 6,000 gems and fossils displayed in 8 separate rooms as you travel back in time. Then head over to Ruby City Gems and Minerals, established in 1958. It’s North Carolina’s oldest and largest gem, mineral, and jewelry store and museum. Don’t miss their selection of healing stones and crystals. Both offer free admission.

Lose yourself for hours at Attic Antiques in Franklin. More than 20 antique vendors display a wonderful variety of “vintage finds and ethnic treasures.”

Franklin’s Smoky Mountain Visitor Center is another place to spend an afternoon without spending a dime. Browse the crafts, local books, jewelry, and specialty items like Pickle Crackers, Smoky Mountain Bear Nuts, and Hibiscus Mojito Tea. To sample Franklin’s freshest products, visit the Franklin NC Farmer’s Market for homemade pies, breads, muffins, and fresh eggs.

About 15 minutes up the road from Franklin lies Highlands, known for its Scottish heritage, art scene, and outdoor beauty. Perhaps the most notable place to visit is The Bascom: A Center for the Visual Arts. Open year round, The Bascom “creates visual art experiences that inspire and empower individuals and communities through seeing, thinking, and doing.” Discover approximately 10 exhibitions per year that highlight the work of local artists, as well as the creations of artists not often on display in the region. Admission to their three galleries and the Winkler Sculpture and Nature Trail is free to all.

Insider Tip: You can call ahead to request a free guided tour.

For a shopping experience that reads more like a visit to a museum, Reclamations in Highlands is never the same place twice. From vintage 1950’s dinette sets to metal yard ornaments to original little red wagons to antique wooden rocking chairs, this place will surprise and charm you with its eclectic finds. Almost hidden from view, Reclamations can be glimpsed just through the trees off the roadside and completely worth finding.

Specialty shops and galleries dot the vibrant downtown Main Street of Highlands. The Silver Eagle Gallery has celebrated authentic Native American jewelry since 1949. Peruse their collection of modern and handcrafted sterling silver jewelry, representing the art and culture of Native Americans.

The Highlands Historical Society Museum hosts exhibits that define the culture and people of the area. Currently featured, The Mountain Music of Highlands offers an interactive experience that explores the legacy of BlueGrass and the Old-Time music of the Highlands.

The Highlands Botanical Gardens of the Highlands Biological Station offers free admission and an experience you won’t soon forget. Visitors can explore a wide array of fascinating gardens, including Plants of the Cherokee Garden and the Rock Outcrop Garden. Consult the website for the days and times of free guided tours, like Old Growth Forests and The Hidden World of Insects.

Dry Falls in Highlands NC

Explore the Hiking Trails Near Franklin and Highlands

Of course, the ultimate budget-friendly experiences in Franklin and Highlands are hiking and other outdoor adventures. Here are a few of our favorites.

In Franklin, the most iconic hike takes you to the Wayah Bald Lookout Tower. Although 9.1 miles in length, the trail travels over relatively easy terrain with a low grade of elevation. At the summit stands a stone lookout tower with views of the Cheoah and Great Smoky Mountains to the north and a panoramic southern expanse across the treetops. You can also drive to the summit for no entrance fee.

The Little Tennessee River Greenway is a good fit for all ages. Visitors can choose to hike, bike, run, or stroll the many trails. Cross the Suli Marsh via the Moulton Memorial Bridge, play the 9-hole disc golf course, watch butterflies in the Butterfly Garden, let the kids splash around in Big Bear Park, and bring your own lunch to picnic in one of the numerous shelters – all fun and free!

Highlands is a wonderland of waterfalls. At Bridal Veil Falls, you can actually drive your car behind the falls. Part of the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway, Cullasaja Falls is located on the Cullasaja River in the Nantahala National Forest. These towering cascades are estimated to be about 200 feet tall and surrounded by luminous, sheer rock faces. Best of all, leave your wallet at home, because there is no entry fee at either of them. 

Nearby, you’ll also find Dry Falls crashing over an overhanging bluff. When the water flow is low, visitors can walk up under the falls and stay mostly dry. Dry Falls is a popular spot with a new walkway, overlook, and restrooms. There is a small parking fee, but proceeds help maintain the beauty of the area, which makes it worth it.