South from Cherokee and the Great Smoky Mountains, US-441 runs through the giant Nantahala National Forest, which stretches all the way to the Georgia border. It’s a fast, mostly divided, four-lane freeway, passing through a fairly developed corridor of towns and small cities.

The biggest town in this part of North Carolina, Franklin (pop. 3,845) was founded in the mid-1800s on a shallow ridge overlooking the Little Tennessee River. Along with lumber milling, Franklin’s main industry has long been the mining of gemstones—garnets, rubies, and sapphires. Now a light industrial center, spread out around the intersection of US-441 and US-64, Franklin has a compact downtown area packed with gemstone and jewelry shops like Ruby City (130 E. Main St., 800/821-7829 or 828/524-3967, Tues.-Sat.), which also has a small free museum.

US-441 races south to Georgia from Franklin, while Hwy-28/US-64 heads southeast through the heart of Transylvania County, known as the “Land of Waterfalls” because of its many cascades. The biggest of these is 15 miles or so from Franklin. It’s named Dry Falls because it’s created at the point that the Cullasaja River projects over a cliff, allowing you to walk behind the falls without getting wet. From the well-signed parking area, follow a short trail that ends up underneath and behind the impressively raging torrent, a powerful white-noise generator you can hear long before you reach it. Another waterfall, known as Bridal Veil Falls, is less than a mile south from Dry Falls. A portion of old US-64 runs under Bridal Veil Falls, so motorists can drive under the cascade of water.

Two and a half miles south from Bridal Veil Falls, US-64 enters the resort community of Highlands (pop. 924). Here Hwy-106 loops back to the southwest, giving grand panoramic views over the forested foothills before rejoining US-441 across the Georgia border in Dillard.