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With some 185 named summits and approximately 250 named rivers and creeks, Jackson County is defined by its lofty vistas and fast-flowing water. Within its 494 square miles, elevations range from less than 2,000 feet above sea level in Whittier's broad Tuckaseigee River valley to more than 6,000 feet on mountaintops in the Plott Balsam and Great Balsam ranges.
Notable geographic features include Richland Balsam, the county's tallest peak (6,410 ft.) as well as the highest point along the entire Blue Ridge Parkway (6,053 feet); Whitewater Falls, at 411 feet, the second-highest cascade east of the Rocky Mountains; Whiteside Mountain, which boasts the highest vertical cliffs in the Eastern United States; and Panthertown Valley near Cashiers, which has been described as the "Yosemite of the East."
The Tuckaseigee River flows almost the length of the county, and major roads follow the river: N.C. 107 parallels it between East LaPorte and Tuckaseigee and follows its West Fork to Glenville; N.C. 281 travels alongside the river's East Fork; and U.S. 74/441, like the railroad tracks that preceded it, mostly follows the Tuckaseigee's path from Dillsboro to the Jackson/Swain county line. To the north, the Oconaluftee River forms part of the Jackson/Swain county line; to the south, the Whitewater and Chattooga rivers separate Jackson from Transylvania and Macon counties, respectivel
Jackson County includes a significant amount of U.S. National Forest land, including the 39,000-acre Roy Taylor Forest, which is southwest of and adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway and includes both the Tuckaseigee Gorge and Panthertown Valley. The Taylor Forest is part of the larger Nantahala National Forest.
The Parkway, which was constructed to provide a scenic link between the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks, winds back and forth along the Jackson/Haywood border. A portion of the Cherokee Indian Reservation - also known by its historic name, Qualla Boundary - lies within Jackson County; the Reservation borders Great Smoky Mountains National Park.