Clocks tick slowly in western North Carolina.

Three mountain ranges meet and mingle here, a near-perfect camouflage for the tiny towns nestled in their folds.Driving from one to another becomes an act of faith. The road winds through dense forest, uphill and down, almost never straight. Just when you think you're lost, the opening in the trees ahead of you broadens and a hub of civilization appears out of nowhere. A hub such as Dillsboro, population 187, or Cashiers (pronounced CASH-ers), whose commercial district is strung along the highway and the buildings number less than a baker's dozen.

Navigating your way through Jackson County is like being a pilot who flies with instruments alone.

But one nationally known sight can help you get your bearings. The county is an obscure neighbor of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

If you can get to the park, you can get to Jackson County.

If you're headed to Asheville and its headliner attraction, the Biltmore Estate, the county is a short drive away.

The area includes inns hidden on the hillsides, trails that cut through dense forests leading to lovely waterfalls and towns that roll out the welcome mat of Southern hospitality to people who are merely passing through.

There's also the Great Smoky Mountains Railway, an excursion train based in Dillsboro that runs alongside the Tuckasegee River.

Jackson County is a place to catch your breath on a cross-country vacation.

But to appreciate what it offers, you'll have to slow down. The mountain towns of western North Carolina operate in a time zone all their own.

"We love it here, but sometimes it's hard to get things done," says Cathy Sgambato. She and her husband, Anthony, innkeepers at The River Lodge near Cullowhee, moved to North Carolina from New York. The pace is well off what they were used to there.

So, think "amble" instead of "walk," "browse" instead of "shop," "dine" instead of "eat."

Imagine yourself sitting for hours in a rocking chair on the porch of the Balsam Mountain Inn, watching dusk turn to dark while you "sip" (not "drink") lemonade.

It takes time to get it right. I spent three days in Jackson County. Before I left, I was "ambling" and "browsing" with the best of them.

But I was a mere apprentice compared to a group of women from Tennessee who were also staying at the Balsam Mountain Inn. They were sitting on the porch early one morning, recalling old times. They were still on the porch, dressed for dinner, when I returned that evening. They hadn't left the inn all day.

Time marches slowly in the South.

So adjust your watches and read on about the area's highlights.

Great Smoky Mountains Railway: The railroad, which once hauled lumber, dates back to 1882. Today it is used for passenger excursions, but it still carries freight.

It offers a dinner train and half-day scenic excursions. Itineraries include the Nantahala Gorge Excursion that leaves Bryson City, crosses the Tuckasegee River and climbs a horseshoe curve to cross a portion of Fontana Lake on an 800-foot-long trestle. You pass the Little Tennessee River and then follow the Nantahala River into the gorge, crossing the Appalachian Trail.

The Tuckasegee River Excursion passes over the portion of track used to film the train wreck featured in the movie "The Fugitive," starring Harrison Ford. The railroad took four months to create the set. The scene was shot in four days. The crash took 60 seconds. The camera that was set at ground level to film the event was embedded in 26 feet of dirt, and crews took eight hours to dig it out. Remnants from the wreck still line the track. This trip also takes you through the Cowee Tunnel, an experience in total darkness, thanks to a 16-degree curve that shuts out any daylight.

The railway features open-air cars, coach cars, a dining car and a club car and is pulled by either a steam (a Baldwin) or a diesel-electric engine. Prices range from $18 for the Tuckasegee River Excursion to $45 for the dinner train.

The main depot is in Dillsboro.

For information, call 1-800-872-4681 ext. R.

Arts and crafts shops: Western North Carolina is in the major leagues when it comes to American folk arts and crafts. Artisans live and work in tiny towns scattered through the area. Dillsboro, incorporated in 1889, took an artistic turn in the 1930s when tradesmen moved in and started making pewter pots and hand-loomed clothing. Today, the town is replete with arts and crafts shops, many in historic buildings.

Artisans in Jackson County and 20 other counties are listed in a book called "The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina." The easy-to-use guidebook describes artisans' studios and shops and shows you how to get there. The books are for sale at travel information centers throughout the region or you can order one from Handmade in America by calling 1-800-441-4154. The cost is $11.95 plus $2 for shipping.

Accommodations: Places to stay range from small, simple and relatively inexpensive motels (such as the Laurelwood Mountain Inn in Cashiers) to small, luxurious inns tucked into mountain valleys (such as Millstone Inn, rated the best view in North Carolina by Southern Living magazine, and Innisfree, an elegant Victorian on a hillside overlooking a lake), to resorts complete with golf courses and dining rooms (High Hampton Inn, originally a mountain retreat for a plantation owner from South Carolina and his family). Balsam Mountain Inn is an old-fashioned two-story inn listed on the National Register. It's at a place like Balsam Mountain Inn that you can get in touch with the real South.



For information

Cashiers Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 238-Y, Cashiers, NC 287171, (704) 743-5941.

Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 756, Sylva, NC 28779, 1-800-962-1911.

Dillsboro Merchants Association, P.O. Box 634, Dillsboro, NC 28725