North Carolina’s ribbons of mountains might be some of Earth’s oldest, but they keep a youthful spirit by hosting activities from art to ziplining. Make one of these mountain towns your base camp for taking the high ground.
Filled with art and culture, upscale shopping and dining, terrific waterfall views, and more than 200 area hiking trails, this town of 1,000 year-round residents celebrates the finer things. Drive through the 200-year-old covered bridge to The Bascom arts center. Inside awaits a shop with area artists’ creations – burled wood bowls, weavings, jewelry and glass – plus works by Dave Drake and Édouard Manet in the main gallery. Fuel your creative pursuits at painting, ceramics or mixed-media classes.
Downtown on the square, relax at Friday night concerts, held weekly from May to October; grab an ice cream cone or fudge made at Kilwins to enjoy with the show. Stroll the Highlands Heritage Walking Trail to see the town’s numerous historic structures. While on your walk, shop the many specialty stores. Then head to nearby Dry Falls and get the rare opportunity to hike behind cascading water for one of the best selfie spots ever.
Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, this dining, craft brew and shopping mecca rewards visitors with its personality and personalities: buskers strumming guitars, a juggler tossing tennis balls (with a dog on his head), and artists displaying pottery, jewelry and organic yoga apparel at street fairs. Downtown abounds with independent shops, restaurants, bars and music venues, including The Orange Peel, which has hosted the likes of Jack White, Bob Dylan and Ice Cube. Bordering the French Broad River just a mile from downtown (cool off in a tube or stand-up paddleboard), the River Arts District serves as workshop and gallery space for North Carolina artists. Have lunch at White Duck Taco Shop before checking out the converted textile factories on your search for the ultimate souvenir.
South of downtown, Biltmore draws 1.7 million visitors each year with its elaborate interiors, exteriors and gardens. Owner George Vanderbilt collected artwork, textiles and ceramics on numerous trips abroad. Admire paintings by Renoir and John Singer Sargent, prints dating to 1500, and Ming Dynasty porcelain bowls. In the home’s behind-the-scenes work space, see the servants’ quarters, kitchen with original copper cookware and basement gym (state-of-the-art when created, but spartan by today’s standards). Tips: Book a week before your tour for discounted rates. Spend extra for the audio tour.
With easy access to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this hamlet embraces its outdoorsy roots – outfitters, fly-fishing shops and laid-back cafes line downtown. The Tuckasegee River coursing through makes it clear this is water country. Just a few miles from town in the park’s Deep Creek unit, hikers trek to three waterfalls while tubers relax in Mother Nature’s water park. For $4 to $7 a day, you can rent a tube to cruise through riffles and cascades, some with a 3-foot drop. Ride, walk the route, repeat. (Tip: Invest in a small dry bag for car keys if the whole family tubes; there’s a good chance you’ll go for a swim).
For dry-landers, Tsali Recreation Area challenges mountain bikers and equestrians with 40 miles of trails through steep forest ridges and the shore of Fontana Lake. (Find bike rentals in the area.) You can also ride horses at Nantahala Village Riding Stables. If you need a break from all the activity, hop on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad for a cruise through the Smokies. Connect your rail ride to adventures at nearby Nantahala Outdoor Center, or take special excursions for beer and barbecue. Spend half a day exploring the 43-mile Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway; stop for a hike to 5,560-foot Huckleberry Knob. Back in town, enjoy concerts, festivals, outdoor movies, and other events throughout summer and fall.
Boone and Blowing Rock
Home to Appalachian State University, Boone exudes a youthful exuberance and outdoorsy vibe. Families can burn off energy rafting or tubing the New or Watauga rivers, gem hunting at Foggy Mountain Gem Mine, or hiking one of the area’s numerous trails, including the network at Grandfather Mountain.
Or give the family a fresh view of the trees by zipping through the deciduous forest canopy at High Gravity Adventures in nearby Blowing Rock. With platforms created by a team that included a pro from Animal Planet’s Treehouse Masters, it features five zips and 12 hidden gnomes (only 10 found to date). Sit back in your harness and glide through the trees before your grand finale: a 70-foot fall (no worries – the guides have you covered). Test your inner ninja warrior and fear of heights on a 55-foot ropes course and giant swing. Next door, Tweetsie Railroad promises families a milder ride. Board a 1917 steam locomotive to travel the 3-mile mountain track encircling an amusement park, then pet goats and miniature donkeys, pan for gold and spin on rides. After the adventure, sample the galleries, gift shops and restaurants downtown.
For a winter outdoor thrill in Blowing Rock, carve the slopes at Appalachian Ski Mountain, known for its beginner-friendly runs, French-Swiss ski school, ice-skating and terrain park. Back in downtown Boone, Mast General Store sells quality outdoor gear, candy, games, and locally made jams, jellies and more. (Find sister stores in Asheville, Hendersonville, Valle Crucis, Winston-Salem and Waynesville.) Explore a bevy of boutiques, cafes and restaurants, including Come Back Shack, famous for its build-your-own burgers.
It’s all about fun and games in these towns 20 miles apart. Northwest of Brevard, you can slip and slide down a real waterfall, Sliding Rock, for just a few bucks. The 60-foot falls sends swimmers down into an 8-foot-deep pool via a chilly (water temp: 50 to 60 degrees) but addictive ride. In the vibrant downtown, find an active music and arts scene, plus boutiques and a general store and soda fountain, Rocky’s Grill and Soda Shop. Visit during 4th Friday Gallery Walk (April through November), when shops, studios, and galleries stay open late and serve wine and snacks.
In downtown Hendersonville, engage the kids with some of the coolest vintage games ever at Appalachian Pinball Museum. See early models from the 1940s and 1950s, and get a $10 wristband to play all day on games dating to 1962. Try Wizard! – the game inspired by the 1975 film Tommy. When your wrists need a rest, head across the street to observe bamboo sharks and exotic saltwater fish, including Rosie the dog-faced puffer, at the Aquarium and Shark Lab by Team ECCO. Kids can touch urchins, sea stars and decorator crabs (they borrow other aquatic swag for their shells).
Many more mountain gems await your discovery. Start plotting your path in The Official 2020 North Carolina Travel Guide.