When most people think of a winter adventure in North Carolina’s mountains, they think of hiking and mountain biking. That’s understandable, considering the extensive and nationally acclaimed trails available for both. But our state also has six ski areas – not to mention cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and even ice climbing.
A convenient base camp for launching a winter assault is Black Mountain, located just off Interstate 40 east of Asheville. Good food, shopping during your recovery time, a helpful outfitter and a variety of lodging options make it a perfect jumping-off spot for this four-day adventure.
Day 1: Getting Warmed Up
Even on a short adventure getaway, you need time to get settled in. So drop your bags at “camp,” then head up U.S. Highway 9 until it ends in Montreat (about a 10-minute drive). Here, you’ll find a 2,500-acre wilderness centered on 5,408-foot Graybeard Mountain. The nearly 6-mile loop trail to the top ascends a rocky creek, spends time on the old toll road to Mount Mitchell, summits Graybeard, then drops down a rocky ridge before returning to the base.
Up for something longer on Day 1? Take a short drive down U.S. Highway 70 to the Blue Ridge Parkway where you can tap into a 300-mile stretch of the statewide Mountains-to-Sea Trail: Head north to Stone Mountain State Park or west to the Great Smoky Mountains.
If you discover something missing during your adventurous long weekend, odds are you’ll find it at Take A Hike Outfitters in Black Mountain. In keeping with the day’s hiking theme, plan on dinner at The Trailhead on U.S. Highway 70, where the burgers are big, you can get a pound of chicken wings and there are about 20 beers on tap. And it’s conveniently located within walking distance of most Black Mountain accommodations.
Day 2: Like Riding a Bike
Trade in your boots for wheels during a day exploring Pisgah National Forest’s famous mountain bike trails. With several hundred miles of singletrack to choose from, your starting point options are endless.
You could grab your maps and guidebooks and pore over them during breakfast at the Blue Ridge Biscuit Company, while devouring a Twisted Biscuit such as The Lookout (fried chicken, bacon and cheddar cheese smothered in gravy) or The Lunker (fried catfish, chipotle lime slaw and red pepper remoulade).
Or you could call The Bike Farm. Tell the guides what kind of riding you like, and they’ll set you up with a bike and take you on a ride suited to your skills. Options could include DuPont State Recreational Forest for some rare eastern slickrock, or the Mills River/Davidson River area, where hiking-only trails open to mountain biking from mid-October to April.
If you're hungry after your ride, check out Hawg Wild Bar-B-Que, located at the U.S. Highway 276 gateway to the Pisgah National Forest. You'll have your choice of Western (tomato-based) or Eastern (vinegar) ‘cue as well as sides (baked potatoes and mac and cheese), dessert (blackberry cobbler with or without a big scoop of vanilla ice cream).
After your meal, you should have enough time to check out either the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education or the Cradle of Forestry, both up Highway 276 and both of which will help you understand the gorgeous terrain you’ve been exploring.
Day 3: Going Downhill Fast
You thought we were kidding about the plethora of winter sports options this far below the Mason-Dixon? For starters, there are six ski areas, which usually open in November and stay open into March. Cataloochee and Sugar Mountain are typically among the first to open, and Appalachian Ski Mountain, Beech Mountain Resort, Sapphire Valley and Wolf Ridge Ski Resort soon follow.
Cold weather gets the downhill areas primed for opening. If there’s natural snow and extended periods of cold, the winter sports options expand. With as little as 6 inches of natural snow, cross-country skiing becomes an option on stretches of the Blue Ridge Parkway (which isn’t plowed) and on the 30 miles of carriage trails at Moses Cone Memorial Park near Blowing Rock. You can even rent cross-country skis at the Pineola Inn and Ski Shop in Pineola. If you’ve got snowshoes, mid-winter conditions in the higher elevations such as Mount Mitchell, the Black Mountains and Roan Mountain sometimes support snowshoeing, and novices can always take a tour at Sugar Mountain.
And yes, there’s even ice climbing, again, when conditions conspire (most reliably along the Blue Ridge Parkway near N.C. Highway 215). A professional guide service is highly recommended; Fox Mountain Guides is happy to put you on ice.
No matter which winter pursuit you pursue, at the end of the day you’ll be hungry for a hot meal in a warm place. Asheville, with its abundance of great restaurants, will be on your drive back. So much to choose from, but after working up a winter appetite you’d be hard-pressed to do better than the original Tupelo Honey Cafe. Try the Tupelo Honey Shrimp and Grits (with goat cheese and roasted red pepper sauce), Honey-Dusted Fried Chicken, or biscuits and honey. Expect another night of sound sleep.
Day 4: Hiking with the Stars
Asheville is a celebrity haven: Steve Martin, Gladys Knight, Zach Galifianakis, President Barack Obama – they’re all regulars. It’s also popular with celebrity athletes, including Jennifer Pharr Davis, the record-holder for hiking the 2,150-mile Appalachian Trail in just 46 days. While most celebrities keep a low profile, she’ll take you on a guided hike through her Blue Ridge Hiking Co. (Imagine Michael Jordan, another Asheville regular, playing tourists one-on-one.) Waterfalls, 6,000-foot peaks – if it’s in the Pisgah National Forest, Blue Ridge will take you there.
Comfortable exploring on your own? Mount Mitchell State Park offers the highest hiking in the East, with its namesake peak topping out at 6,684 feet. Access is via the Blue Ridge Parkway, which closes in bad weather; call ahead to see if the park is open: (828) 675-4611.
Bent Creek Experimental Forest on the southwest side of Asheville has miles of mellow hiking, much of it on old natural surface roadbeds. And the Hickory Nut Gorge area 20 miles south of Black Mountain has trail networks in the Florence Nature Preserve, at Chimney Rock State Park and elsewhere. In addition, if ice climbing isn’t to be, Rumbling Bald near Lake Lure is a rock climbing hotspot in winter thanks to its southern exposure, which keeps climbers warm and limber.
That sunny southern exposure is great for one more thing after an adventure-filled four days: a nap.