The Wild West brings to mind mystery and romance tied to the love of land ensconced in scenery that makes photographers grab their lens and writers take up a pen. In the eastern part of the U.S., North Carolina mountain peaks, valleys and wide open spaces are cathartic to those who feel connected to nature and outdoor living. College students, professionals, artisans, entrepreneurs and retirees are all drawn to the unique flavor of mountain life.
It Is All In The Name
Mountain towns have poetic names ripe for inclusion in romance novels like Black Mountain, Arden, Fletcher, Saluda, Mills River, Blowing Rock– and others ending in “ville” like Hendersonville, Waynesville, Burnsville and Asheville. These towns lure tourists with a promise of adventure, and lull locals to sleep at night surrounded by the peaceful and serene landscapes of the region.
The cool air in the spring and summer are refreshing for those who want to escape the humidity of lower elevation cities and towns. But, even in frigid weather, the mountains are a favorite destination for those who want to see some of the state’s top attractions.
Western North Carolina
Western North Carolina is the home of many of the state’s most loved sites. The NC Mountain State Fair, the NC Arboretum, the state theatre and the nation’s favorite parkway are found in the mountains. Bucket list items are checked off for those who go to Biltmore, America’s largest private home, walk on the swing bridge at Grandfather Mountain, listen to elk bugle in Catalooche Valley and more. Drinking brew in North Carolina’s beer capital is always a must do along with the main attraction – soaking up the sights and sounds of nature.
Asheville is a national destination known as the home of Biltmore, breweries and a bustling downtown filled with eclectic shops, restaurants and a thriving art scene. Biltmore hosted the popular Downton Abbey (until April 7, 2020) exhibit previously viewed in only three U.S. cities. Asheville is home to the University of Asheville, Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, Warren Wilson College and Montreat Anderson.
Asheville is surrounded by one million acres of forest, with hundreds of miles of trails through wilderness. Hikers can summit nearly 40 peaks above 6,000 feet and fishers can cast for trout on a blue-ribbon stream. Land lovers cruise the Blue Ridge Parkway, the nation’s “number one” scenic byway visited by nearly 15 million visitors in 2019.
In May, visitors can experience LEGO sculptures at the NC Arboretum. The larger-than-life sculptures completely made out of LEGO bricks will showcase giant peacocks, a hummingbird, a monarch butterfly and other forms. The arboretum/botanical garden is located in the Bent Creek Experimental Forest within the Pisgah National Forest.
In the fall, all eyes look to the North Carolina Mountain State Fair held at the WNC Agricultural Center. The 10-day agricultural fair, held after Labor Day in Fletcher, brings together the people, agriculture, art, and traditions of Western North Carolina. Leading up to the fair, equestrian and other events keep the WNC Ag Center hopping. Rene Brown, equestrian rider, still remembers her time at the complex in the 80s where she showed Ring Lord, the horse that went on to win national championships and ranked as the outstanding performance Appaloosa in the world.
The region is home to Grandfather Mountain and the Great Smoky Mountains. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park brings in an estimated 10 million visitors annually making it the most visited national park in the U.S. including the Grand Canyon. Grandfather Mountain is a popular state park known for its beauty and famed mile-high swinging bridge – the highest in America. The bridge links two of the mountain’s rocky peaks.
Haywood County has the highest average median elevation (3,600 feet) of any county east of the Rockies. It is the home of popular mountain destinations – Waynesville, Maggie Valley and Lake Junaluska. Maggie Valley, where Cataloochee Valley is located, is a favorite attraction with a ski resort and Catalooche Ranch located on Fie Top Mountain.
Trails are legion in western North Carolina but none are more revered than the Appalachian Trail. Hike as much or as little as you like on the 95 miles that are found in North Carolina’s mountain region. Day-trippers and hikers find scenic beauty on trails in towns like Black Mountain and its Graybeard Trail. Make it to the top to see a spectacular view from one of the highest peaks in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Black Mountain has been named “the prettiest town in America” by Trip Advisor.
Mountain lakes and rivers offer a view of the mountains from water. Lake Lure, Lake Tomahawk, Lake Toxaway, and others are popular for boating, fishing and chilling. The Lake Lure Ski Club is the regions oldest water-ski club and the scene of everyone’s favorite lake scene in “Dirty Dancing.” To experience the beauty of waterfalls and nature-made water slides, adventure seekers head to Transylvania County, the “Land of Waterfalls” where 250 cascading waterfalls are found within miles of each other. For others, nature gazing is best done from the car or on the seat of a motorcycle winding around curvy roads on the Blue Ridge Parkway, called America’s most favorite scenic drive.
Horses, Shopping And Food
Some might be surprised that the mountains are also horse country. Tryon and Saluda in the foothills region are where equestrian farms, wineries, art galleries and a rich, outdoor lifestyle comingle. The Tryon Equestrian Center made equine history in 2018 when it hosted the World Equestrian Games.
Saluda is a seemingly hidden mountain treasure where life centers around horses and art set in a serene foothill setting. The quaint little town has eclectic shopping, restaurants and outdoor lifestyle to spare. Green River Eddy’s Tap Room, located at Saluda Outfitters in Saluda, is a favorite spot with music lovers who relax after a day on the water with live music and craft beer. Or spend the day at the Gorge Zipline rappelling through a canopy of trees at America’s fastest and steepest zip line course.
The mountain region is one of North Carolina’s best for superior restaurants, chefs and brew. From Spanish tapas at Curate to barbecue, diners can find any flavor that tickles the palate. Barbecue will always be a mountain staple and a favorite choice is Buxton Hall. The lunch-only establishment brings in folks who stand in line for whole hog ‘cue concocted by James Beard nominee Elliott Moss. A multitude of farmers’ markets keep chefs stocked with farm fresh products.
Most Craft Breweries Per Capita in America
The beer scene brings brew lovers to the mountains for a day trip, special event or extended stay to experience the variety of breweries in the region. The sheer number of craft beer establishments has crowned Asheville as the state’s beer capital (most breweries per capita in the nation). From small batch brewers to nationally known brands, there is a beer on tap for every taste. The region celebrates its favorite beverage in May (22-31) with the 2020 Asheville Beer Week.
Highland Brewing (Asheville) is credited as the brewery that started the beer takeover in the region in 1994. Mirco-breweries co-exist with national brew giants New Belgium and Sierra Nevada, each bringing a distinct flavor to the beer landscape. At Frog Level Brewing you can sip a pint while watching the creek in the back (Waynesville). In Brevard, Oskar Blues, home of Dale’s Pale Ale, keeps nostalgia alive with canned beer. Blue Ghost Brewing in Fletcher, Black Mountain Brewing in Black Mountain, Homeplace Beer Company in Burnsville, Mad Co. Brewing in Marshall and many others are smaller operations that serve up craft brew with a side of live music and fun.
Sierra Nevada Brewing brought its name and expertise from California when it opened in 2015 to great fanfare in Mills River. The Sierra Nevada Taproom pours out into the outdoors, revealing the open-air amphitheater with a picturesque woodland backdrop.
Smaller breweries have a place in the town – two to try are Burning Blush Brewery and Mills River Brewing Co. The town has another notch on its “drink belt” as the home of Bold Rock Cider, a perfect location in apple-rich Henderson County. Visitors can check out the cider-making process through huge windows behind the spacious bar, or take in views of Mount Pisgah and the rolling farmland of Mills River while enjoying one of Bold Rock’s award-winning libations. Bold Rock Hard Cider is the largest craft cider producer in the U.S.
Brew lovers love to camp and stay overnight at North Mills River Recreation and campground, called it a “secluded jewel for camping in North Carolina.” Each campsite is only a short walk from the waters of North Mills River where people can swim, tube, or try fly-fishing in a beautiful, forested setting.