The densely populated eastern United States isn’t exactly known for its isolated places, but the mountains of western North Carolina are one of the exceptions. Despite this fact, however, it’s still a culturally and historically interesting region whose towns and cities offer a counterpoint to the solitude of the mountains.
It’s a place where you can switch off enough to relax, yet remain connected enough to feel like you haven’t left the modern world entirely…all while taking in some great scenery. Oh, and I guess it doesn’t hurt that you can both eat and drink quite well there, too!
The NC mountains will appeal to:
- Scenic drive lovers
- Solitude seekers
- Beer fanatics
- Lovers of the outdoors
- History buffs (particularly Native American history)
- Barbecue fans
The westernmost portion of the US state of North Carolina lies in the Appalachian mountain range, which itself runs all the way from Newfoundland to northeastern Alabama. It’s an old mountain range so it’s far less rugged than the Alps or Andes, for example, and many of the mountains are covered in young and old growth forest. The North Carolina portion of the range is regarded as one of the most beautiful, and Mount Mitchell, the range’s highest peak at 2037 m (6,684 ft), is located in North Carolina.
Asheville is the largest city in the region by far, with a metropolitan population of about 463,000 including its surrounding areas. It’s a walkable, hip, artsy and forward-thinking city with a burgeoning dining scene and an already famous craft beer industry. It’s also home to the Biltmore Estate, a famous mansion built in the late 1800’s by the Vanderbilt family, which visitors can tour both inside and out…but be warned, it’s not cheap!
Outside Asheville, the region is dotted with small towns and villages, and a lot of lakes, small rivers, waterfalls and forested mountains. It’s also home to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and sections of both the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway scenic drive.
Some of the more appealing towns for overnight stays include Blowing Rock, Boone, Bryson City and Brevard…they seem to have something with ‘B’ towns, don’t they? 😊 There are also numerous more remote mountain lodges, plus literally thousands of cabins and houses that are available as vacation rentals.
Finally, the area is home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the descendants of the approximately 1,000 Cherokee who escaped the forced westward march (the ‘Trail of Tears’) in the 1830’s. They own a large piece of land called the Qualla Boundary, located just outside the town of Cherokee, and operate a museum as well as several hotel, casino and other tourism-oriented ventures. I highly recommend a visit to their museum!
As you’d expect from any destination which relies on its natural beauty as its main draw, sustainability and environmental stewardship are getting quite a lot of attention. Eco-friendly lodgings are popping up regularly, and large swathes of land are protected by both the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Pisgah, Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests, all four of which are over 2,000 km2 in size.
Of course, there are still challenges. Residential expansion and tourism overdevelopment threaten the preservation of some natural areas, and air pollution primarily from electricity generation and vehicle emissions continues to affect the region’s air quality (although significant improvements have been achieved and efforts are ongoing).
Outdoor pursuits are one of the North Carolina mountains’ biggest draws, and it’s true regardless of the season. Several mountain resorts offer the full winter sports experience, and the other three seasons are great for all the outdoor sports one would expect to enjoy, such as hiking, cycling and mountain biking, as well as river tubing, rafting and kayaking.
I took an especially pretty half-day hike just outside the town of Blowing Rock during my visit to the region in Summer 2019, on the Boone Fork Trail. This is of course just one of hundreds of possibilities, but one I can very much recommend!
If you’re keen to take on something a bit more adventurous, look no further than the section of the Appalachian Trail (AT) that passes through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This stretch of the AT often pops up high in the list of favorite sections of the entire 3,500 km trail, and thousands of thru-hikers who have seen it all can’t be wrong! If you’d like more information about the AT in general, and of course the sections passing through NC in particular, you can find it here.
Finally, many outdoor activities in the region are also suitable for families, such as river tubing and some of the easier hikes (like Chimney Rock). There are also several scenic train rides that are great for families with smaller children. So even if you’ve got younger kids along, the North Carolina mountains can make a great destination for outdoor family fun.
As previously mentioned, the region, and the city of Asheville in particular, is renowned for its breweries and beer culture. In fact, Asheville has the largest number of breweries per capita of any US city, and North Carolina is home to the largest number of craft breweries in the American South. There are a dizzying number of beer festivals throughout the year, such that you could visit almost anytime and likely find one going on somewhere.
But what if you’re not a beer drinker? Don’t fret! Culinary enthusiasts will find plenty with which to whet their appetites, with lots of farm-to-table restaurants and chefs offering cooking courses and special tasting menus featuring local ingredients. Given the forested and mountain landscapes, you’ll find a particular focus on foraged foods, such as mushrooms and wild herbs (when in season). I visited the region without high expectations what the local dining scene would be like, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality. The offering spans a full range of budgets, but the average perhaps skews a bit to the higher end, particularly in Asheville.
And finally, I simply cannot forget the famous North Carolina barbecue! The word barbecue can have a number of different meanings depending where you are, but in North Carolina it means just one thing: slow-cooked pork. You’d be surprised by how many ways this famous regional dish in prepared, but there are two main styles: Lexington and Eastern. And yes, they are very competitive about which is the best! In western NC you’ll find more of the Lexington style, which uses tomato in the sauce (Eastern style is not at all tomato-based). Then of course, there’s also pork ribs and pit-style barbecue, plus smoker box style…suffice to say, if you like pork, you’ll be in hog heaven in North Carolina. Yeah, I just couldn’t help myself. 😝
My Tips & Picks
Upscale Hotel Tip: The Black Walnut Bed & Breakfast Inn in Asheville (a 25-minute walk northwest from downtown), is a small 8-room B&B in a lovingly restored 1899 building that was built by the lead architect for the Biltmore Estate. Each room is distinctly decorated, and a gourmet breakfast and afternoon tea with snacks are included in the room rate. Please note that children under the age of 12 are not accommodated by the Inn.
Hotel Tip for Families: The Meadowbrook Inn in Blowing Rock offers large, comfortable and yet affordable rooms right in town, with free ample parking. Family rooms, suites and adjoining rooms are available, and there is an indoor pool. And to top it off, the walk to my restaurant tip (below) is less than 5 minutes!
Restaurant Pick: The Best Cellar Restaurant in Blowing Rock is located in a quaint farmhouse in the center of town, surrounded by lovely gardens. The menu is modern American, with numerous offerings for both meat and seafood lovers, plus enough meat-free offerings to satisfy vegetarians and vegans. There’s a varied wine list, plus a decent selection of craft beers.
Tour Tip: Hike Bike Kayak Asheville offers numerous tours in and around Asheville, including hiking and kayaking, as well as bike rentals. They also offer 3 and 5 hour guided driving tours of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a great way to enjoy the scenic drive without your own car, or to give your driver a break and allow them to enjoy the scenery, too!
Planning Your Visit
Getting to the region isn’t too difficult, and a stay there could be easily combined with a visit to other parts of the southeastern USA. Asheville has an airport with flights to a number of US destinations, and the Knoxville, Tennessee airport is also not far away from the Smoky Mountains region. However, if you’re coming from Europe you’ll find it easiest to fly into either Charlotte or Atlanta and drive to the area from there.
When to go: anytime! Each season offers its own special treats, so the question of when to go really depends upon what you’re looking for. I was there in early August and it was lovely, very warm but not too hot. Of course, Winter has its own romantic charm, with winter sports and many lodgings and even restaurants offering roaring fireplaces to keep you warm and cozy. The green re-awakening of Spring is also a beautiful time outdoors, and the Blue Ridge Parkway is rightfully famous for the gorgeous views offered during “leaf peeping season” in October.
The region is well-suited to independently planned self-drive vacations, and can be tailored to suit almost any interest and budget. On the other hand, several Europe- or US-based tour operators offer interesting individual and small group tours that pass through this area.