One of my favorite places in the world is North Carolina. I’ve been traveling to Beech Mountain, a little town in the northwestern region of the state, since I was 9 years old. My family used to take us there on week-long summer getaways when I was in grade school. With each trip, that first breath of mountain air always signified the start of an escape from the real world – it meant wearing sweaters even in the summertime and doing things I never could in Florida, like exploring dark, cold caverns, hiking to loud, powerful waterfalls, and taking winding, scenic drives through the mountains.
I fell so deeply in love with the state. When you add up all of my trips there, I’ve probably spent less than two months of my life in the state, but there is something about traveling there that feels like home to me.
These are the spots that are musts for me:
1. Elk River Falls
Located just near the northern Tennessee-North Carolina border, getting to the waterfall is a very easy, .25-mile hike. For such a non-challenging hike, the reward is high – spectators can get pretty close to the green-blue falls. People can often be spotted jumping into the plunge pool below the 50-foot waterfall. Most who know the area would advise against this, though – many people have drowned after getting caught in the powerful current at the base of the falls. Plus, the water is freezing.
This 60-foot cascade is just beautiful, and you can get so close to it. Located along the Blue Ridge Parkway (at milepost 339.5), the hike is about a 2.5-mile roundtrip and is of moderate intensity. I don’t recommend wandering off the beaten path to try to get another view of the falls – my dad and brother tried that years ago, stepping out onto a log to get a closer photo. They stepped on a bee hive and ended up with about 13 stings each. But you don’t really need to get any closer anyway, if you ask me – the view is already spectacular.
3. The Cascades
The falls are located inside E.B. Jeffress Park (milepost 271 on the Blue Ridge Parkway). Another relatively easy hike, you’ll walk about a mile from the parking area along the nature trail to the Cascades. My photo doesn’t do the falls justice, unfortunately. (Waterfalls are the hardest thing to photograph!)
This is the most popular waterfall in the state, partly because of its easy accessibility off the Blue Ridge Parkway (milepost 316.3) and partly because of its grandeur. The three-tiered waterfall spills into the Linville Gorge, known by many as the “Grand Canyon of the Southern Appalachians.” The 150-foot fall has the highest volume of water of all waterfalls in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The view you’ll get of the falls depends on which trail you take – all three of the hiking trails range from about a mile to a mile and a half in distance, but the difficulty of ranges from easy to moderate to strenuous.
If I had to drive on one highway for the rest of my life, it would be the Blue Ridge Parkway. The road is curvy, and the speed limit is low, so getting anywhere takes forever but the views are so worth it. The parkway is 469 miles long, connecting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. It weaves through 29 counties and is lined with waterfalls, hiking trails, scenic spots, wildlife, and charming little barns and homes. One of my dreams is to drive the parkway in full, from mileposts 1 through 469.
With a zoo and nature museum, a mile-high swinging bridge, a gift shop and a $20 admission fee, this non-profit state park is something of a tourist attraction, but it also by far my favorite place to hike in North Carolina. With more than 70 species of rare, threatened and endangered plants and animals on the mountain (including 32 that are globally imperiled) and 12 miles worth of trails (there are 11 of varying difficulty), there is always something new to discover at this park (I’ve probably been five or six times and have not gotten bored of it yet).
The backcountry hiking trails are my favorite – they’re very different than anything else I’ve experienced in the South. These trails often use ladders and cables to climb cliff faces (hello, adventure!) and they also take visitors through forests more often found in Canadian climates.
This is the highest point in the Appalachian Mountains, and on some parts of the mountain you’ll literally be up in the clouds.On a clear day, visibility is up to 85 miles away – we’re talking panoramic mountain vistas and views of the Pisgah National Forest (the forest that scenes of “The Hunger Games” were filmed in). The 1,946-acre park has several hiking trails of varying difficulty and a restaurant near the park office boasting scenic views.
1. The Orchard at Altpass
This non-profit apple orchard off the Blue Ridge Parkway (mile post 328.3 ) represents quintessential North Carolina mountain culture. Serving up some of the best homemade jams, honeys and spreads, pies, ice cream and the best fudge you’ll ever have, it is the perfect stop for a post-hiking snack. The staff is amazing – they make it make it hard to leave the store because you’ll just want to stay and talk to them. We talked to Charlotte, the fudge-maker, for about an hour, and she even took me back into her kitchen to demonstrate how she makes the fudge. Don’t leave without taking home an apple butter spread or jam.
2. The town of Blowing Rock
This is one of the cutest little towns I have ever been to, full of charming little restaurants, boutiques and an old library. It is also home to The Blowing Rock – one of the state’s oldest tourist attractions; a cliff that’s 4,000-feet above sea level with views of the Johns River Gorge below – an outlet mall, and Tweetsie Railroad, a family theme park. If you go, stop by Village Cafe, a cute little restaurant that serves lunch and breakfast all day.
The first time I visited the caverns as a child, I experienced many “firsts”: first time inside a mountain, first time experiencing total darkness, first time seeing a bat. The limestone caverns, just south of Linville Falls, are North Carolina’s only “show caverns” and have been open to tourists since the ’30s. Guests are advised to wear warm clothes, as the temperature hovers at a chilly 52 F year round. The tours last about 35 minutes and take visitors deep into the caverns to admire the active stalactites and stalagmites, as well as hear tales of Civil War deserters who used the caverns as a hideout. Toward the end of the tour, guides cut the lighting to allow visitors to experience the total darkness that existed in the caverns before the days of electric lighting and flashlights. I remember them telling a story of a man who got trapped in the cavern for years, eventually going blind because his eyes adjusted to the darkness.
Banner Elk is a charming little town in western North Carolina. It is considered the ski capital of the South, home to Beech Mountain and Sugar Mountain. But in the summertime – sans snow – the colorful flowers and charming, walkable streets are the main attraction. My family typically stays on Beech Mountain during our Carolinas vacations. Last time we visited, we had dinner at Sorrento’s Italian Bistro, where we tried the best spinach and artichoke dip I’ve ever had. We couldn’t stop raving about it the entire trip. We also love shopping at Fred’s General Mercantile and watching the sunset from the highest point on Beech Mountain.
Located in the Rural Historic District of Valle Crusis, this old country general store is a must for anyone with an appreciation for history. The store opened in 1883 and is one of the last remaining general stores in the country; it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The store is home to the local post office, sells peppermint sticks and other old-fashioned candies, and even offers coffee for a nickel. The store also sells stationery and postcards, wind-up toys, and outdoor clothing and goods. With creaking wood floors and a surprise around every corner, it’s one of the only shops I’ve ever visited that has captivated my entire family for more than an hour.
WHERE TO STAY:
The best way to experience the mountains is to plant yourself right in the heart of them – no question. My family loves Beech Mountain, where my dad’s boss owns a vacation home. A quick search on Air BNB shows several homes available for rent on the mountain, most priced between $60-$100 per night (less than or equal to what you’d probably pay to stay at a cheap hotel, and much nicer!) I grabbed a few pictures from Air BNB rental spots on or near Beech Mountain. Most of the homes have porches, basements, fireplaces, wood floors, and giant, forest-like yards surrounded by picturesque mountain vistas – all things I grew up without in suburban Florida. If you ask me, that’s the ultimate escape.