If you’re looking for a year-round getaway at a higher elevation and want an escape from the big city, look no further than one of these top places to visit in the North Carolina mountains. With plenty of outdoor adventure opportunities, majestic scenery and wide-open spaces, these towns, parks and attractions are the perfect locales to visit if you’re in search of active pursuits. If you prefer a more laid-back vacation, there are also historical and cultural attractions, luxury accommodations and excellent dining options. And if you’re a craft beer enthusiast, North Carolina is home to more than 370 breweries and brewpubs – the largest number in the American South.
So, if you’re ready for an adventure-filled getaway, need a relaxing vacation or prefer a little of both, check out these top places to visit in the North Carolina mountains.
Asheville is one of the state’s most popular vacation destinations with its funky Bohemian vibe and prime location in the southern Blue Ridge Mountains. Historic Biltmore Estate is one of the main attractions, but visitors will also find a vibrant cultural, craft beer and culinary scene to explore. Downtown is easily walkable, and you can even go on a self-guided “scavenger hunt” along the Urban Trail to learn about Asheville’s intriguing past. With the help of an interactive app that you can download onto your smartphone, you’ll discover 30 commemorative stops along the 1.7-mile trail. While the route can take as little as an hour, you’ll want to have a break between visits to check out the eclectic boutiques, galleries and restaurants serving internationally inspired cuisine. You might even want to hit up a few breweries and sample a cold brew or two.
Speaking of beer, Asheville has the bragging rights to more breweries per capita than any other U.S. city. The town was named the first Beer City in the U.S. in 2009, and it has been widely known as one of the top beer cities in the country ever since. People come to Asheville for “beercations” devoted to all things craft beer. There is also a long list of annual beer festivals hosted in Asheville throughout the year, including Asheville Oktoberfest, the Burning Can Fest in August and to ring in the new year, the New Year’s Eve Keg Drop at Biltmore Park.
Visitors to Asheville also have access to many outdoor adventure activities like hiking, biking, mountain climbing, kayaking, paddleboarding, fly-fishing and whitewater rafting. And when it comes to dining, this mountain town has one of the most creative and inspiring culinary communities. You’ll find everything from cuisine focused on using locally sourced and foraged foods and artisan ingredients to top-notch Italian, Spanish, Indian and Mexican cuisine and more. And don’t forget the Southern-inspired spots serving up great barbecue, house-made charcuterie, fried chicken, pimento cheese and biscuits with red-eye gravy.
For accommodations, plan to reserve a room at Kimpton Hotel Arras. This upscale property sits in the middle of downtown in Pack Square, where you can walk to many restaurants, cafes, breweries, galleries and shops. The property is also pet-friendly.
Biltmore Estate: Asheville
If you’re traveling to Asheville and want to visit Biltmore Estate while in town, you should add a few extra days to your vacation to explore the 8,000-acre property and grounds. Historic Biltmore House is known as “America’s Largest Home,” and it’s the former residence of George and Edith Vanderbilt. If you want to stay close to all the activities, there are several options for accommodations on the property, including the casual Village Hotel on Biltmore Estate or the luxurious Inn on Biltmore Estate. For more privacy, you can book one of the four newly updated, historic Cottages on Biltmore Estate. You can even customize your stay in the cottages with a concierge and a private chef.
There are always seasonal events, special art collections and rotating exhibits at Biltmore. Christmas is especially festive with the house decked out in all its holiday splendor. There are also special Candlelit Christmas Evenings reminiscent of the Vanderbilt family’s first Christmas at Biltmore in 1895. Many tour options are available to see the house and grounds and engage in activities around the estate. For a different look at what life was like at Biltmore with the Vanderbilts, book the intimate (maximum 12 guests) Biltmore House Backstairs Tour. This excursion visits rarely seen parts of the house and gives insight into the lives of the people that worked at the estate. Reviews from travelers that visit Biltmore say the architecture, grounds and a glimpse into the opulence of the gilded age at Biltmore make the attraction a must-see when visiting Asheville.
Other special on-site activities include horseback or horse and carriage rides around the grounds. You can also explore the estate with an off-road Land Rover Experience, go fly-fishing with an Orvis-endorsed guide or take a river float trip on the French Broad River. And if that’s not enough outdoor action, try your hand at archery or sporting clays or even the ancient art of falconry with these incredible birds of prey. If you’ve come to Biltmore for a getaway to relax for a few days, you can book a spa treatment or participate in wellness activities, such as morning yoga or a mindfulness walk. What’s more, the on-site winery offers complimentary tastings where you can sample Biltmore wines. Meanwhile, the wide selection of restaurants at the Biltmore’s restaurants offer everything from casual and pub fare to a more formal experience – in true Vanderbilt style – at The Dining Room at the Inn.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Known as “America’s Favorite Scenic Drive,” the Blue Ridge Parkway is a winding 469-mile road that connects the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are four main entrances to the parkway in the Asheville area and 252 picturesque miles to explore in Western North Carolina. You can choose to drive the route by car or go hiking on some of the best trails in the U.S. You can also head out for an adventurous bike ride or even take a bike tour with a local outfitter.
If you decide to go hiking, there are plenty of options with easy, short trails or more demanding treks. And no matter which trail best suits your hiking skills, you may be rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the mountains and even dramatic waterfalls along the way.
After exploring the area by car, on foot or by bike, don’t miss two of the top spots to visit on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Craggy Gardens at milepost 364.4 sits at 5,640 feet elevation. This stop features the National Park Service visitor center and other facilities, such as a gift shop and restrooms. And Mount Mitchell, at the 355.4 milepost, is the tallest mountain peak east of the Mississippi River, with its summit at 6,684 feet. Travelers to the parkway say it’s one of the most beautiful drives in the country with incredible sunsets, stunning overlook views and numerous waterfalls.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited national park in the U.S. Located in Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee, the park encompasses 520,000 acres (or 800 square miles) of natural beauty, thundering waterfalls and abundant wildlife. The park is also known for the striking blue mist over its peaks and valleys, which inspires the Great Smoky Mountains name. If you’re staying in Asheville, the main western entrance to the park at Oconaluftee Visitor Center is approximately 55 miles from town. The visitor center is where you’ll find a collection of historic log buildings. It’s also one of the best places to view the park’s elk herd. While there, visit nearby Mingus Mill – a grist mill dating back to 1886.
Cataloochee Valley is another great spot for elk viewing. You’ll also find an old church, farmhouse and one-room schoolhouse built by the homesteaders that first settled the area. For hikers, there are three popular hiking trails: Midnight Hole, Mouse Creeks Falls and the more challenging Mount Cammerer at Big Creek. And if you’re up for even more adventure, head over to the overlook at Newfound Gap for picturesque views or visit the observation tower on Clingmans Dome, the highest summit in the Smokies at 6,643 feet elevation. Visitors to the park say that it’s beautiful to see in every season, especially in the fall. They also mention that there are trails for all levels of hikers.
Situated along a plateau in the southern Appalachian Mountains and along the Eastern Continental Divide, Highlands sits at 4,118 feet elevation in the Nantahala National Forest. The charming mountain town offers plenty of outdoor adventure options, with many hiking trails, picturesque waterfalls and fly-fishing in 107 miles of rivers and streams brimming with rainbow, brown and wild brook trout. You’ll also find scenic UTV tours and aerial thrills like zip lining and ropes courses at Highlands Aerial Park, just a short drive from town.
In Highlands, visitors will also find a vibrant cultural arts scene, with exhibits, art classes and events hosted at The Bascom: A Center for the Visual Arts. Music and theater are also a large part of the community with the annual Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival, operatic Bel Canto Recitals, summer outdoor concerts and live theater performances.
For luxury accommodations, Old Edwards Inn and Spa is a Relais & Châteaux property located in the heart of town. The hotel puts guests within walking distance of the upscale shops, galleries, restaurants and Satulah Mountain Brewing Co., the first post-prohibition legal brewery in Macon County, North Carolina. After a day exploring the outdoors or browsing the boutiques, book a rejuvenating or relaxing spa treatment at the hotel’s on-site European-inspired spa.
Grandfather Mountain: Linville
Grandfather Mountain sits at 5,946 feet elevation in the northwest part of the state and is part of the United Nations’ Southern Appalachian Biosphere Reserve. The mountain is estimated to be approximately 300 million years old, with some rock formations dating back as far as 1.2 billion years. One-third of the park is operated as a tourist attraction under the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, Inc., with proceeds going toward preserving the mountain. The remaining land is undeveloped and owned by the state as Grandfather Mountain State Park.
One highlight of a visit to the mountain is the panoramic view from the 228-foot-long Mile High Swinging Bridge, one of the highest suspension footbridges in the U.S. at an elevation of 5,305 feet. Adventure-seekers can also take the short hike along the Bridge Trail that goes beneath the bridge, or there are other routes to explore at the mountain. During your visit, you can also tour the Wilson Center for Nature Discovery, which houses interactive exhibits and educational activities.
Tickets are required for entry to Grandfather Mountain and its attractions, and previous visitors highly recommend purchasing tickets online in advance. The park also assigns time slots for entry. Once you’re in the park, you can drive to most of the daily programs and activities, the Wilson Center, the Nature Museum and visit the wildlife habitats. Parking is available close to the Mile High Swinging Bridge. If you’re planning a full day at the park, bring a picnic lunch, or you can grab casual bites at Mildred’s Grill. Visitors to Grandfather Mountain say it’s beautiful, but it can be windy, especially for a walk on the suspension bridge. For nearby accommodations, check out The Lodge at River Run in Banner Elk.
The Blowing Rock: Blowing Rock
Known as North Carolina’s oldest travel attraction, The Blowing Rock has been welcoming travelers since 1933. The ancient rock, created during the formation of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is actually a jagged cliff at 4,000 feet above sea level overlooking Johns River Gorge at 3,000 feet below. And from the precipitous ledge, you can also see Hawksbill Mountain and Table Rock in the southwest and Grandfather Mountain and Mount Mitchell to the west.
In the winter months, The Blowing Rock experiences a peculiar occurrence – snow falls upside down. This phenomenon, which is how the rock got its name, is caused by a flume formed by the rocky walls of the gorge. The strong northwest winds produced in the flume are powerful enough to return light objects dropped into the void.
A half-mile self-guided path around The Blowing Rock includes a nature trail and a picnic area. The attraction is also pet-friendly for leashed animals and about 70% accessible for visitors with mobility concerns. Travelers comment that the views from above are worth the visit and they also appreciate the friendly staff. After your visit, head over to Blowing Rock Brewery and Ale House Restaurant for a craft beer paired with a local Carolina bison burger. If you’re planning to stay and explore more of the area, make reservations at Westglow Resort & Spa, an intimate Relais & Châteaux property in Blowing Rock.
Nantahala Outdoor Center: Bryson City
The Nantahala Outdoor Center hosts more than 1 million guests annually for various land- and river-based activities and excursions. Founded in 1972 as a small motel and gas station situated along the Nantahala River, NOC is now one of the largest outdoor recreation facilities in the U.S. It’s also a place where Olympic athletes come to train and practice. There are almost too many adrenaline-pumping activities to choose from at NOC, with many activities offered in other towns in North Carolina and other states like Tennessee and Georgia.
In Bryson City, top thrills include guided Nantahala River rafting, mountaintop zip line tours, a zip line adventure park and more. You can also purchase an adventure pass that gives you access to multiple excursions throughout the day. If you’re a serious outdoor adventurer, you might also be interested in the facility’s courses, which cover everything from paddling instruction classes to wilderness survival. Reviewers of the facility say that it’s an incredible experience and comment that “you only live once” so you should take the chance to enjoy these adventurous activities.
If you’re visiting the Nantahala Outdoor Center for its adventure activities, plan to add a day or two to explore Bryson City. Situated along the Tuckasegee River, this laid-back community has quite a bit to offer for its small size with craft galleries, bookstores, fly-fishing shops, a history museum, an aquarium, many restaurants and more. While in town, you might even want to book a ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. One excursion, departing from Bryson City, makes a four-hour, 32-mile round-trip journey filled with beautiful scenery to the village of Dillsboro, where you can stop to check out another local North Carolina brewery. Along the way, you’ll also see the train wreck from the set from “The Fugitive,” the 1993 action movie starring Harrison Ford. For accommodations, The Everett Hotel is an excellent choice. This historic landmark was originally built in 1905 as the Bryson City Bank. At the end of the day, when it’s time to relax, the property features a rooftop terrace with a fireplace that offers sweeping city and mountain views. And for dinner, try the cozy bistro downstairs that serves locally sourced beef and fresh Carolina Mountain trout.
Pisgah National Forest: Asheville
Pisgah National Forest boasts more than 500,000 acres of old-growth forests, with nearly 100,000 acres that once belonged to George W. Vanderbilt. When Vanderbilt’s wife, Edith, sold the lands to the U.S. government in 1914 after her husband’s death, this created the first national forest east of the Mississippi River. Pisgah is also home to the first school of forestry in the U.S. Travelers can visit the Cradle of Forestry in America historic site in the park, which features historic buildings, guided walks, living history interpreters, an old logging train and the Forest Discovery Center.
A popular drive for visitors to Pisgah National Forest is the 15-mile Forest Heritage Scenic Byway (U.S. Highway 276). Along this route, you’ll find the Cradle of Forestry Historic site, Sliding Rock natural waterslide and Glass Falls and Moore Cove Falls. If you’re an experienced hiker, you’ll want to plan a visit to the forest, as the highest peaks in the eastern part of the U.S. are located in Pisgah.
Another top attraction is the North Carolina Arboretum, which boasts acres of trails and cultivated gardens with beautiful plants and flowers. Hikers and mountain bikers will want to check out the Lake Powhatan Recreation Area (in the center of Bent Creek Experimental Forest), Black Balsam Knob and Graveyard Fields. And if you’re staying in Asheville, you can catch close-up views of Mount Pisgah, just 10 miles south of town on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Travelers say the area is beautiful with lots of trails, waterfalls and places to camp. Be sure to bring a picnic lunch for your visit so you can take a break from driving or hiking and relax and enjoy the views.
Sugar Mountain Resort: Sugar Mountain
If you’re an alpine sports enthusiast, North Carolina’s mountains have options for outdoor winter adventures, too. Located approximately 110 miles northwest of Charlotte International Airport and close to the mountain communities of Boone and Blowing Rock, Sugar Mountain Resort is a top-rated ski area in the state. It is North Carolina’s largest ski resort and features the highest vertical drop within the state. It’s also known for having a good variety of terrain and more advanced runs than the state’s other ski areas. Since snow is not as reliable in North Carolina as it is in other parts of the U.S., it’s best to check the snow conditions before you go. Reviews from travelers are mixed with some visitors having a great experience, while others say the lines are long, it can be crowded and the facilities need updating.
On days when you aren’t skiing, try an exhilarating 700-foot-long tubing ride down the mountain, take a few spins around the ice skating rink or go on a guided snowshoe tour through the resort’s winter wonderland. The resort also hosts special events throughout the year, including New Year’s Eve festivities with an alpine torch parade and fireworks to ring in the new year at midnight. And for more mountain fun, check out the Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster. The first of its kind in the North Carolina mountains, the coaster – a combination toboggan and roller coaster – reaches speeds of up to 27 mph on 360-degree loops.