South Floridians who spend their summers in the North Carolina mountains are indeed blessed. When you arrive in this part of the country, you can almost feel your blood pressure drop and a wave of peaceful contentment wash over you.
The High Country of the Appalachians technically covers seven counties, but the two most mountainous, Avery and Watauga, are the best-known summer refuges for those seeking a respite from the Florida heat. The region has one of the most temperate summer climates in the eastern U.S., with an average August high last year of 73 degrees on the mountaintops of Avery County.
Although the area is well-known for its ski resorts at Beech Mountain and Sugar Mountain, the North Carolina mountains also offer an incredible diversity of adventures in the summer months. Tucked among the hills and valleys is one of the most interesting places in the U.S. But sometimes you have to know where to look.
Blowing Rock – Boone – Linville
The quaint city of Blowing Rock (depicted as “Mitford” in the Jan Karon novels) anchors one point of this triangle; another is Boone with the lovely campus of Appalachian State University (which famously beat a shocked Michigan football team in Ann Arbor a few years back); and the third is the tiny town of Linville with its majestic view of the mile-high Grandfather Mountain—a home away from home for many Floridians.
Linville Ridge, Elk River Club, Beech Mountain Club, Hound Ears Club, Grandfather Golf & Country Club and Yonahlossee Racquet Club are popular country clubs, but other enclaves and more isolated areas attract South Floridians. Today, you can own or rent everything from a 5,000-plus-square-foot home to a log cabin or a condo. Spend the summer, a month, a week or a weekend, you won’t be sorry.
There’s something for everyone: master classes for the artists, a visit to Tweetsie Railroad and gem mining for the grandkids, mountain biking and rafting for the teenagers, a spa day at Westglow Resort & Spa for the health enthusiasts and serious hiking and hunting for the outdoorsmen. To help get you started, here are a dozen ways to experience the High Country:
1. Be inspired. Visit Penland School of Crafts and then tour galleries and workshops of some of the dozens of nationally acclaimed master artisans that spread throughout the surrounding countryside.
2. Kayak. The placid New River is a designated wild river and one of the two oldest in the U.S. Check in with Kelly at RiverGirl Fishing Company in Todd to start your kayaking adventure. A fishery biologist, Kelly can arrange tubing, biking and fishing excursions. Be sure to see Petunia the pet pig while you are there.
3. Take a ride. The Blue Ridge Parkway is never the same twice. Head south to the historic Orchard at Altapass and take a break for some ice cream, bluegrass music and clogging; or, head north to the Moses Cone Manor and the Parkway Craft Center and take a tour of the upstairs.
4. Eat. Delight in great chicken (smoked or fried) at Carolina Barbeque and the Pickin’ Pig Parlor in Newland. Friday nights feature local bluegrass bands. Want a more upscale meal? Make reservations at Artisanal restaurant in Banner Elk or Best Cellar in Blowing Rock. For local brews, check out Appalachian Mountain Brewery.
5. Enrich yourself. Cooking classes are offered at the Inn at Little Pond Farm in Valle Crucis (run by former Gables entrepreneur Gaye Luaces and her husband Frank); or, check in with the Art Cellar Gallery in Banner Elk for a Saturday Coffee Talk with a featured artist or for one of its Friday Art and Wine Flight Nights.
6. Take a hike. At Beacon Heights, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 20-minute hike will bring you to an incredible vista of the Linville Gorge; if you want more views, hike the nearby Hawksbill Mountain trail.
7. Watch a Game. Sports thrive in this part of the States and the experience is typically small-town American. Baseball fans can still get a deal on a great skybox if you drive about an hour to see AA and AAA teams. Appalachian State football games are lots of fun, and because the team won three national championships, the stadium upgrades are terrific.
8. Support the Arts. Speaking of App State, the university hosts an arts festival the entire month of July featuring concerts, art exhibitions, dramatic presentations, dancing and more. An Appalachian Summer Festival has a jampacked itinerary that has been thriving for more than 30 years. Hal Holbrook, KD Lang, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Chicago, Wynonna Judd, Little Big Town and the Beach Boys have been featured performers. Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk has an active theater arts program and generally produces three shows each summer season.
9. Try something new. Get a group and rent a pontoon boat to explore the expansive Watauga Lake, bike the Virginia Creeper Trail (the 17-mile downhill portion from Whitetop, of course), visit a local goat farm for some fresh goat cheese or get lost in the New River Corn Maze outside Boone.
10. Learn about local history. History lessons in this part of the world are very much a part of the U.S. fabric. Start with Joara, a Native American site and the location of Fort San Juan, a 16th-century Spanish settlement in nearby Morganton. If you’re there in late September, you can time your visit to see the 1812 McDowell House and a re-enactment of the Overmountain Men and their victory during the American Revolution. You can also find out why Tennessee’s oldest town, Jonesborough, was actually in North Carolina. (In August 1784, the western portion of North Carolina seceded from the state, becoming the State of Franklin until December 1788.)
11. Get in touch with nature. Join the High Country Audubon Society in Valle Crucis for its Wednesday morning bird walk, or drive to the top of Grandfather Mountain and see the bears, cougars, otters, deer and eagles at the Wildlife Habitats. There’s an excellent museum that regularly runs movies about the area’s native animals. Put up bird feeders, and in no time at all, you will be enchanted by ruby-throated hummingbirds and many of their larger feathered friends.
12. Come in September. The sky is a crystal-clear “Carolina blue,” the air turns crisp and everywhere you look, you see the signs and colors of fall. It’s a magnificent time.
Being in the North Carolina mountains is all about beautiful weather, nice people and, when you are not relaxing in a rocking chair contemplating the scenery or colorful flowers, there’s plenty to keep you busy.