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13 Top-Rated Mountain Towns in North Carolina

Written by Lana Law
Aug 14, 2019

Cities are fun but sometimes it's nice to swap the busy roads for the peaceful streets of a small mountain town. Park the car and wander through small shops, discover local cuisine, and enjoy the fresh mountain air, or take a drive through the spectacular scenery to find waterfalls, lookouts, and hiking trails.

Some of North Carolina's mountain towns are highly seasonal, with major attractions open only during the summer months, but a few, particularly those near the ski resorts, lend themselves more towards winter visits. If you simply want a relaxing getaway, you can find it here any time of year. Begin with our list of the best mountain towns in North Carolina.

1. Hendersonville

Main Street, Hendersonville | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Asheville may be the best-known destination in the mountains of North Carolina, but Hendersonville is a wonderful small-town alternative. Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains, on the doorstep of great hiking trails, scenic drives, and spectacular waterfalls, the location is hard to beat.

It's also the apple capital of North Carolina and one of the largest apple-producing counties in America. U-pick farms, like Grandad's Apples N' Such, make a fun stop for families.

Add to that a good selection of restaurants, many with outdoor patios in summer; hotels; and attractions; and it's not surprising you frequently hear people describing Hendersonville as the best small town in North Carolina. With a population of about 14,000 people, you can find everything you need here, minus crowds, traffic, and parking hassles. And compared to larger cities in the area, the town offers good value.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Hendersonville

2. Banner Elk

Grandfather Mountain near Banner Elk | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Just 15 minutes from two of the best ski resorts in North Carolina, Banner Elk is a popular winter destination. Nearby Sugar Mountain Ski Resort and Beech Mountain Ski Resort attract skiers from across the state and regions farther south, and many of them make their base Banner Elk. Whether you ski or not, this small town of approximately 1,000 people, is an appealing destination with a village atmosphere and plenty of reasons to visit.

One of the big attractions, just outside of town, is Grandfather Mountain and its mile-high swing bridge, one of the top sites in North Carolina. Views over the rolling mountains are spectacular, and some of the best in the area. If you want to immerse yourself further in the scenery, take a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway or head over to Linville Falls, about 30 minutes away.

This is also a popular area for trout fishing in North Carolina, particularly in the fall, with the Watauga River presenting a great opportunity for anglers.

Known as a culinary hot spot in the mountains of North Carolina, Banner Elk offers a charming place to simply relax, enjoy the scenery, and indulge in some fine dining. For such a small town, the selection and quality of restaurants is impressive.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Banner Elk

3. Blowing Rock

Blowing Rock | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Blowing Rock's downtown has the look and feel of a true mountain town, with a mix of restored historic buildings and modern structures designed to fit in with the town's village atmosphere. Cute shops and a variety of restaurants, some with summertime outdoor patios set beneath huge leafy trees, line Main Street. Lovely homes line the slopes overlooking ravines, making this one of the prettiest towns in this area of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In winter, Blowing Rock can be a nice place to base yourself if you are skiing at nearby Appalachian Ski Mountain just a few minutes away. This is a popular ski resorts for families or skiers and boarders interested in terrain parks.

Summer is the real draw, when the surrounding mountains turn a blissful green and offer up a wealth of natural treasures. Explore the hiking trails and waterfalls, and if you are here on a weekend, check the local events calendar to see the complete lineup of festivals.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Blowing Rock

4. Highlands

Highlands | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

A little over 1.5 hours from Asheville, just over two hours from Atlanta, and about three hours from Charlotte, Highlands is a beautiful town in the far southwest corner of North Carolina, not far from the South Carolina border.

The tree-lined Main Street in the upscale downtown is filled with charming stores and tourist shops. Spend some time wandering around, stop in at the Mountain Fresh Grocery to pick up a quick bite or fresh coffee, or enjoy a lunch at one of the many restaurants.

Don't miss a chance to see spectacular Dry Falls, about 10 minutes from town, where you can walk behind a curtain of water pouring off an overhanging ledge.

If you want to spend a night, have a look at the Old Edwards Inn and Spa, an incredible European-style, luxury hotel in the heart of downtown.

5. Boone

Boone | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

If you are looking for something a bit bigger in a small-town getaway, Boone is a lively university town with a little less than 20,000 people. Just a short distance off the Blue Ridge Parkway, Boone makes a nice place to stop for a night or an afternoon. This is another popular destination in winter for skiers, particularly families.

Appalachian Ski Resort is just minutes away and is a top destination for snowboarders and young skiers. In the summer, these same ski hills feature downhill mountain bike courses for those fearless on two wheels. Nearby is Grandfather Mountain with its suspension bridge.

One of the top things to do in the summer is to catch the long running outdoor drama, Horn in the West. This famous performance, running each summer since 1952, tells the story of Daniel Boone's adventures in the local area.

Be sure to wander up and down Boone's restored downtown, where you'll find a good selection of dining and shopping options, including a Mast General Store with its eclectic selection of merchandise, souvenirs, and fun selection of candy.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Boone

6. Burnsville

View over Burnsville | Photo Source: Burnsville and Yancey County Tourism

Burnsville offers an authentic small-town experience, with a cute downtown area, where you can find shops, restaurants, and galleries lining the town square. It makes a great base for travelers passing through this area of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The town hosts a number of signature events, including the Mt. Mitchell Crafts Fair and the Burnsville Metric, a popular bike ride held in late April. Outdoor lovers can enjoy wonderful hikes and viewpoints in the surrounding Yancey County area, including those on nearby Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. This area is also home to the Toe River, a popular place for trout fishing, and artists of all types who have taken up residence in this region.

7. Morganton

Restored building in Morganton | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Morganton is charming town in the foothills surrounded by beautiful scenery and outdoor adventure opportunities. The town's lovely architecture and historic buildings set it apart from others in the area. The compact downtown is replete with restored old brick buildings housing interesting restaurants, art shops, and stores. Be sure to check out the historic courthouse and the wonderfully restored mansion that now houses Morganton Savings Bank.

If you are looking for things to do, the TGIF Summer Concert Series features a wide variety of musicians playing free Friday night concerts in the main square. In early September, the Morganton Festival is a huge event with big name bands, celebrations, games, and arts and crafts vendors set up in the streets.

For a tasty and unique treat any time, stop in at the Toasted and Rolled Ice Cream and Bakery, where you can watch your custom ice-cream creation being made right in front of you. Cream is poured on a frozen sheet and rolled up in a Thai tradition, and capped with your favorite toppings.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Morganton

8. Sylva

Jackson County Courthouse in Sylva | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The Jackson County Courthouse stands proudly on the hill at the end of Main Street in the quaint town of Sylva. If you decide to walk up the 107 stairs to the courthouse, you'll be rewarded by panoramic views over the downtown and surrounding countryside, including the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Main Street is a mix of restaurants and retail shops, including a disproportionate number of bookstores considering the size of the town. If you are in town on a Friday, be sure to catch one of the free summer musical events taking place at Concerts on the Creek at the Bridge Park.

Fans of fly fishing may have already heard of Sylva. The Tuckasegee River flows nearby and is regarded as a hot spot for trout and whitewater fish populations.

9. Brevard

Brevard | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Brevard is ideally situated at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, close to some of North Carolina's most spectacular waterfalls. It makes an excellent base if the main purpose of your trip is to spend some time sightseeing in the mountains, or a good lunch stop if you are out on a day trip from Asheville or Hendersonville.

Brevard has a pleasant feel about it. The downtown area has many restored buildings and interesting shops, and you'll have no trouble finding a place for lunch or dinner at one of the many restaurants.

10. Bryson City

Swain County Heritage Museum in Bryson City | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

A little over an hour west of Asheville, Bryson City calls itself the gateway to the Smokey Mountains, and is, in fact, a great option for travelers looking to visit the park. The town is home to the Great Smokey Mountains Railroad, a popular sightseeing excursion that has several different routes, the most popular is the Nantahala Gorge return trip.

Rolling hills surround the town, and the Tuckasegee River runs through the middle. Take a walk down Main Street past the Swain County Heritage Museum and then turn up Everett Street to cross the bridge and look out over the river. In summer, you may see people fishing. These two streets are also home to numerous shops and restaurants. Beyond the downtown, you will find lovely homes and streets with manicured yards and views in all directions.

11. Waynesville

Waynesville | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Waynesville is considered by many to be the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The busy Main Street is lined with covered sidewalks, and is an ideal place for a bit of retail therapy. You'll also find a fine assortment of restaurants, many with outdoor patios. Stately homes can be found along the residential streets, a few of which have been converted into romantic B&Bs.

One of the town's major annual events is the Folkmoot International Dance & Music Festival, held over a 10-day stretch in July.

12. Maggie Valley

Market Square in Maggie Valley | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Maggie Valley is a true tourist town just over 30 minutes from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with all kinds of accommodation, including campgrounds, and a number of things to do. Catering to both the summer crowds who come here to visit the park, and the winter crowds, who are often skiers and boarders who come to enjoy the slopes of nearby Cataloochee Ski Resort, this small town offers everything you need and more.

Market Square, is a popular tourist stop that is impossible to miss as you drive through town. You'll find everything from t-shirt shops to ski outfitters and restaurants here.

Maggie Valley is also a popular stop on motorcycle routes through the mountains, and the Wheels Through Time Museum is one of the town's biggest attractions.

13. Cherokee

Soco Falls outside Cherokee | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Just outside the entrance to Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the small town of Cherokee, headquarters of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. The town offers a surprising amount of accommodation and has a number of family-focused attractions.

One of the top summer attractions for families is Santa's Land Fun Park & Zoo, a large amusement park with rides and animals. The main street is designed with tourists in mind, and is lined with cute shops, galleries, and covered walkways.

The relatively low elevation, 1,991 feet, means it's warmer here in spring, which can be a real advantage. Nights are much warmer if you are camping, and when the trees at the top of the mountains are just getting their buds, this area is lush and in full bloom. On the edge of the town is Soco Falls.

More Related Articles on PlanetWare.com

Skiing in North Carolina: With elevations that exceed 5,000 feet and extensive snowmaking equipment, the mountains of North Carolina offer excellent opportunities for skiing. See our article on the Best Ski Resorts in North Carolina for ideas to help plan your ski vacation.

Fishing in North Carolina: The mountains are also a great place for fishing. For the inside scoop on where to go, see our guide to the Top Rivers for Trout Fishing in North Carolina. If you are heading to the coast, you may want to have a read through our article on Deep Sea Fishing in North Carolina.

The Best of North Carolina: Still in the planning stage of your next vacation? Here are some ideas to point you in the right direction. In summer, you might want to head to the coast to experience the best beaches in North Carolina or have some fun in the Outer Banks. For more ideas, see our list of the Top Attractions in North Carolina.

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