13 Top-Rated Mountain Towns in North Carolina
Author Lana Law loves to visit the mountains of North Carolina on a regular basis to ski, hike, and take in the fall color change.
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.
Highlights: A lively main street, nearby apple orchards, great dining
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. In the fall, U-pick farms like Grandad's Apples N' Such open up and 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.
- Read More: Top-Rated Things to Do in Hendersonville
2. Banner Elk
Highlights: A fun ski town in the winter, trout fishing in the summer, Wilderness Alpine Coaster thrill ride
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. Anglers come from far and wide to try and catch one of the river's colorful rainbow trout. Many of the most popular public access points, including Valle Crucis Community Park and the Watauga Gorge Access Area, are a short drive from Banner Elk.
Ramping up the adventure and excitement levels near Banner Elk is the new Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster, one of only 20 coasters of this design in the United States. The ride down is thrilling, with the two-seater sleds hitting top speeds of 27 miles per hour as they twist and turn down the nearly 2,400-foot run. The track winds its way through the forest and along the contours of the mountain and since you control the braking, the ride can be as thrilling or sedate as you choose.
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 are impressive, one to definitely try for a juicy steak is Stonewalls.
3. Blowing Rock
Highlights: Historical 20th-century buildings and homes, cute main street, good accommodation options
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 resort 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.
Regardless of the season, the Chetola Resort is a wonderful accommodation option. Spread over 78 acres but within walking distance of downtown Blowing Rock, this resort offers three lodging choices to suit everyone, from couples to families.
For a traditional lodge experience, stay at the Chetola Lodge looking out over Chetola Lake. Couples may want to book a room at the romantic B&B-style Bob Timberlake Inn, while families looking for more living space can opt for the Chetola Premium Condominiums.
Highlights: A mix of shops along a lovely main street, luxe accommodation options
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 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 up in this area, have a look at the Old Edwards Inn and Spa, an incredible European-style, luxury hotel in the heart of downtown.
Highlights: History, live summer theater, the candy-filled Mast General Store, Appalachian Ski Resort
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 one of the best ski resorts in North Carolina 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 a fun selection of candy.
Highlights: Restored downtown, summer fairs, and great hiking on Mt. Mitchell
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.
Highlights: Summer concerts, a lively downtown area, unique restaurants
Morganton is a 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 recently restored Courthouse 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. The cream is poured on a frozen sheet and rolled up in a Thai tradition, and capped with your favorite toppings.
Highlights: Views over the Blue Ridge Mountains, bookstores, free summer concerts
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 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.
Highlights: Restored 20th-century buildings in a lively downtown plus a good selection of restaurants
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
Highlights: Great Smokey Mountains Railroad hub, trout fishing on the Tuckasegee River
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.
Highlights: A local shopping hotspot with cute shops, galleries, and restaurants with outdoor patios
Waynesville is considered by many to be the gateway to the 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
Highlights: Wheels Through Time Museum, Market Square tourist shop, plentiful accommodation options
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.
Highlights: A giant amusement park, close to the national park, Soco Falls are just up the road
Just outside the entrance to Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the small town of Cherokee, the 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.
Map of Mountain Towns in North Carolina
Best Time to Visit North Carolina's Mountain Towns
The best time to visit North Carolina's mountain towns is in the summer. The months of June, July, and August are when the temperatures rise, the sun shines, and the parks are at their peak.
With daytime temperatures in the mid-to-high 70s Fahrenheit, activities like hiking, biking, and taking a dip in a mountain waterfall are all doable. It's important to note that the higher you go in the mountains, the cooler the temperatures will be.
The heat continues into September — the only difference is shorter days and cooler nights. October is spectacular with cool daytime temperatures, cold nights, and the added bonus of a kaleidoscope of colors as the leaves change in the mountains.
The spring months of late March, April, and May are wonderful times to visit with mild, long days. At this time wildflowers are bursting into bloom and the rhododendrons paint the mountainsides in purple and pink.
Winter brings cold days and snow to the upper elevations. The best time to visit at this time of year is in December, January, and February when the ski hills have a good base of skiable snow.
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 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.