Top Places To Go in the North Carolina Mountains (Western NC)

Now that we live permanently in Raleigh which is a great base to explore the Tar Heel state, we’re excited to start taking road trips and visit all the best places in North Carolina mountains. 

Best places to go in the North Carolina mountains

We’ve already been to several of the best towns and attractions in Western North Carolina since we first moved to Raleigh back in 2004, and we are sharing them down below!

But we didn’t get to visit those places in-depth so are planning return trips, and now that we are back living in the state of North Carolina, I’ve also been researching other places to visit for future trips that we think you’d love too!

So in this blog post we are going to focus on places to visit in Western North Carolina (the mountains) broken up into three regions: 

  • Asheville & The Foothills
  • Smokey Mountains & Cherokee
  • High Country

In upcoming blog posts we’ll focus on Central North Carolina (the Piedmont) and then Eastern North Carolina (coastal Carolina).

If you are like us and love hiking, scenic drives, craft beer, farmers markets, national parks, kayaking, lakes, camping, biking, horse riding, festivals, forests, arts, and history, I think you will love the North Carolina mountains too!

Below is a breakdown of each region, places to visit in each region, and suggested activities based on what we have already done, or what we’d like to do on a future visit. 

Asheville and The Foothills

Asheville

Downtown Asheville at sunset

Situated in North Carolina’s southern Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville has become one of the best places to visit in North Carolina and on the east coast of the USA.

We first visited way back in 2004 and loved the artsy, music, foodie and hiking scene and have visited briefly on a few occasions since then, and the city has boomed in every way!

The city oozes character and quirky charm and is well known for art galleries, excellent breweries, fabulous restaurants, thriving live music scene, hiking trails, healing resorts, the French Broad River, and America’s largest home – Biltmore House.

Asheville is plenty inviting and one of the most vibrant small cities in the United States.

Whilst thriving, the historic downtown remains beautifully preserved, and the awe-inspiring scenery of the NC mountains is nearby with a wide diversity of outdoor adventures for an active and healthy getaway.

Suggested activities:

  • Stroll through downtown – wand the vibrant city center brimming with locally owned shops and mountain vibe.
  • Walking tour of the city’s historyfollow the Urban Trail on a casual two-hour stroll about town. Get the printable map here.
  • Drink up on a downtown walking brewery tour.
  • Go shopping – tree-lined shopping districts with open-air markets, independent bookstores, art galleries, and the Grove Arcade.
  • Cruise through town on the hop-on-hop-off trolley tours.
  • Get a little taste of everything on a food tour
  • Enjoy views of the mountains and city skyline from one of the rooftop bars.
  • Find your perfect hiking trail using the Asheville Hike Finder and filter by trail length and difficulty level.
  • Chase waterfalls – there are plenty of beautiful waterfalls near Asheville.
  • Stock up on fresh local ingredients at one of the many farmers markets 
  • Take a guided history tour with Asheville by Foot.
  • Take a spooky stroll through the streets of downtown on a ghost walking tour.

Biltmore Estate

Biltmore House, North Carolina mountains
We took Caroline’s parents to Biltmore Estate

Biltmore House is only 15-minutes drive from downtown Asheville, but as America’s largest home and one of the top things to see in North Carolina, I thought it deserved its own section.

This 250 room house sits on an 8,000 acre estate nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. George Vanderbilt was the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the shipping and railroad tycoon who turned $100 into $100 million.

He built this French Renaissance chateau over a six-year period and completed it in 1895. 

Today, the Biltmore Estate is a registered National Historic Landmark and the most visited tourist attractions in North Carolina welcoming over one million visitors a year!

Be prepared to spend several hours at Biltmore Estate.

Suggested activities:

Black Mountain

Lake Tomahawk in Black Mountain, NC
Lake Tomahawk in Black Mountain

Black Mountain has been ranked as the “Prettiest Small Town in America” on a Tripadvisor poll. 

The town is named for the old train stop at the Black Mountain Depot and is located at the southern end of the Black Mountain range of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Known for its spectacular mountain views, Southern hospitality and small-town pride that runs deep, it’s convenient to downtown Asheville (30 minutes), Blue Ridge Parkway (15 minutes), and Chimney Rock State Park (35 minutes).

It’s home to amazing musicians and artisans, and the surrounding NC mountains offer hiking and biking trails, camping, trout fishing, lakes, and waterfalls. 

Suggested activities:

The Blue Ridge Parkway 

Linn Cove Viaduct, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina Mountains
Linn Cove Viaduct, Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway travels 252 miles through the North Carolina mountains with ample exits for weekend getaways from Asheville to Boone.

So if you’re looking for things to do in Western North Carolina that involve road ips, The Blue Ridge Parkway is known as “America’s favorite scenic drive”. 

All up, this 469 mile parkway weaves its way through the mountains in Western North Carolina and into Virginia with plenty of exits for sightseeing, and weekend getaways between Asheville and Boone.

There are mileposts (MP) along the way as handy reference points. 

Get active and stop along the way for some hikes, or just take a relaxing drive and take in beautiful mountain scenery that changes throughout the year, and spot wildlife. 

Suggested milepost stops starting from Cherokee and heading north east towards Boone:

Pisgah National Forest

Looking Glass Falls, Pisgah National Forest

Comprised of over 500,000 acres, the Pisgah National Forest is home to mile-high peaks, cascading waterfalls, whitewater rivers, scenic drives, a vast array of wildlife, and hundreds of miles of trails.

This forest is considered one of the USA’s best for outdoor recreation, and unlike the Blue Ridge Parkway, Pisgah is contained within Western North Carolina and offers visitors a variety of opportunities for outdoor recreation.

The forest is broken into three main Ranger Districts:

  • Pisgah Ranger District – on either side of the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Asheville
  • The Appalachian Ranger District – area northwest of Asheville along the North Carolina/Tennessee state line and the area northeast of Asheville that includes Mount Mitchell. 
  • The Grandfather Ranger District – the land farther north and east, such as Linville Gorge.

Suggested activities & things to see:

  • Blue Ridge Parkway travels through large parts of Pisgah National Forest to the north and south of Asheville.
  • Mount Pisgah – Asheville’s most iconic peak.
  • Upper Whitewater Falls – at 411 feet, it’s the tallest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains, and highly accessible. 
  • Rainbow Falls – a beautiful 150-ft ribbon of whitewater consider to be the most striking in western North Carolina. 
  • Looking Glass Falls – 75 foot waterfall and one of the most photographed falls in the South.
  • Looking Glass Rock – hike to the top for amazing 360-degree views. 
  • Black Balsam Hike on Art Loeb Trail
  • Sliding Rock Natural Water Slide – feel the rush of sliding down a 60-foot all-natural water slide.
  • Catawba Falls – a series of cascades that are 100 feet tall. 
  • Hike Craggy Gardens – a local’s favorite spot.
  • Picnics – there are numerous picnic areas throughout.. 
  • Mountain biking – Ingles Field Gap trail, Wolf Branch trail, Turkey Pen Gap trail, Farlow Gap trail, Squirrel Gap trail, and Pilot Mountain trail.

Hot Springs

Hot Springs, North Carolina
Photo credit: HotSprings.org

Hot Springs was recently voted the Best Small Mountain Town from Georgia to West Virginia by readers of Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine and has been a resort destination for almost 200 years.

Nestled in the French Broad River Valley and surrounded by 3,500-foot tall mountains which are part of the Pisgah National Forest, it’s renowned for its healing hot mineral springs, scenic mountain setting, and abundance of natural resources. 

Located just 40-minutes north of Asheville at the junction of the Appalachian Trail and the French Broad River, Hot Springs is the only North Carolina town where the Appalachian Trail runs directly down the main street.

So if you’re looking to get up close and personal with the Appalachian Mountains, consider Hot Springs.

Suggested activities:

Chimney Rock State Park

chimney rock state park hike nc

One of the most popular places to go in North Carolina mountains is Chimney Rock State Park

Chimney Rock is a 315-foot high large granite outcropping located on a summit above the village of Chimney Rock and inside of Chimney Rock State Park.

One of the highlights is climbing the 499 steps to the top of Chimney Rock for magnificent 75 mile views of the North Carolina mountains and Lake Lure and Hickory Nut Gorge – one of our favorite views in NC.

Movie buffs take note, Chimney Rock was made famous by the movie, Last of the Mohicans starring Daniel Day Lewis. The epic fight scene from the film was here at Hickory Nut Falls. 

Drive time from Asheville is just 40-minutes making it one of our top things to do near Asheville. 

Suggested activities:

  • Outcroppings Trail – climb to the top of Chimney Rock whilst visiting the Grotto, Opera Box, Subway and Pulpit Rock.
  • Hickory Nut Falls trail
  • Animal Discovery Den
  • Exclamation Point Trail
  • Eat, drink & shop in Chimney Rock Village

Lake Lure

Lake Lure, North Carolina
We love paddle boarding on Lake Lure

Lake Lure is famous for its starring role in the 1987 classic film “Dirty Dancing” – you can book the exact same rooms where Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey slept at the 1927 Lake Lure Inn & Spa. 

To get here it’s just 45-minutes from Asheville and just under 4 hours from Raleigh, and only five minutes drive to Chimney Rock State Park.

This lake is one of our favorite places to visit in North Carolina, if not the USA, and one of our favorite things to do in North Carolina is go paddle boarding here.

The lake is surrounded by lush mountain tops and sheer granite cliffs with gorgeous views of the mountains in North Carolina.

Four distinct seasons offer an abundance of opportunities to create a unique experience on each visit. 

Suggested activities:

Smoky Mountains and Cherokee

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Cades Cove Loop Road, Smoky Mountains National Park
Cades Cove Loop Road, Smoky Mountains NP

Speaking of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park which straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, it’s the most popular of things to do in NC mountains.

Yep, did you know it’s the most visited of the USA National Parks

Yep, it gets more annual visitors than the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone combined. One reason is its an incredible park, the other is that it’s within a day’s drive of two thirds of the US population. 

But, the North Carolina side is typically a bit quieter and a more relaxed experience, and away from the heavily condensed areas of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in Tennessee

So when you visit North Carolina, don’t miss Smoky Mountains NP.

Famous for its magical smoky haze, the park contains some of the highest peaks in eastern North America, and is internationally recognized for its mountains, waterfalls, biodiversity, spruce-fir forests and wildflowers.

Suggested activities:

  • Climb Clingmans Dome
  • Cades Cove Loop Road (drive and cycle).
  • Hike to Charlies Bunion.
  • Do a guided horseback ride
  • Hike the trails to view Grotto, Laurel, Abrams, and Rainbow waterfalls.
  • Spot black bears – open areas like Cataloochee and Cades Cove offer the best opportunities.
  • Drive the Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail.
  • Sunset at Morton Overlook. 
  • Kayak or paddle board on Fontana Lake.
  • Visit in the Fall for incredible leaf peeping.

Cherokee

Mingo Falls, Cherokee, NC
Mingo Falls, Cherokee

Cherokee is a town on the reservation home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, in the very mountainous area of western North Carolina about 1 hours drive west of Asheville. 

This area has been part of the homeland of the Cherokee people for centuries, and today’s members are direct descendants of those who avoided the Cherokees’ forced removal to Oklahoma in the 1830’s the “Trail of Tears.” 

Best-known for the North Carolina half of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cherokee is also the southern gateway to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

On offer is cultural experiences, outdoor activities, and the rich history of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Suggested activities:

Bryson City

Bryson City, NC
Photo credit: Bryson City / Swain County NC Chamber of Commerce

One hour west of Asheville and three hours north of Atlanta brings you to Bryson City, another laid-back mountain town in Western NC and gateway a to Smoky Mountains NP.

Nestled in the Western North Carolina mountains region surrounded by streams, waterfalls, and lakes, its location offers a wide range of outdoor activities from hiking, biking, horse riding, swimming, tubing, rafting, fishing and camping.

For nature lovers, it could be your perfect small town getaway, plus there’s unique shops, galleries, and restaurants.

Suggested activities:

  • Pop into the Bryson City Visitors Center
  • Explore downtown – local bookstores, arts and crafts galleries, two breweries and a variety of restaurants.
  • The Road to Nowhere – scenic mountain highway that takes you 6 miles into Smoky Mountains NP and ends at the mouth of a tunnel.
  • Great Smoky Mountains Railroad – operates scenic rail excursions through tunnels, across rivers and lakes, mountain valleys and into a deep river gorge. 
  • Go Tubing – there’s two great tubing runs near Bryson City: Deep Creek and the Oconaluftee River.
  • White Water Rafting – the Nantahala River (great for beginners) and Tuckasegee River are popular for rafting.
  • Deep Creek’s trio of waterfalls – Juney Whank, Tom Branch and Indian Creek Falls.
  • Drive the Franklin/Highlands waterfall loop. 
  • Ziplining – enjoy the scenic beauty of Western North Carolina from above. 
  • Trout or Fly fishing – Swain County hosts one of the most diverse fishing habitats in the world, including native brook trout and bass.
  • Explore Great Smoky Mountains NP – you are 25 minutes from the Oconaluftee Visitor 

High Country

Mount Mitchell

Top of Mount Mitchell before sunset

At 6,684 feet in elevation, the summit of Mount Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Mississippi. 

Located in Mount Mitchell State Park in the Black Mountain range of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Western North Carolina, about 19 miles northeast of Asheville.

You can drive most of the way to the top, then there is a 1/4-mile paved trail to the observation deck at the summit, and on a clear day you are rewarded with incredible 360 degree, 85 mile views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

There are several hikes near the summit plus challenging treks leading to adjacent wilderness areas.

A museum offers insight into the mountain’s natural, cultural and historical faces.

Linville Falls & Linville Gorge

Linville Falls, North Carolina mountains

Linville Falls are among the largest falls in the region and the most popular waterfall in the Blue Ridge Mountains because of its easy access from the Blue Ridge Parkway – near milepost 316.4 and just under 2 hours from Asheville.

Located within the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, this is a three-tiered waterfall plunging 90 ft. into the 12-mile long Linville Gorge, known by the Cherokee as “the river of many cliffs,”

There are two main hiking trails that lead to four overlooks of Linville Falls, and both begin at the Linville Falls Visitor Center, 1.5 miles from the Parkway, past the Linville Falls Campground.

Suggested activities:

  • The Falls Trail  – 1.6 miles round trip and easy. 
  • The Plunge Basin Trail – 1 mile round trip and moderate. 
  • The Gorge Trail – 1.4 miles round trip and strenuous. 

Boone

Boone, North Carolina mountains
Boone at twilight.

Boone is one of the most popular places to go in North Carolina in the mountains, and is known as the “Heart of the High Country.” 

The town is named after explorer Daniel Boone, who lived nearby during the mid-1700’s before blazing the famous trail into Kentucky.

It’s one of the best small towns in North Carolina, and the great thing is it’s an all-four-seasons destination and is just 2 hours drive from Charlotte and Asheville, and 3 hours from Raleigh.

The area is popular for outdoor activities, acclaimed resorts and spas, dining, shopping and a vibrant art, history and cultural scene. 

For the adventurous, on offer are opportunities for hiking and biking, canoeing, kayaking, rafting, tubing zip-lining, fishing, and skiing – The Boone area boasts the most concentrated cluster of ski slopes in the entire region.

This place is definitely on our return list for an NC mountains vacation.

Suggested activities:

  • Mast General Store – opened in 1883 and on The National Register of Historic Places and noted as one of the best remaining examples of an old country general store. 
  • Boone’s great paved greenway trail follows the pastoral South Fork of the New River. 
  • Rocky Mountain Knob Bike Park – five trails and four skills areas, plus three shelters, an adventure playground, and picnic areas.
  • Sip on a craft brew at Appalachian Mountain Brewery, Boonshine Brewing, or Lost Province Brewing Company. 
  • Hike the Cascades Trail – 5 miles east of Boone, 0.8 mile loop to a waterfall, perfect for all levels.
  • Foggy Mountain Gem Mine – pan for gems just like miners from the old days.
  • Grandfather Mountain (see section below)
  • Blowing Rock (see section below)
  • Tweetsie Railroad (see Blowing Rock section)
  • Hickory Ridge Living History Museum – authentic, historical cabins with staff interpreters in period clothing providing a glimpse into the past. 
  • Horn in the West – drama that brings to life the story of Daniel Boone and pioneer days.
  • Browse art galleries, antique stores, and specialty shops in downtown.

Banner Elk

Photo credit: BannerElk.com

Banner Elk is one of the popular mountain getaways in North Carolina near Boone. It’s tourism motto is Escape. Unwind. 

This is the only town in North Carolina within five miles of two ski resorts, the Beech Mountain and Sugar Mountain ski areas, and it’s a place that blends small town relaxation with facilities of a larger city.

Banner Elk is also referred to as the “Culinary Hot Spot of the High Country” for its culinary scene.

Famous Western North Carolina attractions like Grandfather Mountain, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Tweetsie Railroad and The Blowing Rock are also a short drive away.

Suggested activities:

Grandfather Mountain

Mile High Swinging Bridge, GrandFather Mountain, NC
Mile High Swinging Bridge

Just a 15-minute drive from Banner Elk brings you to the entrance of one of the most popular North Carolina attractions, Grandfather Mountain.

Grandfather Mountain is home to the famous “Mile High Swinging Bridge,” America’s highest suspension footbridge. It’s a 228-foot suspension bridge that spans an 80-foot chasm at more than one mile in elevation at an altitude of 5,280 feet.

There’s also a Nature Museum, Wildlife Habitat featuring bears, cougars, otters and more.

Grandfather Mountain has 11 trails varying in difficulty from a gentle walk in the woods to a rigorous trek across rugged peaks. 

And in the backcountry of Grandfather Mountain State Park, on offer are more challenging hikes through forests usually found in Canadian climates.

Blowing Rock

The Blowing Rock, North Carolina
Photocredit: theblowingrock.com

Blowing Rock is located near the midway point of the 469 mile Blue Ridge Parkway and carries the title: “Crown of the Blue Ridge”.

Here you’ll find North Carolina’s oldest attraction, The Blowing Rock, a geological formation has been attracting visitors since 1933 and offers sweeping views of peaks, forests and the Johns River Gorge. 

In addition, the Blowing Rock area is home to many museums, wineries, farms, performing arts venues, popular festivals, and a place where you can indulge in a spa treatment and dine at award-winning restaurants.

Suggested activities:

Sugar Mountain

Sugar Mountain, NC
Photo credit: skisugar.com

Love skiing and winter activities?

Sugar Mountain is mostly known for the Sugar Mountain Resort, North Carolina’s largest ski area offering 21 trails and nine lifts.

But Sugar Mountain is also a village in the NC mountains and a place to visit in all four seasons for activities such as hiking, mountain biking, golfing, tennis and nearby whitewater rafting and kayaking. 

Suggested activities:

Stone Mountain State Park

Stone Mountain State Park, North Carolina

Stone Mountain State Park’s magnificent 600-foot granite dome is the focal point of this beautiful state park near the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

This park is located about 1 hours drive east of Boone and about 2.5 hours north east of Asheville.

There are more than 18 miles of trails for hiking and horseback riding, plus climbing, fishing, picnicking, spectacular waterfalls and camping.

Suggested activities:

  • Stone Mountain Loop Trail – 4.6 miles that leads to many of the park’s most interesting features. Rated strenuous.
  • Rock climbing on the towering 600-foot granite face (permit required).
  • Hutchinson Homestead – a restored mid-19th century mountain farm. Open weekends, May through October. 
  • Fishing – there’s 20 miles of park streams that are designated trout waters.
  • Camping – tent, trailer and RV camping year-round. Reservations encouraged. 

I hope this post gave you inspiration and provided useful information and tips to plan your future North Carolina vacations to the mountains.

There are so many cool towns in North Carolina, and as mentioned, stay tuned for future content on central and eastern Carolina. 

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