The Ultimate Guide to Exploring North Carolina’s Mountains
A stay in one of the five cities that make up the Haywood County, North Carolina region puts the Great Smoky Mountains and Blue Ridge Parkway right at your doorstep.
Driving distance: 6 hours, 30 minutes
STAY HERE: Maggie Valley, Waynesville, Lake Junaluska, Canton and Clyde each have their own unique character, though all are bound together by the sheer beauty of the Smokies. Each of them also offers a handful of affordable, one-of-a-kind cabins and cabins for rent, the perfect way to take a trip to Haywood County. Some are kitsch and eclectic, others are modern and stylish, but all give you the chance to see nature in all its glory, with mountain views and the occasional wildlife sighting. Read the fine print carefully, as some require a four-wheel-drive vehicle to access steep climbs or can be relatively isolated. Consider Keaton Cottage in Maggie’s Valley. It sleeps nine and is on a well maintained paved road; there’s a “kid-friendly” bonus room with a Nintendo NES Mini. We dream of sipping our morning coffee on the terrace, with its charming rocking chairs and magnificent views of the mist nestled in the peaks and valleys. (It’s also near Cataloochee Ski Resort, among other attractions.) Or book the Modern farmhouse cottage, walk to restaurants and shops in downtown Waynesville. This contemporary gem seats six and features a private yard and patio with a grill and cornhole, plus board and card games for indoor fun. Keaton Cottage from $135 per night; Modern Farmhouse Cottage from $119 per night
MORNING: If you haven’t fully stocked your kitchen yet, visit one of the local farmers’ markets, such as Haywood History in Wayneville. It reopens in the spring and has everything you need for a shack feast – local produce, meats, fish, eggs, preserves and artisan products to offer. U-pick is also popular in the region: Ten acre garden in Canton, which sells at Haywood’s and offers asparagus and green onions in April, strawberries and kale in May, and wood-fired pizza on Saturday afternoons. Pack a picnic from your discoveries or pick up BLTs at a family grocery store and cafe Teague’s to Maggie Valley, then head to Cataloochee Valley for the rest of the day. The preserved area is steeped in history, with schools, churches, barns and farmhouses from the late 1800s and early 1900s still standing in various states of preservation. Discover them on foot via various hikes, such as the 8-mile Little Cataloochee Church Trail. (It’s best for a day trip; during the approximately five-hour hike, you’ll visit the interior of the church and see the wildflowers in bloom – rhododendrons and tooth-cut leaves – in April .) And if you prefer to see it all on horseback, the Cataloochee Guest Rancha historic lodge whose accommodations are currently being renovated, offers day and half-day outings by reservation only.
AFTERNOON: Enjoy your picnic beside a cool stream and take in the natural scenery around you: there are plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife, but keep your distance to preserve their peace and yours. You might encounter white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, birds, black bears (about 1,500 live in the Smokies, according to the National Park Service), and most importantly, elk. They were reintroduced in 2001 after disappearing in the late 1700s due to overhunting and are best spotted at dawn or dusk.
EVENING: Keep it casual and let someone else do the cooking: Boojum Brewing Co. at Waynesville has racked up various accolades, features a heated patio, 16 beers on tap (and wine on sale), and a hearty food menu. There’s no kids’ menu, but options like fish and chips make it easy to satisfy picky eaters.
MORNING: After sipping coffee and savoring seasonal scones at the Third bay filling stationhead north from Waynesville on the Blue Ridge Parkway. (Again, make sure you’ve packed a picnic and some snacks to munch on along the way.) While the route is 469 miles, the 46-mile stretch through Haywood County is particularly scenic. . You can easily spend the whole day getting in and out of the car to take photos at scenic viewpoints, hike to waterfalls, and admire the awe-inspiring surroundings. (And if you don’t want to drive, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is an alternative tour, just as scenic and perhaps more relaxing for the driver.) Among the many points of interest are Devil’s Courthouse: from the top (a 20-minute hike) you can see South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. A look at its rock formation might give you an idea of its name, which could also come from Cherokee legend. And, at over 6,000 feet, the Richland Balsam Overlook is the highest peak on the boardwalk; the 1.5 mile loop trail takes you through a spruce and fir forest where blackberries and elderberries grow in places where the trees have been damaged by the wind.
AFTERNOON: the Sunburst swimming hole near Highway 215 in Canton (below Cold Mountain) is a refreshing late afternoon activity, and visiting later in the day will help you avoid the crowds. There are two swimming areas; the water comes from the surrounding mountains, so it is cold and fresh.
EVENING: Have a barbecue on your terrace, watch the sunset and play board games before bed. Of course, it could fly if the youngsters are out of breath. But if they are not, the Smoky Mountain Sk8way and Fun Zone in Waynesville will ensure you a good night’s sleep – a night here could include retro indoor roller skating and an 18-hole mini putt.
MORNING: Do some souvenir shopping before leaving the area. Walk-in downtown Waynesville offers handmade soaps and candles from Green Orchid Soap Co. and a second-hand library of 50,000 volumes as a Wall Street Books. Or just go nearby Winchester Creek Farm to shop for Granny’s House alpaca fiber products (throws and mitts), bath salts and potpourri while kids interact with Sweethot, a dark brown alpaca; Raven, a mini-horse; and other small animals on the 20 acre property. A 45-minute tour offers insight into how the farm works and its four-legged friends.
AFTERNOON: Hit a few vineyards on the way back to Virginia. Depending on your itinerary, you might be able to squeeze in a visit to the Biltmore in Asheville (reservations required), which doubles as a tour of the property and a free tasting at its cellar.
This story originally appeared in our March issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.