Western North Carolina’s mountain country is a favorite summer and fall destination for South Floridians. They like it because it’s not flat, its elevation keeps temperatures cooler than at home, and there are things to do there they’ll never experience in their home state.
Mountain vistas here are breathtaking, particularly in autumn. Mountain crafts artists create wonderful, unique goods you won’t find anywhere else. A multitude of outdoor adventures await, and a mountain-induced laid-back attitude is pervasive.
Here are 10 things to see and do that my family and I have enjoyed over many visits to western North Carolina.
• Waterfalls: There are dozens of waterfalls in the region, big or small, roaring or trickling. Three we enjoyed most:
At Dry Falls, easily accessible just off U.S. Highway 64 between Highlands and Franklin, you can actually walk behind the falls.
Looking Glass Falls, located off U.S. 276 north of Brevard, is one of the most accessible in the state, with a good view just feet from your car. If you’re not put off by cold water, you can swim in the pool the 60-foot cascade falls into.
Upper Whitewater Falls, the highest waterfall east of the Rockies at 411 feet, lies off U.S. 281 close to the South Carolina border. You can reach it via a 1/4-mile paved walkway. A better view is from the bottom of a 154-step stairway.
• Sliding Rock: Thousands of grownups and children come here to slide down a smooth, slanting 60-foot natural rock outcrop into a pool below. Located off U.S. 276 in the Pisgah National Forest, the site has changing rooms, and a lifeguard is on duty in summer. Be warned: the water is very chilly. Incidentally, there another sliding rock, much smaller, near Cashiers.
• Above the clouds: For a high-up view of mountain country, take a drive on all or part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs 470 miles at high elevations from Cherokee, N.C., into southern Virginia. It’s a tranquil drive often above the clouds and with exit roads leading to many interesting sites. It’s a beautiful drive in summertime, but especially rewarding in autumn, when patterns of colorful fall foliage spread out before you. Peak color usually comes in mid-October.
• A real high: Off the Blue Ridge Parkway about 35 miles north of Asheville is a side road (U.S. 128) that leads to the highest point in the eastern United States, 6,694-foot Mount Mitchell. From the parking lot, it’s a 1/4-mile hike on a paved trail to a stone observtion tower at the summit. Bring a sweater or jacket; the temperature at that elevation is 10 to 30 degrees colder than Asheville.
• Mount Airy: This little town near the Virginia border was the home town of the late Andy Griffith and the model for Mayberry, the town made famous in his long-running sitcom. You’ll find Floyd’s Barber Shop and Snappy Lunch, where you can order Andy’s favorite lunch, a pork chop sandwich. Mount Airy’s visitor center will clue you in on Mayberry and Griffith memorabilia. Mayberry Days, the annual festival that celebrates Griffith and the fictional Mayberry, will be held Sept. 27-30 this year in Mount Airy.
• Gem mining: You can play prospector for a day or longer at a dozen or so gem mines, many of them near Franklin, N.C. For a fee, the mines open to the public will give you a bucket of dirt to sift through, searching for garnets, rubies, sapphies and other gems. Some mines provide you with “seeded” buckets, laced with gems from India; some do not. A few will allow actual digging. If you latch onto a good gem, there are plenty of rock shops that will cut and polish your find.