Written by Jonathan Ammons, Jon Elliston, Tim W. Jackson, Randy Johnson & Melissa Reardon
Sometimes, smaller is better. That’s certainly the case with those comparatively little towns that offer an unexpectedly large amount of amenities, entertainment, and recreation for locals and visitors alike. Just what is it that makes a small town great? We found out by exploring 13 in Western North Carolina that share some characteristics—a population under 5,000, a pedestrian-friendly downtown, ample food and nightlife options—but possess unique attributes as well.
M.A. Pace General Store. Photograph by Caitlin Ragan
A former railroad outpost that straddles Polk and Henderson counties, Saluda features a quaint and historic downtown strip. On Main Street, you’ll find the M.A. Pace General Store, an old-time grocery that’s been offering jars of locally pickled and preserved goodies and much more since 1899. A couple blocks away is the equally venerable Thompson’s Grocery, home to Ward’s Grill, which has scratch-made flapjacks, biscuits and gravy, and sage sausage. The Saluda Grade Cafe serves up a wide variety of bistro classics bent toward Southern fare, and the Purple Onion is a consummate host of live music while offering one of the region’s more diverse menus.
Downtown is also home to antique shops and Heartwood Gallery, which features a carefully curated spread of locally made creations. Every July, the town is ground zero for a most-unusual festival: Coon Dog Day, which began as a fund-raiser for the local Coon Club and now draws nearly 10,000 people for live music, crafts, a parade, 5K race, and even a barking contest.
Around Saluda, outdoor activities abound, including Pearson Falls, a 90-foot spectacle that’s easily accessed with a short and scenic hike. For something a little more daring, Green River Adventures offers everything from white-water rafting and kayaking to fly fishing and swimming hole tours, all along the beautiful Green River. Thrill seekers might also hitch a ride on The Gorge Zip Line, where riders drop a total of 1,100 vertical feet through 125 acres of old-growth forests. Learn more at www.saluda.com.
Photograph by Eric Haggart
For weary Appalachian Trail hikers, Franklin, which sits 11 miles off the trail, serves as a popular refueling station. That’s one reason why places like the Lazy Hiker Brewing Company and Outdoor 76 gear shop have found a foothold here. Like the brewery, the outfitter even helps foster the growing nightlife in downtown through its Rock House Lodge bar, which takes up the back portion of the store and offers craft beer on tap, movie nights, dart tournaments, and live entertainment. Adding to that buzz, Franklin has several noteworthy restaurants, including Caffé REL (an unassuming option due to its location adjacent the Hot Spot gas station) and The Bowery, with chic décor and modern cuisine that are more akin to something found in New York City’s rags-to-riches Bowery District than a small mountain town. A number of shops (like adorable Reign by RB clothing and gift boutique), a public park, and a greenway attract visitors and residents alike, though the historical and cultural attractions are truly what set this town apart.
For starters, a well-preserved Indian mound sits smack downtown. The Nikwasi Mound, a remnant of a once-thriving Cherokee village, could nearly be mistaken for a hill were it not for the surrounding fence and historical marker. The Smoky Mountain Center for Performing Arts presents first-rate plays and concerts. What’s more, Franklin has three distinct museums within walking distance. History buffs will enjoy browsing the well-appointed Macon County Historical Society, which displays relics of the county’s past dating back to the early Native Americans. The Franklin Gem & Mineral Museum, housed in the old 1850s jail, holds one of the largest collections of gems, minerals, fossils, and artifacts in the Southeast. And the Scottish Tartans Museum is the only museum outside of Scotland devoted to Scottish Highlands dress, history, and culture, a testament to the influx of Scots-Irish immigrants that settled here in the mid 1700s. Learn more at www.discoverfranklinnc.com.
Burnsville Town Square. Photograph Courtesy of the Burnsville Chamber of Commerce
Nearby Penland School of Crafts has certainly played a role in establishing the Burnsville area as a haven for high-caliber artisans. Many of their works can be found at The Design Gallery or at the Toe River Arts Council in downtown. Though if you want to explore more in depth, embark on TRAC’s biannual Studio Tour, held every June and December. And the Mt. Mitchell Craft Fair, which takes over Burnsville’s quaint town square and celebrates its 60th anniversary in June, offers even more opportunity to shop for local art and crafts.
Culturally speaking, the Parkway Playhouse presents top-notch theater productions, and the Appalachian Quilt Trails offer routes to roam the countryside and learn about historic and notable sights marked by hand-painted quilt squares. Writers can partake in the offerings as well at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival, held in September. And outdoor enthusiasts will love the town’s close proximity to Mt. Mitchell, accessible via the Mt. Mitchell Scenic Byway, which meanders through the lovely Toe River Valley.
There is also plenty on offer in downtown, with dozens of businesses scattered near the charming town square park. Shopping options include home accouterments at A Touch of Cass and 5,000 square feet of art and antiques at Menagerie Mercantile, while the list of restaurants ranges from pancake breakfasts and pulled-pork lunches at Pig & Grits to pub fare and pints at the local watering hole, Snap Dragon. Learn more at www.exploreburnsville.com.
Photograph by Sam Dean
Flanked by Beech and Sugar mountains, home to the state’s two biggest snow resorts, Banner Elk is the region’s quintessential ski town and much more. The biggest event to jam the tiny downtown is October’s Woolly Worm Festival, where worm races determine which woolly caterpillar’s stripes will predict the coming winter weather. Hordes of visitors and like-minded locals attend, among them students from Lees-McRae College. The resurgent LMC, where a summer theater series highlights tourist season, recently welcomed its biggest-ever freshman class. And the stone structures on campus are historic landmarks that are increasingly appreciated on walking tours offered through the Civil War-era Banner House Museum.
Winter is an atmospheric time to indulge an après-ski piqued appetite at restaurants and pubs, with specialties like steak, sushi, Italian, Cajun, and tapas. Other pluses include a walkable assortment of shops (including the South’s first snowboard store) and enticing inns and B&Bs. Part of the appeal is “the pace” of the place, says Beverly Lait, owner of the popular Banner Elk Inn. “The town motto is ‘Just BE,’ and that sums up our small-town life.” It’s also one of the state’s northernmost climates. Consequently, “Beech Mountain is too cool for a lot of people,” Lait notes, “and Boone can be a little too warm. But Banner Elk, it’s just about perfect.” Learn more at www.bannerelk.org.
Photograph by Jackson County Tourism Development Authority
A gem of a Jackson County town, small but bustling Sylva is home to dozens of independent shops, eateries, and places to raise a glass. And per capita, it’s probably the most bookish place in WNC. The county library, situated in the iconic former courthouse on a hill overlooking Main Street, is one of the finest in the region. There are also three downtown bookstores: the well-stocked Friends of the Library Used Bookstore, Harry Alter Books (home to vintage and rare volumes), and the standout City Lights Bookstore, which doubles as a classy yet casual café.
For the less literary-minded, Sylva offers fun eats at Mad Batter Food and Film, which shows free movies while you dine, and finer fare at the lauded Lulu’s on Main, to name just two of the town’s popular restaurants. And Sylva boasts not one but two microbreweries: Innovation Brewing and Heinzelmännchen Brewery. Prefer live music? Visit Bridge Park Pavilion, the town’s newest public venue, for the free down-home Concerts on the Creek staged every Friday night in the summer. Learn more at www.mainstreetsylva.org
Photograph Courtesy of Hot Springs Tourism Association
This tiny town has a rich history, but today it’s primarily known as an outdoors paradise and, as its name implies, for its natural hot springs. Located at the confluence of the French Broad River and Spring Creek in Madison County, Hot Springs is an official Appalachian Trail community. The trail runs right down Bridge Street, giving visitors a chance to say they “walked the A.T.” Bluff Mountain Outfitters has long been a key outpost for trail hikers. In addition to gear, the shop offers shipping and shuttle services along with a grocery section packed with trail food. Just a few steps away is Iron Horse Station, a combination inn, restaurant, tavern, and shops. It’s a must-stop on any visit to Hot Springs.
River sports have become a substantial industry for the town, with several rafting companies serving the area. Hot Springs is also well stocked with cabins, vacation rentals, and bed-and-breakfast accommodations. To truly soak up the town, try the 100-acre Hot Springs Resort & Spa. Initially established in 1778, the site is known especially for its Jacuzzi-style tubs filled with hot mineral water and also offers overnight accommodations and spa services.
The town is replete with annual festivals—Hot Springs Community Trailfest in April, French Broad River Festival in May, Bluff Mountain Music Festival in June, Wild Goose Festival (a kind of social justice celebration) in July, and the French Broad Brew Fest in September—but it’s fair to say that Hot Springs is festive any day of the year. Learn more at www.hotspringsnc.org.
—Tim W. Jackson
Photograph by Todd Bush
Blowing Rock’s cool breezes and guest rooms started drawing visitors in the 1880s, and it’s still among the East’s premier places to savor summer. One of the earliest attractions was The Blowing Rock, with awesome vistas of Grandfather Mountain. Today, this postcard-perfect village is full of quaint lanes, flower bedecked specialty shops, inns, and eateries, all centered around a town park that’s an idyllic spot to lick ice cream cones or browse the offerings at the monthly summer Art in the Park events.
The town is a vibrant mix of tourists and locals, with many of the latter having roots multi-generations deep. Their history and more is as close as a visit to the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum. And of course, Blowing Rock and its environs are a veritable wonderland of outdoor activities. A top Blue Ridge Parkway site, Moses Cone Park, has miles of white pine-shaded trails for walking, cross-country skiing, and horseback riding. Just off Main Street, the Glen Burney Trail dips into a waterfall-laced wilderness, and a paved path circles Cannon Lake. You can take a rhododendron-sheltered path to The Village Café and have a gourmet brunch or sip Bloody Marys outside with locals beneath towering trees. It’s little wonder authors Jan Karon and Tom Robbins hail from here—a tiny but inspiring town that calls itself “The Crown of the Blue Ridge.”
Learn more at www.blowingrock.com.
Photograph by Caitlin Ragan
If ever there was a town with a stature that’s much larger than its size, it’s Tryon, which has a prestigious reputation as both a vibrant arts enclave and North Carolina’s horse country.
Among the many studios and galleries is the recently expanded Tryon Fine Arts Center, which hosts art exhibitions as well as concerts, community theater presentations, TEDx talks, classic films, and the Tryon Little Theater for children.
The regional steeplechase horse race dates back to 1929, and the freshly opened Tryon International Equestrian Center is catapulting the area’s equine legacy to a new level, hosting world champions in a state-of-the-art facility that also boasts restaurants and lodging. A luxury hotel and spa is slated to open in 2017.
In the historic downtown, La Bouteille wine and beer shop provides a wide variety of craft libations and features weekly tastings. Lavender Bistro serves up classic global cuisine like duck Provençal, Cacciatore crespelle, and paella. Around the corner, the Village Bookstore has been offering a wide range of reads for nearly 20 years.
Venturing a bit out of town, you’ll find the region’s wine country. Visit Parker-Binns Vineyard on a day when the delightful retired restaurateurs-turned-vineyarders have their wood-fired pizza oven sparked up to bake some Neapolitan-style pies. Learn more at www.exploretryon.com.
Murphy Riverwalk and Canoe Trail.
Tucked in the far west corner of the state, Murphy can be summed up in four simple words: mountains, lakes, rivers, and streams. Since the area is rich in these natural resources, the town has much to offer as a home base for wild wanderings. Appalachian Outfitters is an anchor for outdoorsmen of every ilk, especially fishermen. And anyone can enjoy a stroll along the Murphy Riverwalk and Canoe Trail, a two-mile path that follows the Valley and Hiwassee rivers that surround the town.
Downtown is comprised of just a few blocks, offering ample opportunities to rub shoulders with friendly locals. The Daily Grind & Wine might as well be the Murphy community and welcome center. Locals and visitors arrive early for coffee, stay for lunch, and return later for beer, wine, and live music most nights. The Parson’s Pub boasts some 80 beers on tap. Craft brew enthusiasts can earn rewards by joining the Beervangilists, a beer club that encourages exploration. Doyle’s Cedar Hill is among a smattering of restaurants in town, and on warmer evenings, the adjoining Tiki Bar is the place to be to mix, mingle, and enjoy live music on the weekends. And with John C. Campbell Folk School a quick jaunt down the road, the area is rife with creative types. Stick around for a class and you might feel so inclined to become one yourself. Learn more at www.visitcherokeecountync.com.
Photograph by Christopher Shane
As West Jefferson tips over the 100-year mark in 2016, this High Country town has much to show for its accomplishments. In addition to what is perhaps its most popular attraction, the Ashe County Cheese factory and store—where you can watch the process and purchase cheeses, jams, and preserves—West Jefferson holds a surprising number of arts offerings. The entire downtown is essentially considered the arts district, containing public artworks and 18 craft shops and galleries, including Originals Only, The Ashe Arts Council, and The Artists’ Theatre, which also sells antiques. Fifteen murals reflect the town’s past and character, and nearly 20 colorfully painted fire hydrants and concrete pedestals (remnants of old street lights) further brighten the well-groomed sidewalks. The Florence Thomas Art School is here, offering workshops in a variety of artistic mediums to all ages. And Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church is one of Ashe County’s two renowned churches open to visitors featuring fresco paintings by internationally noted Asheville artist Ben Long. The creative spirit can also be found at Bohemia, a gallery, coffee shop, and community gathering hot spot.
For those who enjoy the outdoors, Mount Jefferson State Natural Area sits to the west and offers hiking trails—including a kid-friendly trail—along with picnic areas and nice views over the town. The Bowie-Seagraves Municipal Park keeps families active with tennis and basketball courts, a playground, baseball field, and walking trail. And with outdoors retailer Mountain Outfitters in town, West Jefferson makes a great base from which to explore the New River. Learn more at www.visitwestjefferson.org.
Photograph by Rob Mangum
A look at real estate prices in Weaverville indicates that this once sleepy little town is quickly becoming a hot commodity. And why wouldn’t it? Its quaint, walkable downtown is bursting with activity and only 10 minutes from Asheville.
Weaverville’s Main Street is the epitome of small-town charm. Its restaurants offer just enough variety to keep the locals happy and attract culinary visitors. Some of the area’s best pies are made at Blue Mountain Pizza, and other nearby standouts include Creperie Café, Glass Onion, Main Street Grill, Soba Sushi & Noodles, and Twisted Laurel. Norbury Books & Café, just across from the Weaverville Public Library, offers baked goods and an assortment of teas. All Good Coffee serves as the town’s coffee shop, while next door is Maggie B’s, a wine and specialty foods shop that offers wine tastings every Friday night. And don’t miss Well-Bred Bakery, which was recently recognized by Travel + Leisure as one of “15 Amazing Small Town Bakeries.”
The town also offers outdoor amenities. Lake Louise Park, with its walking trail, playgrounds, and picnic facilities, is great for fair weather days, and Main Street Nature Park is a lovely wooded hideaway in the middle of town.
Art enthusiasts should visit Miya Gallery and Mangum Pottery and catch the annual Art in Autumn festival as well as the biannual Weaverville Art Safari. Learn more at www.visitweaverville.com.
—Tim W. Jackson
Photograph courtesy of the Bryson City/Swain County Chamber of Commerce
Bryson City feels like a place in a pleasant state of perpetual motion. The town is the hub of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which offers a range of regular runs on the rails, along with the stellar Smoky Mountain Trains Museum. It’s also a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and home to the nearby Nantahala Outdoor Center, a world-renowned base for white-water rafting, kayaking, and mountain biking.
And then there’s the eminently walkable downtown, which is replete with options for day and nighttime fun on foot. In a couple hours of strolling, you can take in the Swain County Heritage Museum (a treasure trove of mountain history), the town’s Island Park (a shaded retreat tucked, like Bryson City itself, on the shores of the Tuckasegee River), and dozens of shops, bakeries, cafés, and art galleries. After dark, don’t miss the string of restaurants and bars along Depot Street, from Nantahala Brewing’s tap room, featuring local beer and live music, to the swank cocktail bar Derailed, and more.
If all that moving makes you hungry, Bryson City’s many eateries are ready to satisfy. For on-the-go fare, the Filling Station Deli & Sub Shop makes sandwiches that would cause even a big city resident’s stomach to growl. For finer dining, Cork & Bean Bistro is among the ready options, and the owners recently opened The Everett Hotel in the same former bank building that houses the restaurant, featuring boutique-style lodging and a primo rooftop deck on which to wind down. Learn more at www.greatsmokies.com.
Photograph Courtesy of the Highlander
Few towns can claim that their primary access is via an official scenic route, yet for Highlands, the winding drive through the Cullasaja River Gorge along Mountain Waters Scenic Byway is only part of the allure. While maintaining a year-round population of a lucky few, this isolated, high-elevation outpost draws an elite crowd of vacationers and second-homeowners from places like Charleston, Atlanta, and Knoxville. The mix of great shopping, impeccable restaurants (many of which boast Wine Spectator awards of excellence), and cultural and outdoor offerings keeps locals and visitors satiated year round.
If you’re a visitor to this adorable hamlet, an ideal day might include a morning taking in the views of downtown from Sunset Rock and an afternoon trolling the dozens of boutiques along Main Street. Or it might include a luxurious day of pampering at the award-winning spa at Old Edwards Inn. The evening could be capped with fine dining at a posh restaurant like Paoletti’s or On The Verandah. For those already in-the-know, taking a painting class at The Bascom, touring the Highlands Botanical Garden, or catching a performance at Martin-Lipscomb Performing Arts Center might be in order. The good thing is that for a town that takes up a mere 6.2 square miles, there’s no shortage of choices. Learn more at www.highlandschamber.org.
Book a room at one of these great accommodations: Main Street Inn, a boutique hotel in a beautifully renovated farmhouse (www.mainstreet-inn.com), The Park On Main, a dog-friendly luxury hotel (www.theparkonmain.com), or Old Edwards Inn & Spa, a European-style resort and spa (www.oldedwardsinn.com).