Getting to the highlands of Avery County requires an appreciation for curvy mountain roads that rise and fall, twist and turn their way through rocky crevices, past gnarled trees stunted by cold and wind, over the Eastern Continental Divide, and up, up, up to elevations that suddenly give way to astonishing views.
Indeed, getting to this rugged and isolated area is part of the fun, and it is highly recommended that one take the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway for at least part of the journey, as it is here that one will find the Linn Cove Viaduct, which skirts the edge of the mountains south of Boone. However, look for the imposing profile of Grandfather Mountain to signal that one has truly arrived. This is the highest peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains, rising 5,946 feet above sea level. The mountain is a destination in and of itself.
Our journey through Avery County highlights Grandfather, Sugar and Beech Mountains, as well as the charming town of Banner Elk. These four places, which are found in the northeast of Avery County, provide for a variety of outdoor adventure and family-friendly activities.
Grandfather Mountain is the top attraction for those who are not first drawn to the highland range by winter’s abundant snow sports opportunities. Often traffic near the entry gate to the mountain is heavy, and there is no way to avoid it; however, it is advised that one arrive before 11 a.m. or after 3 p.m. to miss some of the crowds and see the animals when they are most active. Given the sheer amount of activities available on the mountain, the earlier start time is recommended. Pack a picnic and plan to spend a day at Grandfather.
Be sure to wear good hiking shoes and set out on the network of trails. There are gentle walks through meadows and forests and rugged treks that rely on ladders and cables to be completed. Serious adventurers will want to investigate the backcountry hiking that allows one to fully explore the 16 distinct natural communities found in the protected reserve. Birders also will want to bring their binoculars to search for the 200 species and 100 breeding colonies found on the mountain.
Wildlife is in abundance at Grandfather. Seven habitats bring black bears, white-tailed deer, river otters, cougars, bald and golden eagles into easy view. Staff naturalists explain more about these animals and others in programs that are both regularly held and available by request. A naturalist weekend will be held May 14-15 and features guided hikes and special presentations on the birds, wildflowers and nature of Grandfather Mountain. From June to August programs are held daily at 1 p.m. and include nature walks, wildflower walks, history talks, interaction with live owls, talks on forest composition, animal workshops on butterflies, salamanders, and each of the animals that reside in Grandfather’s animal habitats, as well as nature near the Swinging Bridge. The Swinging Bridge is a mile-high suspension, a walk across which is a requisite part of any visit to the mountain.
Alternatives to adventure are available at Grandfather, so don’t let all the hiking and exploring deter more casual mountain lovers. Indoor exhibits are beautiful and educational, informal dining is offered, and time can be spent drinking coffee and reading a book at an outdoor table with a view while the Lewis and Clark types cavort in the woods.
Sugar and Beech Mountains are the two prime locations for snow bunnies. Grover Robbins built Beech Mountain Ski Resort in 1965, and Sugar Mountain Ski Resort opened in 1969. Beech Mountain has grown into an official little town and claims the title of Eastern America’s highest town at 5,506 feet. The average yearly snowfall here often exceeds 100 inches—and when it’s not falling on its own, the slopes are making it. Lodging around the slopes abounds, and serious ski bums may very well want to make one of the adjacent homes or condos their base for their trip, as traffic to and from the slopes moves slowly. At the base of Sugar Mountain can be found a selection of shops. Looking for a cheap set of gloves or forget the ski bib? The Pink Gorilla has options for those who just need something to wear or want to pick up a souvenir. For gear rentals and more serious outdoor wear look to ski resort shops, Ski Country Sports, or, at the top of Beech Mountain, Fred’s Mercantile, which is a major activity hub for residents and visitors. Everything from wine to sweatshirts, movie rentals to home repair items, decorative items to toys is at Fred’s. It’s a great place to pick up a sled to enjoy the town’s free sledding hill for kids age 12 and under. There’s also a deli for grab and go meals or a quick in-store nosh.
Brick Oven Pizzeria and Pasta, which is equipped for the snow-covered masses, also is at the peak of the mountain. Place an order at the counter, grab a booth or table, and play a few games in the arcade or some outdoor minigolf, watch the big screen, or just relax with a beer or mixed drink from the full service bar while you wait for your food. The pizza is fantastic and can be ordered with the usual toppings and choices including bacon, basil, spinach, feta, broccoli and jalapeno peppers; however, it is pricey—the restaurant’s saying is “Good food isn’t cheap… cheap food isn’t good.” Be prepared to shell out some dough to feed any sizeable group.
Down the hill in Beech Mountain the Buckeye Recreation Center offers opportunities for indoor recreation with a kids challenge course, tennis, basketball, volleyball and workout room. The center also targets fitness with biking and hiking trails, soccer and softball fields, and a playground. Several special events and programs are held throughout the year as well.
Within the small town of Banner Elk is where one will find a concentration of restaurants and shops within walking distance of one another. Dunn’s Deli is a lunch spot with a build your own beer tasting. Bayou Smokehouse and Grill offers a casual hangout with games of pool and trivia. The Banner Elk Café has a good vegetable plate and other American fare, but be sure that everyone in the dining party orders off the same menu—the café is joined with another restaurant which allows for a wider selection of menu items; however, the orders will be placed in two separate kitchens. More upscale dining can be found in town at Sorrento’s, an Italian bistro known for its fettuccini alfredo, and Zuzda, which features tapas.
While in Banner Elk be sure to visit the Banner Elk Winery. Vintner Dr. Richard Wolfe pays tribute to the rugged mountain landscape by processing locally grown French-American and American varieties of grapes hearty enough to survive the harsh winters of the High Country. Banner Elk Winery produces Seyval Blanc, Chardonnay, Banner Elk White, Nouveau Francesco, Banner Elk Red, and a Cabernet Sauvignon, which won the Double Gold Medal last fall at the North Carolina State Fair, as well as a blueberry wine using berries from the farm. Enjoy a wine tasting at the bar and learn about how the grapes are grown and fermented.
A little farther up the road is Apple Hill Farm, located in an old-growth orchard. The farm is an excellent place for families. Visit with the alpacas that are sheared for their fiber, which local crafters make into warm and comfy socks. The small store also features other alpaca-based items including yarn, stuffed animals and shawls. There are also llamas, horses, chickens, goats, and miniature donkeys. Tours are held every Saturday at 2 p.m. Guides give information about the specific species and personalities of animals living on the farm and explain fencing, feeding and grazing practices.
N.C.’s 100th celebrates 100
Avery County was the 100th, and last, county formed in the state of North Carolina. This year Avery celebrates its 100th anniversary.
The centennial events will be held during 100 days of summer, kicking off in the town of Newland on July 29. Newland, will host crafters, demonstrations, a vintage car show and mountain dance. On Saturday, July 30 there will be a parade with floats from each community, county mascots, story telling, Civil War re-enactments, music and festivities throughout the day. Sunday closes out the kickoff weekend with a day of worship.
Avery County was named after Colonel Waightstill Avery of Morganton, N.C., who served in the Revolutionary War from 1779 until 1781. He became the state’s first attorney general. The town of Newland, at 3,589 feet in elevation, is the highest county seat in east of the Mississippi. It was originally named “Old Fields of Toe” due to its location in a broad flat valley at the headwaters of the Toe River.
The town of Banner Elk also will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2011. Prior to becoming an official town, Banner Elk and the Elk River Valley was a hunting ground for the Cherokee Indians. The first white settlers of Banner Elk were Delilah Baird and John Holtsclaw, who came to the Big Bottoms of Elk in 1825. Martin L. Banner, originally from Wales, established the first permanent settlement in 1848. Banner moved to the area from Forsyth County, located in the piedmont region of North Carolina. Eventually, the Banner family grew to 55 members, and the area where they lived became known as Banner’s Elk. In 1892, the Banner Elk Hotel was built to accommodate tourists who came to the mountains for respite from summer heat. The first summer homes were built in the area in the early 1900s. The community changed its name to Banner Elk when the North Carolina General Assembly incorporated the town in 1911.
For more information about Avery’s County’s centennial celebrations, visit averycounty.com or call 800.972.2183.
Follow the Yellow Brick Road
On top of Beech Mountain, beyond the ski lifts and snow bunnies, is the Land of Oz—literally. The Yellow Brick Road winds its way from Dorothy’s house through the Haunted Forest, past the lion’s den and witch’s castle. It is a mysterious and magical place that plays a unique role in the mountain’s history.
Grover Robbins, creator of Tweetsie Railroad, conceived the Land of Oz along with Jack Pentes, a designer whose work everyone knows—Pentes developed the playground systems found in Showbiz Pizza, Burger King and McDonald’s during the 1980s. While touring the Land of Oz properties thinking of ideas for another Robbins’ theme park, Pentes said the gnarled and twisted trees at the top of the mountain reminded him of a movie he had once seen. That movie was the “Wizard of Oz.”
And so became the fascinating wonderland of ruby slippers and flying monkeys. The theme park welcomed visitors from 1970 to 1980, but closed due to trying economic times. The years were unkind as vandals and nostalgia seekers destroyed much of the park. In 1990, the land around Oz became the Emerald Mountain development and the park itself laid in wait for a new life.
Looking to again share the Land of Oz with visitors, property owners created the Autumn in Oz celebration, which reopens the park for tours one weekend each year. “Ozzies,” as they are called, flock to the park for a day spent with a Dorothy and her friends. Tickets to the event are required and are best purchased in advance. To do so, call the Beech Mountain Chamber of Commerce at 800.468.5506.
Provisioning since 1882
Journey up the road from Beech Mountain to Valle Crucis to find the original Mast General Store. Henry Taylor built the store in 1882. Taylor ran a much smaller store across the road for many years previous to the building of the new structure. In 1897 half interest in the store was sold to W. W. Mast, a member of a pioneer family that settled in the valley. The store was known as the Taylor and Mast General Store up until 1913 when Mast purchased the remaining share of the business. For the next 60 years, the Mast family owned and managed the store, carrying all of the items community members might need. The store was named to the National Register of Historic Places as one of the finest remaining examples of an old country general store, which in part contributed to community members’ desire to preserve the store after it was closed in 1977. John and Faye Cooper purchased the Mast Store and reopened it in June of 1980. Over the years the store had served many purposes including as an office for Dr. Perry, one of Watauga County’s first doctors, a place for wildcrafters to bring their roots and herbs in exchange for store credit, and as a post office. The post office is still in operation today within the store.
Adventures in retail
Shopping in and around Banner Elk is clustered in two areas—Tynecastle and downtown Banner Elk.
The Tynecastle shops largely are geared toward the home with a focus on décor, design, antiques and entertaining. Clothing stores for women and children also can be found. Stop in Eric’s Cheese and Wine for exactly that plus chocolates, condiments, spreads, and crackers. Area wines and cheeses are available for purchase, though the offerings are much wider. Wine tastings are held on Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. Nearby is Mountain Grounds Coffee Shop, Tea House and Internet Café, which is a cozy place to grab a cup and a pastry and spend some down time. There is a small selection of books from which to choose.
A bit up the road is the Carlton Gallery, which features high end arts and crafts. The gallery is a beautiful place to visit, both inside and out, and has much by way of handcrafted jewelry, pottery, painting, sculpture, and leatherwork. Pieces range from small decorative items to large-scale exhibition pieces. From time to time workshops are held at the gallery.
Just outside the Tynecastle area toward Banner Elk proper is the recently re-opened store The Great Train Robbery. Despite it’s dinner theater sounding name, this large building houses a type of consignment boutique where one will find everything from Kichler lighting to antique hats, furniture to jewelry. Nearby, Clemmons Produce and the Mountain Garden Center have a variety of items for the garden.
In downtown Banner Elk, stores are again targeted at upscale homeowners with the Banner Elk Consignment Shop, Larson’s Fine Furniture and DeWoolfson Down among them. Shoppers also may wish to visit the high-end resort wear and jewelry stores here.
Convenience and comfort in the mountains
Part of any visit to the mountains is a room with a view, and at Archers Mountain Inn visitors get just that. Perched on the side of the mountain adjacent to Beech Mountain Ski Resort, Archers is a rustic retreat for dedicated snow bunnies or families looking for conveniences without splurging for a rental condo or house—though four vacation homes are available through the inn. There are fifteen inn rooms split between the Hawk’s View Lodge and Laurel Lodge. Many rooms feature wood burning fireplaces, efficiency-type kitchens, and large shared front porches with rocking chairs for relaxing. The Hawk’s View rooms are larger than rooms at Laurel Lodge, which is more for couples. Rooms such as the Appalachian offer space to spread out and perhaps host a card game for traveling companions—think ski trip with the guys. The inn’s bar is a perfect spot to hang out whether staying at the inn or not. Bartenders are friendly and the drinks, including signature martinis and libations worth of Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence. There’s a flat screen TV, dart board, pool table—and an amazing view, particularly at sunset. Downstairs the restaurant, Jackalope’s View, is a casual but intimate location for a gourmet meal. Fresh mountain trout comes prepared in a choice of one of three ways: nut encrusted with raspberry amaretto butter, blackened, or with lemon and butter. The duck is perfectly crispy on the outside and with moist and succulent meat complimented by a raspberry coulis. Other selections include pasta, blue cheese encrusted pork chops, filet mignon, a stuffed chicken breast with spinach, smoked sausage and goat cheese, and a daily wild game inspired dish. All entrees are served with chef’s starch and vegetables du jour. The restaurant affords the same view as the inn and bar, and it is where each morning guests enjoy breakfast featuring items such as French toast with fruit, and a three-egg omelet.
Down the mountain, just outside Banner Elk proper and between Sugar and Beech Mountains, is the Best Western Mountain Lodge. The hotel is included on both resorts’ complimentary shuttle service. Rooms are comfortable and well appointed, some with mountain views. At the center of the property is an outdoor heated pool that is open year-round. The hotel also is pet-friendly, and ski packages are available; however, the central location makes the Mountain Lodge a great base from which to explore the area.
Visit the hotel’s restaurant and lounge, Evergreens, which serves breakfast and dinner daily. The casually elegant dining menu features salads, steaks, ribs, trout, and pasta, or just grab a drink and an appetizer and tune in to what’s on the bar’s flat screen TVs.