Mountain Escapes: 5 Off-the-Radar NC Towns to Explore

Get away for the weekend at one these mountain towns — each with its own personality — that offers cool breezes, cooler streams and scenic outlooks.
Words and photographs by Jason Frye

The Devil’s Courthouse view from the Pisgah National Forest, near Dillsboro

With summer settled into peak humidity, many folks love to escape Raleigh in search of cooler climes. Enter the mountain getaway. But where to go? You’ve probably already been to Asheville, Boone and Blowing Rock — all great destinations — but perhaps it’s time to try someplace new.

We’ve pinpointed five lesser-visited towns where cool breezes, cooler streams and mountain views make for exceptional escapes. Each has its own personality — which one’s right for you?

Tom’s Branch Falls

For the Thrills: Bryson City

Tucked tight against Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), Bryson City’s a haven for hikers and adrenaline junkies. Make your way toward the Nantahala Outdoor Center, where whitewater rafting and kayaking on the Nantahala River delivers Class V thrills. If whitewater sounds like too much, try tubing down Deep Creek in GSMNP. Bring your own tube or rent one from nearby outfitters, just don’t forget your parking pass (from $5 daily) in the National Park. Bring your hikers because the Deep Creek Waterfall Loop — an easy, 2.4-mile loop — will lead you past Tom’s Branch, Indian Creek and Juney Whank Falls. 

Eat & Drink: There’s almost always a line at Pasqualino’s Italian Restaurant, so arrive early when you want fresh pasta and pizza. Bryson City Brewing has 18 guest taps and a big yard for kids and pets. And if you’ve been rafting, tuck into something tasty at Nantahala Outdoor Center’s Big Wesser Riverside Pub and Grill, where the Sherpa Veggie Rice Wrap has been a long-time favorite. 

Stay: The Lakeview at Fontana. “The treetop soaking cabanas overlooking Fontana Lake are somehow both rustic and luxurious. And you won’t believe the view from the tub,” says Christina Riley, cofounder and photographer behind, a Durham-based travel website.

HenDough Chicken & Doughnuts

For a Family of Foodies: Hendersonville

Apple orchards and wineries dot the mountains surrounding Hendersonville, where a downtown full of restaurants and boutiques offers plenty to keep you busy. Grandad’s Apples & Such, Jeter Mountain Farm and Sky Top Orchards have dozens of apple varieties to pick from midsummer into fall, plus fresh cider, donuts and, of course, corn mazes and the like for kids. Go for a tasting at Point Lookout Vineyards (they also have a meadery) and another at the Bordeaux-style Stone Ashe Vineyards. Downtown you’ll also find the Appalachian Pinball Museum (Riley says it’s “fun for the kids, but maybe more fun for the adults!”), a Mast General Store and plenty of gift shops (like A Walk in the Woods, which is full of works by local artists and craftspeople, and Wag!, a pet boutique). You’re only 10 miles from Saluda, where Green River Cove Tubing will get you on the water for the day. Or catch a breeze as you take in the sunset from Jump Off Rock, a scenic overlook that is a five-minute drive from downtown. 

Eat & Drink: Grab breakfast or lunch at the kid-friendly HenDough Chicken & Donuts for donuts, biscuits and fried chicken sandwiches. Mike’s on Main, a former drugstore, is perfect for a burger and shake at the lunch counter. Postero serves a New American menu that pleases nearly any palate (the Kale Caesar and Pork Frites with Alabama White Sauce shine). Downtown, hit up a brewery like Oklawaha Brewing Company or D9 for a flight or more, but don’t forget The Poe House for cocktails, hard-to-find beers and shareable sandwiches and bites. 

Stay: Create a home base at The Henderson, a historic B&B built in 1919 that’s walkable to downtown (the wide porch is ideal for planning the next day over evening drinks). The Hampton Inn Hendersonville is one of several chain hotels in town.

Looking Glass Falls

For Explorers: Brevard

Brevard’s a perfect base camp for exploring trails and waterfalls on foot or on two wheels. Plus, “you can throw a rock and hit a great brewery in Brevard, which is fortunate because all that outdoor fun like hiking, biking, swimming and fishing is thirsty work,” says Joanna Postlethwaite Brown, brand and communications manager for the MADE X Mountains Partnership, a nonprofit working to grow the outdoor economy in Western North Carolina. Brown, who spends much of her free time in the saddle of her mountain bike or on a hiking trail, recommends hiking Pink Beds as a family, but says that her favorite area to hike or bike is Dupont State Recreational Forest. At Dupont, looping hiking trails and gravel roads lead to Triple Falls, High Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. “The roads are delightful and beginner-friendly, and the scores of single-track loops add challenge and distance,” says Brown. If you don’t want to pack your bike, rent through an outfitter like Earth Mountain Cycle, The HUB or Squatch Bikes; for guided rides, try The Bike Farm and Red Wolf Tours

Eat & Drink: Back to the breweries: Brown recommends Ecusta Brewing, right by the paved walking/biking Ecusta Trail, as well as Oskar Blues’ Tasty Weasel Taproom and CHUBwagon food truck. Downtown, dine at The Square Root, where the stuffed local trout speaks to regional cuisine and the duck bacon wontons show the chef’s range. 

Stay: The Sunset Motel offers a nostalgic stay in a lovingly restored eight-room motel, but campers should look at Adventure Village and Lodging, a family-friendly campground with cabins, RV and tent sites, and miles of trails across its 90-acre property.

The courthouse in Sylva

For a Zen-Like Escape: Sylva & Dillsboro 

Yes, Sylva and Dillsboro are two towns — but at just a mile apart and with only four stoplights between ‘em, they come as a unit. Dillsboro is the smaller of the two, full of little shops and a crafts gallery. Sylva’s larger, and on its Main and Mill Streets, there’s a fun collection of antiques shops, breweries and eateries. From either town, a drive of 20 minutes puts you on the Blue Ridge Parkway or in GSMNP, with easy access to Waterrock Knob and Devil’s Courthouse on the Parkway, and Kephart Prong and Newton Bald Trails in the Smokies. Sylva’s Pinnacle Park, 15 minutes from downtown, offers miles of hiking and exploration, with a twist: it’s North Carolina’s first (and only) Certified Forest Therapy Trail, a path designed specifically for forest bathing. “It has everything needed for a restorative forest therapy experience,” says Dr. Mark Ellison, the mind behind the trail. “Natural quiet, the whispers of a gently flowing creek” and a trail that’s not too strenuous. Pamphlets at the trailhead help you dive into your first forest therapy session, but Ellison says it’s easy to do anywhere: “Find a place to experience nature with few distractions. Turn off your phone. Slow down. Notice with all your senses. Just be.” 

Eat & Drink: After you’ve cleared your mind and recharged at Pinnacle Park, you’ll need to refuel. City Lights Café offers breakfast and lunch and a great selection of books (many with a local focus). Innovation Brewing, with tap houses in both towns, has an excellent selection on draft (including sours). Dine at Ilda, one of the best Italian restaurants in the state. 

Stay: Spend your night at the Nordic-inspired Outland Chalet & Suites, a swanky hilltop spot just outside of town where the seven-room chalet and five spa suites can accommodate couples, groups and families. And consider the Best Western Plus River Escape Inn and Suites — it has fire pits, a riverview deck and updated rooms.

For the Outdoorsy Artist: Burnsville

The artsy little town of Burnsville sits on the flanks of Mount Mitchell, somehow off the radar of many travelers. In late summer, the Mount Mitchell Arts & Crafts Fair (Aug. 4-5) fills downtown with artists, artisans and the sound of bluegrass music. Twice yearly (in June and November) the Toe River Arts Studio Tour showcases the best of creatives in Yancey and Mitchell Counties. And at Hearth Glass & Gallery you’ll see exceptional works by regional artists and take a glassblowing class to create your own piece. Get inspired by a trip to the top of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the state, accessible by a grueling 12-mile trail or a steep, short hike to the summit from a nearby parking area. 

Eat & Drink: You’ll find some great barbecue at Pig & Grits where the only thing better than the meat is the fried green tomatoes. The beer selection at Birdfoot keeps a regional focus, but they serve the best brews of the moment, so don’t be surprised to find selections from across the nation. For local brews, check out Homeplace Beer Company; their Faith Healer IPA and wood-fired pizza are a perfect pair. 

Stay: In a cabin at Mount Mitchell Eco Retreat, not too far from the sensational sunset views from the summit of nearby Mount Mitchell; while you’re here, be sure to book a massage or other treatment from The Healing House.

This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.