Many families head to the mountains of western North Carolina for summertime fun, but it turns out there’s plenty to do when the temperatures reach their icy lows, too.
Winter activities in the area may require lots of extra layers—the average low temperature of the state’s western mountainous region drops to 20 degrees Fahrenheit in January, the coldest month of the year—but they are indeed available, and equally as fun.
On a recent family reunion trip, 28 of my relatives rented separate cabins in the tiny town of Seven Devils, located in the heart of the North Carolina High Country, which put us within a short driving distance from many of western North Carolina’s charming attractions.
Most family members drove from towns around Florida and Tennessee without stopping, but since the trip dates coincided with my husband’s birthday, we planned an early start to accommodate an extra couple of days in Charlotte, where we made repeat visits to Optimist Hall—The Dumpling Lady’s offerings are downright memorable, and I bought bottles of her chili oil for everyone in my family—basked in the cozy boutique luxury of The Ivey’s Hotel, and even went indoor skydiving at iFly Charlotte.
Once the family reunion began, it was off to Seven Devils and activities centered around the surrounding Appalachian Mountains. On day one, we headed to Beech Mountain, located about half an hour away in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Pisgah National Forest, for a full day of skiing and snowboarding. The experience was unfortunately pretty discombobulated due to some sort of maintenance issue at the resort, but keeping your expectations in line when it comes to East Coast slopes is essential—you can have a blast, but it’s certainly no Colorado!
Despite unexpected setbacks at the resort, such as no snow clothes or lockers available to rent and all bathrooms out of order, we enjoyed shredding what we could and loved the view from the summit, where there’s also a panoramic concessions area. Another nearby option is Sugar Mountain Resort, also in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where you can ski or snowboard, ice skate, snowshoe, or go tubing.
If it’s sunny or a relatively mild day, you can set out to explore cute nearby towns like Boone, Blowing Rock, and Banner Elk. In Blowing Rock, our plan to stroll the town on foot was dampened by a constant frigid drizzle, but the fragrant and flavorful brews of Camp Coffee Roasters drew us to sit a spell as we sipped seasonal lattes and chatted about our lives and upcoming plans. It was a cozy family bonding activity for a small group of us before we set off to check out Boone and Banner Elk.
The quaint mountain town of Banner Elk has just one stoplight but offers a nice chance to unwind, and is a great alternative “home base” in the area, since it’s just a short drive from the other towns and attractions.
Boone is one of the more populous towns in the area, thanks to the presence of Appalachian State University, but it retains that mountain-town charm. One of its popular stops is Mast General Store, a classic example of an old country general store and today filled with a medley of merchandise, from candy to outdoor gear. The store’s early marketing slogan was, “If you can’t buy it here, you don’t need it.” Five-cent cups of coffee are available on the honor system.
Across the street, Our Daily Bread offered a healthy and hearty break to our day, certainly worth a stop during your visit. Warm up with a pressed sandwich, soup, or healthy salad. The Blue Ridge Parkway also winds through town, offering scenic vistas as you drive. Stroll the small main street and window-shop, enjoying Boone’s slow pace, especially during the chilly winter.
The Great Outdoors
If you’re eager to get your blood pumping, one of the main attractions near Boone is Grandfather Mountain, which features the Mile-High Swinging Bridge, a 228-foot-long suspended footbridge spanning an 80-foot chasm. While hiking is the main draw at Grandfather Mountain, there’s also a nature museum and wildlife habitats. At 5,946 feet, Grandfather Mountain is one of the highest peaks in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
If you’re looking for another way to get active in the area, hike Otter Falls in Seven Devils. Ideal for beginners, it’s just over half a mile to reach the falls in Valley Creek, with a descent of just 230 feet, making the trail a moderate hike, and only about 1.2 miles roundtrip. There’s also an observation deck at the falls, a great photo-op.
Another activity ideal for groups is snow tubing at Hawksnest Tubing, a popular wintertime tubing resort that claims to be the largest snow tubing facility on the East Coast. Its 30 groomed lanes, spread across four different tubing areas, are 400 to 1,000 feet long, and “moving carpet” lifts bring you back to the top after each ride.
Best of all, snow tubing requires no extra gear rentals, so all you have to do is show up in your snow-ready clothes and prepare for a thrill. (Plus, it’s a great group activity since you can link up and form chains—our record was 15 people, though I’m not confident that was authorized!) There’s also a zip line on the property, which is supposedly one of the largest zip line tours in the U.S. Those who crave a thrill can enjoy this added adventure.
And, of course, with all this activity, you’ll be glad to fill up on true Carolina-style BBQ at the end of the day. In Boone, after a meal of mouth-watering brisket, mac-and-cheese, and corn nuggets at Willie Brooks BBQ, you’ll need to somehow find room for their towering and elaborately decorated four-layer cakes. Other family members raved about The Pedalin’ Pig, one of the most popular BBQ restaurants in the area, so plan stops at both if you’re a BBQ fan.
In North Carolina, you can pack your trip just the right amount of mountainous adventure, great eats, and a relatively mild taste of winter (but complete with snow!) for the ideal cold-season getaway. Just make sure you have the essential ingredient: good company.
Skye Sherman is a freelance travel writer based in West Palm Beach, Fla. She covers news, transit, and international destinations for a variety of outlets. You can follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter @skyesherman