The Blue Ridge Parkway is a legendary, and unusual, national park. There’s no better place to experience why than in the northwest corner of North Carolina known as the “High Country.” Here the Parkway, a pristine motor trail that meanders for 469 miles, weaves through a heavily forested mountainscape dotted with welcoming towns at almost any exit.
If you tried to touch every town, you’d actually miss the Parkway experience. Reveling in the mile-after-mile meander of this narrow, non-commercialized scenic corridor is, after all, what the trip is all about. But when it is time to stop, pause where the scenery and attractions are as outstanding as the Parkway itself. That’s the perfect definition of the Boone area, the heart of the High Country where the best of the Southern Appalachians is on tap.
Number 1 On Parkway Nature
Everything about the High Country is lofty, almost alpine, including spectacular Grandfather Mountain—one of Eastern America’s iconic summits.
Grandfather Mountain is operated by a non-profit stewardship foundation. Its mountain climbing motor road leads to awesome views at the Mile-High Swinging Bridge.
The Blue Ridge Parkway’s final section, completed in 1987, soars across the flank of Grandfather on the world-famous Linn Cove Viaduct. This span places you in the middle of the greatest vertical drop along the Blue Ridge escarpment, nearly a vertical mile above the Piedmont far below.
A one-hour Parkway drive south of Grandfather is Mount Mitchell (6,684 feet), the East’s highest summit (Milepost 355).
A Multifaceted Destination
Nature is everywhere, but there are two sides to the High Country. In the north, the Boone area Parkway is bordered by private land and popular resorts. In the south, national forests insulate the road.
The High Country resort experience dates to the 1880s, when the lowland rich first fled the summer heat to spark tourism in the mountains. They came for the South’s coolest summer temperatures. A truly hot day in the High Country reaches the low 80s. Sweater weather evenings are the norm.
Early hospitality traditions reign at popular century-old hostelries. The grande dame of Blowing Rock is the 1880s Green Park Inn. In Linville, at the base of Grandfather Mountain, the chestnut bark-covered luxury of the Eseeola Lodge is the heart of a national historic district and one of the United States’ first planned resort communities.
The shops lining King Street in Boone and Main Street in Blowing Rock epitomize the appeal of the High Country tourist towns. Here “buy local” means handcrafted items, one-of-a-kind works of art, and quirkily curated collections of unique products found in galleries and specialty shops.
Museum-quality crafts are a staple. Between the Parkway Craft Center in Moses Cone’s Manor House (Milepost 294) and the stunning artworks at gallery-after-gallery, you’ll be astonished at the vibrancy of Appalachian craftsmanship.
Environmental awareness is easy to cultivate on this stretch of the Parkway. The Museum of North Carolina Minerals (Milepost 330.9) is newly renovated and one of the best such exhibits anywhere. Mount Mitchell also has a new nature museum and a new wheelchair-accessible summit tower with horizon-identifying plaques. Just a few miles east of the town of Linville Falls on US 221 is Linville Caverns—North Carolina’s only commercial cavern and a year-round attraction.
Blowing Rock’s namesake destination, the Blowing Rock, is a crag with a great view and an Indian legend. It bills itself as “North Carolina’s first travel attraction.” Nearby is Tweetsie Railroad, one of the state’s top family attractions. Bad guys in cowboy hats may rob the train—but this is a national historic landmark steam locomotive. Its tracks led the outside world to the High Country in the late 1800s.
Early history is also the focus at Boone’s summer outdoor drama Horn in the West, the inspiring, little-known story of how High Country settlers marched down from their mountains to victory in one of the Revolutionary War’s pivotal battles, King’s Mountain. Blowing Rock’s Art and History Museum is a top-notch venue for local art and history.
And yes—Boone town namesake Daniel Boone was an early frequenter of the area. Today Boone is an outdoor-oriented college town that’s home to Appalachian State University, a great greenway trail, and Rocky Knob, a brand new mountain bike park rated a top attraction by a national cycling magazine.
The High Country’s strong suit of miles of scenic rural backroads, some of them official state scenic byways, compliment the Parkway and permit loop trips. One side attraction, the village of Valle Crucis, claims the Mast General Store (circa 1880). Charles Kuralt declared it was “America’s premier country store.” Nearby, the Mast Farm Inn is a “Historic Hotel of America” noted for gourmet country fare.
Local gourmet food and luxe lodging are a Boone area trend, and they extend to spa hotels. One of them, Westglow, was named by Travel & Leisure magazine as a top destination spa. Factor in tours and tastings at award-winning local wineries and the sensual side of life has its place in the High Country.
Shopping, skiing, hiking or biking, you will have an appetite and the Boone area’s diverse dining rivals sophisticated urban options “off the mountain.” Many of these restaurants serve traditional High Country fare, like locally-sourced vegetables, fruit, trout, herbs, even pasta, and grass-fed Watauga beef. Try the Dan’l Boone Inn, a “family-style” favorite.
The High Country epitomizes outdoor adventure. Climb ladders up cliffs on Grandfather Mountain, climb rocks in Linville Gorge, zip-line above forests and meadows, and fish for trout in gushing streams.
Appalachian spring fuels waterfalls, whitewater rafting, kayaking, canoeing and tubing on mountain streams. Fall hikes flame with color, then comes snow and skiing.
Boone is a gateway town to the Parkway, but the High Country is such a special place you can almost say the Parkway is a gateway to the Boone area.
Five Overlooked Boone Area Attractions
Wine Tour—The Boone area’s four wineries are winning awards—and sipping vintages beside a dancing stream or overlooking a sunset is a premier pastime, spring, summer, or fall. Take a taste of the High Country home with you—or just back to that cabin in the woods.
Great State Parks—Ten minutes from Boone, Elk Knob State Park boasts a gradual trail to one of the best views in the North Carolina mountains. Drive to the top of Mount Jefferson State Park, or climb the South’s most alpine ridge at Grandfather Mountain State Park. Don’t miss New River State Park. Canoeing, tubing, kayaking are primo along this National Wild and Scenic River—and you camp along the river day-after-paddling day.
Waterfall Walks—Some of the Appalachian’s best waterfalls are in the High Country. Linville Falls (Milepost 316.4) and Crabtree Falls (Milepost 339.5) are just the start. Wait for that crystal blue day after spring showers!
Take a photo with Doc—“Doc” (Arthel) Watson was an icon of American roots and mountain music. He got his start playing for tips on the streets of Boone—and became a globally-recognized guitar master. His hometown loved him and his many local appearances. Have your photo taken with Doc on the downtown Boone bench where he sits, still strumming his guitar.
Paddle Price Lake—Thankfully, this summer of sequestration has not claimed the canoe/boat rental concession at Price Lake (Milepost 296), the largest lake on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Rent a canoe, rowboat—or bring your own kayak—and get out there early or late. Grandfather Mountain towers in the distance, campground wood smoke curls along the shore, electric leaves flutter and float in the water while beavers duck into the shadows and disappear.
Coming Sunday: The Glacier National Park Conservancy