Thrills on the Hills in High Country, North Carolina
Sam Dean Photography
Perched at elevations topping more than 3,000 feet, the High Country of North Carolina comes by its name honestly. Why, just brave Beech Mountain, the home of Beech Mountain Resort, and you'll be standing at an ear-popping mile above sea level. So dress warmly: A day at the Beech might mean being blanketed beneath 10 inches of snow.
Like Beech Mountain, nearby Banner Elk is an ideal place to see snow fall in the winter—or go skiing from early November to the end of March.
"In the High Country, we're all about snow and elevation and getting outside and having fun," says Kim Jochl, marketing director at Sugar Mountain Resort. "We just like to offer an incredible winter experience." This year, a new high-speed, six-passenger, detachable lift will move skiers from the base to the summit in just five minutes.
Open since 1969, Sugar Mountain includes 115 skiable acres on 21 trails, reaching a peak elevation of 5,300 feet. About 70 percent of visitors come to ski; the rest are mainly snowboarders. There's also tubing, ice skating and snowshoeing.
Over the ridges, Brad Moretz operates one of the oldest skiing operations in North Carolina. Established in the early 1960s, Appalachian Ski Mountain features 12 slopes on the outskirts of Blowing Rock. You can also rent equipment—skis and snowboards—as well as "what might like to be the world's largest clothing rental option," according to Moretz, president and general manager of Appalachian Ski Mountain. "We can literally outfit them from the skin out," he says.
Across the High Country, cabins hug mountainsides. Christmas tree farms stand like rows of evergreen statues. And shops surround the college community at Boone, the home of Appalachian State University, with a unique elevation of 3,333 feet above sea level.
"The highest mountains east of the Rockies are in northwest North Carolina," Moretz says. "One of the other things, too, is we have lots and lots of lodging operations. Around here, you've just got a wide variety for every niche."
For a couple of nights, I settle into La Quinta of Boone, a conveniently-located hotel with bountiful breakfasts and an indoor pool. While in town, I savor the all-you-can-eat feast at the Dan'l Boone Inn. This folksy restaurant has lured visitors since 1959 with family-style dinners—including country ham, biscuits, vegetables, fried chicken and sweet tea.
"Within a 10-minute radius of Appalachian Ski Mountain, we probably have more restaurant options than any other ski destination in the Eastern United States—with over 100, sit-down restaurants," Moretz says.
Warming up on a Saturday, I step in for a "Fun Guy" pizza topped with mushrooms at the Lost Province Brewing Company in downtown Boone. This lively restaurant takes its name from the northwestern corner of North Carolina being sometimes called the "Lost Province," a place that has, historically, been hard to reach.
Yes, it does take some effort to motor into these mountains. Still, it's worth any drive for great eats like the juicy sampler platter of pork at Boone's McKethan Brothers Barbecue or the fried flounder and sweet potatoes at Southern Comforts on Main Street in Blowing Rock—what Jochl calls "one of those cute, quaint, walking towns."
Check out the gift shops and galleries, and visit the actual Blowing Rock, a unique rock formation where snow has been reported to fall upside down. You can also find fun for all ages at Mystery Hill, a novelty house where gravity apparently goes haywire, making balls roll uphill.
"There's a lot of diversity here in terms of what to do. You can ski, snowboard and do all of the fun winter activities," Jochl says. "You can go to Grandfather Mountain and walk the mile-high bridge. You can go to the (Blue Ridge) Parkway and sometimes cross-country ski—or get snowed in from a snowstorm."
Come spring, as the snow melts, tubing on snow-packed hills gets replaced by a different kind of tubing down the New River.
More fun blooms near Blowing Rock at Tweetsie Railroad, a theme park with carnival-style rides, plus a three-mile-long adventure on a steam train. Tweetsie's marketing director, Cathy Barber Robbins, is a Kempsville High School graduate who grew up during the 1970s at Bellamy Manor in Virginia Beach.
In summer, even Sugar Mountain Resort gets into the grassy groove by running its ski lift—this time for sightseers. And the resort hosts Sugar Brew, an August festival featuring locally-crafted beer.
"We connect the seasons," Jochl says. "We're a little less active in the summer than we are in the winter, but we maintain our presence and offer fun things to do."