Mile High Bridge at Grandfather Mountain. Photo by Debbie Stone

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North Carolina has one of the most diverse landscapes in the country, as within its borders are the highest mountains east of the Mississippi along with a low-lying coastal area. And then there’s all the land in between. It’s range of scenery makes it a magnet for visitors.

You’ll Find Something for Everyone Here

On my recent trip to the state, I first spent time in the Outer Banks to experience the coastal region, then headed west to Boone for the mountains. Boone and its surrounds have long been a destination for adrenaline junkies and leisure seekers alike. It makes the perfect escape, as the area offers something for everyone, from outdoor adventurers and rockhounds to art and history aficionados.

People have vacationed in Boone for decades and they continue to return again and again due to what some call, the “Boonerang Effect.” After spending three days in this idyllic place, I understand the allure.

The Blue Ridge Parkway Connects Numerous Attractions

Blue Ridge Parkway
Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo by jaredkay

I explored a number of places during my stay, as I wanted to get a taste of all that the area has to offer. Many of these destinations are located off the Blue Ridge Parkway. This road spans 469 miles, connecting Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, from Rockfish Gap, VA to Cherokee NC. Boone is one of the cities along this lovely route.

You’ll get breathtaking views of some of the highest peaks in the region and there are numerous paved overlooks offering prime photo opps of the impressive scenery. The Parkway also provides access to hiking trails, waterfalls and a host of other natural wonders.

There’s a Reason for Why the Mountains Appear Blue

When you gaze at the landscape from afar, the distant mountains sometimes appear in a blue or lavender haze. There’s actually a scientific explanation for this phenomenon. They can appear as such because certain oak and poplar trees here emit a chemical called isoprene to protect them from the weather.

This chemical reacts with the atmosphere so that the light that filters down to our eyes appears blue. Whatever the reason, it’s easy to lose oneself in this dreamy-like, soothing landscape.

Grandfather Mountain
Grandfather Mountain. Photo by Craig Zerbe

First up on my list was famed Grandfather Mountain, a stalwart sentinel that looms almost 6,000 feet above sea level. The original Cherokee name for the mountain was “Tanawha,” meaning “a fabulous hawk or eagle.” Pioneers later named it “Grandfather” because they recognized the face of an old man in one of the cliffs.

Walk Across the Mile High Bridge

The highlight for many visitors to Grandfather Mountain is the Mile High Swinging Bridge. It’s the country’s highest suspension footbridge with an elevation of 5,305 feet. The suspension bridge measures 228 feet across and spans an 80-foot chasm.

As you cross it, you’ll ooh and aah along with everyone else at the spectacular 360-degree panorama of pristine wilderness. Once across the bridge, continue further onto the rocks to reach Linville Peak, where you can stand for one of those “I’m King (or Queen) of the Mountain!” pics.

Hikers are in heaven on Grandfather Mountain, as trails abound for all fitness levels. If you want easy, there’s plenty of gentle, forested terrain. And if you want challenging, the rugged summits, which are accessible via a series of cables and ladders, will call your name.

Discover Age-Old Rocks on Grandfather Mountain

Grandfather Mountain on a gloomy day
Grandfather Mountain on a gloomy day. Photo by Wirestock

Rocks figure prominently on Grandfather Mountain. Most of the formations are older than the mountain itself, which is estimated to be 300 million years old. Two, Split and Sphinx Rocks, are good examples. They greet visitors on the winding road to the top of the mountain.

The former has a huge split due to weathering over millions of years. while the latter best resembles its ancient Egyptian namesake. This rock, though, is much older than the man-made Egyptian Sphinx and weighs in at a whopping two plus million pounds.

Forrest Gump Was Here

As you drive this winding road, you might recognize a distinct switchback, especially if you remember the movie “Forrest Gump” and the scene of Forrest running up Grandfather Mountain. As Forrest runs, a crowd of people follow him and you see the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background. This section of the road is called aptly called “Forrest Gump Curve” and you might even hear people yelling out their windows, “Run, Forrest, Run!” as they pass by.

Learn about the Natural History, Geology and Wildlife of the Mountain at the Wilson Center

On either your way up or down the mountain, stop in at the Wilson Center for Nature Discovery. State-of-the-art interactive exhibits for all ages focus on the natural history, flora, fauna, geology and weather of the mountain and help bring the outdoor world inside.

Head to The Blowing Rock where the Winds Create a Unique Phenomenon

The Blowing Rock. Photo by Debbie Stone
The Blowing Rock. Photo by Debbie Stone

The Blowing Rock is another popular attraction for visitors to the region. Located in the town of Blowing Rock, about eight miles from Boone, this formation is a large cliff 4,000 feet above sea level, which hangs over a river gorge 3,000 feet below. The phenomenon is so called because “the rocky walls of the gorge form a flume through with the wind sweeps with such force that it returns light objects cast over the void.” In winter, it is said that the winds cause even the snow to fall upside down!

There’s a Native American legend associated with the rock, involving the daughter of a Chickasaw chieftain and a Cherokee brave who fall in love. The chieftain sent his daughter to The Blowing Rock to evade the interests of a white man. One day, she saw a handsome brave down below and threw a stone at him to get his attention. He went up to see her and from that point on, they were inseparable.

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Later, they both noticed a strange reddening of the sky and headed back to The Blowing Rock. The brave saw this change of color as a sign of trouble, necessitating his return to his tribe in the plains.

Though the maiden begged him not to go, he leapt from The Rock into the wilderness below. After praying daily to the Great Spirit for his return, the maiden got her wish when her lover was blown back to The Rock. From that day on, a perpetual wind has blown up on this formation from the valley.

I had seen pictures of The Blowing Rock prior to my trip, which made it appear as if it was impressive in size with a notable overhang. Personally, I was disappointed when faced with the reality, realizing that it was definitely not as grand as I had been led to believe. I did, however, appreciate the views of the easy-on-the-eyes scenery from the observation tower, where a number of mountains feature in the distance.

I also hiked the onsite Robbins Ridge Trail, which offers three decks for observing the view and rock formations. I visited the little museum onsite that has a gallery of historical photos of The Blowing Rock, providing credence to its claim to fame as North Carolina’s oldest tourist attraction.

Spelunkers Will Enjoy Linville Caverns

Frozen Waterfall formation at Linville Caverns. Photo by Debbie Stone
Frozen Waterfall formation at Linville Caverns. Photo by Debbie Stone

If you like caves, head to Linville Caverns, where nature has sculpted a limestone masterpiece deep beneath Humpback Mountain. Take an informative guided tour through underground passages created by slowly moving ground water. You’ll learn that over the ages, deposits of minerals have formed fascinating shapes and textures in a spectrum of colors.

The caverns were discovered in 1822 when local fishermen saw fish swimming in and out of the mountain. Early explorers were astonished to discover this geological wonder. Later, during the Civil War, deserters from both armies hid out in the caverns. Based on a cobbler’s bench and some old tools that were found, it’s believed the soldiers made or repaired shoes to trade to locals for food and supplies.

Your guide will point out cave features such as columns, draperies, canopies, straws and icicle-like forms. Of special note is a flowstone deposit that resembles a frozen waterfall, known as Frozen Niagara. It sports a vivid greenish hue that gives it an eerie glow.

You’ll learn that many forms of cave life exist here. The balanced subterranean ecosystem, which stays at a constant year-round temp of 52 degrees, is home to a variety of creatures like cave crickets, salamanders, crayfish and bats.

And of course, like on many cave tours, you’ll get to experience total darkness when your guide turns off all the lights. Not being able to see anything at all makes you glad you weren’t one of the early explorers who carried a single lantern with them…and then suddenly it extinguished, leaving them to find their way out of the caverns sans any light.

Take a Hike to Scenic Linville Falls

Linville Falls. Photo by Debbie Stone
Linville Falls. Photo by Debbie Stone

Just a few miles from the caverns is Linville Falls, regarded as the most famous waterfall in the Blue Ridge. A series of trails takes you to various viewpoints in which to enjoy the thundering, three-tiered cascades that flow over the Linville Gorge. The gorge is known as the “Grand Canyon of the Southern Appalachians.”

Go Gem Mining for Your Own Treasure

After getting your fill of geology and natural formations, you might be encouraged to go gem hunting at one of the several gemstone mining operations in the area, like Doc’s Rocks or Foggy Mountain. Underground treasures await, though there are no guarantees.

A Visit to Mast General Store Is a Must

If you go to one store during your trip, make it Mast General Store. But be sure it’s the original mercantile in Valle Crucis, as there are several others located in the state, including one in Boone. For reference, Valle Crucis is about a twenty-minute drive from Boone.

The original Mast General opened in 1883 and became the place where everyone in the area shopped because it carried everything from “cradles to caskets.” Even today, you’ll still find the shelves jammed packed with everything you think you’ll ever need – clothing, shoes, dry goods, outdoor gear, household items, hardware, books, toys, decorations, etc.

Entering this landmark, be prepared for creaky wooden floors that often slant, making you feel like you’re in a funhouse. You’ll notice advertising posters untouched since Mr. Mast himself hung them decades ago and you’ll stand at the same counter where locals once bartered their goods. And if you need to mail a letter, there’s a post office conveniently located right inside.

I got a kick out of the coffee, which is five cents a cup, the same price it was originally, and the old-timey red fridge containing cold drinks like RC Cola and Nehi orange and grape sodas. My great, great Aunt Jennie had one of these in her little store in Chicago and though I was very young, I remember it fondly.

Get Active at Cone Memorial Park

Put Moses H. Cone Memorial Park in Blowing Rock on your list of attractions, too. This heavenly 3,500-acre park offers visitors a slew of activities, including hiking, fishing horseback riding, bouldering and even cross-country skiing in the winter. There are more than 25 miles of carriage trails, designed with colorful plantings, stonework, bridges and vistas galore. Plus, there are several lakes and pools that further enhance the beauty of this place.

Historic Flat Top Manor is a Beaut

Flat Top Manor at Moses Cone Memorial Park. Photo by Debbie Stone
Flat Top Manor at Moses Cone Memorial Park. Photo by Debbie Stone

The showpiece of the park is Flat Top Manor, a nearly 14,000-square-foot, Colonial Revival style mansion. It was built in the 1890s for Moses and Bertha Cone as a summer retreat. Moses was a textile man, who brought denim production to the South. His company, Cone Denim, was a major supplier to Levi Strauss and Company for nearly a century. Moses came to be known as “The Denim King.”

On the first floor of the manor house, you’ll find an assortment of Appalachian handmade crafts for sale by members of the Southern Highland Craft Guild. The items range from turned bowls and ceramic tableware to woven garments, jewelry and decorative pieces. Soak up the views of the pastoral landscape from one of the rocking chairs on the front porch. You won’t want to leave!

Art Aficionados Will Appreciate this Pair of Museums

Turchin Center for the Visual Arts in Boone. Photo by Debbie Stone
Turchin Center for the Visual Arts in Boone. Photo by Debbie Stone

If you appreciate art, both the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts in Boone and the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum in Blowing Rock are worth a visit. Both feature galleries with changing exhibitions of contemporary works by international, national and regional artists and both also have their own permanent collections. In the latter, there’s a tiny gallery upstairs devoted to the history of the town. These museums are free, though donations are gladly accepted.

Though Boone, North Carolina is a mountain town, it’s also home to Appalachian State University, so you can expect to find college students roaming around – nearly 20,000 of them attend this institution. Visitors are welcome to check out the attractive campus, where a sculpture of Daniel Boone (the town’s obvious namesake) and his hunting dogs sits at the entrance. It’s near a life size bronze statue of the App State Mountaineer mascot.

Southern Food Takes Center Stage in Boone, North Carolina

The town has an assortment of shops, restaurants, cafes and drinking holes and the downtown corridor is walkable. You’ll have no trouble finding good food here, or in Blowing Rock. Southern-inspired cuisine reigns supreme, as you might expect, with BBQ, grits, collard greens, fried chicken, pimento cheese, biscuits, hush puppies, Hoppin’ John and trout being standard fare. And naturally, there’s sweet tea, so if you don’t want your tea sweet, let your waiter know.

I heartily recommend Betty’s Biscuits in Boone for melt-in-your-mouth biscuits, the Speckled Trout in Blowing Rock for delicious fresh trout prepared in a number of ways (try the cracker crumb or cornmeal/almond coating) and Proper in Boone for some of the best fried chicken I’ve had and a sweet potato casserole to die for!

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Author Bio: Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries spanning all seven continents, and her stories appear in numerous print and digital publications.

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