Destination: Banner Elk, North Carolina

Written By: Julie Hostetter

WHETHER LOOKING for cooler temperatures in the summer, fall foliage, mountain skiing or spring blooms, Banner Elk is a town you’ll want to visit. Nestled in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, it rests between two popular ski resorts: Sugar Mountain Resort to the south and Beech Mountain Resort to the north, but don’t mistake its location for only winter fun. In fact, I have visited Banner Elk in the fall and spring, attending seasonal festivals and even taking a ski lift sans snow to enjoy the fall foliage. But what I like best about Banner Elk is its small mountain town charm and its proximity to some of our favorite destinations along the revered Blue Ridge Parkway.

Wildcat Lake, photo by Todd Bush

FALL FUN IN BANNER ELK

Located at 3,700 feet in elevation and a full-time population of just 1,100, Banner Elk will reach peak fall color typically around mid- to late October. You will definitely want to bring a cozy jacket as temperatures in the day are in the mid-60s and can dip into the 30s at night. Here you can marvel at the town’s “lone stop light” as well as its fabulous dining, theater and arts community and nearby family attractions. In fact, its culinary scene is one of the best in the region, with local favorites such as Bayou Smokehouse, The Painted Fish Café, Banner Elk Café and Lodge, The Chef’s Table and Stonewalls Restaurant, a longtime Banner Elk favorite, with its delicious steaks, seafood and daily chef specials.

If you are looking for the toast of the town, then you simply must tip your glass at the Banner Elk Winery, which offers not only an idyllic fall setting and celebrated wines but also a laid back, “fun for the whole family” atmosphere. And yes, that includes your fur babies, which are more than welcome. The winery also boasts Tuscan-inspired accommodations that feature eight elegantly appointed suites, some with fireplaces but all with glorious mountain views. During your visit, we recommend trying their Marechal Foch Reserve, a red wine made from estate grown French American hybrid grapes, or their Banner Elk White, touted as a “front porch sipping wine,” before strolling back to your villa for the evening.

However, if beer is more your taste, then make a beeline for Kettell Beerworks with its easy drinking blonde ales to more seasoned IPAs. Here, you can sample a wild array of exquisite libations, from Copper Elk, Velvet Panda and the Speak Easy to its popular seasonal beers Oktoberfest and Alpine Rush. And like many places in Banner Elk, the brewery is also pet-friendly!

If you are looking for some outdoor fun, then you are in the right place. First stop, check out downtown’s Edge of the World Outfitters specializing in white-water rafting, kayaking, rock climbing and rappelling. Wildcat Lake is an especially scenic spot in town where you can enjoy canoeing, kayaking and fishing in the 13-acre lake stocked with bluegill, largemouth bass and three varieties of trout. For animal adventures, Banner Elk Stables offers horse riding trails through the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and one of the region’s best kept secrets: Apple Hill Farm. This working alpaca and llama farm, with an amazing gift store, offers 45-minute walking tours (by appointment only) and an amazing view from its ridgetop location.

You’ll also want to check out Beech Mountain Bike Park through late September at the Beech Mountain Ski Resort. Transforming the ski slopes into mountain biking trails, you’ll find 10 trails ranging from easy to hair-raising, so all skills are welcome. For another fun family excursion, explore the Banner Elk Greenway, with its 1.1 miles of greenway trails, two playground areas, wading pools, a volleyball court picnic shelter and outdoor amphitheater. And just a short jaunt from Banner Elk, Elk River Falls in Elk Park boasts one of the most impressive waterfalls in the North Carolina mountains.

Surely you would not want to miss the newest addition to Banner Elk: Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster, North Carolina’s first alpine coaster. The gravity fueled coaster winds through the 3,160-foot mountainside run with three circular loops, a series of waves and twists and even hand brakes to control your speed, which can reach 27 miles per hour. The coaster is open seven days a week and year-round, so no matter the season, you’re ready to ride.

Late day light enhances the fall color and a Christmas tree farm in the rural North Carolina mountains. Photo by Todd Bush.

GATEWAY TO HIGH COUNTRY

Banner Elk is the perfect gateway to explore North Carolina’s High Country and is within easy driving distance to Boone (30 minutes), Blowing Rock (35 minutes), Valle Crucis (15 minutes), and Linville (15 minutes), which is home to Grandfather Mountain and Linville Falls. If you have yet to explore Grandfather Mountain, then be sure to visit during your stay at Banner Elk. There are two ways to enjoy this natural beauty, one via the Grandfather Mountain State Park and the other is through paid admission to Grandfather Mountain, which includes the Mile-High Swinging Bridge with its stunning views, wildlife habitats showcasing native bears, cougars, bald eagles, deer and otters, as well as a nature museum.

During the current pandemic, you must purchase your tickets online and only a select number of guests are allowed in the park at one time, so plan your trip well in advance. If you do, you will be rewarded with a full day of fun, breathtaking scenery and fond family memories.

You also simply must enjoy the fall scenes found along the acclaimed Blue Ridge Parkway, such as the most photographed spots on the entire route—the Linn Cove Viaduct, one of the most complicated concrete bridges ever built. Other notable nearby “must-sees” include Linville Falls and Moses-Cone Manor Memorial Park, home to the Southern Highland Craft Guild, which offers beautiful handmade crafts from hundreds of regional artists and craftsmen.

So, whatever your interest or time of travel, Banner Elk is the gateway to a memorable vacation in the North Carolina mountains.

Banner Elk For more information, current COVID restrictions or to plan your trip, visit BannerElk.com.

Grandfather Mountain hiking, photo by Todd Bush

7 PICTURE-PERFECT FALL PANORAMAS NEAR BANNER ELK

LINN COVE VIADUCT: The Blue Ridge Parkway’s S-shaped viaduct on the shoulder of Grandfather Mountain provides stunning views of fall foliage that stretch for miles.

MILE-HIGH SWINGING BRIDGE: On a crisp clear day from this bridge atop Grandfather Mountain, you can see the sunlight reflecting off the glass building in downtown Charlotte, some 100 miles away.

ELK RIVER FALLS: Just a short drive from Banner Elk is one of the most impressive waterfalls in the NC mountains. Large volumes of water drop 50 feet over a rock cliff into a picturesque oval pool.

APPLE HILL FARM: Spend an autumn afternoon with alpacas, llamas and other animals at this visitor-friendly farm. Be sure to take in long-range views of the valley that holds the town of Boone.

WILDCAT LAKE: Surrounded by hardwoods and framed by Beech Mountain, Wildcat Lake is a public swimming lake that doubles as a great place to see Mother Nature’s fall tapestry.

BANNER ELK WINERY: The High Country’s premier winery offers award-winning dry and semi-sweet wines in a gorgeous vineyard setting surrounded by some of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi.

ORIGINAL MAST GENERAL STORE: This carefully preserved 19th-century general store is a great visit anytime, but autumn seems particularly special with a potbellied stove inside and rockers on the back porch.

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