When steamy weather heats up summer, many people head to the North Carolina mountains for a high country getaway. Banner Elk, nestled in a valley between Beech and Sugar Mountains, is one of these mountain destinations where travelers take respite. And for good reason. At 3,701 feet in elevation, Banner Elk melts away the humidity and offers an incredible range of nature and garden destinations all within an easy drive of this charming town.
Banner Elk Adventures
Banner Elk is an ideal gateway for the nature experiences of this area of the Blue Ridge. The Banner Elk Valley was originally settled by the Banner family, and, yes, at one time elk roamed here. All of this has changed, except that Banner Elk is still a laid-back mountain town that many dream of for a summer getaway.
A one-stoplight town used to mean a place to avoid. That’s not true of the town today, which has become a foodie haven with flavorful restaurants, interesting shops, and art galleries, plus a year-round calendar of events and fun. Colorful planters and garden beds of flowers line the streets and along the greenway, where you can take a leisurely walk. The Banner Elk Garden Club maintains many of these in town and civic pride is everywhere you look.
The historic Banner Elk School is now a hub of town activities with an art gallery and artist co-op, a library exchange where you can leave a book and borrow a book, and an Ensemble Stage that offers live theatre from summer into fall.
The lawn in front of the building – anchored by an elk sculpture – is busy with events, including a farmers market on Thursdays, weekly concerts, juried art shows four times a year, and annual festivals like the popular Wooly Worm Festival in October. You can expand your entertainment options at the top of Beech and Sugar Mountains, where you’ll find more concerts and nature events in the warm weather and ski sports in winter.
Lees McRae College sits on the top of a hill adjacent to Banner Elk and offers many programs and activities for the community and visitors. For the past 30 years, the college’s professional live theatre has performed works from classic musicals to top Broadway hits with talent coming from across the country.
On the far side of the campus, Wildcat Lake features swimming in a mountain lake complete with a sandy beach, fishing piers, picnic areas, and a playground. You can rent a canoe or paddleboard and outdoor games for a nominal cost.
While many have heard of the famed Linville Falls 30 minutes away, another spectacular waterfall is nearby. Elk River Falls is one of the highest-volume waterfalls in North Carolina and should be on your list to visit. A rhododendron-lined path (flat with some roots and rocks) leads you to the falls from the parking area at the end of a country road.
After a series of stairs, you’ll reach the top of the falls. While it might be tempting to step out on the rocky ledge, there is a reason why the signs say not to do this. It is easy to slip and fall on the wet rocks with tragedy as the result. Instead, it’s worth hiking down the short but steep descent (with trees and rocks to hold on to) to the viewing area at the bottom of the falls. Here, you’ll see a stunning sight as the water cascades over the rocky top to the pool below. It’s worth some reflection time to marvel at this powerful work of nature.
Wilderness Run Alpine Center is the home of the first alpine coaster in North Carolina. Individually operated cars follow the track’s 3,160-foot length that includes three corkscrew loops (don’t worry, you don’t go upside down), plus a series of twists and turns for plenty of excitement as the coaster car winds through the mountain forest. You control the speed, making this thrill ride fun for all ages.
There is no dispute that Grandfather Mountain is North Carolina’s treasured mountain. The entrance is an easy 25-minute drive from Banner Elk. From here, you’ll wind your way up the mountain to the top and the popular mile-high swinging bridge. From this 360-degree view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s amazing to see how nature holds on, even when conditions can be less than ideal.
Native plants abound here, with even more on the various trails in the park. As you hike these trails, groves of spruce and fir, seasonal wildflowers, thickets of native rhododendron, deciduous azaleas, and mountain laurel surround you along the way. Follow the forest floor for wild ginger, American ginseng, galax, white snakeroot, ferns, moss, fungi, and lichens.
Drive halfway down the mountain and make a stop at the Nature Discovery Center to learn more about the wildlife and plants on Grandfather Mountain. There are 16 different ecological communities on the mountain with some 70 rare and endangered species.
Exhibits inside the center showcase these plant types, including a flora interactive screen where you will learn that this southern Appalachian region has more plant species than any other mountain region in North America. The area is home to mountain ash, red spruce, eastern hemlock, and yellow buckeye, to name a few of the stately trees. The cove forests are sheltered from the extreme weather here, creating protective habitat for some of the oldest trees in eastern North America. Take time to stroll the small botanical garden adjacent to the center’s pathways.
On your way to and from Banner Elk, you will probably drive through the town of Boone, known as the home of Appalachian State University. But the town should also be known for its two unique gardens.
Daniel Boone Native Gardens was started as a plant sanctuary in 1963 by local garden clubs. Today, the three-acre public garden features native plants of the high country. Before the first plants were set in place in the early 1960s, the infrastructure was developed to include a wide grassy allée anchored at one end with massive iron gates and flagstone stairs and at the other end a set of steps to a rockery. And throughout are rock walls, flagstone paths, and rock steps that form the foundation of the garden.
While you might recognize many of the plants, the ones here are usually a unique variety; a yellow-flowered sweet shrub, the native version of spirea, and deciduous azaleas that grow naturally in the mountains. Some plants in the garden are less common, including Fraser’s sedge and twinleaf.
In 1973, a fernery was added along a lower hillside and today contains varieties including maiden, lady, cinnamon, sword, ostrich, and interrupted. The fern garden also showcases native sedum and ginger, crested iris, and native pachysandra. Benches and a gazebo are strategically placed so you can linger longer in this shady retreat.
The garden is a work in progress with a rain garden being designed to replace a former pond, along with the constant battle against deer requiring the unfenced garden to change up some of its plantings.
Another hidden garden gem in Boone is a 26-acre horticultural wonderland, unlike anything you have ever seen. Arborcrest Gardens was created by Dr. Ron Stanley and his wife Cheryl as part of their family home site nestled next to Howard’s Knob Mountain.
When Dr. Stanley bought the land in the late 1980s, he put in a veggie garden first even before the house was built. For the next 30 years, he planted everything himself even though he wasn’t a formally trained gardener. But then his vision expanded and he hired staff to help him continue building and maintaining this hillside garden delight.
Today, there are over 14,000 cultivars of plants that cascade down the hillsides, fill the valleys, and cover the wetlands of this spectacular garden that includes numerous microclimates in its zone 6 setting.
When you first enter the property, you’ll see lovely landscaping surrounding the house and wonder “Is this the garden?” However, the jaw-dropping display unfolds as you stand at the edge of the hill.
Here, you will see an artist’s palette of colors from the trees and shrubs that hug the sides of this 45-degree hill. Yellow, red, orange, and every shade of green are painted before you using conifers, shrubs, and trees. A closer look as you wind down the path reveals mass plantings of perennials and annuals. Instead of planting a few of the same flowers, Dr. Stanley plants flats of the flowers for greater impact. And it works. Your eyes are dazzled by the display.
The types of plants seem endless (remember, there are over 14,000 cultivars). Spruce – Serbian, Norway, and blue, kousa dogwood, European larch, Japanese maples, hydrangeas, bald cypress, Franklin trees (Franklinia alatamaha), rhododendron and native azaleas, Alaska weeping cedar, ice plants, pitcher plants, variegated cattails, candelabra primroses, peonies, bulbs, 32 different beds of echinacea, and even a hardy banana tree. And this is only a small portion of the plant diversity that you will see at Arborcrest Gardens. Dr. Stanley keeps a spreadsheet of the plants on his website (arborcrestgardens.org/plants) so anyone can check out the specific varieties here.
And that original vegetable garden? It has also grown in size with beds of berries, rows of tomatoes, cabbage, corn, and other edibles to fill wagon loads. The garden donates much of the produce to local organizations.
Arborcrest is open to the public only on Fridays (no charge), but a reservation is required. The network of paths is paved for those who want to meander and enjoy the garden on their own. Five tours are also offered in an electric golf cart on Fridays.
When You Go
The Perry House Bed & Breakfast is a cozy country inn perched on a small hill just above the downtown. The convenient location makes it easy to walk into town after the scrumptious breakfast served in the inn each morning.
The 1901 building was restored to include the modern amenities of private bathrooms and comfortable rooms. The wrap-around porch is ideal to sit and enjoy views of the mountains that surround the town. Refreshments and treats are always available in the welcoming inn.
Stonewalls Restaurant is an unexpected dining experience in the heart of town. From the outside patio with firepits and chairs to the inside dining room and impressive menu, the experience is that of a major restaurant in a big city set down in the laid-back town of Banner Elk. Known for its prime rib, seafood, steaks, and fine wines, the menu items are superb. Deep-fried deviled eggs and roasted beet salad as appetizers. Trout, halibut, prime rib, and pasta for entrees. An impressive dessert menu with decadent banana pudding and Mississippi mud pie. You’ll leave amazed and satisfied with the dining experience.
Across the street, the Chef’s Table offers casual, upscale dining with an eclectic menu of American, Italian, and Japanese dishes. Or come just for the flambéed desserts prepared tableside.
For a quick lunch stop, locals head to the Hamm Shoppe, for tasty sandwiches, soups, and baked goods all made in-house. For your trip to Grandfather Mountain, you can pack a picnic lunch from here, or eat at Mildred’s Grill in the Nature Discovery Center.
Take time to relax at one of the local wineries in the area. Banner Elk Winery is the high country’s original winery with tastings and tours of its award-winning wines. Enjoy the outdoors while at the Grandfather Mountain Vineyard & Winery with seating along the Watauga River or on the extensive patio overlooking the vineyard. A food truck and live music are offered in the afternoons through October.
For more information on how you can discover Banner Elk, visit www.bannerelk.com.
Featured image: Grandfather Mountain top plant diversity / Beverly Hurley
Beverly Hurley is the editor of Triangle Gardener magazine in North Carolina. When she is not gardening, she loves to travel.