Rhododendrons that cast low shade across the ferns and moss-covered rocks, passageways like the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail that offer up-close access to state parks and national forests,
Rhododendrons that cast low shade across the ferns and moss-covered rocks, passageways like the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail that offer up-close access to state parks and national forests, and mountains that give way to sweeping views and cascading waterfalls: Many of Mitchell County’s natural treasures are on full display.
But other gems are tucked away, nestled in three charming mountain towns that are worth a visit. Pull out your map and circle Little Switzerland, Spruce Pine, and Bakersville. Then plan a trip that includes some of the best food, outdoor excursions, and arts that North Carolina’s mountains have to offer.
Stay in the middle of NC’s three peaks of Grandfather, Mt. Mitchell, and Roan Mountains for an amazing mountain experience. Canoe the Toe River, mine for gems, hike to breathtaking views, explore hundreds of artist studios, and so much more.
Rick Gougeon, owner of Little Switzerland Books and Beans, knows it might be hard to believe for an independent bookstore deep in the Appalachians, but most of his guests aren’t actually seeking a bookstore. “Tourists take the exit off the parkway expecting to find gasoline, and they don’t, so they come here for our public restroom, pastries, and coffee,” he says. “The last thing they’re expecting is a bookstore with 50,000 titles, spread across three floors.”
Gougeon likes the look of delight on their faces as they breathe in the aroma of freshly brewed coffee; browse a third-floor gallery devoted to the works of potters, jewelry makers, and printmakers; and stumble upon a special section featuring quirky, pre-GPS instruments like maps, atlases, compasses, magnifying, and spy glasses. “Because GPS doesn’t work here,” Gougeon says, laughing. “That’s another thing they discover when they get here.”
Straddling the Blue Ridge Parkway on the west end of Mitchell County, the small village of Little Switzerland is a pocket of delights. After exploring the bookstore, spend an hour hiking to Grassy Creek Falls, where a dramatic waterfall spills over a 25-foot cliff. The trail begins at the junction of Chestnut Grove Church Road and Grassy Creek Falls Road, just beside the Blue Ridge Parkway. You’ll hike through private property (the landowners are gracious enough to allow hikers and horseback riders access) about a mile to the waterfall.
If you’ve worked up an appetite, choose between three great eateries within walking distance. For fine dining with an unbeatable view, try for a meal at the Switzerland Inn’s Chalet Restaurant or Fowl Play Pub. The Chalet Restaurant offers fare like seared ahi tuna served with a tangy wasabi cream, and roasted duck with orange marmalade glaze. Downstairs, the Inn’s Fowl Play Pub serves 20 beers on tap, plus bar food including wings, burgers, and shrimp.
Next to the General Store, duck into the Switzerland Cafe for a no-frills, delicious meal. We recommend the applewood smoked trout, or choose from one of the cafe’s homemade sandwiches, soups, and quiches.
Drive about 20 minutes north of Little Switzerland on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and you’ll come to the town of Spruce Pine, a haven for art lovers and outdoor enthusiasts.
When you pull into the quaint downtown, park your car at Riverside Park and take a minute to let your kids play on the playground while you get a lay of the land. If you want to stretch your legs, go for a stroll along the park’s paved riverside walking trail.
Want to explore downtown? From the east side of the park, cross over the historic footbridge that leads to Locust Street (also called Lower Street), one of downtown’s two main streets for shopping and dining.
For a perfect cup of coffee, try DT’s Blue Ridge Java on Locust (they’re known for their caramel latte and savory Cutler’s Calamity breakfast sandwich). Or head over to Fox and the Fig on Oak Ave — downtown’s other main street — and order owner Aaron Buchanan’s favorite: an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie.
Also on Oak Avenue, Toe River Arts gallery features the works of more than 150 artists who live in the area. Shop from mixed media, textiles, wood, books and paper, glass, jewelry, and metals. Then stop by The Market on Oak, a nonprofit that supports more than 100 local artists, where you can shop hand-blown glass, candles, wood carvings, clothing, and even local foods. There’s even a year-round Christmas corner.
If you’re planning to launch a kayak or tube to take advantage of the pristine Toe River, Riverside Park is your best access. The Toe River Canoe Trail starts in Riverside Park and runs 37 miles all the way to Poplar. Or you can throw in a fishing line right there at the park. Designated as a Mountain Heritage Trout City, Spruce Pine offers special, three-day fishing licenses that you can get at Spruce Pine Town Hall. Make sure to stop by Keen Outfitters on Oak Avenue for fishing equipment and tips on what’s biting.
When it’s time for lunch or dinner, Spruce Pine’s restaurants satisfy every craving. Italian? You can’t go wrong with Niki’s Bistro. French or German? Gustoso Ristorante serves up specialties like Coquille St. Jacques (sea scallops with sauteed mushrooms and a cream sauce) and jaegerschnitzel or sauerbraten (classic German pickled pot roast).
For Latino/Carribean fusion, try Las Cruces, where executive chef and owner America Mauricio puts her spin on entrées ranging from mahi mahi fish tacos to a classic Cuban. And for good old-fashioned American fare, you won’t regret a stop at City Drive-In for a mouthwatering cheeseburger hot off the grill.
Known as the Gateway to the Roan, Bakersville is just a short drive to Roan Mountain. The name is a bit deceiving: Rather than one mountain peak, Roan is a five-mile ridgetop known for its spring-blooming rhododendrons and fields of wildflowers.
If you’re up for a five-mile hike, this one is worth every step. Along the way, plenty of resting points offer spectacular views. Plan ahead by grabbing a picnic lunch in downtown Bakersville.
One option is the tiny but mighty Southern Ridge Cafe, where you can choose from inventive sandwiches like the Mountaineer Monte Cristo and Sweet Chili Wrap. Don’t forget dessert: One day, the menu may feature a s’mores cake, the next could be a traditional chocolate. Whatever it is, you’ll be glad you ordered a slice.
Lee’s Country Café is another local dive for breakfast and lunch. As the name suggests, you’ll find Southern favorites like hamburger steak with gravy and two sides. But for health-conscious diners, the café also features Whole-30, vegan, and gluten-free options like Baja tacos and a teriyaki vegetable bowl.
Don’t leave Bakersville without a stop at Penland School of Craft. This internationally recognized center for craft education hosts one, two, and eight-week workshops — but anybody can come tour the campus and browse the galleries that showcase every imaginable medium, from clay and glass works to iron and photography.
“We get all sorts of people who are visiting from both coasts,” says Jason Burnett, Penland’s supply store manager who attended the school as a core fellow and has worked as an instructor for more than a decade. “It’s not unusual for someone to come because their grandfather took a class here and they can’t wait to check it out.”
According to Burnett, even visitors who claim no artistic inclinations have been known to swing by the art supply store to pick up a box of colored pencils and a pad of paper. After all, here in Mitchell County, inspiration comes when you least expect it.