A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

During late summer when fall seems like it can’t come fast enough, set your sights on Sugar Mountain. John Caveny, director of Conservation and Education at nearby Grandfather Mountain, explains

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

During late summer when fall seems like it can’t come fast enough, set your sights on Sugar Mountain. John Caveny, director of Conservation and Education at nearby Grandfather Mountain, explains

8 Outings for a Mile-High Fall Vacation

During late summer when fall seems like it can’t come fast enough, set your sights on Sugar Mountain. John Caveny, director of Conservation and Education at nearby Grandfather Mountain, explains why Sugar Mountain is a great spot to get an early peek at fall hues: “It’s not uncommon for the leaves to start changing in mid-September because the highest peaks in our area have much cooler temperatures than the valleys below them.”

If you’re ready for an infusion of cool, mountain air but haven’t yet planned a trip, you’re in luck, Caveny says. “The valleys usually don’t peak until mid to late-October, so visitors can see spectacular fall color in the High Country area for a whole month’s time.” Whether you’re planning a weekend or week-long getaway, read on for mile-high adventures you won’t want to miss.

An iconic autumn activity in the North Carolina mountains: Driving the Linn Cove Viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photography courtesy of VILLAGE OF SUGAR MOUNTAIN

1. Take a scenic drive. The Blue Ridge Parkway consistently ranks among the most jaw-dropping drives in America — and experienced North Carolinians know the best part of the parkway is a 23-mile stretch that includes the Linn Cove Viaduct, an engineering marvel. Take a 55-mile loop scenic drive from Sugar Mountain that includes the parkway. The Village of Sugar Mountain has an entire webpage devoted to the drive. In addition to turn-by-turn directions, they also list what to watch for at certain mileposts.

2. Walk a mile into the sky. At Grandfather Mountain, Sugar Mountain’s neighboring peak, you’ll get even higher elevations. You might catch your best views from the park’s Mile High Swinging Bridge, where dramatic vistas stretch 360 degrees, but there are plenty of other reasons to visit. First, Grandfather Mountain is a designated Biosphere Reserve, recognized by the United Nations, with rock formations dating back 1.2 billion years. Second, more globally rare species live here than on any other mountain east of the Rockies — the Wilson Center for Nature Discovery has great exhibits on all of them — and finally, trails satisfy hikers of every skill level. If you’re up for a more strenuous hike, try the 7.5-mile Profile Trail Hike, which takes about three to four hours and winds through Canadian firs and hardwoods, and crosses the headwaters of the Watauga River.

Twist and turn on the Alpine Coaster. Photography courtesy of VILLAGE OF SUGAR MOUNTAIN

3. Take a joy ride. Imagine the last time you zipped down a roller coaster at 30 miles per hour. Now imagine that same ride, only this time you’re sitting in a self-steering toboggan sled, controlling your speed as you zoom around 360-degree loops. That’s what it’s like at the Alpine Coaster, located at the base of Sugar Mountain. The thrills continue next door at Wilderness Run Adventure Course, an aerial playground through the treetops. With the safety of a harness, kids and adults can navigate 28 obstacles on easy, intermediate, and advanced routes.

4. Uncover hidden treasure. If you’re visiting Sugar Mountain with children — especially wee ones who love sparkly things — make a reservation at Sugar Creek Mining Company. Owners and twin brothers Chris and Matt Leonard guarantee that tucked away in every bucket is a precious or semi-precious gemstone waiting to be revealed. All that’s required is a little meditative sorting and sifting. If you hit the jackpot and want to have your gemstone cut and set into jewelry, their on-site experts can help.

See stunning fall foliage from the Summit Express chairlift. Photography courtesy of VILLAGE OF SUGAR MOUNTAIN

5. Ride the Summit Express. Before the year’s first snowfall, when shorter days usher in the autumn chill, the Summit Express chairlift at Sugar Mountain’s ski resort gives riders an entirely different experience. Kimberley Jochl, the resort’s vice president, regularly takes it for a ride. As the Summit Express glides to the top of Sugar Mountain, Jochl is surrounded by lush, mountain giants. “For me, it’s like being in a moving treehouse,” she says. At the summit, just before the lift rounds the bull wheel and crests over the peak of Sugar Mountain, you can hop off and walk to the mountain’s rocky outcroppings. Through crisp olive-green, bright yellow, and burnt umber leaves, look for Tennessee and Banner Elk in one direction, Grandfather Mountain in the other.

6. Outsource the cooking. Within five miles of Sugar Mountain, 25 restaurants make it easy to find something you and all your family and friends will love. For a special dinner out, Reid’s Café is a locals’ favorite. Try Bella’s if you’re in the mood for Italian. Luna Thai & Sushi Restaurant offers an impressive selection of lunch bento boxes. And Mountain Grounds Coffee and Tea is a crowd-pleaser for breakfast and locally roasted coffee.

Work on your swing at Sugar Mountain Public Golf Club. Photography courtesy of VILLAGE OF SUGAR MOUNTAIN

7. Golf with a view. Until it closes for the season at the end of October, Sugar Mountain Public Golf Club welcomes anybody to play a round on its 18-hole course — no membership necessary. The par-64 course was originally designed by Frank Duane, who served as project manager for the well-known golf course architect Robert Trent Jones. Look forward to fairways that take advantage of picturesque mountain scenes (courtesy of the course’s 4,000-foot elevation), features like a babbling brook and rhododendron forest, and an al-fresco meal after your game. Grab a table on the expansive outdoor covered deck at the Caddyshack Café (best views of any restaurant around!) and refuel with a Reuben or peanut butter bacon cheeseburger.

8. Relax and soak in the fall views from your balcony or porch. Sugar Mountain is known for its variety of unique vacation rentals, including large homes for family and friend gatherings. Resort Real Estate & Rentals is a good source, as it manages more than 100 condos, houses, and cabins. “A lot of people visit the High Country in late September and October, especially for Oktoberfest and Woolly Worm Festival,” says owner Janet Anderson. “We have some with spectacular views and some that are within walking distance from all activities that are happening in and around the Village of  Sugar Mountain. It’s a great way to get the true ‘fall’ feel.”

For more information travel tips and ideas, check out Sugar Mountain’s Fall Guide.

This story was published on Sep 06, 2023

Robin Sutton Anders

Robin Sutton Anders is a writer based in Greensboro.