A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in 2021. Chetola Resort’s current Executive Chef is Scott Ottinger. The current director of sales and marketing is Stacey Ripley, and the field

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in 2021. Chetola Resort’s current Executive Chef is Scott Ottinger. The current director of sales and marketing is Stacey Ripley, and the field

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in 2021. Chetola Resort’s current Executive Chef is Scott Ottinger. The current director of sales and marketing is Stacey Ripley, and the field and stream director is Bret Martin. 

The casual observer might think that we’re the most relaxed human beings on the planet, but that’s far from the case. At the moment, Julie and I are wrestling with great inner conflict. Our brains are in a mental spin class. We are, to put it mildly, furiously contemplating the intense level of chill that we are currently experiencing.

The sun is dropping fast over the Chetola Resort pond, where the ducks are gently making their way home to nest. My first drink, a smoked bourbon cocktail, had me Googling “smoked bourbon cocktail recipes” before the bartender got back inside. Julie sips on a blackberry-blueberry-vodka concoction. “Practically a fruit salad,” she says.

Former Executive Chef Matthew Rivers shows up at the table to add even more stress and pressure: What to order? I ask about the salmon and get a big smile. “You can never go wrong with salmon,” Rivers says, but his eyes meet mine, and I understand his subtext: But you can do better.

Elk short loin it is.

The intense contemplation continues as we sip our drinks and wait on the elk, recalling Julie’s late afternoon spa treatment and our early evening wine-walk around the pond.

Blowing Rock’s famed Chetola Resort is in a flush of makeovers, having recently wrapped up a three-year round of renovations and new construction. A rejuvenation of the Chetola Lodge went floor by floor, with the third floor’s refresh recently completed. There, the large rooms feature striking floor-to-ceiling black-and-white photos of the natural world — including High Country icons like black bear and white-tailed deer — and the barnwood textures and natural wood accents come together with a sense of authenticity. Stepping into a room, it feels as if the outdoors is following you inside.

Which reflects a theme at the resort these days: Chetola is on a mission to get more guests outside. A new outfitter store, packed with fly-fishing and hiking gear, will soon open in a space more than twice as large as its predecessor. When it’s done, you’ll be able to grab a cup of coffee by the new fireplace, try your hand at tying a trout fly, and sign up for shooting classes at the Chetola Sporting Reserve. There are nature guides for kids at a nature trail, with a Junior Ranger program. And there’s a new trail that connects Chetola to the massive 3,500-acre Moses H. Cone Memorial Park.

On every level, Chetola is working hard to deepen its outdoor options and dial up the adrenaline, if you’re up for it. And it’s all designed without relinquishing the resort’s time-honored reputation as a place to do nothing but feel your blood pressure drop. “If you want to sit around and drink wine and watch the sunlight on the pond all day, we’re still your place,” says Chetola’s former director of sales and marketing, PJ Wirchansky. “But we know that a lot of people want to get after it, in the woods or on the water, and at the end of the day enjoy a great glass of bourbon or a bottle of wine. We’re the place for that, too.”

• • •

Count Julie and me in the get-after-it category. The next morning, we’re booked at the Chetola Sporting Reserve, a stunning shooting sports facility sited on a private, 67-acre parcel deep in the forest at the nearby Blue Ridge Mountain Club. Guests at Chetola can take advantage of the reserve’s sporting clays course, five-stand clays station, pistol and rifle ranges, and archery range, all with professionally trained instructors.

From Chetola’s private ridgetop community, the road to the reserve is an adventure in itself: A gravel flume that careens down, down, down through soaring oaks and pines. At the bottom of the box canyon, there’s a final curve, and the green metal roof and deeply hued board-and-batten facade of the 1,784-square-foot clubhouse come into view through the trees. The building is a stunner. “We wanted a place that was designed to create memories,” says Greg Tarbutton, former field and stream director for Chetola Resort. “My wife, Anne, said it couldn’t be anything like those ‘scratch-and-sniff’ hunting camps I go to.” Interior design by Bob Timberlake and his granddaughter Evan Timberlake ensures a welcoming atmosphere.

Chetola encourages guests to spend as much time as possible outdoors, whether they’re enjoying on-site resort amenities or spending time at the nearby Sporting Reserve. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Inside, Julie and I sign up for a round of pistol instruction and a sampling of the five-stand sporting clays range. Julie has never shot a firearm in her life, but our instructor, the unflappable Chief Range Safety Officer Grayson Jones, lines her up perfectly. At the five-stand range, she hits two of the first three targets. Tarbutton glances at me with a raised eyebrow.

“You’ve never shot before?” he asks Julie again.

“Never,” she replies.

“You play golf or tennis? That would explain the hand-eye coordination.”

“Tennis, but not in the past 20 years,” Julie says.

Jones trips the clays thrower to whirl another spinning orange disc toward the trees. Julie fires again. She goes three for six, and then announces that she’s done what she came to do.

“Since y’all are so impressed,” she says, grinning, “I’m going to stop now and go enjoy that swanky clubhouse.”

• • •

One outdoor pursuit that Chetola has long been known for is fly-fishing for trout. The first Orvis-endorsed fishing lodge in North Carolina, Chetola’s fishing offerings span a huge range of on-the-water experiences. You can book float trips on world-class rivers or hike in to guided fishing on remote public lands streams. You can match wits with big, wild, finicky fish, or if you want a rollicking fun few hours tugging on trout the size of Boykin spaniels, private trophy waters practically guarantee brag-worthy catches. Dustin Coffey, head guide and fly-fishing manager, likens it to a golf resort with multiple courses. “You just tell me what you want, and we’ve got it all,” he says, “from Putt-Putt courses to par 5s and everything in between.”

And it’s only getting better. Having long offered private-water access to Boone Fork Creek, Chetola recently landed new access to a private stretch of the Watauga River just a 15-minute drive from the resort.

Orvis-endorsed fishing guide Dustin Coffey helps guests at Chetola — as well as Outdoor Director Morgan Tarbutton — net rainbow trout and other fish. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Julie and I book a day on the Watauga’s famed flows just over the Tennessee line, with Coffey on the oars of a drift boat. The Watauga is a “tailwater” river — its flow is regulated by the hydroelectric dam on Watauga Lake. Since the water comes from deep in the lake, it stays cold all year long, a benefit to trout. Scores of anglers hit the river almost daily, most in oared boats powered by guides who know every riffle and ledge drop that can hold big fish.

It’s a stunning afternoon, with big blue skies overhead and just enough chill in the air to remind us of the altitude. Coffey grew up in the shadow of Grandfather Mountain, near Wilson Creek, one of the most famous trout-fishing regions in the Southern Appalachians. He gives us a choice: We can launch in the trophy section of the Watauga and hunt big fish, or we can slide into another stretch of the river where he knows we’ll have steady action, good fish, and far fewer people to navigate around. I glance at Julie. I’ve caught more than my share of big trout. A fun float to cap off a winner of a weekend seems to be the right choice.

It doesn’t take long to realize that we’ve hit a home run. There’s only one other truck in the boat launch parking lot. There’s hardly anyone on the water. Coffey rows five minutes and drops anchor, and in the first 45 minutes, I pull more than half a dozen trout from a single broad ripple.

Coffey makes sure that fish — like this rainbow trout caught in a private section of the Watauga River — stay out of the water for no more than seven seconds. He always returns them to the place where they were caught. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Coffey examines each fish like a shepherd keeping watch over his flock. “Wild rainbow trout, there, buddy,” he says. “That’s a gift from these mountains; we gotta show ’em that we’re worthy.” The wild rainbow trout are slashed with pinks and oranges, and freckled from gills to tail. The wild browns have haloed spots and bellies as yellow as butter. Just before lunch, we drift into a ledge-filled river stretch with trout rising around the boat. It’s a fly-fishing mecca, casting dry flies to willing fish.

After three wild rainbow trout and a heart-stopping missed strike on a catch-of-the-day brown trout, I set the hook on a small fish and bring it skipping to the boat.

“Little guy,” I say, with less enthusiasm than I should have.

“Oh, I like that fish,” Coffey says. “Let me tell you, if you’re serious about fishing, that’s what you want to see — the next generation.”

He’s absolutely right, which is absolutely not surprising. Always looking forward. Always working on the better thing to come. Seems like that’s right out of the Chetola Resort playbook these days. Coffey lets the fish gently off the hook, and I cast again, promising myself to be more thankful with each bend of the river.

Chetola Resort
185 Chetola Lake Drive
Blowing Rock, NC 28605
(828) 295-5500

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This story was published on Sep 28, 2021

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual and The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.