A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

The New River, which flows just minutes away from the small town of West Jefferson, doesn’t quite live up to its name: It’s widely believed to be the second-oldest river

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

The New River, which flows just minutes away from the small town of West Jefferson, doesn’t quite live up to its name: It’s widely believed to be the second-oldest river

Explore the Outdoors in West Jefferson

The New River, which flows just minutes away from the small town of West Jefferson, doesn’t quite live up to its name: It’s widely believed to be the second-oldest river in the world, right behind the Nile. Its cold mountain waters also run north, a rarity for any river. But for those seeking an outdoor adventure on a hot summer afternoon, you’d be hard pressed to find a gentler place to swim, fish, or just float down, as Ashe County’s pines, maples, willows, and oaks keep you shaded near the banks.

“On most days, it’s clear, so you can see to the bottom,” says Joann Ashley, the manager of Zaloo’s Canoes in West Jefferson, which runs canoe, kayak, and tubing trips on the river’s south fork. “I take a hammock and chair and sit by the river and read, and enjoy God’s creation.”

West Jefferson, a serene Blue Ridge Mountains gem just north of Boone, has more outdoor offerings than you could possibly work into a week’s vacation. But it sure wouldn’t hurt to try. “It’s laid back, it’s beautiful, it’s scenic,” Ashley says of her hometown. “It provides a way to get away from the hustle and bustle.” Here’s how to get outdoors in and around a town that works hard at keeping you busy — naturally.

Take me to the river.

No one’s really sure how the New River got its name, but no matter: Outfitters along the river, like Zaloo’s Canoes and New River Outfitters near the New River State Park, offer kayaking, fishing, canoe and tube tours of the waters, from hour-long excursions to all-day affairs, lunch included.

The state park has tent and RV camping areas and plenty of picnic shelters, as well as paddle-in primitive campgrounds that you’ll need to pack up your Old Town canoe to access. “It feels off the beaten path,” Ashley says. “Bring sunscreen.”

Outfitters along the New River offer kayaking, fishing, and canoe and tube tours of the waters. photograph by Germain Media


Or tie some flies.

The High Country offers some of the best fly-fishing spots in North Carolina, and those in the know hit Helton Creek, a stream near West Jefferson with enough runs, pocket pools, and trout to satisfy anyone with a rod and reel. The stream is one of the longest stretches of the state’s delayed-harvest trout program, hosting nearly 4,000 trout across the fishing season.

Other delayed-harvest sites include Trout Lake and Big Horse Creek, and the south fork of the New River. If you’re looking for catch and release, try Big Horse Creek, part of the state’s Mountain Heritage Trout Waters program. A three-day license there is just $8.

The High Country offers some of the best fly-fishing spots in North Carolina. photograph by Visit West Jefferson


Take a walk in the woods — or saddle up.

After you’ve caught your limit, lace up your hiking boots and hit the trails. With an elevation of 4,660 feet, the Mount Jefferson State Natural Area offers five trails of various challenge, including a kid-friendly TRACK trail through the rhododendrons out to Luther Rock, a striking outcrop of black volcanic rock. It’s also a great place to catch a sunrise or a sunset, and the state made sure to create overlooks to catch the best views of both.

Elk Knob State Park, just over the ridge in Watauga County, has one of the tallest peaks in the state, and the panoramic views from Elk Knob are worth the tough hike it takes to get there. Three Top Mountain Game Lands is named for its three rock outcroppings and offers some rugged trails — and hidden waterfalls — as your reward. (Wear bright colors when hiking — you’re on public game lands.)

The Summit Trail footpath at Elk Knob will take you to one of the tallest peaks in the state. photograph by James Robert Smith/Getty Images

If you’re looking for an easier ramble, head back to New River State Park, where moderately easy trails will take you along the edge of the river.

More of a biker than a hiker? The Blue Ridge Parkway is chock full of bicyclists on the weekends, but you can also try out the various bike trails in the state parks and natural areas.


Hungry now?

By now, you’ve worked up an appetite. If it’s Saturday morning, stock up on picnic treats at the Ashe County Farmers Market, where you’ll find everything from dog treats to vine-ripened tomatoes, all sold by local farmers and artisans.

Or pick up a café con leche at Havana Café just across the street and wander around town to see what’s new in the way of shopping. Stop into Bull’s, around the corner from Havana Café, where you’ll find boots and gear made for walking, hiking, and everything in between.

Ashe County Cheese has been dealing in curds and whey since 1930, and their three enormous black and white cow sculptures greet you from their factory and store on East Main Street. But try their food truck; the menu is super cheesy, featuring fried cheese curds and poutine.

Or try the other wheeled food outlets that gather downtown: Kalman’s Bon Appetit sells flank steak tacos topped with sriracha aioli and queso fresco, with lemon Bundt cake to chase it all down; while barbecue and smoked chicken from Kristin’s Hook’d on Smoke can be found at various locations around West Jefferson, including Ashe County Park. (Check her website’s calendar for weekly updates.)

West Jefferson’s restaurants are open for indoor dining again, but a beer and a sandwich at a picnic table just screams summer. For that, try the New River Brewing taproom and eatery, where you can sample their latest alcoholic offerings along with a quarter-pound hot dog topped with chili, slaw, onion or banana peppers — or all of them at once. And if you’re looking for a beer-tasting experience, head out to New River Brewing’s new tasting room, which just opened in an old muffler shop out on NC Highway 221.

At the New River Brewing taproom and eatery, you can sample their latest beer offerings along with some delicious food. photograph by Visit West Jefferson

The Tavern offers outdoor seating and their signature “potachos” — potato chips treated nacho-style with house made chili and jalapeños. Or settle down on the patio at Boondocks Brewing and Tap Room and order a Big Ashe Pretzel, some Texas Pete cracklings, and their signature Boondocks burger — along with your favorite brew, of course.

This story was published on Jul 08, 2021

Cate Doty

Cate Doty is a journalist in Raleigh. She’s writing a book about her tenure as a weddings writer for The New York Times.