A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Graham County might be one of the most peaceful and least populated counties in North Carolina, but that doesn’t mean the rural communities at the foothills of the Great Smoky

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Graham County might be one of the most peaceful and least populated counties in North Carolina, but that doesn’t mean the rural communities at the foothills of the Great Smoky

Fireflies, Bonfires, and Stargazing: 12 Ways to Celebrate Nightlife in Graham County

Graham County might be one of the most peaceful and least populated counties in North Carolina, but that doesn’t mean the rural communities at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains lack nightlife. There are plenty of ways to explore and relax in Graham County after the sun goes down.

Dine alfresco: When it comes to outdoor dining, nothing beats Tapoco Lodge on the banks of the Cheoah River. The Aluminum Company of America built the lodge in 1930 and it remains a top pick for stunning accommodations and riverside dining. After a day of hiking, mountain biking, or kayaking, grab a table on the deck and tuck into comfort foods like nachos, burgers, and hand-tossed pizzas as you listen to the rushing rapids. If you’ll be staying closer to Robbinsville proper, consider Moonshiner Steakhouse just minutes from downtown, where you can enjoy a lineup of local live music as you dine under the stars. 


Enjoy an old-fashioned campfire: Roasting s’mores is a quintessential way to spend a summer evening. Build a bonfire and kick back at area accommodations like River’s Edge Treehouse Resort, Huffman Creek Retreat, Buffalo Creek Bed and Breakfast, or Creekside Paradise Bed and Breakfast, where you can sing campfire songs and transform graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate into the perfect late night snack. Historic Fontana Village Resort and Marina, a town built for workers who constructed the Fontana Dam, is now a resort where evening bonfires take the chill out of the mountain air. 

Frolic with fireflies: Global firefly populations may be declining but there are still plenty of our flickering friends lighting up the forest in Graham County. Check into one of the luxury lodge rooms at the all-inclusive, adults-only Snowbird Mountain Lodge and bundle up for an evening firefly walk. Outdoor educator Wanda DeWaard follows forest trails after sunset and shares information about the history of fireflies and their natural bioluminescence.

Watch the moon rise: Hooper Bald and Huckleberry knob off the Cherohala Skyway are made for picnicking. Order takeout from one of the local restaurants in Robbinsville — The Hub in downtown Robbinsville is known for its steaks and exotic burgers, Lynn’s Place serves up seafood, pasta, and chicken to-go, and Willow Tree Catering, Baking and Restaurant packs a picnic basket for a delicious outdoor feast — and don’t forget to ask for locally made Yellow Branch Cheese. Set up at one of the picnic tables and watch as the sun sinks into the sea of mountain ranges and the moon rises brightly into the dark, star-studded sky.

Take in the views: You’ll get some Instagram-worthy photos at Fontana Dam. Stop at the visitor’s center to learn the history of the 480-foot dam — the tallest east of the Rockies — and then find a spot to watch the moon rise over Fontana Lake. Prepare a thermos of piping hot tea with honey-infused offerings purchased at Wehrloom Honey to take the chill off. A bottle of Werhloom mead — a fermented alcoholic drink made with local honey — is meant for sipping in front of a roaring fire back at your cabin.

Lake Santeetlah at night. photograph by Scotch and Waller Photography

Plan a moonlight paddle: Gliding across the waters of Lake Santeetlah, Lake Fontana, Lake Calderwood, or Cheoah Lake at night is a different experience than paddling during the day. Fontana Village Resort and Marina and Snowbird Mountain Lodge provide kayaks and canoes to guests, and if you prefer to go it alone, Santeetlah Marina, Santeetlah Boat Rentals, and Smoky Mountain Kayak Fishing all offer kayak and SUP rentals. Plan a peaceful nighttime paddling excursion to watch the moon and stars reflecting on the pristine waters.

Gaze at the stars: Look up and search for the North Star, the Big Dipper, and Sirius from Maple Springs Overlook just beside the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. This spot is accessible for all with a smooth paved path — perfect for packing along your own telescope for a romantic evening under the stars.

Dance the night away: On Friday evenings starting July 10, Courthouse Square in downtown Robbinsville turns into a dance hall. Grab take-out from Papa’s Pizza or a frozen fruity treat from Pineapple Whip, set up a lawn chair, and watch dancers grooving to the live tunes at Music on the Square before slipping into your own dancing shoes and taking a spin.

Cast a line: The fish don’t stop biting at night. Rent a boat through Santeetlah Marina, Fontana Marina, Santeetlah Boat Rentals, or Smoky Mountain Kayak Fishing and cruise out into the area’s lakes to fish for smallmouth bass, walleye, bream, and lake trout. Many accommodations even have grills where you can turn your fresh catch into dinner.

Go for a night hike: Hike along the two-mile Memorial Loop Trail in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness Area listening for the sound of nocturnal animal scampering through the forest. And if you’re feeling especially adventurous, bring a tent: The area is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts who want to spend the night in nature. Check out the Horse Cove and Rattler Ford campgrounds near the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

Ride off into the sunset: The Cherohala Skyway is a popular route for road trips. Motorcyclists love the winding roads, and the views at dusk are unparalleled. After a long ride along the scenic roads, check into a room at one of the areas many motorcycle-friendly accommodations, including Iron Horse Motorcycle Lodge and Resort, 129 Cabins,  Two Wheel Inn, or San-Ran Motel.

Listen to melodies in the moonlight: Stecoah Valley Center hosts the award-winning concert series, An Appalachian Evening, where musicians playing bluegrass, folk, and mountain music take the stage on 10 Saturday evenings between June and August. Each evening, the gallery at the cultural arts center features a different artist; the café is also open, so concertgoers can get boxed suppers to enjoy during the performances.

This story was published on Jul 06, 2021

Jodi Helmer

North Carolina-based journalist Jodi Helmer writes about food, farming, and the environment.