photograph by David Stanley


Beech Mountain isn’t just a mountain covered in beech trees; it’s a town, too. In fact, at 5,506 feet above sea level, it’s the highest incorporated town east of the Rocky Mountains, right here in North Carolina. The population hovers around 350, until ski season, when it climbs to 10,000.


Sea Level isn’t just a term you learn in geography class — “the average level of the sea with respect to the land.” It’s also an unincorporated town of 450 in Carteret County, with one of the lowest elevations in North Carolina. Guess how it got its name?

The first locals here were Native Americans; the Beech Mountain Historical Society has documented 10,000-year-old arrowheads found nearby.


Sea Level is one of more than 10 fishing villages known as “Down East.” Natives speak with a distinct coastal dialect that draws on certain older features of English.

People work on the mountain at multiple resorts, clubs, ski slopes — oh yes, and Fred’s General Mercantile, open since 1979.


Situated on the banks of Core Sound, nearly everyone here has a tie to the ocean, and fishing in particular. In Charlotte, Sea Level NC restaurant serves shellfish straight from the Sea Level docks.

The Land of Oz, a Wizard of Oz-based theme park, opened at Beech Mountain in 1970, with movie memorabilia and nine acres of yellow-brick road. Today, the park only opens for seasonal events.


The elevation is so low that native James Morris recalls waiting for the school bus wearing his fishing boots, because the tide had simply risen across the road. It still does.

Four-season mountain adventures — hiking, biking, skiing — attract one sort of visitor. Four-season serenity, tranquility, and views attract another. Living in the woods attracts … bears.


Not only is Sea Level one of the lowest towns in terms of elevation, it’s also the southern terminus of NC Highway 12, the only road traversing the northern islands of the Outer Banks.

Renee Castiglione currently serves as the first female mayor of Beech Mountain.


James Morris is a Sea Level native, fifth-generation commercial fisherman, oyster grower, and marine scientist.

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Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.