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Road Trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina: Banner Elk and Grandfather Mountain by Michael Talbert
One hot, sweltering day last summer in the flat lands of North Carolina, me and my biker buddy thought it was about time to plan for a weekend road trip. Not wanting to spend too much time getting there, but definitely wanting a change of scenery and to escape the stifling summer heat, we decided to check out the Grandfather Mountain area in the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountain Range, just about an hour and half drive from home in Mooresville N.C.
That Friday we took off work two hours early, packed our saddlebags and hopped on our hogs heading up 77 to I 40, destination Banner Elk, North Carolina. We turned off the Interstate in the foothills at Morganton, and after some cruising through the small Mayberry like town, soon found ourselves leaning into the curves, past Table Rock and numerous mountain vistas, the summer heat already melting away. Occasionally getting trapped behind a local, never in a hurry to get anywhere, we soon encountered a passing lane and sped on our way.
We got on 105 in Linville and we knew we were almost there. Cruising the next 7 miles in the shadow of Grandfather Mountain, we arrived at the stone buildings of Tynecastle, turned left heading down the valley past Sugar Mountain and into the town of Banner Elk. We had made reservations at the Banner Elk Inn Bed & Breakfast, so we turned right at the only stoplight and were soon checking in.
Being the cocktail hour, we stretched our legs with a nice cool walk into town and visited some local bistros, then crossed the street and headed to Stonewalls were we enjoyed an excellent steak dinner.
Saturday was to be a day to cruise the area. After a hearty breakfast at the Inn, we saddled up and headed back to Linville Falls, were we caught up with the Blue Ridge Parkway. Heading north towards Blowing Rock, the Blue Ridge Parkway is chocked full of winding roads and beautiful mountain views, one of the best ways to tour the mountains of North Carolina.
Shortly after hitting the Parkway we came upon the Linn Cove Viaduct. An engineering marvel, the viaduct is an elevated bridge that wraps around Grandfather Mountain for some eight miles, and has some of the best mountain views on the Parkway. Designed to blend in, the bridge is a fine example of Mother Nature and the man made coexisting. We stopped to take a hike on the trail that goes underneath the Linn Cove Viaduct to get a better view of some truly impressive architecture.
Julian Price Park was the next stop on the Parkway, with a primitive campground and a beautiful lake that offers some excellent trout fishing. The park covers over 4000 acres and has 25 miles of hiking trails. An amphitheater, picnic grounds, and canoe rentals make Julian Price an excellent place to spend the day. We spent a couple of hours, then moved on towards Blowing Rock.
We exited the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Moses Cone Memorial Park, checked out the Crafts Center, and moved on to Blowing Rock for lunch. On the way back, we took the road to Boone, home of Appalachian State University, and turned up 105 back to Banner Elk.
Back at the Inn, there was plenty of daylight left so we took a little break, hopped back on our bikes and headed up the mountain to Valle Crucis. A really fun narrow winding mountain road with one really mean switchback at the top, the ride down the mountain had some great mountain views as we passed farm houses, retreats, horse farms, and some quant little bed and breakfasts tucked away in there own mountain nooks.
Valle Crucis is a very rural community, its hub being the Mast General Store were we stopped for a look see. The Mast family has a large presence here with two stores and the Mast Inn, one of the best of the many Bed and Breakfast Inns in the area. This is where you come when you really want to get away from it all. A mountain retreat with 2 quality horse farms for those who like to ride the live things.
On the way back to Banner Elk via 105, we were having so much fun on these tight little roads that we decided to head on up to Seven Devils, a vacation resort area with the Hawksnest Ski Resort and Golf Coarse at the top of the mountain.
After a full day of riding, back in Banner Elk we headed to happy hour at the Bayou Smokehouse and Grill and stayed all night, scarfing down brewskis, Texas style Bar-B-Que, and some great Louisiana Cajun Cuisine.
Sunday was the day to conquer the big daddy of them all, Grandfather Mountain. Having been on the road all day Saturday, today we were going to do some serious hiking.
With the tallest peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Grandfather Mountain sits on the eastern continental divide and is host to the annual gathering of Scottish clans, and the Highland Games. We passed McRae Meadows and paid the $14 per person to enter the privately owned mountain. We parked briefly at the nature museum and took a quick tour of the wildlife habitat, which features animals native to the region on display in their natural habitat.
As we headed up to the mile high swinging bridge, we could see the clouds racing through the gaps between the peaks. It was a cool, foggy overcast type of day as it so often is in the mountains of North Carolina, and visibility was patchy at best. But we were here for a hike, and hiking is what we did.
We started the trek towards Calloway Peak, and being in the middle of the summer, we had plenty of company. The well marked trail led us through some easy to difficult terrain with ropes and wooden ladders to aid us in climbing the rock faces, and several open vistas where we could recognize Mt. Mitchell on the horizon, and the Sugar Top condos at Sugar Mountain as we viewed the cloud cover below us.
We never made it to the very top of Calloway Peak, the higher you go the harder it gets, but we did wind up getting a good workout, and the hike down was just about as hard as going up. We got back to the swinging bridge parking lot, caught our breath, then mounted our bikes for the trip back home. It was good to have the vibration of the road under us again, and by the time we left the foothills of Morganton, the cool mountain breezes were already becoming a fond memory.
Whether by motorcycle, car, or truck, a road trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina is a great way to beat the heat. The area surrounding Banner Elk and Grandfather Mountain is peppered with vacation homes of people from all over the south east, a large proportion escaping the hot, humid summers of Florida.
Outdoor activities abound all year round with skiing and snowboarding in the winter, and hiking, fishing, kayaking, white water rafting, tennis and golf, camping, or just plain cruising the roads in the spring, summer and fall. Whatever your pleasure, Banner Elk and Grandfather Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains is a great destination for the great American road trip.
About the Author
A former resident of Banner Elk, Michael Talbert currently resides in Jacksonville Beach Florida and is webmaster for Biker Leather Ltd., an online retailer of leather motorcycle jackets, chaps, and accessories.