Here in Columbia, it seems when families want to escape, the natural urge is to head east, to the beach. I love the beach. Being near the ocean feels like home to me, having grown up in Eastern North Carolina, at Camp Lejeune. I want to urge you though, to think about heading in a different direction…
Let’s go to the mountains!
The Blue Ridge Mountains encompasses rather a lot of territory, so you may be wondering where to start. I’d suggest searching near Linville, NC to start. There are a ton of activities for all ages, and at a variety of price points in the area. The scenery isn’t too bad either.
Where to Stay
If you’re feeling adventurous – camp!
Between state-owned parks, like the one at Grandfather Mountain, and privately held campgrounds, there is a wide selection of options, with various amenities. It’s wonderful to really be in nature and have to opportunity to unpack and unwind.
If you want space – rent!
Check Airbnb, VRBO, and other property management sites for options. Our family rented an amazing home at a very reasonable price through Airbnb. There was plenty of space both indoors and out for exploring, but unlike camping, we got to sleep in real beds and didn’t have to worry about the weather. Also, there was TV and Wifi for times we wanted to be a little more technologically connected. The advantage for us, over a hotel, was that we could cook some of our meals. We also felt like we could really spread out and relax in the space.
If you just want a bed, shower, and a view – hotel/motel!
There are a number of hotels and motels along the route up into the mountains between Linville and Boone; which is a bonafide college town, home of Appalachian State University.
Wherever you choose to lay your head – whether in a tent, home, or hotel – a fantastic view is right outside.
Before I go into your activity options, let me first give you a quick geography lesson. (I promise, it won’t be painful.)
To get to the Linville, NC area, you will head north from Columbia. You’ll drive near Asheville and keep climbing. The drive to the Linville area was about three and a half hours from our home in Lexington. The Linville area is the first you come to. Then, as you continue north, you will go through Blowing Rock, which is still a fairly small, charming mountain town. Boone is just north of that, less than 30 minutes away. If you continue north beyond Boone, you come to the northeast corner of Tennessee.
Now, on to what to do when in the NC mountains!
There are man-made attractions between Blowing Rock and Boone, including Tweetsie Railroad and Mystery Hill. Both attractions have a myriad of activities for various ages; definitely check the websites of each for prices and discounts.
Scattered throughout the area are gem-mining opportunities, which is a family favorite in our home. We visited Emerald Village and Foggy Mountain – when asked my kids could not decide which was their favorite. Emerald Village offers a little more in the way of showing you the history of mining and self-guided tours of the mining cave that are still navigable, whereas Foggy Mountain is more just for the gem mining experience.
There are so many to choose from, but I will stick to the basics.
1. Linville Falls and Linville Caverns…
…are a little more than three miles apart along a winding mountain road. Linville Caverns is a paid experience – you must buy tickets for tours of the caverns – but it is an extraordinary and worthwhile experience. The Cavern staff are limiting the number of people in each tour which does, naturally, lead to fewer overall tickets sold each day. If you are going on a weekend or during a school vacation, it’s best to get there within the first hour or so of opening (so between 9 and 10 a.m.) to secure a ticket for a tour that day. If your ticket is for a later time slot, that gives your family a natural break in the day to explore Linville Falls, right up the road.
You can take it easy and hike the less than half-mile trail to the base of the first big falls, or you can climb a bit more to two more lookout points which are well worth the climb. Pack water and wear comfortable shoes.
**A note for families with babies and toddlers – this trail is not stroller-friendly! I saw families struggling with strollers along the path, and cannot recommend tackling the stairs with a stroller. Baby/toddler wearing if you can is ideal here.**
…is home to the Highland Games in the summer, and a must-see hiking spot for most of the year. It’s also home to the mile-high swinging bridge which has been terrifying people with a fear of heights (like me!) for decades. We did not visit this trip, but I went in my teens, and I have fond memories. Many of the hiking trails are more suited for older children and teens. There is a charge for admission, but this is a place you can easily spend an entire day. Packing a lunch would not be a bad idea.
…is mostly an area to drive through, but there are hiking trails that are adjacent to it. There are well-marked overlooks that make travel along a parkway a treat in and of itself. Picnic areas and creeks for wading are welcome stops, especially in summer.
…This scenic town is named for this natural stone overlook. There is paid admission to the overlook, as well as a gift shop. The town’s downtown center is full of unique gift shops and eateries and is well worth exploring.
…is a great place to stop, and is actually on your way up or down the mountain! Located about two hours from Columbia, it’s named for a tall rock with a fabulous waterfall. You can take an elevator up to the top, and hike down (really the best option, in my opinion). There is a special kids’ trail, and check online for discounts for family tickets.
Between kids and the pandemic, I’ve gotten really used to drive thru’s, and there are not a lot of options in that vein in the area (a few, a Hardees and a couple McDonald’s I could easily spot). The majority of dining options are going to be in Boone, which is the most developed area in the region. We did find a lovely steak and seafood place in Bakersville, not far from our Airbnb, and I’ve heard amazing things about the Daniel Boone Inn’s restaurant in Boone. For breakfast and lunch, if at all possible, pack your food and bring it with you as you adventure. There are scattered cafes in and around the area, including Famous Louise’s Rockhouse in Linville, which I am sure are worth a try.
If you need a weekend getaway and want to be in nature and avoid the crowds, head to the mountains! There’s so much to do and see, and nothing to regret. Except maybe not staying longer.