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Oct. 29, 2021, 8:52 a.m.

Blue Ridge Traveler’s Guide to a Three-Day Mountain Escape

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A weekend escape to the Blue Ridge Mountains may be just what you need to feed your sense of adventure and come away refreshed by the cool mountain air and the warmth of local hospitality.

From Pisgah National Forest and the Blue Ridge Parkway to Lake James and our charming small towns, there’s so much to explore. Whether this is your first trip to our neck of the woods or you’re returning to some of your favorite spots, this three-day Blue Ridge itinerary is sure to help you make some memories and discover something new.

People walking in downtown Marion

Day One — Marion & Lake James

You have arrived in the mountains! Take a deep breath and make your way toward historic Marion, which offers a great base camp for adventure. Explore Marion's Main Street where you’ll find an eclectic collection of boutiques, galleries, restaurants, bakeries and breweries.

Take a walk along the Catawba River on the Joseph McDowell Historic Catawba River Greenway and take a tour of Carson House to learn more about the history of the town and one of its prominent families.

Drive a few miles over to Lake James for a hike on one of Lake James State Park’s 14 trails, and then grab a seat on Bear Creek Marina’s lakefront deck to enjoy a drink or dinner with a view.

Day Two — Best of Pisgah Driving Tour (with stops!)

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Prepare for a packed day of the best the Blue Ridge has to offer by scoping out our popular Lake James Loop route and choosing your top adventures. Plan for at least 2.5 hours for driving, but there are plenty of sights along the way to fill your itinerary in any season.

Grab a morning treat from GoGo's Oven on Main Street and then head east, back toward Lake James — where you can check out any hiking or biking trails you may have missed, or in warmer months rent a kayak or canoe from the Paddy’s Creek Recreation Area.

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The drive will take you to the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, which is also a favorite destination for hikers eager to explore the “Grand Canyon of the East.” Linville Falls is a must-see and one of the most popular stops for waterfall photos.

From there, you’ll head up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, also known as America’s Favorite Drive. As you taken in the spectacular mountain views over the the next 25+ miles, you’ll also pass some of these popular stops:

  • Historic Orchard at Altapass (milepost 328.3) — a 100+ year-old apple orchard and general store with live music on weekends May-October. They close for the season on November 1st.
  • Museum of North Carolina Minerals (milepost 331) — interactive exhibits about the region’s mining heritage.
  • Little Switzerland (milepost 334) — a historic resort town featuring Swiss architecture, unique shops, stunning vistas, and some great options for a lunch stop. Shops and restaurants in this community are seasonal so call ahead in the cooler months to make sure your destination is open.
  • Emerald Village (about a mile from Little Switzerland) — They close for the season on November 1st.
  • Crabtree Falls (milepost 339.5) — a dramatic 60-foot waterfall at the end of a 3-mile woodland trail. Pack a lunch to enjoy at the picnic area here.
Gem mining at Emerald Village

If you aren’t quite ready to leave the Parkway, continue on to Mount Mitchell (milepost 355.4) — the highest point in the Eastern U.S. — or to the popular Craggy Pinnacle Trail (milepost 364.1). Both offer excellent 360-degree views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The remainder of this scenic drive will take you down NC Highway 80, beginning with the winding Devil’s Staircase. At the end of your drive, finish your day enjoying a locally brewed craft beer or glass of wine in downtown Marion, or try another stop on our Craft Spirit Trail before turning in for the night.

Day Three — Old Fort Outdoors

old fort gateway trails

Start your morning in the town of Old Fort, named for a Revolutionary-era fortification that once stood on the western border of European settlement. Old Fort Ride House serves up locally roasted coffee alongside baked goods, breakfast burritos and quiches — the perfect power up for another day of adventure.

For mountain bikers, Old Fort offers a number of fantastic trails to explore. The latest new trail system is the Old Fort Gateway Trails, which offers six miles of mountain biking and hiking paths. If you’re in the mood for a gentler hike, check out the trail to Catawba Falls.* The 3-mile round-trip hike criss-crosses the Catawba River and ends at a breathtaking 340-food double waterfall.

*Note: The Catawba Falls trail is closed for the 2023 season, while the U.S. Forest Service enhances trail safety.

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Back in town, learn about pioneer-era life in the Blue Ridge at the Mountain Gateway Museum, and then find a unique handmade souvenir to remember your trip at Arrowhead Gallery and Studios.

Pull up a chair on the creekside patio at Hillman Beer, and raise a glass (of local craft beer) to a great mountain vacation — it pairs perfectly with their HB Signature burger, and an awesome Blue Ridge vibe.