This North Carolina Small Town Duo Offers Beautiful Hiking Trails, Cool Craft Shops, and Charming B&Bs

·5 min read
Sylva, NC street with blooms
Sylva, NC street with blooms

Nick Breedlove/Courtesy of Jackson County Tourism Development Authority

Things that may come to mind when you think of North Carolina: the remote Outer Banks, legendary Pinehurst golfing, and the world-famous Biltmore Estate. Those may be big draws, but any North Carolinian will tell you the soul of the state is best found in its small towns. And the Blue Ridge Mountain towns of Sylva and Dillsboro capture that special North Carolina magic. The side-by-side destinations (six minutes away by car) are hubs for nature lovers in need of fresh mountain air and a big serving of Appalachian charm. Here's how to plan the perfect getaway to both.

What to Do Outdoors

A dirt hiking trail through Pinnacle Park
A dirt hiking trail through Pinnacle Park

Nick Breedlove/Courtesy of Jackson County Tourism Development Authority

Once upon a time in the 1800s, visitors arrived via steam engines or wagons rumbling over red-clay roads. Now, road trippers drive to the region to enjoy the great outdoors, Blue Ridge Mountains-style. Whether you want rigorous adventure or the simple pleasures of country life, this neck of the woods has options for both.

The waterfall-laced Pinnacle Park features hiking trails ranging from fraction-of-a-mile nature walks to steep out-and-back treks to the namesake summit, a rocky ridge looming 2500 feet above the valley below.

Meanwhile, the county's Wolf Creek Lake is a popular spot for kayaking (keep an eye out for otters, deer, and even bears on the banks and bald eagles overhead) and fly-fishing for bass and bream; Sylva is a major player on the Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail.

A group white water rafting on the Tuckasegee River
A group white water rafting on the Tuckasegee River

Bren Dendy/Courtesy of Jackson County Tourism Development Authority

During rafting season (spring to early fall), outfitters stand by offering tubing and family-friendly whitewater-rafting trips down the Tuckasegee River ("the Tuck," to locals) — another fly-fishing hot spot and one of the best trout rivers in the Southeast.

Within a half-hour drive of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the two towns make a great home base for those wanting to explore the country's most-visited national park. The Blue Ridge Parkway, Harrah's Cherokee Casino Resort, Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (vintage steam train rides through the countryside and along the river), and a good many waterfall hikes are all less than 30 minutes by car.

What to Do in Town

Interior and cafe board at White Moon
Interior and cafe board at White Moon

Courtesy of Jackson County Tourism Development Authority

While the mountains may be the big draw, there's much fun to be had wandering the historic streets and exploring local mom-and-pop shops, too. Start by getting the lay of the land in Sylva: Walk up the 100 steps to the 1913 Jackson County Courthouse (now a public library) for a bird's-eye view of Main Street and the encircling mountain scenery.

Back on street level, grab coffee at The Farmhouse Mercantile, a home goods boutique and coffee shop set in an old general store, or something more substantial (good morning, 'gram-worthy breakfast sammies) at White Moon, a coffee shop by day, Dark Moon cocktail bar by night. From here, antique and craft shoppers and bookstore browsers have their work cut out for them; City Lights Bookstore is one of a handful of booksellers in town.

Interior of Qualla Arts and Craft
Interior of Qualla Arts and Craft

Courtesy of BlueRidgeCraftTrails.com

Over in Dillsboro, vintage hunters with an eye for treasure can find everything from old-fashioned bottles and blue speckled enamelware to hand-sewn quilts and gramophones at Front Porch General Store. A few doors down is Dogwood Crafters, an ivy-covered cottage selling work from dozens of regional artisans. Qualla Arts and Crafts in neighboring Cherokee is the country's oldest Native American cooperative and a mecca for baskets, wood carvings, pottery, and other Cherokee-made works of art.

Mosey a few miles down U.S. 23 to Rockhound Ridge Gem Mine, where you can sift for moonstones, opals, and geodes — a slam dunk for kids.

What to Eat Drink

Food on a counter at Guadalupe Cade
Food on a counter at Guadalupe Cade

Nick Breedlove/Courtesy of Jackson County Tourism Development Authority

After you've built up an appetite from antiquing in town and exploring the outdoors, get a burger and an order of fried deviled eggs at Foragers Canteen, or a tray piled high with brisket and all manner of barbecue fixings (collards, mac 'n' cheese, campfire potatoes) at Haywood Smokehouse.

A large tray of BBQ from Haywood Smokehouse
A large tray of BBQ from Haywood Smokehouse

Courtesy of Jackson County Tourism Development Authority

Interior of Lulu's on Main
Interior of Lulu's on Main

Courtesy of Jackson County Tourism Development Authority

Main Street highlights include Ilda, a cozy husband-and-wife-run Italian wine bar; Guadalupe Cafe, an eclectic Caribbean-inspired spot set in a century-old drugstore; and vegan-friendly Lulu's on Main, a longtime local favorite for sandwiches and pastas.

An assortment of beers on a table at Innovation Brewery
An assortment of beers on a table at Innovation Brewery

Bren Dendy/Courtesy of Jackson County Tourism Development Authority

Craft breweries are big in western North Carolina. Innovation Brewing runs taprooms in both towns: Sylva's is a creekside watering hole right off of Main Street, Dillsboro's occupies a former train depot. Live music, Southern bar fare, and craft beer brewed with pure Great Smoky Mountains water are found at the Sylva branch of Bryson City-based Nantahala Brewing Company. Lighthearted names like Fergus the Rat Chocolate Milk Stout and Eww That Smell (a sour gose) belie the seriously good drafts over at Balsam Falls Brewing Co., whose impressive beer list encompasses hard seltzers and meads.

Where to Stay

Exterior of the Whistle Stop Inn
Exterior of the Whistle Stop Inn

Nick Breedlove/Courtesy of Jackson County Tourism Development Authority

What would a trip to the mountains be without a stay in a cabin, campground, or country inn? Check Vrbo or Airbnb for cabin or cottage rentals; one, Highfield Cabins, offers bucolic pasture and Smokies views, plus soothing sounds of a nearby stream. Campers and RVers are likely to luck into a creekside site at Moonshine Creek, a rustic campground with cabin options. Or, if you want to stay right in town, there's Dillsboro's Whistle Stop Inn, a character-packed bed-and-breakfast set in a late 1880s farmhouse.