Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on November 22, 2023.
The most wonderful places to visit in Western North Carolina start with our mountains. They dominate the conversation, whether you’re in the High Country, driving along the iconic Blue Ridge Parkway (and other scenic roads), searching for gorgeous waterfalls, or exploring the many other wonders (including state parks) that make this area so popular!
This area holds some of our favorite things to do in North Carolina, which can also be found inside our book! For now, though, this guide will help you pinpoint the very best things to do and places to go in Western NC!
Read More: Blue Ridge Parkway Hikes
What Makes Up Western North Carolina?
Western North Carolina stretches all the way from the Tennessee border to South Carolina and Georgia in the south. Many folks might forget about Georgia being our border neighbor, but there are many spots near Georgia that can’t be missed!
To the east of the North Carolina mountains are the Foothills, which start as the Piedmont of Central North Carolina begins to gradually rise. The Foothills region includes Chimney Rock, Hickory, Lake Lure, Shelby, and Wilkesboro.
There are multiple definitions of “What makes up Western North Carolina?” We’ve defined its eastern edges from north to south as follows:
- Alleghany County
- Wilkes County
- Alexander County
- Catawba County
- Lincoln County
- Gaston County
Along with The Qualla Boundary (Cherokee), here are all 23 Western North Carolina counties included in this guide:
- Alexander County (Hiddenite and Taylorsville)
- Alleghany County (Sparta and Stone Mountain State Park)
- Ashe County (Jefferson and West Jefferson)
- Avery County (Banner Elk and Linville)
- Buncombe County (Asheville, Black Mountain, and More)
- Burke County (Morganton, the Linville Gorge, and More)
- Caldwell County (Lenoir)
- Catawba County (Hickory and More)
- Cherokee County (Murphy)
- Clay County (Hayesville, Lake Chatuge, and More)
- Cleveland County (Shelby and Kings Mountain)
- Gaston County (Gastonia)
- Graham County (Robbinsville and Fontana Lake)
- Haywood County (Maggie Valley, Waynesville, and Lake Junaluska)
- Henderson County (Hendersonville and Flat Rock)
- Lincoln County (Lincolnton)
- Jackson County (Cashiers, Sylva, and More)
- Macon County (Franklin and Highlands)
- Madison County (Hot Springs, Marshall, and Mars Hill)
- McDowell County (Little Switzerland, Marion, and Old Fort)
- Mitchell County (Bakersville and Spruce Pine)
- Polk County (Saluda and Tryon)
- Rutherford County (Chimney Rock and Lake Lure)
- Swain County (Bryson City and More)
- Transylvania County (Brevard and More)
- Watauga County (Blowing Rock and Boone)
- Wilkes County (North Wilkesboro and Wilkesboro)
- Yadkin County (Jonesville and Yadkinville)
- Yancey County (Burnsville and Mount Mitchell)
Places to Visit in Western North Carolina
We’ve organized this guide alphabetically by county, with two of the largest cities or towns mentioned in the heading. With all that out of the way, here are more than 100 places to visit in Western North Carolina.
Read More: The NC Tripping North Carolina Travel Map
Alexander County (Taylorsville, Hiddenite, and More)
Alexander county sits between Wilkes and Catawba counties and is packed with outdoor fun. Rocky Face Mountain Recreational Area is the place to go for hiking and rock climbing.
The Old Jail Museum in Taylorsville is another unique thing to do in this wonderful spot in Western North Carolina. It’s one of the oldest public buildings in Alexander County
Alleghany County (Sparta, Stone Mountain State Park, and More)
The county seat of Alleghany County is Sparta, a charming small town that really heats up in September with its annual Mountain Heritage Festival.
Stone Mountain State Park partly calls Alleghany “home,” along with Wilkes County. It’s home to amazing hikes, gorgeous waterfalls (including Stone Mountain Falls), a swimming hole at Widow’s Creek Falls, and much more.
Ashe County (Jefferson, West Jefferson, and More)
Ashe County might sound familiar if you like indulging in delicious cheese, but there’s even more to this county than their famous cheese.
The Blue Ridge Parkway runs through parts of the county, and the New River (ironically one of the oldest rivers) passes through here, too. Tubers and fishermen/women come out to the New River frequently during the year.
Mount Jefferson is the county’s other main outdoor attraction, with a series of beautiful overlooks and hikes that simultaneously challenge and awe you.
West Jefferson is a fabulous town in the county and home to breweries, a cheese factory, and more.
We can’t leave this county without mentioning Christmas Fraser Firs. Christmas tree farms dot Western North Carolina, but Frosty’s in Ashe County is one of our favorite Christmas tree farms in North Carolina.
Read More: Christmas in North Carolina
Avery County (Banner Elk, Linville, and More)
Don’t forget about the awesome and exhilarating Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster, which is also in Banner Elk! You can’t miss it.
Not far away from Banner Elk, you’ll find some skiing hotspots and the community of Linville in Avery County.
Between the latter and Blowing Rock is the Little Parkway, one of our favorite scenic roads. The entrance to Grandfather Mountain is on that road, leading to Grandfather Mountain State Park and some of NC’s most epic hikes.
Buncombe County (Asheville, Black Mountain, and More)
Asheville is a popular name when people are searching for the best places to live in Western North Carolina.
We have guides dedicated to things to do in this awesome city, especially for kids! Some of our favorites include the epic Biltmore Estate, the very family-friendly Western NC Nature Center, and the city’s restaurant scene!
Don’t forget about its awesome museums, like the Asheville Art Museum and the Asheville Museum of Science.
Read More: How to Enjoy Christmas at Biltmore
Burke County (Morganton, the Linville Gorge, and More)
Apple Hill Orchard and Fonta Flora Brewing are just a few names that should draw you to Morganton. The town is home to great restaurants and breweries and is surrounded by some epic natural beauty, including the Linville Gorge and Lake James.
You can even see Table Rock Mountain from downtown Morganton, which is an hour’s drive away and just another hint to get outside here. Closer to downtown is the Catawba River Greenway, one of our favorite places for a bike ride or walk!
Caldwell County (Lenoir and More)
A part of Blowing Rock sits in Caldwell County, but the county is better known for the city of Lenoir. Here, you’ll find historic buildings, and places to get outside such as Hibriten Mountain, and the Western North Carolina Sculpture Park.
Catawba County (Hickory and More)
In Newton, the county seat, you’ll find a variety of historic buildings and some nice parks worth exploring. You can also find a part of Lake Norman in Catawba County.
Read More: Day Trips from Charlotte
Within the Qualla Boundary is the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. Cherokee is its capital and one of the most interesting places to visit in Western North Carolina.
Many people come to experience Harrah’s, the massive casino resort that offers table games, top-notch restaurants, and entertainment galore!
Walking up the steps to Mingo Falls is one of the best things to do in Cherokee. Another great waterfall in the area is Soco Falls, which is tricky to see from the bottom but absolutely worth the trek.
We also think you should visit the Museum of the Cherokee People, where you’ll learn about the 11,000-year story of the Cherokee people.
Read More: 18 Unique Luxury Resorts in North Carolina
Cherokee County (Murphy and More)
If you’ve heard the saying “From Murphy to Manteo,” then you might already know that this is the end of the line in Western North Carolina.
People come to Murphy throughout the year to enjoy the downtown and the surrounding mountains.
Regardless of where your religious views, the Fields of the Wood (a massive representation of the 10 Commandments) is always an interesting place to visit.
Andrews is the other main town in Cherokee County and rich in Native American history.
Clay County (Hayesville, Lake Chatuge, and More)
Clay County is the third-smallest NC county and one of its westernmost, sharing the border with three counties in Georgia.
It also shares Lake Chatuge with its neighbors and hosts a handful of small communities. Hayesville is the county seat and on the western end of the county is Brasstown, an interesting stop along the Waterfall Byway portion of US-64.
Cleveland County (Shelby, Kings Mountain, and More)
Many people also come to check out the Don Gibson Theatre, but there’s even more here that requires at least a weekend in this town.
Gaston County (Gastonia, Crowders Mountain, and More!)
Ask anyone familiar with this area, and they’ll tell you about the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia, a county mainstay since 1961. The Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden over in Belmont is another big name, with 380 acres of beautiful flowers and plants.
Also in Gaston County is McAdenville, a town whose Christmas lights display properly earn its nickname of Christmas Town USA. Finally, check out Kings Mountain, parts of which are also within Gaston County’s borders.
Graham County (Robbinsville, Fontana Lake, and More)
Just above Cherokee County and along the western edge of NC is Graham County. Fontana Dam, the tallest dam in the Eastern US, is one of the more popular spots in this county. View Fontana Lake from Graham County and Swain County on your way to the Road to Nowhere.
Robbinsville is the county seat and has been referenced in music and movies. The Joyce Kilmer Forest, seen via the Cherohala Skyway, and Lake Santeetlah are also in Graham County.
Historic Tapoco Lodge in Robbinsville is the perfect base for exploring all of this. It’s also an excellent resting spot in between all of your adventures!
Haywood County (Maggie Valley, Waynesville, and More)
Part of the Blue Ridge Parkway passes through Haywood County, resulting in some truly stunning views and hikes.
Graveyard Fields is one of our favorite hikes in North Carolina, and Waynesville, the county seat, is one of many small towns you should explore. It’s home to great restaurants, welcoming shops, and the interesting Frog Level Historic District.
The Cataloochee Ski Area in this county also brings people to Maggie Valley from all over to enjoy its lengthy, 100+ day ski season. During the warmer months, the Wheels Through Time Motorcycle Museum welcomes you to check out some of the most beautifully restored bikes and informative exhibits.
Canton is the county’s second-largest town that boasts a rich historic district.
Lake Junaluska hosts a variety of events for religious and non-religious organizations throughout the year.
Artists await throughout the county, too, so make sure you have room for that special something you’ll be taking home.
Read More: 20+ Amazing Things to Do in Maggie Valley
Henderson County (Hendersonville, Flat Rock, and More)
Henderson County is one of Western North Carolina’s best places to visit.
Hendersonville is the county seat, home to a fun downtown, some of the area’s best restaurants, and a big part of the scene here. In addition, you’ll find great wineries, amazing apple orchards, and late summer’s Apple Festival (and apple picking, too!).
Sierra Nevada, one of the biggest breweries in NC, calls Mills River home and feels like a town within itself.
The latter is home to a few of our favorite waterfalls, including:
Fletcher is also in Henderson County and Saluda shares space here with Polk County.
Lincoln County (Lincolnton, Apples, and More)
Just above Gaston County sits a small but fun sliver of land known as Lincoln County. Lincolnton is the largest city in this county, as well as the county seat, and home to an awesome July 4 celebration.
Of course, the Lincoln County Apple Festival in October can’t be missed either! This Apple Festival is just one of the numerous reasons why Lincolnton is among our favorite places to visit in Central North Carolina.
Throughout the year, you’ll enjoy the South Fork Rail Trail that runs along the south fork of the Catawba River.
Beatty’s Ford Park is a great spot, too, especially on hot summer days. The splash pad there truly comes in handy.
Jackson County (Cashiers, Sylva, and More)
Speaking of Cashiers, that Western North Carolina town is home to the lovely Village Green and sits near Sapphire, known for its amazing ski resort, golf courses, and more.
Near Sapphire and Cashiers is Lake Toxaway, the beautiful Silver Run Falls, and the backcountry Panthertown Valley. 30 miles of hiking trails await in Panthertown, leading to amazing natural spots such as Schoolhouse Falls.
Jackson County is also known for Sylva and Dillsboro, two truly colorful towns. In Sylva, a must-visit spot is Pinnacle Park, home to an awesome hike that leads to epic views.
And finally, the community of Cullowhee gets the nod as the home of Western Carolina University.
Jackson County is one of our first choices for weekend getaways because of all these things to do, but also for Bear Lake Reserve. This 2,100-acre gated community offers private residences and rentals that surround the gorgeous 500-acre Bear Creek Lake.
Macon County (Franklin, Highlands, and More)
Many folks come to Macon County for whitewater rafting through the Nantahala River. The Appalachian Trail-friendly Franklin and Highlands (shared by Jackson County) are two wonderful small towns worth visiting here, too.
Some of the most beautiful waterfalls in North Carolina are here, including:
- Cullasaja Falls
- Bust Your Butt Falls
- Bridal Veil Falls (not the one inside DuPont State Forest)
- Dry Falls
Madison County (Marshall, Mars Hill, and More)
Mars Hill and county seat Marshall are the two largest towns in Madison County, located just north of Asheville and Buncombe County.
The Hot Springs Historic District is known for being one of North Carolina’s first resort communities. Hot tubs sit along Spring Creek to this day, supplying healing natural mineral water for guests. This is a big part of why we consider Hot Springs to be an amazing winter getaway!
If you’re a hiker, Madison County has some great trails, with some along the Appalachian Trail. Max Patch, near the Tennessee border, offers some of the best views in Western North Carolina.
Lover’s Leap does, too, but is a trickier hike on narrow, steep paths.
McDowell County (Marion, Old Fort, and More)
Marion is known as the place “where Main Street meets the mountains.” This nickname comes from the fact that you exit I-40, pass through town, and access the gorgeous Tom’s Creek Falls after only 15 minutes, accessible after a short walk in the woods.
Little Switzerland is also in McDowell County (Mitchell, too), and its Switzerland Inn is one of our favorite places to stay in North Carolina. We’re also fans of Grassy Creek Falls, just down the road from Switzerland Inn!
Mitchell County (Bakersville, Spruce Pine, and More)
Bakersville gets the nod as the county seat of Mitchell County. It’s home to four art galleries that show off the works of creators who live in the area.
Bakersville is also a gateway to the North Carolina side of Roan Mountain. This mountain is beautiful throughout the year, but summer (mid-June) is when the natural rhododendron garden blooms on Roan Mountain.
The NC Rhododendron Festival in Bakersville kicks off on the third weekend every June to honor those lovely flowers.
Spruce Pine is another notable spot in Mitchell County, home to a nifty downtown and a great arts scene.
Polk County (Saluda, Tryon, and More)
It was hard to pick which town to feature first in Polk County as there are multiple towns with their own unique attractions. However, Saluda wins thanks to its Arts Festival in May and Coon Dog Day Festival, typically held in July.
Columbus is a close second known for Russian Chapel Hills Winery, Shunkawauken Falls, and the Polk County History Museum.
And then there’s Tryon, of course. It’s a town known for its International Equestrian Center and Fine Arts Center. The 90-foot Pearson’s Falls is also in the area and worthy of visiting any time of year!
Rutherford County (Chimney Rock, Lake Lure, and More)
Chimney Rock State Park and Lake Lure are the two biggest draws to Rutherford County in Western North Carolina, and rightfully so. There is plenty of fun to enjoy here.
Hop on a boat tour for a close-up view of the water of if you really want to chill, you can just relax on the beach. We also love walking around the Lake Lure Flowering Bridge, a wonderful repurposing of a former roadway.
Rutherfordton is a historic town that’s home to many firsts, including the first US Post Office in Western NC, the first school chartered by the General Assembly, and the first newspaper published in the western foothills and mountain region.
Whether you’re in Forest City for their beautiful Christmas lights display or bringing your kids to Rutherfordton’s InterACTIVE Museum, Rutherford County is a must-visit.
Swain County (Bryson City and More)
Hikes galore await near downtown Bryson City, considering this is Great Smoky Mountains National Park territory. Deep Creek Trail is one of our favorites.
The end of the Blue Ridge Parkway sits in Swain County, near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, also inside GSMNP. The visitor center is an amazing spot to see elk roaming in the mornings and early evenings.
Clingmans Dome Observation Tower is nearby and takes a short uphill walk to reach. This is also the western terminus or beginning of the Mountains to Sea Trail, depending on which way you’re going.
Transylvania County (Brevard, Waterfalls, and More)
Many of these scenic spots sit within Nantahala National Forest and parts of Pisgah National Forest.
Speaking of Pisgah, check out Pines Country Inn in Pisgah Forest for a fantastic stay.
Watauga County (Blowing Rock, Boone, and More)
Both offer amazing food scenes (Blowing Rock‘s and Boone‘s), shopping, and access to beautiful outdoor spots (see Rough Ridge Trail for example). Boone’s three breweries join Blowing Rock Alehouse to create a fearsome foursome.
Although Grandfather Mountain is part of Avery County (above), this fascinating mountain is also shared by Watauga, Avery, and Caldwell counties.
Wilkes County (North Wilkesboro, Wilkesboro, and More)
There are also some fun places to visit in North Wilkesboro, the county’s largest town. The Wilkes Art Gallery is one of many reasons to visit, along with a variety of events happening throughout each year.
Yancey County (Burnsville, Mount Mitchell, and More)
Burnsville is the biggest town and county seat. The downtown is nice to walk through, especially after a meal at Snap Dragon, Cast Iron Kitchen, or Homeplace Beer Company.
Crabtree Falls straddles the Yancey and McDowell county lines, and, as the former comes first in this list, we’ll include it here. Roaring Fork Falls and Setrock Creek Falls are a couple of more waterfalls in the area that you have to visit!
Ready to Explore these Places to Visit in Western North Carolina?
We can’t express how beautiful Western North Carolina is; we’ve been through the area more than a few times, exploring its small towns and outdoor gems.
In case you know this area, we’d love to hear about your experiences here and any particular places you love, too. If there’s a place you strongly feel belongs here that’s missing, please kindly let us know via email.
If you’ve never been before, we’re eager to know which spots you plan to visit first. Regardless, we hope you’ll enjoy our collection of guides that will make your visit to Western North Carolina the best it possibly can!