Beating the Heat in Beech Mountain, North Carolina
By Bart Beeson
Getting out of my car in Beech Mountain, North Carolina was, quite literally, a breath of fresh air after having spent the previous two days in sweltering Washington, D.C. Driving up the steep and winding road that leads to the town, navigating hairpin turn after hairpin turn, I had noticed my car’s outdoor thermometer slowly ticking down degree by degree. At 5,500 feet in elevation, Beech Mountain is the highest town in the eastern U.S., and it generally stays below 80 degrees in the summer with low humidity, making it a great summer destination for those looking to enjoy the outdoors without overheating. Located within the 500,000-acre Pisgah National Forest, the town and surrounding area offer myriad opportunities for biking, fishing, hiking, and rafting. While for years the town was known primarily as a winter getaway for skiing at Beech Mountain Resort, it has gained a reputation as an outstanding mountain biking spot and a popular four season destination.
My recent visit to Beech Mountain started out with a guided tour of the Emerald Outback mountain biking trails, one of several trail systems around town. Despite a steady rain, Sean Royall, director of the town’s Parks and Recreation department, gave me a tour of the trails, proudly pointing out the features they had added, including steep drops off rock slabs, technical rock gardens, and wooden bridges.
Sean explained that many of the trails, such as Ruby Slipperz and Wizard’s Way, are so named because of the nearby Land of Oz, a whimsical Wizard of Oz theme park that closed to the public in 1980 but is now open for private tours and seasonal events. The trails contain a number of scenic overlooks, and while the views were limited due to the clouds on my visit, it was easy to imagine how beautiful they would be on a clear day.
For non-bikers, the trails are also a popular destination for hikers and trail runners. And if you’re just getting into mountain biking, or looking to improve your skills, mountain bike guides and instructors can be booked through the town’s recreation department. Adventure seekers can also head to the ski resort for downhill biking.
Having gotten my fill of mountain biking, I spent the rest of my two-day stay getting to know the small town of Beech Mountain. Home to roughly 500 permanent residents, the town’s population can grow tenfold in the summer months, when second homeowners come to escape the heat.
In the town center you’ll find Fred’s General Mercantile, a traditional small country store that offers everything from groceries to ski rentals. Underneath the store is Fred’s Backside Deli, where I enjoyed a breakfast sandwich made on a fresh buttermilk biscuit on my first morning in town. Afterwards, I headed to the town’s Buckeye Recreation Center, located a few miles from the town center, and went for a leisurely hike through towering rhododendron bushes around Buckeye Lake. The rec center provides free kayak and canoe rentals, and I enjoyed going for a quick paddle around the pond-sized lake. The center is also home to indoor and outdoor tennis courts and runs a variety of programs, from bike skills camp to fitness classes. Visitors can also book a local fishing guide for $25 an hour (a steal compared to what most fishing guides charge). I wasn’t able to squeeze in any fishing on my trip, but learned that anglers can get a three-day license for North Carolina Mountain Heritage Trout Waters for just $8.
After my paddle, I headed back into town for lunch at the Famous Brick Oven Pizzeria. The quirky restaurant sports a model train making the rounds on an elevated track near the ceiling, an arcade, mini golf, and a bakery. It also boasts a selection of 150 beers all at the same price, and makes a mean calzone, one of which I enjoyed with a local craft brew.
While a mostly rainy day didn’t allow for more outdoor activities, I did get to explore the town more, noting that wild deer grazing in people’s front yards seemed to be more common than a dog on a lead. For dinner that evening I headed over to the Alpen Restaurant in the Beech Alpen Inn. The restaurant boasts spectacular views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, particularly from its outdoor pavilion where they host events and summer concerts. I took in the views while enjoying a tasty steak with a glass of red wine.
As I prepared to leave Beech Mountain I wasn’t looking forward to leaving North Carolina’s high country, heading back to lower elevation with higher temps and humidity and definitely more bugs. I had thoroughly enjoyed my time there, and appreciated the down-to-earth feel to the town. If you’re looking for a glitzy resort town, this town might not be tops on your list. But if you want lots of outdoor adventure in an authentic town with good folks and great views, Beech Mountain might be just what you’re looking for.
For more information, visit Beech Mountain.
Bart Beeson is a Plymouth, New Hampshire-based freelance travel writer and photographer. He is a regular contributor to Travel Weekly, and has published in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and other media outlets. When he’s not traveling, Bart can be found hiking with his dog Kesey or spending time at his family’s New Hampshire lake house.