Located in the North Carolina High Country, less than 20 miles from Boone and Blowing Rock, Banner Elk is one of the most beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain towns we’ve ever visited.
Once used by the Cherokee people for hunting and fishing, the area surrounding the Elk River was settled by Martin L. Banner from Wales in 1848.
As his family grew to 50+ members, the region was known as Banner’s Elk, ultimately becoming Banner Elk when the town was incorporated in 1911.
The town of Banner Elk remains small a century later, encompassing 1.92 square miles, with a population of less than 1,200 people.
But because it’s surrounded by major tourist attractions such as Beech Mountain, Grandfather Mountain, and Sugar Mountain, Banner Elk is beloved among High Country travelers.
Read on for our guide to the exceptional array of things to do in Banner Elk NC, from hiking to waterfalls and driving the Blue Ridge Parkway to sampling the bounty of Banner Elk restaurants and wineries.
Best Things to Do in Banner Elk NC Guide
- Animal Engagement at Apple Hill Farm
- Banner Elk Restaurants
- Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
- Enjoy Elk River Falls
- Fishing at Wildcat Lake
- Grandfather Mountain State Park
- Otter Falls Trail
- Snow Skiing at Beech Mountain/Sugar Mountain
- Ride the Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster
- Sample Banner Elk Wineries
1. Animal Engagement at Apple Hill Farm
Although it shares a name with one of the most popular NC apple orchards for apple-picking, Apple Hill is not that kind of farm.
In fact, when owner Lee Rankin moved to Banner Elk in 2001, she had no farming experience whatsoever. What she did have was a love for animals, a fascination with Alpacas, and an entrepreneurial spirit.
Today her gorgeous estate is home to 21 alpacas, 2 llamas, 7 donkeys, 2 zebus (a humped species of Indian cows), 2 pot-bellied pigs (Laverne & Shirley) and countless fiber goats and chickens.
Touring the farm is an absolute hoot for animal lovers, and can accommodate up to 12 people. On our private tour, Rankin’s friendly dogs were a constant presence, and the baby goats were as engaging as they were adorable.
After your tour, make sure you check out their gift shop, which features clever branded merchandise as well as fresh honey from their beehives.
2. Banner Elk Restaurants
But you will find small shopping centers such as The Village of Banner Elk, which is home to some of the best restaurants in town.
Sorrento’s Italian Bistro is the largest, serving foodie-friendly fare in artfully decorated indoor and outdoor dining areas. The Chef’s Table is more upscale, showcasing chef Nicole Palazzo’s eclectic farm-to-table flavors, while the Bayou Smokehouse offers laid-back Texas BBQ and Cajun cuisine.
Other noteworthy restaurants in Banner Elk include the swanky Stonewalls steakhouse, the expansive menus of the Banner Elk Cafe and Lodge Espresso Bar & Eatery (a great lunch place), the tasty traditional Cuban fare of Bodega’s Kitchen, and hearty breakfast and lunch options at Dunn’s Deli.
For dessert, don’t miss the tasty ice cream flavors on offer at Be Scooped, a quaint little shop tucked away in the back of The Village complex, right next to the arcade!
READ MORE: The 15 Best Downtown Asheville Restaurants
3. Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
The town of Banner Elk is located approximately 10 miles north of the Blue Ridge Parkway, providing easy access to popular attractions like Grandfather Mountain, the Linn Cove Viaduct, and more.
So it’s really the perfect place to base yourself while exploring the NC High Country.
Head south on the BRP and the Linville Gorge Wilderness and Linville Falls are less than 20 miles away, with attractions like Brown Mountain, the Orchard at Altapass, and the town of Little Switzerland a little further.
Head north and you’re less than 20 miles from excellent Boone hiking trails at Julian Price Memorial Park and Moses H Cone Memorial Park, with attractions like The Blowing Rock, Tweetsie Railroad, and the Hickory Ridge History Museum all located nearby.
In short, while there are a lot of great things to do in Banner Elk, there are also countless options for outdoor recreation and exploration nearby!
4. Enjoy Elk River Falls
It’s easy to see why. For one, there’s not really much of a hike to get there. Though there are some roots and rocks along the brief trail, the most difficult aspect will likely be finding a parking spot!
For another, the waterfall itself is truly gorgeous, plunging 50 feet down the edge of cliff into a picturesque pool surrounded with large rocks perfect for sunbathing or having a picnic.
There’s also a lot of things to do at Elk River Falls, including a beach and swimming area in the pool below the big one and a hiking trail that takes you all the way across the border into East Tennessee.
WARNING: Many people have died or been injured at Elk River Falls. Do not dive from the rock cliff (objects hidden below), climb the rock face, or swim under the falls (where the current is fierce)!
READ MORE: The 27 Best Waterfalls Near Asheville NC
5. Fishing & Fun at Wildcat Lake
If you’re looking for the perfect Banner Elk swimming hole, look no further than the 13-acre Wildcat Lake, which is located right next to Tufts Memorial Park.
One of the smaller beautiful lakes in the NC High Country, it sits on the property of Grandfather Home for Children. There’s no charge to use the public-access facility, but donations are appreciated.
There are lots of amenities at Wildcat Lake, including a white sand beach, swimming pier (with lifeguards on duty in summer), and fishing dock. The park also includes a bath house, picnic tables, and three picnic shelters.
The lake is extremely popular with anglers, as the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission stocks it regularly with bluegill, largemouth bass, and three varieties of trout. You can fish here seven days a week from dawn to dusk, but NC state fishing licenses are required.
Note that boating is limited to non-motorized boats, canoes, and kayaks, and no pets or alcohol are permitted on the property.
6. Explore Grandfather Mountain
Easily ranking among the most popular Western NC State Parks, the 2,500-acre Grandfather Mountain State Park is located about 12 miles from the heart Banner Elk.
There are 12 miles of hiking trails there, including the Black Rock Trail, Daniel Boone Scout Trail, Grandfather Trail, Profile Trail, Nuwati Trail, and more.
Most of them are rated as strenuous in terms of difficulty, and some require climbing ladders and scrambling over rock. But the views they provide at 6,000+ feet of elevation are breathtaking.
There’s also a privately-owned Grandfather Mountain attraction that requires an entry fee. It ranges from $9 for kids ages 4-12 to $20 for seniors and $22 for adults, and proceeds help to support their conservation initiatives.
In return, you can access additional hiking trails, visit the Nature Museum and Wildlife Habitats, and soak in stunning scenic views via the 228-foot Mile High Swinging Bridge.
7. Otter Falls Trail
One of our favorite Blue Ridge Parkway waterfalls, Otter Falls is located halfway between Banner Elk and Grandfather Mountain in the town of Seven Devils, which is best known for snow tubing in winter.
Debuted in 2015, with an observation deck built in 2017, the Otter Falls trail features a 0.9-mile round-trip hike rated as moderate (largely due to the 226 feet in elevation gain).
The trail descends into a lush forest filled with rhododendron and other North Carolina wildflowers in early summer, reaching the observation deck at around a half-mile.
Though not as impressive as larger waterfalls such as Crabtree Falls, Otter Falls offers its own unique beauty. Two small cascades spill down a massive boulder before converging in a creek, which is small and shallow enough for kids to wade in.
The climb back out will definitely give you a bit of a thigh workout. But it’s easy enough that you may want to take some of the side loop trails to extend this lovely hike.
8. Snow Skiing at Beech Mountain/Sugar Mountain
With its High Country elevation, perhaps it’s no surprise that there are four fantastic North Carolina ski resorts less than 45 minutes from Banner Elk.
Beech Mountain, whose 5,506 feet in elevation makes it “the highest town in the Eastern US,” gets around 85 inches of snow each year. There are 17 ski trails at the resort (including “The Park” for practicing on different terrains), plus a 7,000-square-foot outdoor ice-skating rink.
Sugar Mountain, which averages around 70 inches of snow annually, is the largest ski resort in North Carolina. It boasts the longest vertical drop of all the NC ski slopes. with eight ski lifts servicing 21 slopes and 125 acres of skiing terrain.
There are also excellent snow skiing opportunities at Appalachian Ski Mountain in Blowing Rock.
And the Hawksnest Snowtubing & Zipline Resort in Seven Devils has more than 30 tubing lanes available, ranging from 400 to 1000 feet long.
9. Ride the Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster
Although there’s a Georgia Mountain Coaster in Helen GA, less than two hours from our home, we’d never ridden an alpine rollercoaster until we visited Banner Elk.
Each of the carts is built to hold two people (up to 375 pounds total), but you can ride solo if you’re at least 16 years old and 54 inches tall. If riding double, the passenger must be at least 38 inches tall.
The carts have a manual braking system that allows you to slow down on the banked turns as you descend through the forest.
But screaming “FULL THROTTLE!!!” at the top of our lungs as we careened at top speed down the rollicking 2,390 feet of track ultimately proved to be one of the most fun things to do in Banner Elk NC.
10. Sample the Banner Elk Wineries
Though Banner Elk doesn’t have as many wineries as towns like Hendersonville NC, there are two beautiful vineyards in the area that offer wine tastings in perfectly picturesque settings.
The Banner Elk Winery was our favorite, not only because of the wines themselves but also the upscale aesthetic of the landscaping and interior design.
For $12 you get to taste 8 wines, from dry whites and reds to Berry Mango and Watermelon Jalapeño Sangria. Try their Blueberry Wines for a unique finish!
The family-owned Grandfather Vineyard boasts a beautiful riverside location, with gazebos and umbrellas for shade.
But the crowd was a bit older, the service a bit less personal, and the wines weren’t quite as sophisticated as the award-winning Banner Elk Winery offerings.
Banner Elk Cabins and B&Bs
If you’re looking for Banner Elk cabin rentals, you won’t find a sweeter location than Mena’s Place from Banner Elk Mountain Cabins.
The historic 2-bedroom cabin was built on Main Street in 1939. It has been updated with modern comforts, but retains original details including hardwood floors, wainscoting, and the master bathtub.
Our favorite features included the excellent location, comfy beds, cozy living room, updated kitchen, and the expansive back deck, which overlooks a cow pasture strewn with wildflowers.
We started every morning out back, drinking coffee with the friendly cows. We also loved this Banner Elk cabin’s proximity to the High Country’s excellent array of outdoor attractions.
The Perry House B&B
This family-owned Banner Elk bed and breakfast was built in 1901, then restored in the style of a charming country inn in the late 1990s.
Located in the heart of Banner Elk, The Perry House has five rooms with a Queen-sized bed, en suite bathroom, flat screen TV, and WiFi.
The Betsy Room (one of four rooms upstairs) offers a slightly larger bathroom and excellent views of the town, with Grandfather Mountain and Sugar Mountain providing an epic backdrop.
This Banner Elk inn is extremely homey and welcoming, thanks to largely to the personality of owners Mike and Robin Dunn (who also own Dunn’s Deli).
They keep their cozy living room stocked with coffee, hot cocoa, and snacks; their fridge has sodas; and the front porch rocking chairs urge you to take a load off and stay a while. –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted