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
- Hike the Otter Falls Trail
- Snow Skiing at Beech Mountain/Sugar Mountain
- Ride the Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster
- Sample Banner Elk Wineries
Visit the Banner House Museum
Go Deep at Linville Caverns
Explore the Hickory Ridge Living History Museum & “Horn in the West”
- Hike the Rough Ridge Trail
Choose-and-cut Christmas Trees
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 and Tweetsie Railroad 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 in the NC High Country area!
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.
This mountain 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. Hike the 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 mountain 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 Snow Tubing & 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 providing welcoming 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.
11. Visit the Banner House Museum
One of the lesser-known Banner Elk attractions, the Banner House Museum is a great living history museum that allows visitors to learn about the 19th century lives of early settler Samuel Henry Banner, his wife, and their 7 children.
Located near the heart of town on the grounds of Lees-McRae College, the renovated house was built in 1865.
It has been decorated with period antiques, hand-stitched quilts, vintage clothing, photographs, and paintings to show what life was like in the North Carolina mountains in the late 1800s.
There’s also an Exhibition Room that highlights the history of Banner Elk in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The museum is typically open from mid-June through September, with volunteer docents leading daily tours. They also offer guided walking tours of Downtown Banner Elk, or self-guided tours using a free Pocket Sights app.
Check the Banner House Museum website for upcoming special events, such as Children’s Day, a cemetery tour, and a bus tour of Banner Elk’s historic attractions.
12. Go Deep at Linville Caverns
Located about 20 miles south of Banner Elk in Marion, near Linville Falls and the Linville Gorge Wilderness, Linville Caverns is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Western NC.
And while it’s not as large as other Blue Ridge caves (such as Luray Caverns in Luray VA or Grand Caverns near Waynesboro VA), it’s the only show caverns in North Carolina, with some unique history and animal attractions.
Linville Caverns was discovered by local fishermen in 1822, and you can still occasionally see the blind trout who were trapped inside the cave today.
You might also see little brown bats and tricolored bats, who hibernate in the caverns from late fall to early spring.
A half-hour guided Linville Caverns tour will also introduce you to its history (including Civil War deserters who used the caves as a hideout) and geological features (stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, etc).
Note that as you exit the caverns, you’ll be asked to step in a bleach solution to help kill the fungus that causes White-nose syndrome, which is endangering the bats who roost on the property.
It’s also important not to wear the clothes you wear to Linville Caverns in any other cave system until they’ve been washed.
13. Explore the Hickory Ridge Living History Museum & “Horn in the West”
Another great living history museum, this popular Boone attraction offers visitors an opportunity to experience what life was like for early colonists in late 1700s/early 1800s North Carolina.
In that early Appalachian era, the small High Country community of Boone was diverse, tenacious, largely self-sufficient, and fairly content living with few luxuries.
Both the Hickory Ridge History Museum and “Horn in the West” (a play set during the Revolutionary War) are the work of the Southern Appalachian Historical Association, which strives to “explore, preserve, and share the region’s rich cultural heritage.”
The museum has six mountain cabins dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Guided tours of the museum also help to provide insight into Blue Ridge crafts such as weaving, candle making, and cooking on open hearths.
14. Hike the Rough Ridge Trail
Located less than 14 miles south of Banner Elk at Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 302.8, Rough Ridge is right in the heart of the epic scenic route’s most beautiful stretch.
With the summit of Grandfather Mountain looming high above, the engineering marvel of the Linn Cove Viaduct down below, and the rolling hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains every which way you turn, it’s among the best hiking trails in North Carolina.
Though it’s part of the epic, strenuous Tanawha Trail (13.5 miles total), the 1.2-mile Rough Ridge hike is short and relatively easy, with a well-tended path and moderate elevation gain.
There are lots of rocky outcroppings along the way that offer spectacular photo opportunities, and some are large enough to sit and enjoy a snack or picnic as you savor the stunning scenic views.
There’s a boardwalk at the very top to help protect the local flora and fauna, and the massive boulders at the summit offer the most extraordinary sights you’ll see during your time in the NC High Country.
15. Choose-and-Cut Christmas Trees
The Blue Ridge Mountains provide the vast majority of Fraser fir Christmas trees purchased in the United States every year during the holiday season.
And while there are countless Western NC Christmas tree farms where you can choose-and-cut your own Christmas tree, the NC High Country region around Banner Elk, Blowing Rock, and Boone is the #1 growing location in the Eastern US.
Two of the best Christmas Tree Farms in the area, Bluestone Greenery and Bear Wallow Choose & Cut, are located in Sugar Grove, about 14 miles north of Banner Elk.
Boone is home to three popular farms– Clawson’s Choose & Cut, C&J Christmas Trees, and Panoramic View Christmas Tree Farm– and Blowing Rock’s Appalachian Evergreens is another family-friendly favorite.
In addition to Christmas trees and wreaths, many of thee places offer everything from hayrides and hot apple cider to shopping for homespun Christmas decor. So visiting them to kick off the season is a common NC Christmas tradition!
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