[Updated July 12, 2021]
One of the things people don’t tell you about taking a Blue Ridge Parkway road trip is how remarkably uncommercialized this 469-mile slice of Appalachian Americana is.
You can drive for 50-100 miles and never see any Blue Ridge Parkway hotels, resorts, restaurants, or gas stations. Which is precisely what makes Little Switzerland, NC– located at BRP milepost 334– so incredibly surprising.
Founded by North Carolina State Supreme Court Justice Heriot Clarkson in the early 1900s after his Switzerland Inn was built, the resort town is the only commercial access point you’ll find along the entire length of the Parkway.
Little Switzerland is very tiny, only open 6 months of the year (mid-April to mid-November), and primarily appeals to tourists.
But with its charming Alpine influences, breathtaking views, access to lots of things to do on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and quaint Little Switzerland hotels, it quickly became one of our favorite towns in the NC mountains.
So here’s a look at our favorite things to do in Little Switzerland, from driving the Diamondback and panning for gems at Emerald Village to shopping, local restaurants, and more!
LITTLE SWITZERLAND HISTORY
The history of Little Switzerland dates back to 1909, when Justice Heriot Clarkson and two other men were exploring the mountains of Western North Carolina.
As the team and their mules reached the grassy summit of one peak, they marveled at the stunning sights before them. They saw Mount Mitchell to the west, Linville Mountain to the south, Table Rock and Grandfather Mountain to the east, and Roan Mountain to the north.
Those picturesque panoramic views, with the deep valleys and rolling hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains stretching as far as eyes could see, reminded Clarkson of the scenery in the Swiss Alps.
And so it was that Clarkson picked that very spot to build his Switzerland Inn, which opened in 1911 and became the heart of the nascent town of Little Switzerland, NC.
By the time construction on the Blue Ridge Parkway began in 1935, Clarkson’s Little Switzerland resort was beloved as a serene, secluded escape from the hustle and bustle of the cities.
So seasonal residents were understandably upset by the idea of a highway running through their retreat.
Clarkson was also put off by the amount of land the NC Highway Commission wanted for the road and its scenic easement.
Ever the shrewd businessman, he hired a team of lawyers and negotiated numerous concessions that make Little Switzerland and the Switzerland Inn unique on the Blue Ridge Parkway today.
First, he was awarded a price ($575 per acre) that was 10 times higher than the average being paid for land to build the Parkway.
Secondly, he made sure there was an interchange right in front of the Switzerland Inn, with none of the protective scenic easements you’ll find on the rest of the BRP.
As a result, the Switzerland Inn is the only Blue Ridge resort directly on the BRP, and Little Switzerland is the only Blue Ridge mountain town the Parkway passes through.
Although the 1911 building was demolished and replaced in 1961, the Switzerland Inn today still maintains its original old world charm. With fine dining, Swiss-style shops, and spectacular views, it’s the centerpiece of the cutest little village in North Carolina.
THINGS TO DO IN LITTLE SWITZERLAND
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS
Driving the Diamondback 226
The Diamondback is an intense 38-mile driving route beloved by bikers and sports car owners alike.
Encompassing parts of Hwy 226A, US 221, Tom’s Creek Road, NC 80, and the BRP, the diamond-shaped route includes 190 steep, climbing curves, including switchbacks that loop nearly 360º!
Along these hair-raising hairpin curves, you’ll see the stunning mountain scenery, sheer cliffs, and verdant valleys this area is known for. It’s a wonderful way to see the Fall colors in the North Carolina mountains.
The challenging drive is so popular, the Switzerland Inn has an 8-room Diamondback Lodge reserved primarily for groups of motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts.
Emerald Village Discovery Mill
This popular Little Switzerland attraction is dedicated to the area’s mining history. Mica has been mined there by Native Americans for nearly 2,000 years.
The 12 mines at Emerald Village have produced over 54 types of minerals, and you can still pan for aquamarine, emerald, garnet, smoky quartz, gold, and more there today.
Their NC Mining Museum and historic Bon Ami Mine Tours are temporarily closed, but you can still explore the decidedly quirky Discovery Mill. The building has 8 connected levels of shops and exhibits with an unusual array of themes and collections.
You’ll see everything from black light minerals, and antique homesteading tools to a huge model railroad and an extensive collection of impressive gems.
Hiking to Crabtree Falls
Located just over 4 miles from the Switzerland Inn, Crabtree Falls is a great hike to do either before or after a visit to Emerald Village (which is just a mile away).
There’s a fairly strenuous 3.5-mile loop trail, or you can take a right at the intersection just down from the parking area for a shorter, easier in-and-out trek.
It’s just under a mile, mostly downhill, to reach the 70-foot waterfall. There are stunning views of the cascades from the bridge and the other side of the creek, and you can walk right up to the base.
The uphill trek can be a bit of a slog, especially when it’s muddy after a rain. But it’s totally worth it to see one of the best waterfalls in Western North Carolina!
Museum of North Carolina Minerals
Whereas Emerald Village offers a family-friendly look at the area’s mining history, the Museum of North Carolina Minerals (which offers free admission) takes a more science-focused approach.
Overseen by the National Park Service, the museum offers interactive displays featuring 300+ types of gems and minerals found in the mountains of the Spruce Pine Mining District.
It shows how a continental collision some 400 million years ago created the mountains of the Southern Appalachians. And how the molten rock that was forced into cracks of other rocks cooled slowly, forming massive mineral deposits.
Open 7 days a week at BRP Milepost 331, it’s a great attraction for understanding the importance mining and minerals have played in the Blue Ridge region.
The Orchard at Altapass
Located a few miles from Little Switzerland at Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 328.3, the Orchard at Altapass is an apple orchard, Appalachian Cultural Center, and slice of Blue Ridge mountain history.
It was built by the Clinchfield Railroad back in 1908, named for the high ground on which it sits (Alta) and the pass through McKinney Gap, the lowest section of the mountains for 100 miles.
This is also where the Overmountain Men came from Indian Territory to attack the British in 1780.
Today, the orchard’s trees grow right along the Eastern Continental Divide, and at its peak they produced 125,000 bushels of apples each year.
Before the pandemic they offered live Appalachian music and dancing on weekend afternoons, pick-your-own apples in September and October, and hayrides through the orchard.
They still have local mountain art, jams and jellies, Southern-style sweets, and souvenirs, as well as hiking trails and a Butterfly Conservation Center.
LITTLE SWITZERLAND RESTAURANTS
The Switzerland Inn’s full service restaurant offers three meals a day, offering fine dining surrounded by extraordinary mountain views.
The Chalet Restaurant lunch menu features Southern foodie fare such as Carolina Caprese (fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese & red pepper puree) and a Smoked Trout Club sandwich.
Dinner is decidedly more upscale, with an array of perfectly prepared Steaks, Short Rib, Shrimp, and Seared Ahi dishes to select from.
More casual lunches and dinners can be had in the Terrace Dining area when weather permits, with incredible Blue Ridge scenery surrounding you on 3 sides.
Fowl Play Pub & Tap Room
Also located on the Switzerland Inn property, the Fowl Play Pub & Tap Room is more low-key, with a laid-back gastropub vibe.
The focus in this Little Switzerland restaurant is more on drinking and socializing, with 20 different beers on tap, local craft brews, wine, and mixed beverages.
The menu is fairly simple– mostly things like wings, burgers, shrimp, and other snackable fare. But the food quality is still a cut above your average burger joint.
READ MORE: The Best Downtown Asheville Restaurants
The Swiss Shoppe
Located in the heart of Little Switzerland, the adorably quaint Swiss Shoppe is centered around indulging your inner child (and its sweet tooth).
Decorated in an explosion of pink, purple, teal, and lime green, the shop’s splatter-paint floor and colorful decor should make kids feel right at home.
In terms of desserts, the Swiss Shoppe offers Breyers Ice Cream, local organic ice cream from Artesana (in nearby Marion, NC), Jelly Bellys, and an array of old fashioned sweet treats.
There’s also hot coffee, hot cocoa, and a few old school video games in the seating area to keep sugar-fueled families entertained.
Boldly promoting itself as the best of the Blue Ridge Parkway restaurants, the Switzerland Cafe has been sustaining hungry road-trippers for 30+ years now.
The first thing you’ll notice is the mouth-watering smell. It’s coming from one of the largest wood-fired smokehouses in North Carolina, which earned the restaurant a spot on the NC BBQ Trail.
Their known for their extensive array of sandwiches, soups, and salads, with the Applewood Smoked Trout, Hickory Smoked Pork BBQ, and Smoked Salmon BLT among the most popular favorites.
Check out their selection of imported beers and wines, and a delectable dessert menu with Southern classics such as Bourbon Pecan Pie and Hummingbird Cake.
READ MORE: The Best Restaurants in Blue Ridge, GA
Little Switzerland Books & Beans
This lovely Little Switzerland shop is a bookworm’s dream come true. Books and Beans has three stories chock full of books, a small gallery of arts and crafts, and a full-service coffee and espresso bar. A local treasure since 1987, it’s a delightful place to spend a leisurely afternoon.
Switzerland General Store
Owned by the proprietors of the Switzerland Cafe, the Switzerland General Store offers a variety of picnic items, including cheese, beer, and wine. It’s also a great place to get T-shirts and other Little Switzerland souvenirs, especially those related to the Diamondback driving route.
This charming little gift shop offers an eclectic array of unique items, many of which are locally crafted. From kitchenware and jewelry to handmade soaps and stained glass, the Trillium Gallery is the sort of welcoming shop where you’re sure to find treasures you didn’t know you needed.
READ MORE: The Best Things to Do in Asheville NC
LITTLE SWITZERLAND RESORTS & HOTELS
Though it may not look like much from the front, this Little Switzerland inn offers some of the village’s most spectacular scenery.
Located at 3,200 feet on the side of Grassy Mountain, this rustic Blue Ridge Parkway lodge has 12 rooms, 8 of which offer private balconies overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The large covered picnic table, grills, swing, chairs, and firepit chiminea give the place a homey feel, with owners Ron & Susan Lough the hosts making their B&B-style inn feel warm and welcoming.
Big Lynn Lodge
Though Little Switzerland lodging options may be limited, the Big Lynn Lodge is a great alternative for travelers on a budget.
They offer great deals for non-peak nights, and all rooms include breakfast and dinner for two people (which is great, considering the tiny town’s restaurant options are also limited).
This Little Switzerland hotel offers 38 rooms, four suites (which have King beds and full kitchens), plus individual and grouped cottages. Some are newer, but others were used as farm cabins in the area 100+ years ago.
With a rocking chair porch that affords sprawling views of the Catawba River Valley, card and billiard rooms, fireplace lounge, and spacious grounds, it’s a laid-back Blue Ridge Parkway lodge that makes you want to put your feet up and stay a while.
Arguably among the best Blue Ridge Parkway resorts in North Carolina, this expansive Little Switzerland Inn is the heart of the tiny town’s tourism.
There’s an array of accommodation options to choose from, from regular rooms in the main lodge to suites with majestic mountain views. But we really adored the rustic A-frame cottages, which are tucked back into a shaded forest.
All of the Switzerland Inn’s lodging options come with Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs, iPod docks, and coffeemakers. The suites boast separate sitting areas and pull-out sofas, while their cozy cottages have fireplaces and whirlpool tubs.
This Little Switzerland hotel is at the center of the action, with a casual restaurant, gastropub, terrace dining, gift shops, and more.
There’s also a pool with sundeck and hot tub, fitness center, tennis courts, and fire pit. –by Bret Love; photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted