Although it’s not as well-known as the Blue Ridge Parkway or the Cherohala Skyway (which runs from Robbinsville NC to East Tennessee), the Rattler is a popular driving route with locals and visitors alike.
If you’re heading to the town of Hot Springs from Maggie Valley and Waynesville, as we did, the Rattler (a.k.a. NC 209) is really your only option. And it is definitely a doozy of a drive!
The road begins with gentle curves near Lake Junaluska, following the Pigeon River north. But once you begin the winding climb over the mountains, you’ll want eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel.
Thankfully there are several great stops along the way, including several unpaved scenic overlooks and the historic Trust General Store, which has a restaurant, ice cream, groceries, hardware, and souvenirs.
But this is a challenging road with lots of hairpin curves and switchbacks to test the skills of motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts. Fortunately, the Hot Springs weather was perfect the day we drove it!
Although it’s home to one of the most well-known tourist attractions in Western North Carolina, the town of Hot Springs NC is tiny (3.13 square miles) and sparsely populated (around 560 people).
But it’s surrounded by immense beauty, including the French Broad River, Laurel River, and the Great Smoky Mountains. So there are numerous fantastic options for hiking near Hot Springs NC.
The Appalachian Trail in Hot Springs passes right through the heart of downtown, which has an impressive array of restaurants and shops and a laid-back, “everybody’s welcome” vibe.
If it’s your first time visiting, head to the Hot Springs NC Welcome Center to pick up brochures, get the lay of the land, and get expert advice on local activities.
Downtown Hot Springs is small and easily walkable, so you can easily visit popular shops like Artisun Gallery, Hillbilly Market, Hazelwood House Gift Shop, and Bluff Mountain Outfitters in a few hours.
On our first morning in Hot Springs, North Carolina, we met up with Blue Ridge Hiking Company owner Lindsey Barr for a one-hour guided hike on the Laurel River Trail.
We’d originally planned to do the Max Patch hike. But after our 15-year-old dog hurt himself while hiking to waterfalls in Robbinsville, we decided to take a slower, gentler approach while hiking near Hot Springs.
The Laurel River Trail had no incline and very few roots or rocks. So we had plenty of time to chat with Lindsey about her female-owned business and watch the birds, butterflies, and wildflowersalong the way.
This easy hiking trail totals around 3.6 miles each way, but since it’s an in-and-out trail you can turn around anytime you want. There are also some large rocks along the river that make great picnic spots.
Lindsey was such a perfect, patient guide, she has Mary eager to try the company’s guided Appalachian Trail hike for women in the future!
Because the town is located right on the Appalachian Trail, Hot Springs NC gets more than its fair share of hardy hikers passing through.
Held on Earth Day weekend, the Appalachian TrailFest is a fun festival that celebrates the outdoors and those who love to explore it. It was established in 1987, but the 2023 celebration was the first since 2019.
Organized by the Madison County Group Home, with support from other local businesses, TrailFest weekend begins on Friday night.
Memorable lunches can be found at the Grey Eagle Taqueria (try the Mexican street corn and tacos) and the Trust General Store Café. When it comes to dinner, we loved the tasty sandwiches at Spring Creek Tavern.
But in our eyes the best restaurant in Hot Springs is Vaste Riviere Provisions, which offers a foodie-friendly menu, gourmet groceries, and an excellent assortment of wines.
Their NC Lump Crab Cakes, Ramen Bowls, homemade ice cream, and fresh baked treats were simply divine!
Paint Rock is located about 7 miles from Downtown Hot Springs, and it is generally considered to be the best preserved pictograph in North Carolina.
Early Native Americans considered the NC hot springs to be a sacred site, and used indelible paints (made from natural ingredients) to color patterns etched into the mountain stone some 5,000 years ago.
The pictograph was recorded by European settlers in the 1790s. The rocks are protected by a natural outcropping in the cliff, and the ancient artwork can still be seen from River Road (SR 1304) today.
For a better view, there’s a rough trail that leads up to the top of cliff, which offers lovely scenic views and once served as a border between the settlers and Cherokee territory.
If you’re looking to spend some time soaking the famous North Carolina hot springs, make sure to visit the 100-acre Hot Springs Resort & Spa.
Established in 1778 (nearly a century before the Civil War!), the historic property has been home to several different inns and hotels. Visionary Eugene Hicks bought it in 1990 and began building the world-renowned Hot Springs getaway you can visit today.
Their jetted hot tubs are positioned right along the banks of the French Broad River. They provide spectacular views while savoring the continuous flow of “World Famous Natural Hot Mineral Waters.”
If you’re looking for romantic things to do in Hot Springs NC, their private soaking cabanas are available in 60- and 90-minute increments, and include a shower/changing room, fire pit, and lounge areas.
While soaking in the healing waters, we also saw all sorts of wildlife, from lizards and butterflies to birds, including a Great Blue Heron feasting on a juvenile water snake!
As hardcore animal lovers, the wonderful afternoon we spent at Llamas of Hot Springs ultimately proved to be one of our favorite things to do in Hot Springs NC.
Owner David Wynn is a therapist by day, and often incorporates llama therapy into his practice. He finds that his personable llamas have a calming effect on people who struggle with anxiety.
But he also offers an opportunity to walk with llamas, which have been used as pack animals by South America’s Andean cultures since the Pre-Columbian era.
Unfortunately the hiking option is only available on weekends, and we visited Hot Springs during the week. But Wynn graciously met us after a long work day and introduced us to Che, Cacao, and the rest of the herd.
Wynn’s passion for the animals proved infectious, and Cacao (the largest and fuzziest of the llamas) proved especially friendly. Hoping we’ll get a chance to hike with them the next time we visit Hot Springs!
If you’re looking for Hot Springs NC lodging that feels a world away from the tiny town, we recommend the RiverDance Cabins in the posh Bear River Lodge Community.
RiverDance is located high atop a mountain in a gated community about halfway between Hot Springs and Marshall NC. They have two charming cabin rentals available, RiverHaven and SkyView.
We stayed in the surprisingly spacious 1BR/1BA SkyView Cabin, which offered a full kitchen and a tranquil place for much-needed downtime with our dogs, Huckleberry & Boo Boo.
We loved the upscale Appalachian-style decor (including a gorgeous quilt and rocking chair in the living room), the large king-sized bedroom, and especially the heated floors in the bathroom, which were great for those chilly Spring mornings.
But our favorite part of the cabin was outside. The porch and fire pit areas offered EXTRAORDINARY views of the Smoky Mountains to the west, and some gorgeous sunrises and sunsets over them. –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted
We encourage anyone who loves the Blue Ridge region to learn about the Leave No Traceprinciples of responsible environmental stewardship.
Stay on marked trails, take only pictures, pack out your trash, and be considerate of others who share the trails and parks you explore.
Remember that waterfalls and rocky summits can be dangerous. Never try to climb waterfalls or get close to a ledge to get a selfie.
When you're exploring the wilderness, it's better to be safe than to be a statistic!
Bret and Mary
The BRMTG was created by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett, the award-winning team behind the world-renowned responsible travel website Green Global Travel.
Born and raised in North Georgia, Editor-In-Chief Bret Love grew up hiking and camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his family. A professional writer/editor since 1995, he's covered travel and culture for 100+ publications, including American Way, Destination Marriott, Georgia Travel Guide, National Geographic, and Southbound. In 2010 he co-founded the award-winning website, Green Global Travel, which is ranked among the world's top travel blogs. Since launching BRMTG in 2020, he and Mary Gabbett have visited 50+ Blue Ridge Mountain towns together.
Though she lived in NYC for 14 years, photographer/Business Manager Mary Gabbett's family has Georgia roots dating back 200+ years. Her great-grandfather was President of the Western Railroad of Alabama.
Before moving to Atlanta in 1989, she fell in love with the North GA mountains, where her aunt owned a cabin. In 2010 she co-founded Green Global Travel, and has since traveled to more than 40 countries on six continents. Her photos have appeared in numerous travel publications (including National Geographic and Southbound) and various textbooks.