[Updated January 21, 2022]
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 mountain 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!
THINGS TO DO IN LITTLE SWITZERLAND NC GUIDE
- Little Switzerland Books & Beans
- Switzerland General
- Trillium Gallery Store
- Chalet Restaurant
- Fowl Play Pub & Tap Room
- The Swiss Shoppe
- Switzerland Cafe
- Driving the Diamondback 226
- Emerald Village Discovery Mill
- Hiking to Crabtree Falls
- Museum of North Carolina Minerals
- The Orchard at Altapass
- Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
- See Stars at the Mayland Earth to Sky Park
- Visit the Penland School of Craft
LITTLE SWITZERLAND NC HISTORY
The history of Little Switzerland dates back to 1909, when Justice Heriot Clarkson and two other men were hiking 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 European charm.
With fine dining, Swiss-style shops, spectacular views, and lots of fun things to do nearby, it’s the centerpiece of the cutest little Alpine village in North Carolina.
DOWNTOWN LITTLE SWITZERLAND NC
1. Little Switzerland Books & Beans
This lovely downtown Little Switzerland NC 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.
2. 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.
3. Trillium Gallery
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.
LITTLE SWITZERLAND NC RESTAURANTS
4. Chalet Restaurant
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.
5. 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.
6. The Swiss Shoppe
Located in the heart of Little Switzerland NC, 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.
7. Switzerland Cafe
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 10 Best Restaurants in Boone NC
8. 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 one of the best places to see Fall colors in Western NC.
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.
9. 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.
10. 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!
11. 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 NC 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.
12. 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 facts and 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 NC apple 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.
13. Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway passes right by Little Switzerland, so the town is a perfect base for exploring some of our favorite overlooks, hiking trails, and parks located along the 469-mile scenic route.
Our favorite Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks in the area include the Beacon Heights Overlook (MP 305.2), Grandfather Mountain Overlook (MP 306.6), View Table Rock (MP 329.8), Black Mountains Overlook (MP 342.2), the Mount Mitchell summit (MP 355.4), and Craggy Gardens (MP 364).
Popular Blue Ridge Parkway hikes nearby include the Rough Ridge Trail (MP 302.8, from which you can also access the 13.5-mile Tanawha Trail), Flat Rock Trail (MP 308.3), Erwins View Trail (MP 316.4), and the Craggy Pinnacle Trail (MP 364.2, a popular place for catching the sunset).
There are also several great Blue Ridge Parkway waterfalls nearby, including the small waterfall at the Rough Ridge Overlook, Linville Falls (MP 316, part of the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area), the Crabtree Falls Loop Trail (MP 339.5), and Roaring Fork Falls (MP 344.1).
14. See Stars at the Mayland Earth to Sky Park
Located about 8 miles from Little Switzerland, the Mayland Earth to Sky Park is a must-visit for stargazers.
Owned/operated by Mayland College, the park is home to the Bare Dark Sky Observatory, which offers visitors an incredible experience while providing hands-on learning opportunities for the school’s astronomy students.
Sitting at 2,736 feet, the Observatory offers 360º mountaintop views and a chance to see the stars through a Newtonian telescope with a 34″ diameter mirror (making it the largest telescope in the Southeast designed for public use).
They also have a smaller Meade planetary telescope with a 14″ mirror, and offer private and public viewing events (with the latter limited to just 18 visitors).
Guests get a chance to see vivid close-up views of the moon, planets, and stars while also learning a little bit about astronomy in the process. The chance to zoom in on individual craters of the moon was absolutely amazing!
READ MORE: The 15 Best Things to Do in Burnsville NC
15. Visit the Penland School of Craft
Located in the nearby town of Spruce Pine, the Penland School of Craft dates back nearly 100 years and was a significant influence on the cultural identity of Western North Carolina.
Started in 1923 by Lucy Morgan as a way to teach local women a craft with which they could make money, the center became known as the Penland School of Handicrafts in 1929 after weaving expert Edward F. Worst came to visit.
When “Miss Lucy” retired in 1962, sculptor/teacher Bill Brown became the new director, bringing a new energy to the school as well as his national connections in the emerging studio crafts movement.
He also added new media (such as iron and glass), expanded Penland’s work-study scholarship program, and started their core fellowship and resident artist programs.
These programs attracted several noteworthy artists and craftspeople, and Brown brought in iconic instructors such as Harvey Littleton (who established the first glass program in the U.S. and taught Dale Chihuly).
Penland visitors today can explore the 400-acre campus (which is on the National Register of Historic Places) and its exceptional galleries. You can also attend the annual Community Day in March, when the school’s studios are open and visitors can work on a small project with the help of resident artists.
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 B lue 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.
READ MORE: The 15 Best VRBO Cabins in Asheville NC
Big Lynn Lodge
Though Little Switzerland lodging options may be limited, the Big Lynn Lodge NC 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; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted