The little mountain town of Banner Elk is perhaps most known for its proximity to Beech Mountain Resort, the highest ski area in the eastern United States.
But there’s more to Banner Elk than the ski slopes nearby. While there, you can discover excellent cuisine and craft beer, a winery, an alpaca farm and even a small beach. Yes, there’s a beach up in Banner Elk — minus the ocean, of course. But there is sand, water and a lifeguard on duty. It’s called Wildcat Lake, and it’s where the locals go to unwind. It closes after Labor Day.
Banner Elk is also a place where the arts and artists thrive and home of the Woolly Worm Festival. Businesses throughout town feature the work of local artists, and two theater groups provide live entertainment throughout the year.
But what can strike you the most about Banner Elk is that people seem to fall in love with it. They visited on vacations or weekend getaways, then eventually decided they didn’t want to leave. So they stayed and opened businesses or bought second homes in the charming town. Its population of about 1,000 residents swells to about 7,000 to 10,000 in the summer. Many retirees from Florida have houses there and become Banner Elk residents for the summer. The year-round residents are a tightknit group who know and rely on each other.
Lisa Koch, the business administrator for Banner Elk Winery put it this way: “In the mountains, you thrive and survive together or you don’t survive at all.”
Don’t wait until ski season to visit Banner Elk. It’s worth a visit anytime of year, especially fall. Here are a few spots you shouldn’t miss.
Wine and beer
Banner Elk Winery & Villa (135 Deer Run Lane)
The winery, which opened in 2001, occupies slightly less than 13 acres. One of its owners was a chemical engineer, a professor and started the fermentation science program at Appalachian State University, the first such program on the East Coast.
The winery offers red and white varietals, in addition to rose and the award-winning Banner Elk Blueberry “Ice,” (silver medal winner, 2015 N.C. State Fair), a port-style dessert wine.
Banner Elk Winery is a stop on the High Country Wine Trail, which also includes Grandfather Vineyards & Winery, Linville Falls Winery and Watauga Lake Winery.
Flat Top Mountain Brewery (567 Main St.)
The Banner Elk brewery opened about three years ago, but Mark Ralston purchased it earlier this year. He looked from San Diego to Florida for a brewery to own. He chose Flat Top mainly because of its access to soft clean water, which comes from an artesian well.
“You can’t get any better water in the world,” he says.
Ralston also liked the way the taproom was set up. It’s unpretentious and cozy. The spot is a favorite among locals. And that’s the other thing that attracted him to the area: the people.
“The area is beautiful and there’s great people. The people have been very welcoming and supportive,” he says.
The array of food served in Banner Elk ranges from casual to fine dining, with flavors to satisfy nearly any craving.
Sorrento’s Italian Bistro has been offering traditional specialties from family recipes for more than 30 years. Portions are generous. Be sure to try the crab cakes or tortellini Sorrento — local favorites. Sorrento’s sister restaurant upstairs, Chef’s Table, is an upscale, hip restaurant specializing in farm-to-table fare. Offerings include seasonal vegetables and local or regionally sourced meat, fish and seafood.
At Dunn’s Deli, owner Mike Dunn will serve your breakfast and refill your coffee himself. The casual New York-style deli offers made-to-order sandwiches. In addition to running his business, Dunn is a member of the Banner Elk Town Council and the chairman of the Banner Elk Tourism Development Authority. He also takes on the role of Santa for the town’s holiday activities. He moved to Banner Elk 16 years ago for its peaceful, slower pace of life and friendly people.
Bayou Smokehouse and Grill owners David Winston and Lee Ammann also were lured to Banner Elk by its charm. They started out as corporate caterers before opening a restaurant in Charlotte featuring their Texas-Louisiana family recipes. They opened their Banner Elk restaurant in 2003 and officially became locals.
Stonewalls Restaurant is considered a cornerstone of the Banner Elk food scene. This steak and seafood restaurant has been in operation since 1985. Its recent renovation under new ownership brought updates to both the decor and menu. Its menu still maintains traditional favorites like its steaks and infamous salad bar, as well as modern twists on Southern staples like pimiento macaroni and cheese and fried deviled eggs.
Banner Elk Cafe and the Lodge Espresso Bar & Eatery are two restaurants and an ice cream shop connected by four outdoor or covered patios. A group can sit in any section of either restaurant and order, literally, anything: pizza, wraps, seared tuna, fresh mountain trout, a smoothie, an espresso or a pastry.
For a more upscale experience, try Louisiana Purchase for fine dining Cajun cuisine and a Wine Spectator-lauded wine list. Artisanal serves contemporary American cuisine in a rustic, yet elegant setting. Its menu includes such specialties as Hudson Valley Foie Gras, tempura-battered soft-shell crab and lobster ricotta gnudi.
Although most Lees-McRae students take off for the summer, the campus theater is at its busiest then. The Lees-McRae Summer Theatre was established in 1985, and draws an average of 8,000 attendees in a season. It’s considered one of the best series of summer theater in North Carolina. Janet Speer, the artistic director of the Lees-McRae Summer Theatre, says the quality of its performances is on par with those seen on Broadway.
“People are shocked that a place like Banner Elk — a one-stoplight town — has such great theater,” Speer says.
Just down the road, at Ensemble Stage, Gary and Lisa Smith have so many ideas for productions, their enthusiasm is contagious. Located in the historic Banner Elk School, built by the Works Progress Administration in 1939, performances are more of an intimate experience before smaller audiences.
“It’s like Christmas morning every morning that I get to come out here because I cannot wait to get here,” Gary Smith says.
The theatre group has presented about 60 shows, including main stage productions, children’s plays, holiday variety shows and an old-fashioned radio drama. Patrons show their support beyond their attendance. They have helped prepare the performance stage for productions, as well as provided homemade concessions for sale.
“This is one of the most amazing communities I’ve ever been in my life, and they’re going to have to drag me out by my feet to leave here,” Smith says.
If you want to see fall foliage, get out of the car and spend some time at any of these spots. You won’t regret it.
Apple Hill Farm (400 Apple Hill Road)
At Apple Hill Farm, you’ll find alpacas, angora goats, llamas, donkeys, livestock, guardian dogs and even honeybees. Owner Lee Rankin moved to Banner Elk from Louisville, Ky., in 2001 to start an alpaca farm. The other animals followed in one way or another. Mr. Pickles, the pot-bellied pig, can ride a skateboard and is part of the Banner Elk Fourth of July parade. There’s Hannah, the horse, the same age of Rankin’s son, Will. The angora goats — Hansel and Gretel, Sugar, Cupcake, Sprinkle and Snow Cream.
Rankin has a team of eight people who help her with more than 100 animals and running the tours and store. The farm offers panoramic views of Tennessee, Sugar and Grandfather mountains.
“When people come to visit, there’s a moment when they disconnect from their lives and reconnect with something else. Usually it happens around the alpacas,” she says, pointing to the shaded area where 21 alpacas grazed or rested underneath the apple trees.
May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (367 Mill Pond Road)
There’s something about crisp mountain air and the sound of water that makes you feel as if you’ve found a refuge. The Dan and Dianne May Wildlife Center sits next to the tree-lined Elk River on the Lees-McRae College campus. The college, which is near an elk preserve, has a strong wildlife biology program. At the center, rehabilitation professionals and Lees-McRae students care for more than 1,500 injured animals from throughout the western North Carolina region annually. Their patients include songbirds, raptors, waterfowl and small mammals. Students even get to provide alternative therapies like acupuncture on a goose.
The center, which is open 365 days a year, holds both state and federal rehabilitation and education permits. Its collection of animal ambassadors will remain there for the rest of their lives because their injuries prevent them from surviving on their own.
The staff offers free presentations for kids at 1 p.m. Saturdays. During the summer, the programs are offered at 1 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. No reservations are required.
While it’s known mostly as a ski resort, Beech Mountain has more to offer than snow and winter sports.
Before and after the skiing season, the slopes become downhill mountain biking trails. Disc golf enthusiasts can ride the chairlift up and play disc golf on the way back down the slopes. At an elevation of 5,506 feet, Beech Mountain is the highest town and ski area in the East. At the top of the mountain, visitors can take in the view and drink a craft beer brewed on-site at 5506 Skybar.
Beech Mountain Brewing offers eight taps with four flagship beers and four seasonal brews. It only supplies its beer to the resort. The glass-encased Skybar has a spacious deck to take in the view. Beech Mountain straddles Avery and Watauga counties. The resort will hold a variety of festivities this winter to celebrate its 50th year.
Other popular events during the year include the Mile High Fourth of July celebration and Labor Day Kite Festival.