BANNER ELK, N.C.
Every October since 1978, the 1,000 or so residents of this town have celebrated the coming of cooler seasons with a festival. While a small-town fall festival is nothing unusual, Banner Elk's is a bit peculiar. The star of this autumnal hoopla happens to be a worm. A fuzzy brown and black "woolly worm" to be precise.
During the annual two-day Woolly Worm Festival, thousands of folks from surrounding communities and beyond converge to cheer on the adorable worms (actually Isabella tiger moth caterpillars) as they climb up 3-foot lengths of string. Winning worms move on to the next heat until finally one worm wins the grand prize: the honor of predicting the severity of the coming winter and $1,000.
Move over, Punxsutawney Phil.
The excitement is mounting in Banner Elk for this year's Woolly Worm Festival, Oct. 19 and 20. It's also the same weekend as the 25th annual Valle Country Fair in nearby Valle Crucis, a lush river valley situated along winding two-lane Highway 194. Described as an "overgrown church bazaar," it attracts nearly 20,000 visitors annually. The fair is a microcosm of Appalachian folk culture with arts and crafts, entertainment from bluegrass to clogging and square dancing, traditional games and regional fare including Brunswick stew and barbecue, homemade pies and jams, and freshly made apple butters and baked goods.
"Fall is a great time to visit the valley. There's always something going on," says Sheri Moretz, community relations manager at Mast General Store. The historic store, operating since 1883, is a popular tourist stop in Valle Crucis for its extensive selection of goods, from jams and honey to snow shovels and spittoons. Weekends at the store boast folk and bluegrass music, and lots of valley residents come out for the Great Pumpkin Party, this year on Oct. 28.
Fall in the mountains
During fall, the High Country of northwestern North Carolina offers a mountain respite for summer-weary Floridians. The 105-mile Blue Ridge Parkway intersects this region — the Linn Cove Viaduct is often pictured on travel brochures — making it an ideal area to spend a few days. There's plenty of opportunity for spectacular leaf-peeping, along with family festivals and outdoor activities like hiking, wine tasting and zip-lining.
Explore Valle Crucis with a stop at Mast General Store (look for the Esso Gas sign out front) and make a reservation for dinner at the 1861 Farmhouse. The historic home has been lovingly restored by local residents Steve and Alison Garrett, who are likely to greet you at the door. The menu offers nouveau Southern cuisine such as shrimp and grits, pork tenderloin with sweet potato mash and grilled breast of duck with blueberry moonshine barbecue sauce.
Ask for a table on the wrap-around porch if weather permits and order a bottle of the award-winning 1861 Farmhouse wine, produced in the barn out back. You might even get a peek at the winemaking in action if your timing is right. Steve Garrett is also the winemaker.
Quaint Blowing Rock
Plan to spend a day or two on your fall High Country excursion around picturesque Blowing Rock, population 1,500. Reminiscent of a charming New England village with sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, Blowing Rock's Main Street is lined with high-end boutiques and galleries. You'll find regional arts and crafts like carved wooden bowls and glass sculptures, gemstone jewelry and woven baskets.
At the Dulcimer Shop in the historic Martin House, owner Bill Magee is generally behind the counter with a "hey there" and smile for visitors. His father opened the tiny shop more than 40 years ago. The Appalachian dulcimer is a traditional stringed instrument, and Magee is happy to show off his collection and play a few tunes. Grab a music CD on the way out if you can't afford a dulcimer.
Blowing Rock is known for its historic inns, including the lovely Green Park Inn, along with a superb selection of restaurants and bars. Stop for lunch on the back patio of the Storie Street Grille (the Storie family was among the original settlers of the town), where a creative menu focuses on seasonal, local and organic ingredients, and sustainable seafood. Try the cornmeal-crusted trout or the panini made with country ham, Granny Smith apples and Brie. Be sure to order one of the delicious North Carolina microbrews.
For a special nosh, follow the stone footpath off Main Street to the hidden Village Café and relax under the trees in the garden patio. The restored home built in 1907, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, offers breakfast, lunch and Sunday brunch indoors, too.
If culture is your thing, stop by the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum with its outstanding exhibits, such as the current "Art Among Friends" (through Nov. 2), which contains American impressionist art from four private North Carolina collections. It's quite a stunning exhibit.
Moses Cone Manor
Within a short drive from Blowing Rock is the rambling Moses Cone Manor Memorial Park with its stately colonial revival house amid 3,500 acres of rolling hills, forests, meadows and lakes. It's a favorite for hikers who come to stroll the 25 miles of carriage roads, which are now trails maintained by the National Park Service.
In fall, the estate is a popular stopping-off point for Blue Ridge Parkway travelers (the Parkway actually passes through the property) who find sprawling mountain vistas in brilliant oranges, reds and yellows. The manor houses the Southern Highland Guild Parkway Craft Center, which is filled with high-quality regional arts and crafts and is well worth a visit.
For colorful scenery, you can't beat nearby Grandfather Mountain, where the famous Swinging Bridge offers panoramic mile-high views of the surrounding area. In fall it's eye candy, but come early to avoid the crowds. This privately owned and maintained park abuts Grandfather Mountain State Park and offers 11 hiking trails varying in difficulty from a gentle walk in the woods to a rigorous trek across rugged peaks. Activities run the gamut from ranger-led interpretive programs to wildlife exhibits and an outstanding Nature Museum highlighting the flora, fauna and geography of North Carolina.
For the adventurous, try a high-flying color tour by zipping through the treetops. Just a few miles outside of Boone, Sky Valley Zip Tours is one of several canopy tours in the area.
If the thought of dangling from a cable over a forest at 3,300 feet sounds a bit scary, it is. But after a training and safety session, I was zipping through the trees like Tarzan, jumping off a cliff and traversing a swinging bridge.
Mountain biking is a popular activity in these parts thanks to world-class and local athletes who love to train and race in the rolling hills. New mountain bike trails at Beech Mountain Resort will close for the season Sept. 29, but Magic Cycles in Boone will gladly rent you a bike and safety gear if you feel like hitting the trails at Rocky Knob Mountain Bike Park.
The newly opened park, just outside Boone, offers plenty of fun and challenge — meaning rocks, roots and switchbacks — for experienced riders. The trails, which meander through a beautiful hardwood forest, are open to hikers, too. Just watch your back. There is also a beautiful picnic area and playground next to the parking lot, making this a nice day trip for families.
Need to kick back and relax after all that adventure? Relief is just a short drive away at the charming Grandfather Vineyard & Winery, where you can visit the tasting room and tour the winemaking facility, humming along during harvest season. If the weather is nice, purchase a bottle and grab a seat on the Adirondack chairs lining the Watauga River just a few steps away. You'll be planning your next visit to North Carolina in no time.
Marcia Biggs is a freelance travel writer in Safety Harbor.