Even Though It’s Cold, You Don’t Want To Miss Winter in the Carolina Outdoors

The banquet hall in Asheville's Biltmore Estate
The banquet hall in Asheville's Biltmore Estate

As the blazing colors of fall fade, along with all traces of autumn’s radiance, the lean shadow of winter looms upon us. For many southerners, the season’s first frost heralds the seemingly most dreary of the four seasons. But with a little spirit for adventure and an eye on recreation, amidst the chill and the light layer of snow that blankets our Carolinas, the opportunity for leisure and beauty is just waiting to be seized.

The English poet, William Blake, said it best: “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.” With this curated list of winter travel destinations, that’s just what we aim to help you do. Don’t be tempted to hunker down in the comforts of home this winter; instead, take a plunge into the cold unknown of our own backyard and discover the beauty of winter for yourself.

Waynesville, NC

Affectionately called the “Gateway to the Smokies,” Waynesville is a picturesque mountain town that affords its visitors all kinds of quiet serenity during the winter months. It’s the perfect winter retreat — only a short drive away from Asheville, but far enough to feel steeped in natural splendor. The town’s Main Street is warm and inviting, with quaint shops and galleries huddled together. If you are the kind of traveler that likes to get to know the local townsfolk, enjoys strolling along quiet avenues, or wants to watch the snow fall while nursing a cup of locally brewed coffee, then this sleepy mountain town is for you.

Highlands, NC

The Highlands might be in the South, but with an elevation of over 4,100 feet above sea level, the winters in this mountain town bluster with echoes of the North. Luxury hotels like The Park on Main offer decadent rooms to nurse away the chill of the season. Just past the sophisticated warmth of the hotel, Main Street has a diverse and cultured array of shops and boutiques when you’re feeling brave enough to venture outside.

Northwest of the Highlands is the Nantahala National Forest. There is a myriad of other hiking trails, with the added adventurous activity of ice climbing. With the comforts of small town hospitality or a winter adventure in the forest, the Highlands offers it all.

A winter sunset in Highlands, NC
A winter sunset in Highlands, NC

Wrightsville Beach, NC

If you’re looking to warm up your winter, staying indoors isn’t the only way to combat the onset of holiday lethargy. A getaway to the coast of North Carolina can help you keep those New Year’s Resolutions to stay active. At Wrightsville Beach, a busy island life will make sure you stay off of the couch and engaged in the local community. You can spend your winter days navigating the beach’s many waterways by kayak, going on scenic jogs, or wandering along the near-vacant beaches for miles on end.

Even if you’re not looking to stave off the winter chill or to keep moving, it’s worth the venture if only to spend some quality time reflecting on the beautiful horizon, where sky meets the ocean.

Beaufort, NC

Established in 1709, this quaint coastal town located on NC’s Southern Outer Backs, on the Crystal Coast, is the third oldest town in the state. During the winter months, Beaufort’s hospitality remains warm and vivacious. With a myriad of historic sites, delicious local food, and a host of quaint inns, Beaufort is as charming as it is inviting.

“Snowbirds” traveling down the coast may choose Beaufort as an overnight rest for its calm and subdued, hometown feel. Vintage storefronts lack the neon and garish advertisements of larger cities, remaining true to a celebrated authenticity. Sprawling on either side of the small commercial district of the town are beautiful, historical Southern-style homes. Built with foundations of ballast stones and rooftop widow’s walks, the homes of Beaufort are what help make this seafaring town a perfect winter escape from the hustle of the city.

Winston-Salem, NC

Winston-Salem is a picturesque destination in the winter months, with snow-dusted evergreens, a blanketing of stark white snow, and clusters of historic homes.

Old Salem offers visitors portal into yesteryear during these months, filled with the resonances of the 18th and 19th centuries all the way up to the roaring twenties. Moravian Christmas traditions are enlivened in delectable cookie tours, historic homes open up their doors to give a glimpse of the past, and even the covered bridge twinkles with the soft warmth of hanging paper lights.

For those interested in the more modern comforts, there’s no dearth of craft beer selections, local wineries, and artisan crafts to indulge in during your stay.

A snow-covered Blowing Rock
A snow-covered Blowing Rock

Blowing Rock, NC

During days made sluggish by some of the lowest temperatures of the year, there is no lack of activities to enjoy in Blowing Rock. Snow sports, winter festivals, and a host of inns, spas, and restaurants can offer an overabundance of entertainment to thwart the stagnancy that comes with the cold of winter. 

Winterfest hosts a delicious Chili Cook-off and a daunting Polar Plunge into Chetola Lake. Patrons are drawn to this festival from across the region, gathering to celebrate the season, delicious food, and delectable spirits. Small town winter festivals and a host of local events such as beer tastings, winter feasts, and Arctic Art will chase away any hint of winter boredom. After all, hot chocolate is best enjoyed at the end of an eventful day, with friends and family gathered around.

Charleston, SC

The weather during the winter months is cool enough in Charleston that there’s still the opportunity to show off some of those favorite fall fashions. Even so, the season is temperate enough that you can still appreciate the city’s unique, antebellum feel.

Stroll along King Street and spend some down time shopping, especially if you’ve an affinity for antiques, as the city is full of impressive boutiques and hideaways. You’ll find that in the cooler months, it’s almost as if you have the city to yourself, and that there’s no rush to indulge in all that the city has to offer.

Landrum, SC

Located just off Interstate 26, the first exit past the NC state border, the city of Landrum is nestled against the stunning backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains. During the cooler months, it’s remote, but warm with hospitality. The main street is quaint, with small Mom-and-Pop stores all huddled together. Winding roads allow long, scenic drives, showcasing some of the best of the Blue Ridge. If driving isn’t of a particular interest to you, luxuriate in one of the numerous retreats in town, such as the Red Horse Inn.

With six cottages and six rooms within the Inn itself, the Red Horse offers a wealth of beauty to its patrons both within and without. A patio and arbor overlook the snow-capped mountains, and while the garden might not be in full bloom during the depths of winter, the evergreens will still let you imbibe in the beauty of the season.

Charleston palmettos decorated for the holidays
Charleston palmettos decorated for the holidays

Bryson City, NC

Named one of the best small towns to visit in 2016 by the Smithsonian, Bryson City is a picturesque town with a population of only 1,300. Those looking for a winter retreat imbued with a sense of natural awe and solemnity will not be left wanting. Here is a place where you don’t have to fret over having a polished image or the right outfit to fit in. The streets host more stop signs than stoplights. You don’t need concrete plans; throw the itinerary out the window and take a step into the untamed wilderness. It is the perfect blend of quintessential small town charm and the wilderness of the Smoky Mountains.

In the winter, you’ll find Bryson City glazed in layers of glistening frost and light snow. With the Great Smokies and Nantahala National Park so close, there are plenty of winter trails on which to lose yourself. “The Road to Nowhere” offers an interesting winter mystery if you venture beyond downtown’s quaint shops and delectable eats. Furthermore, scenic train rides on The Great Smoky National Railroad wind through the majestic mountains and let visitors savor the experience through a historic lens.

Banner Elk, NC

This wouldn’t be a decent Carolina’s winter destination list without including the ski capital of the Carolinas — Banner Elk. If you’re looking for a winter sanctuary for the season where Southern Culture meets the great outdoors, the heart of the North Carolina High Country is just the place.

Up at Banner Elk, you won’t be hard-pressed to find a plethora of comfortable accommodations to choose from, good eats, or wintertime entertainment. Whether it is skiing at one of the numerous resorts and lodges (Ski Sugar being the largest in the state), snowboarding, or tubing, there is no lack of family-friendly fun. Head into town after a long day on the slopes for some delicious food and down-home hospitality. You’ll be sure to savor every moment.

McAdenville lit up in all its glory
McAdenville lit up in all its glory

McAdenville, NC

This little Gastonia suburb, known affectionately as “Christmas Town USA,” is known throughout the Carolinas for its extensive light displays. The town holds its annual tree lighting ceremony on December 1st, but that’s only the beginning: Festivals, church choir music, and the legendary Yule Log Parade follow. They also make tons of free kettle corn and hot chocolate. McAdenville is a tiny town of only about 700 people — the amount of Christmas decor per person certainly must hold some kind of record.

Brevard, NC

The seat of Transylvania County is famous for its Twilight Tour, which is actually a full day of festivities. Downtown is closed to traffic for a massive parade, while Christmas market-style vendors line the streets. At night, the Twilight Tour itself begins: Horse-drawn carriages, luminaries, seasonal music, and the smells of delicious seasonal treats wafting from the many downtown shops and restaurants. It’s all rather magical, and one of the reasons Brevard has become a cultural center in Western North Carolina.

Asheville, NC

There’s plenty to do in Asheville in December, but the Biltmore Estate is really the only dose of Christmas anyone Asheville-bound needs. The nation knows it for its size, but Carolinians know the best time to visit: Holiday season at the Vanderbilt mansion means miles of garland and lights, over a thousand poinsettias, and 70 Christmas trees. This year’s theme, “Hearth and Home,” channels the spirit of Vanderbilt family hospitality. There are lightshows and quaint townscapes, and then there are historic sites that, all by themselves, beckon visitors at this time of year. The Biltmore is the Christmas house.

Looking Glass Waterfall in Pisgah National Forest just outside Brevard, NC
Looking Glass Waterfall in Pisgah National Forest just outside Brevard, NC