On an early summer evening, the vibrant greens of hemlock, oak, and spruce trees blanket the ridges of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park like a patchwork quilt. Elk wander through the fields in the distance, oblivious to the people watching from the roadway in their cars. Down at Lake Junaluska, the mountain views from The Terrace are reflected in the lake as families kayak across the still, cool mountain waters. Located west of Asheville, Waynesville, NC in Haywood County is one of the most family-friendly places for a relaxing NC mountain vacation in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
5 Ways Enjoy North Carolina’s Great Outdoors on a NC Mountain Vacation in Haywood County
1. Take a Swim by a Waterfall at a Swimming Hole Along the Blue Ridge Parkway
Looking to escape the heat of summer in the South? Drive up to the Blue Ridge Parkway! The mountain tops are naturally cooler than the surrounding area. Also, many of the trails in this region feature waterfalls and swimming holes. So, pack the family swim bag with towels, sunscreen, and snacks. Have the kids wear their bathing suits and a good pair of shoes for hiking. Then go explore. The kids will want to splash away the entire afternoon.
Haywood County, NC is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains between the foodie hub of Asheville and North Carolina’s main entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Cherokee. It boasts 46 miles of the best mountain top views from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Our family has enjoyed three of the area’s best swimming holes: Sunburst Swimming Hole along highway 215, Skinny Dip Falls, and Graveyard Fields.
Swim with the Locals at Sunburst Swimming Hole
The Sunburst Swimming Hole is located across Hwy 215 from the Sunburst Campground. There is enough space for about 10-15 cars to park alongside the road. The water in the swimming hole is about 6-7 feet deep in the deepest section, so watch little ones carefully. There is a large boulder near the deepest part of the stream. My 9-year-old jumped from about halfway up the side of the boulder. We both swam across to the other side of the creek. In May, it was quite chilly!
Enjoy the Beautiful Cascades of Skinny Dip Falls at Mile 417 on the Blue Ridge Parkway
The hike to Skinny Dip Falls is a moderate, 20-minute walk from the parking area at mile 417 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The falls have three tiers, which created several pools where families can swim. The pool pictured above is at the top of the falls. My son also had fun throwing rocks and splashing around in the creek below the bottom section of the waterfall.
Hike the Trail at Graveyard Fields and Take a Swim at the Falls at Mile 418.8 on the Blue Ridge Parkway
The trail at Graveyard Fields is much better marked than the nearby trail to Skinny Dip Falls. There is a relatively large parking lot with restrooms. You can’t miss it! The Lower Falls on the Graveyard Fields loop is less than a half mile from the parking lot. In the past, my family has waded at Lower Falls and in the creek. If your family wants a good hike, continue on the 4 mile loop trail and hike to Upper Falls.
Looking for a fun place to grab a bite to eat before heading up to the Blue Ridge Parkway? Check out Jukebox Junction in Canton.
2. Drive Down into the Cataloochee Valley Inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Watch the Elk
Did you know that there are elk in Great Smoky Mountains National Park? In 2001, the National Park Service began re-introducing elk into the park. Now there are a couple of herds that can been seen in the park’s meadows around dawn and dusk.
The largest herd can typically be found in the remote Cataloochee Valley area of Great Smoky Mountain National Park. This part of the Great Smokies is accessible via the windy Cove Creek Road which includes a 3-mile section of single lane dirt road. There is a campground available at Cataloochee Valley for adventurous families that reserve ahead of time. Several trails are also available in the area.
After an early dinner in Waynesville, my son and I made the hour drive out to the Cataloochee Valley arriving about an hour before sunset. On the drive down into the valley there is a parking lot with spectacular views looking southwest, perfect for watching the setting sun. We continued into the valley past the campground and sign reading “open sunrise to sunset” until we reached a meadow with about 10 elk. We stayed to watch the elk graze with about 5-7 other cars for about a half hour. Seeing the elk in Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a must on a NC mountain vacation.
There’s so much to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park! Check out Trekaroo’s guide to North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
3. Eat a Farm to Table Dinner and See a Movie in Waynesville, NC on your NC Mountain Vacation
As I began driving into North Carolina and seeing signs for Asheville, I started getting hungry. 2 years after my first visit to Asheville, I still remember the fabulous food I enjoyed there. Admittedly, as I drove west of Asheville, I was disappointed to be bypassing the city for nearby Waynesville, NC.
But let me fill you in on a secret, Waynesville has great food too. No, there are not as many choices in Waynesville, NC as there are in Asheville. However, there’s plenty of variety for a weekend getaway. We ate at Birchwood Hall Southern Kitchen and Sweet Onion. Both are located near N. Main Street and offer children’s menus. Free parking is plentiful nearby.
At Sweet Onion I enjoyed the shrimp and grits with a side of green beans. The sauce poured over the grits was flavorful, and the biscuits that were served before the meal were flaky and light. My son enjoyed his chicken strips with macaroni and cheese off the children’s menu.
Birchwood Hall Southern Kitchen in downtown Waynesville, NC is a farm-to-table restaurant. I ordered the steak tenderloin, which was cooked exactly as I requested. We also tried a Southern classic, the cheesy spoon bread. Our waitress was happy to suggest a local beer and even brought some over for me to taste before she poured me a full glass. My son happily ate his macaroni and cheese with a side of green beans off the children’s menu.
Watch a Movie at The Strand in Waynesville, NC
Already stuffed, my son and I headed to The Strand to see the newly released live action Aladdin. Why had I eaten so much for dinner? This small movie theater in Waynesville, NC offers local ice cream, drinks, and freshly popped and buttered popcorn. At the movie theater, we discovered Waynesville Soda Jerks. If you ever come to Waynesville you must try their lavender lemon soda!
The Strand is a tiny, historic theater brought back to life. It is great that there is something for families to do indoors in Waynesville, NC. The theater may lack comfortable, modern theater chairs, but it is full of charm. It’s so nice to see a local business like this.
4. Enjoy the Ultimate Family Vacation at Lake Junaluska
After driving through 49 states and visiting dozens of state parks in the Mid-Atlantic region, I’m ready to nominate Lake Junaluska as one of the most scenic lakeside communities in the entire United States. The way that the green mountain peaks frame the small lake make me want to take a photo from every possible angle.
There is a large complex on the lake that is used by the United Methodist Church for conferences. This complex includes The Terrace, a hotel overlooking the lake with spectacular views. The entire area is open to the public and welcoming to families regardless of religious background for a NC mountain vacation.
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What is there to do at Lake Junaluska?
Lake Junaluska is the ideal place for a family vacation in the North Carolina mountains. Families can bike or walk around the entire lake on a 2.3-mile pathway. My son and I enjoyed biking from the pool area around the lake stopping for an ice cream cone at the store by the Rose Walk. There were a few places where we rode through scenic gardens and other places where we left the walking path and took the road. The pathway is relatively flat and the perfect distance for even the littlest ones in the family to bike or scooter around.
Families can also get out on Lake Junaluska by renting kayaks, canoes, or paddle-boards. My 9-year-old son and I enjoyed paddleboarding during our time at Lake Junaluska. We easily made it halfway across the lake before returning to the small beach where we got our rentals. Yes, the views of the mountains were even more beautiful from the middle of the lake. Adjacent to the lake, there is a seasonal outdoor swimming pool where parents can enjoy the view while the kids splash and swim.
If you don’t want to get wet, there is a simple miniature golf area, tennis courts, and a fully-gated, modern playground nearby. This playground is a dream for toddler mamas, it’s fully enclosed with a secure gate. It also has multiple toddler swings, a shady spot with seating, and natural features as well as modern climbing structures.
Yes, this is all open to the public. Your family does not need to be staying at Lake Junaluska to purchase a pool pass or boat rental.
The Terrace at Lake Junaluska
My son and I stayed two nights at The Terrace at Lake Junaluska which is the main hotel complex at the lake. There are also other lodging options available including another hotel, apartments, and cabins. The Terrace has buffet-style dining available for families that wish to eat with a view of the lake. It is positioned perfectly on Lake Junaluska so that guests can enjoy the views throughout the complex. There are even rocking chairs set up by the best view points.
If you’re looking to stay a couple of nights at Lake Junaluska, consider staying in one of the rooms at The Terrace. The rooms are a basic hotel room with two queen beds. There is small refrigerator in each room. I felt the rooms are a bit on the small side for a family of four so they are best for weekend getaways rather than a longer stay.
We took advantage of the buffet dining for a couple of meals. My son loved the food at The Terrace. He declared the pulled pork and macaroni and cheese on the buffet line the “best ever!” I piled my plate full of a variety fresh veggies at the salad bar. The salad fixings were fresh and the staff attentively brought drinks. The buffet couldn’t have been more convenient; however, I have to admit that the entire buffet experience reminded me a bit of my college years working on staff at a summer camp.
Where Should My Family Stay at Lake Junaluska?
Walking through The Terrace and driving around Lake Junaluska, there is a welcoming, family-friendly vibe. Families should be aware that the facility is a conference center for the United Methodist Church, and in the off-season The Terrace is sometimes used for church groups. On the back of the key cards for The Terrace, the church provides the following welcome: “The mission of Lake Junaluska is to be a place of Christian hospitality where lives are transformed through renewal of soul, mind, and body.”
If the Terrace at Lake Junaluska is not the right fit for your family, there are weekly vacation rentals available through Lake Junaluska’s website as well as private rentals available on sites such as Airbnb.
5. Pick Fresh Berries on your NC Mountain Vacation at The Ten Acre Garden
One of my favorite summer activities is taking my family to a u-pick farm. Typically, I’m focused on picking my berries and heading back home to enjoy. However, I’ve never before picked fruit somewhere as scenic as The Ten Acre Garden. The mountain views at this u-pick farm make it a destination in itself. Your family will want to pick your berries, then enjoy a picnic in this scenic location.
Ready for more North Carolina fun? Discover the Top 10 Things to do in North Carolina with Kids.
Disclosure: My family was hosted by Lake Junaluska and The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority on our visit to the NC Smokies. All opinions are my own.