Find the highest, snowiest, most alpine spot in the South. That was the task three Richmond, Va., college friends and I set for ourselves when it came time to plan our annual winter backpacking trip. And that's how I first discovered the town of Banner Elk, N.C.
Having reached a wild gap high in northwestern North Carolina, we crashed over a frozen berm of plowed snow into a neglected trailhead. The sign in front of us read, "Linville Gap/Eastern Continental Divide-4,045 Feet." Two others pointed west, one of which read "Banner Elk-4 miles." But we'd already driven 8 hours and were going no farther. We parked under the sign, donned our packs and slogged up the trail to camp on the 6,000-foot summit of Grandfather Mountain.
For years we returned for winter hikes. Each time, we looked out on the lighted slopes of Sugar Mountain, one of Banner Elk's four surrounding ski areas, but never did we venture off Grandfather Mountain for a closer look.
In 1978-five years after our first trip up Grandfather Mountain-I moved to the town of Linville, located a few miles south and just over the ridge from Banner Elk. Both are century-old resort towns that, like their cool summers and snowy winters, distinguish this high northwestern region of North Carolina. I often ventured to Banner Elk. At the time, the town was little more than a glorified T-junction, but it had the only urban-style eatery around-the appropriately named Corner Restaurant.
What a difference a few decades make. Now, once isolated mountain communities have evolved into a certifiable High Country, a region set apart by its unique character, recreational gestalt and world-class climate.
It was the summer climate that drew the first wealthy tourists to the area in the late 1800s. While nearby cities swelter in the mid-90s, Banner Elk's hottest summer days barely top 80. In fact, 70s and even 60s are the norm. So are nights in the 50s. In his book Our Southern Highlanders, anthropologist Horace Kephart marveled, "Natives sleep under blankets, even in midsummer." Back in the late 1800s, Kephart described the region as a "land of do without," where "outlanders," those infrequent visitors from beyond, were understandably known for "outlandish" ways.
The county's base population of 15,000 is still made up of a no-nonsense breed of Scotch-Irish natives. Listen closely and you can detect the twang and twists of Elizabethan phrasings. The population has grown to include graduates of Lees-McRae College (in Banner Elk) and Appalachian State University (in Boone), as well as urban refugees from just about everywhere. Newcomers are attracted by a lifestyle that boasts skiing, hiking, kayaking, golfing and the most scenic section of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Natives stay for the same reasons.
At nearly 4,000 feet (not much below the 4,220-foot summit elevation of Killington in Vermont), Banner Elk lies just west of Grandfather Mountain and is the High Country's hub. Of the four ski mountains that ring the town, the two largest are Beech and Sugar. Ski Beech, with a 5,505-foot summit, is the East's highest ski area and nets 90 inches of annual snowfall. At 5,300 feet, Sugar Mountain comes in a respectable second. Today, the view from Linville Gap reveals the developed skylines of these two upscale resort communities.
An Alabama dentist named Tom Brigham launched Ski Beech in the late Sixties. Within two years, Sugar Mountain, now Sugar Mountain Resort, opened. Sugar-with more than 18 slopes, a longest run of more than a mile-and-a-half and a 1,200-foot vertical drop-draws the bulk of the area's visitors. Beech has 830 feet of vertical, roughly as many acres as Sugar and the South's only detachable quad.
Hawks- nest is the locals' favorite for advanced terrain, mountaintop bonfires and skiing until 2 am on Saturdays. All three ski areas look east to Grandfather and south to the snow-streaked peaks of the Black Mountains, the East's highest at almost 7,000 feet. No wonder Banner Elk license plates read: "Ski Capital of the South."
Together with Appalachian Ski Mountain in Blowing Rock (the choice for a family-friendly, learn-to-ski experience), the High Country's ski resorts draw a half-million skiers in a good winter. Most find their way to Banner Elk.
Where ski runs don't mark the mountains, fields of Christmas trees do. Wherever you look, neat rows of the area's leading crop climb the ridges. This is the nation's primary producer of the sought-after Fraser fir species of tree, a Southern Appalachian native. By Thanksgiving, huge trucks roll through town on their way to deliver trees across the country. Thousands of visitors make it a pre-Christmas ritual: Ski early, then head home with a tree strapped to the rack with your skis.
Locals-at least those who don't farm-work in the tourism and sports industries. Restaurants, boutiques, and sports and craft shops dot the downtown and surrounding region. To this day, Banner Elk boasts some of the best eateries in the area. During the ski and summer seasons, restaurants such as Morels, Louisiana Purchase, Black Diamond Grill and Stonewalls are packed with diners.
Add college students to the mix and you have a bustling burg. Lees-McRae College's quaint stone buildings dominate downtown Banner Elk, but there are many well-preserved remnants of an earlier time. The popular Banner Elk Inn, once a church, has lodged visitors for a century. And on the outskirts of Banner Elk sit relics of 19th century commerce: the sagging yet atmospheric Mast General Store and the now silent and empty old hotel where Marjorie Rawlings wrote part of The Yearling.
Newer structures reflect a respect for the past. Country clubs with celebrity residents lie minutes out of town, but so do some of the virgin timber cabins that lined the rhododendron-bordered banks of the Elk River 120 years ago.
As ski towns go, Banner Elk still sits in a peaceful eddy in the flow of modern life. Glitzy, over-built tourist towns such as Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Cherokee, N.C., are roundly looked down upon here. Grandfather Mountain is still wild and spectacular and likely will stay that way under an enlightened partnership between the private landowner and The Nature Conservancy. But the historic old path we once hiked is gone. Worse yet, a garishly lit McDonald's and a huge grocery store sit at the old trailhead. An alternative path was built up to the peak, but that hasn't stemmed local outrage. When a lower summit of Sugar Mountain was flattened in the Eighties to accommodate a notorious 10-story condo development, Hugh Morton, owner of Grandfather Mountain, spoke out, and the state's only mountain-wide zoning ordinance was born.
Development may be encroaching, but no interstates yet link the region to the rest of the state. For now, the quiet life that locals remember from the past still exists. "This is just a quiet country town," says Mayor Charles VonCannon. "People don't want it to change."
That's the prospect that draws urban refugees to mountain towns everywhere. And why, on a world-class ski mountain, you're just as likely to meet a ski bum from Banner Elk as you are one from North Conway, Truckee or Aspen.
Randy Johnson divides his time between Greensboro, N.C., where he is editor of Hemispheres, and the High Country.