Recognize World Tourism Day with these top tourist attractions surrounding Lees-McRae

For those of us who call western North Carolina home, it is no secret that our corner of Southern Appalachia is full of inspiring sights, fun experiences, and thrilling adventures to discover. Because of this, the High Country is a hot spot for tourists from around the world looking to experience everything the Blue Ridge Mountains have to offer.

World Tourism Day, recognized annually on Sept. 27, is an annual observance that has been celebrated for more 40 years. Tourism is an important sector of the global economy, and according to the United Nations website, “it allows people to experience some of the world’s cultural and natural riches and brings people closer to each other, highlighting our common humanity.”

According to a study prepared for Visit North Carolina by Tourism Economics titled “The Economic Impact of Travel on North Carolina Counties,” total direct visitor spending in North Carolina in 2021 came out to $28.92 billion. Of this total in 2021, Avery County contributed $239.27 million and Watauga County contributed $465.05 million.

This year, make time to connect with the people around you and see the sights that draw travelers from across the country to this corner of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Check out our list of some of the top tourist destinations in and around Banner Elk and make some time to appreciate the wonders right in your backyard.

Tweetsie Railroad

Recognized as North Carolina’s first theme park, this Wild West adventure has been a staple of the High Country for generations, and for good reason. Tweetsie Railroad boasts fun and memorable experiences for the whole family, including live entertainment, amusement rides, their iconic train adventure, and more.

Located 30 minutes from the Lees-McRae campus between Boone and Blowing Rock, the park is nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, creating a beautiful landscape for its Wild West setting.

Tweetsie goes big for the holidays, so don’t miss the transformation of the park into a spooky adventure this Halloween season with the park’s Ghost Train. Saturday nights through October will feature festive fun for the whole family, including a ride on the Ghost Train itself, that you won’t want to miss.

Ski mountains: Appalachian Ski Mountain, Sugar Mountain Resort, Beech Mountain Resort

According to the North Carolina Ski Areas Association via, the total economic impact of the North Carolina Ski Industry in the 2019−2020 season was $228 million. The area surrounding Banner Elk is a hub for the industry in the state.

With three major ski destinations within 15 miles of the college’s campus, it is no question why Lees-McRae is one of the only colleges to boast a Ski Industry Business and Instruction academic program.

Appalachian Ski Mountain, Beech Mountain Resort, and Sugar Mountain Resort each offer a variety of slopes and ski terrains that draw outdoor adventurers to the mountains. While skiing, snowboarding, tubing, and ice skating draw visitors to these resorts in the winter months, summers in the High Country mean the mountains come alive with cyclists, hikers, scenic chair lift riders, and more.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Stretching 469 miles from Cherokee, North Carolina to Rockfish Gap, Virginia, the Blue Ridge Parkway connects two national parks, Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park. The parkway is easily accessible from Banner Elk, and a number of stunning overlooks and hikes are just a short drive away.

The closest access point sits along US 221 to Linville and Blowing Rock at milepost 305.1. To explore access points, hiking trails, and attractions along the entire parkway, browse the interactive map.

The Profile Trail is a favorite spot for great hiking and even greater views of the sprawling mountains that surround the Lees-McRae campus.

Fall is a great time to take a drive out on the parkway, as the changing leaves draw visitors from across the country to marvel at their beauty during “peak week.” According to, peak week in Banner Elk is projected for the second week of October.

Plan your leaf-looking trip for this year with our High Country Fall Color Guide 

The Blowing Rock

While exploring the Parkway, be sure to make a stop at “North Carolina’s Oldest Travel Attraction,” the Blowing Rock. This cliff, which hangs above Johns River Gorge 4,000 feet above sea level, is a phenomenon that has been marveled at for centuries.

Due to the shape of the gorge over which it hangs, the Blowing Rock creates a flume, where winds forcefully move up the rock, blowing light objects back up into the air. Dubbed “the only place in the world where snow falls upside down,” the Blowing Rock also offers stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Linville Caverns

Just 30 minutes down the mountain from the Lees-McRae campus and 2,500 feet below the peak of Humpback Mountain is Linville Caverns. Discovered in the 1800s, the caverns have been open for public touring since 1937, now hosting over 100,000 visitors annually.

According to, the cave system totals 1,300 feet of subterranean environment, but only 600 feet of the cave are safe for visitor exploration. Nevertheless, these 600 feet are packed with wonder, as visitors marvel at ancient stalactites and stalagmites, underground streams filled with rainbow and brook trout, and seemingly bottomless crystal-blue pools.

If you’re traveling along the Blue Ridge Parkway, don’t miss this incredible journey inside of the very mountains you weaved through, up, and over. Admission and hours are available on the Linville Caverns website.

Grandfather Mountain

Presiding over all the rest is Grandfather Mountain. Originally called “Tanawha,” meaning “a fabulous hawk or eagle,” by the Cherokee people of the region, the name “Grandfather” was adopted later when colonists recognized the profile of an old man in the mountain peaks that reach an elevation of 5,946 feet. Not only is Grandfather the highest peak on the eastern escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but a thriving state park highlights the environmental and ecological beauty and diversity of the area.   

With ample hiking and walking trails, wildlife habitats, and America’s highest suspension footbridge the Mile High Swinging Bridge, Grandfather Mountain State Park has countless once-in-a-lifetime events and experiences that draw nature lovers from far and wide.

Learn about how Grandfather Mountain has developed over time, and the connection between the environmental landmark and Lees-McRae

Pisgah National Forest

While a bit farther away, the hour-long drive from the Lees-McRae campus to Pisgah National Forest is well worth it. The hardwood forest covers more than 500,000 acres of mountain peaks, and offers scenic drives, hiking trails, mountain biking areas, and so much more.

According to the USDA Forest Service, “this national forest is home of the first tract of land purchased under the Weeks Act of 1911, which led to the creation of the national forests in the eastern United States.”

Plan your adventures in Pisgah National Forest for a day, a weekend, or a full week. This natural wonder has enough adventures and explorations to last a lifetime.

Become part of the thriving tourism industry in North Carolina with a major or minor in Outdoor Recreation Management

By Maya JarrellSeptember 27, 2022
CommunityCampus Life