Around Towns: Beech Mountain
Just 125 miles from Charlotte, the highest incorporated town east of the Rockies feels like another land, especially in summer
STEPS AWAY from the breathtaking, 5,506-foot summit of Beech Mountain, I don’t pause to gaze at the hazy, green mountains on the horizon or try to locate the three different states I can see from the magnificent height, or even stop to breathe in the kind of clear air that comes only from being this close to the clouds.
I look down. Way down, at the narrow groove of dirt that will be my path descending from the highest point of the mountain town while riding a bike. I look down at the rolling hills and the rock ledges and the banked turns through trees, and glance over at my husband worriedly. He smiles encouragingly.
“Just don’t look down,” my mountain bike instructor, Clancy Loorham, cautions too late. “That’s when you get into trouble.”
It is my first time attempting to mountain bike—“downhilling,” as a bike-aficionado friend calls it—and it is on the six-year-old trails at Beech Mountain Resort that were renovated this year. A couple of new trails were added and all were widened in 2017, but they still are essentially the same pathways used by competitors in professional mountain bike national championships in 2011 and 2012. They are that challenging.
They snake down the mountain along paths that sometimes stay within the confines of the open areas cleared for ski runs used in the winter, but also dip into the tract of land thick with forest. The trails were opened to the public in 2013 and have been a tourist hit ever since.
I’m wearing protective plastic guards on my shins and forearms, and a full-face helmet with a sturdy shield that stretches over my mouth. Still, knowing my natural ability for klutziness, I’m not sure if all of it—or the short practice session Clancy gave us on the essential skill of braking—is enough to protect me.
“Look where you are going instead of straight down,” Clancy clarifies. That way I’ll know what hazards I am about to encounter and can prepare for them, he says.
I take a deep breath, gather my courage, and begin pedaling.
WE CAME TO BEECH MOUNTAIN to experience the highest-elevation incorporated city east of the Rockies. Here, we could escape Charlotte heat in a quiet town roughly 125 miles away with a full-time population of about 350. Here, we could golf at an elevation where the thin air helps the ball to travel farther, and hike alongside streams that rush with force down the mountain.
Since 1967, when the resort opened, Beech Mountain has been a skier’s delight. The population swells to an average of 10,000 from December to February, when the town receives much of its 84 inches of annual snowfall.
Summers are becoming more popular with the addition of mountain bike trails in recent years, though golf at Beech Mountain Club has been a steady presence since Carolina Caribbean Corporation developed the property in 1969. Still, the tourist population dips to 5,000 from June to August. It’s easy to feel as if you are in a remote hideaway, while still just 25 miles from the busy college town of Boone.
To get to bucolic Beech Mountain, drive through Banner Elk at the base of the mountain and wind your way up. Up around curves, past the sign that warns that snow chains are required in winter, past the small outpost that happens to sell snow chains, through a handful of switchbacks until, finally, a dozen or so buildings signify that you’ve crossed into town.
The sky seems bluer, the forests seem more verdant, and the quiet mountaintop instantly presents a peaceful air.
In what feels like the center of town, Fred’s General Mercantile is a blue-sided chalet house that draws visitors and locals. Inside is a tchotchke world of wonder. The unofficial slogan: “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”
Shelves and aisles are crammed with food, medical supplies, hardware, fishing lures, clothing, knickknacks and, in the winter, skis and snowboards for rent. Downstairs, a deli serves breakfast sandwiches atop flaky biscuits that create a line that coils through the building.
Fred Pfohl opened the store in 1979, after spending a decade on the mountain working at the ski resort and for Land of Oz, a quirky Wizard of Oz tribute theme park here that now is open only Fridays in June and a weekend in September. The open dates sell out almost instantly each year.
Pfohl saw a need for a catchall store atop the mountain. At the time, the closest grocery and drugstores were down the winding road in Banner Elk. “In the real world, it probably wouldn’t work too well,” he says, “but it works here. You couldn’t build this store just anywhere.”
Pfohl is 71 years old, resembles Santa Claus with stubble, and seems to know everyone who visits Fred’s General Mercantile. He became the town’s first mayor when it incorporated in 1981, raised five kids while living upstairs from his shop—the living quarters now hold more goods for sale—and still manages the store with his wife, Margie. He has no plans to retire, because “no one gives you a gold watch when you own your own business,” he says.
There’s now a Walmart 21 miles away and a Lowes Foods eight miles from the town center, but those places don’t have Pfohl’s knowledge of the community or the history intertwined with Beech Mountain.
Pfohl has seen three generations of families come through his doors and has been to the weddings of two sets of employees. All of his employees can recommend hiking trails to tourists or tell them which hot dog to order at Famous Fast Eddie’s down the street.
“Our store has turned out to be just what we wanted it to be—the center of the community,” Pfohl says.
BECAUSE MOUNTAIN WEATHER can be an ecosystem unto itself, Pfohl also maintains a National Weather Service outpost atop Beech Mountain. He started tracking weather in 1992, and made a remarkable discovery—it rarely got warmer than 79 degrees.
In fact, from 1992 to 2011, Beech Mountain officially crossed 79 degrees only twice.
That data led the golf course at Beech Mountain Club to begin a promotion called “Summer of 79.” If a golfer plays 18 holes at specific times under a “Stay and Play” rate, and the temperature rises above 79 degrees at any point during the day, the golfer can come back for a free round of golf.
This was an advantageous promotion for the golf club until recently. After recording temperatures higher than 79 just twice during those 19 years, Beech Mountain eclipsed the mark five times from 2011 to 2015.
Then, in 2016, it was warmer than 79 degrees five times in a single summer.
Beech Mountain Club golf pro John Carrin says with a shrug that golfers are getting a deal, no matter what. Elevation on the course ranges from 4,200 to 4,700 feet, and the thinner air helps golfers gain an average of a one-club distance advantage. In other words, if a golfer typically uses a 7-iron on a shot, an 8-iron yields the same distance on Beech Mountain.
And even if it does get higher than 79 degrees, or the ball doesn’t sail for some reason, golfers are rewarded with breathtaking views. Carrin calls No. 10 the toughest hole on the course—because the stunning, sweeping view of the mountain landscape from the tee box is distracting.
“It’s hard to concentrate on hitting the shot,” Carrin says.
Beech Mountain is filled with overwhelming views and small delights at every turn. Settling in for dinner at Beech Alpen Inn on our first night, my husband and I peered out the window at the mountains in the distance, and were surprised by two deer that appeared in the grassy courtyard behind the restaurant. As I rushed outside to take a photo, three more deer and a wild turkey suddenly joined them, meandering slowly in the open field.
“There are three bears who live there, too,” our waitress says, when I come back to show off my pictures.
It continues like that for the rest of our weekend, as my husband and I are assailed by one unbelievable view after another. From outside the Brick Oven Pizzeria, where we sampled a couple of the 150 craft beers in the coolers of the onetime deli, we can see Grandfather Mountain in the distance.
From the deck of the condo we rented for a couple of nights, we spy the distinctive, white towers of Sugar Top condominiums atop Little Sugar Mountain.
As we hike the Lower Pond Creek trail—a challenging, slippery path downhill and back up—we are awed by the rushing stream that flows over the rocks.
But when we take the chairlift to the top of Beech Mountain Resort to mountain bike down, I can’t manage to look out at any of the spectacular views.
All I can do is stare straight down at the dirt in front me.
CLANCY IS RIGHT. Looking down is the worst thing I can do, and I bike in fits and starts through the first portion of the Green Mamba beginner’s trail, forcing myself to stop abruptly whenever I feel as though I’m traveling too fast, or to let other mountain bikers approaching from behind pass me.
As we regroup midway down the mountain, and I try to find a way to abort the trail, Clancy encourages me to keep going. I reluctantly agree.
This time, I look out, just a little bit. In one skills section, I roll easily over a series of hills, somehow curve along steep banking, and feel as though I have conquered the trail. When I get to the bottom, I am relieved. I did not break any bones or sustain any massive scrapes. In fact, I did not fall. When Clancy asks if we want to try another trail, though, I decline.
I want to ride the chairlift up the mountain, again. But this time, I go without a bike.
And when we get to the top of Beech Mountain Resort this time, I look around.
Famous Fast Eddie’s has a hot dog cart at the top, and Eddie himself is here to tell us about how he started his restaurant 10 years ago from a stand just like this one.
Up a handful of steps is 5506’ Skybar, the canopied bar named for the elevation at that exact point. On summer weekends, yoga classes are held on the deck of the bar. When it’s warm, the canopy of the Skybar can be retracted to allow the sun to shine on patrons.
My husband and I make our way to the patch of grass just behind the bar, past the couple sipping drinks in Adirondack chairs, past the children darting through the long grass, and over to the corner lookout.
Here, I gaze out into the horizon, taking in the extraordinary view of the hazy, green mountains. I try to identify which of the peaks is in Tennessee, which is in Virginia, and which is in North Carolina. I inhale a deep breath of the cool air.
And for the first time all day, I don’t look down, not even one bit.
EAT & DRINK
Famous Brick Oven Pizzeria
Everything you’d want out of a vacation pizzeria is here: delicious, custom-made pizzas; miniature golf outside; a small game room; and a cooler filled with about 150 craft beers, many from North Carolina. 402 Beech Mountain Pkwy., 828-387-4000.
Beech Alpen Inn
Come for the North Carolina trout in an elegant and peaceful setting; stay to see deer and wild turkeys in the courtyard. 700 Beech Mountain Pkwy., 828-387-2252.
Fred’s General Mercantile Deli
Downstairs from the main store, you can get breakfast sandwiches and light lunch and dinner fare. On summer weekends, there’s a cookout on the patio. 501 Beech Mountain Pkwy., 828-387-4838.
Famous Fast Eddie’s
It started as a hot dog cart, and now serves up tasty Reuben sandwiches and barbecue, among other classics. At the base of Beech Mountain Resort, it’s a great spot for a mountain biking break. 1005 Beech Mountain Pkwy., 828-387-3647.
Valle de Bravo
Authentic Mexican food atop a mountain? Yep. Don’t be thrown off by the skis decorating the wall; it’s the real deal. 608 Beech Mountain Pkwy., 828-387-4344.
Beech Mountain Brewing Co.
Located at the base of the mountain, the brewery opened in 2013. Its Beech Blonde and 5506’ pale ale are popular, and the brewery has rotating tap options. 1007 Beech Mountain Pkwy., 828-387-2011.
4 Seasons at Beech
A lodge-style resort in the heart of Beech Mountain with stunning views. 608 Beech Mountain Pkwy., 828-387-4211.
VCI Rentals, Inc.
Find various rental properties on the mountain through this agency, including condos with up to four bedrooms. 608 Beech Mountain Pkwy., 828-387-4217.
Beech Mountain Club
Golf with breathtaking mountain views at this private club. The “Summer of 79” package (summerof79.com) includes two nights in a standard room and a round of golf for $79 a night, and if the temperature gets over 79 degrees on the day you play, you’ll receive a certificate for a free round of golf. 103 Lakeledge Rd., Beech Mountain, 828-387-4208.
Beech Mountain Resort
Mountain biking and disc golfing in the summer, skiing and snowboarding in the winter. Or, just ride the chairlift up for views. 1007 Beech Mountain Pkwy., 828-387-2011.
The seven miles of trails at Beech Mountain Resort can be used for hiking, trail running, mountain biking, and, in the winter, snowshoeing. Elevations range from 4,700 to 5,400 feet, and some lead to overlooks with 50-mile views.
There are 13 trails outside of those designated as part of the Emerald Outback, ranging in length from 0.4 miles to 4.5 miles, and in difficulty from easy to advanced. Falls Trail and Lower Pond Creek take you to plenty of places where you can witness waterfalls and rushing water. 828-387-3003.