Get away to NC’s Cataloochee Ranch with these recommendations for eating, hiking and horseback riding

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A mile high in the Maggie Valley area of the North Carolina mountains is a gem of a vacation spot that will leave you refreshed, renewed, and ever-grateful that you live less than three hours from a slice of how life used to be. Allow us to introduce you to Cataloochee Ranch, a getaway that’s been family-owned and operated for generations in the middle of one of the state’s most beautiful landscapes.

Within minutes of arriving at Cataloochee—a Cherokee word translated as “wave upon wave,” fitting for its location adjacent to Great Smoky National Park—you’ll start to notice a difference in your vacation attitude. Don’t be surprised if you’re tempted to leave your cell phone in the room, to take in the high-country vistas without trying to capture them. After all, with the to-do lists gone, there’s no better time to embrace true in-the-moment togetherness, whether that’s by taking a group horseback ride, sipping a glass of wine on a tree swing, or making new friends around a campfire.

STAY

When it comes to lodging, you can opt for a room in the main house or a spacious cabin, with vaulted ceilings, a stone fireplace, and porches with unforgettable views. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re flying solo, escaping as a couple, or planning a vacation for the whole family.     

The full-service summer rates range from $240 to $430 per night, and if you’d like your pup to experience the great outdoors alongside you, Cataloochee even offers a limited number of pet-friendly cabins, with a $100 fee.

Every room comes with high-speed internet and satellite TV, but—trust us—the more you unplug, the more revitalized you’ll feel. Speaking of unplugging, while there are ceiling fans, there’s no central air conditioning in the cabins or lodge. But don’t let that scare you. Even in the heat of summer, the Ranch’s mile-high elevation will usually have you reaching for a light jacket.

PLAY

While you can certainly lose yourself in a day of hiking in the 500,000 acres of the adjoining Great Smoky Mountains National Park or whitewater rafting a quick drive away, if you don’t want to leave the property, there’s still plenty of ways to get active at the Ranch itself. Fish for trout in the pond by the main house, take a wildflower walk, or peruse the map of hiking trails they gave you when you checked in. Most are a mix of gravel roads, horse trails, and side walkways petering off into the surrounding forest. They’re easy to follow, and some will make you break a sweat. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself sharing the trails with horses and cows that roam the ranch.

Speaking of horses, whether you’re a novice or an expert, you’ll want to book a spot (or two) during one of the horseback rides throughout your stay. The two-and-a-half-hour rides give you a chance to explore the mountains on horseback, whether you’re taking a ride to the crown jewel of the property, Hemphill Bald, or strolling through the cool rhododendron tunnels and across mountain streams. Cost is $65 for overnight guests.

EAT

Breakfast and dinner are included in the rates for overnight guests, but lunch is also served every day for an additional $8 to $13.95 per person. Think hamburgers and hotdogs, or homemade soups and deli-style sandwiches.

After a day of hiking or a horseback ride to the top of Hemphill Bald, you’ll be more than ready for a hearty meal. But start your evening at 6 p.m. at the main house, for what’s dubbed “social hour.” Guests and locals gather around the picnic tables overlooking and order local drafts and wine from The Watering Hole, a bar built into the patio. (There’s also lemonade and tea for people who just want a refresher.)

At dinner, you’re served a buffet-style feast of southern cooking, such as pulled pork, mac ’n cheese, barbecue chicken, and cornbread. Seconds are welcome, but be sure to save room for dessert—there’s a reason there’s a nightly swarm around the quilt-laden table, where delicacies like banana pudding and chocolate cake topped with caramel and Heath Bar crunch are set out.

As the evening fades and the sun slowly sinks behind the mountaintops, many local musicians with an acoustic guitar, fiddle or banjo, will join in the reverential revelry, strumming, picking, and singing—and beckoning you to join in.

So grab a spot on a bench or the swing under the Norway spruce, settle in, and take a deep breath of fresh, restorative mountain air.

This story first ran in the May 2018 issue of SouthPark Magazine.

Photos courtesy of Cataloochee Ranch

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