There is something about mountain towns and cities that refreshes travelers' spirits. Perhaps it's something in the air or found within the local establishments or attractions.
Whatever the reason, the destinations offer memorable experiences that typically can't be recreated elsewhere.
Cozy or vibrant, or a good balance between the two, here are nine mountain towns and cities to need to be on your "must-see" travel list.
From its thermal spring waters to its prime location for infamous gangsters to its role in baseball, Hot Springs, Ark., in the valley of Ouachita Mountains, has been and remains a happening place. With the distinction of being the only city in the country within a national park, the destination offers a one-of-a-kind experience.
Begin with a self-guided tour of the Fordyce Bathhouse, the former -bathhouse -turned -visitors -center, to learn the history of thermal water baths. The restored rooms provide a feel of what it was like during its popularity. From there, meander down Bathhouse Row National Historic Landmark District to check out eight remaining restored bathhouses.
Hot Springs National Park offers 26 miles of trails and scenic mountain driving routes for those wanting to spend time outdoors. Don't overlook the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, with its panoramic views over 1,200 feet above sea level.
And speaking of the outdoors, on a peninsula on Lake Hamilton is the 210-acre Garvan Woodland Gardens. As one of eight woodland gardens in the United States, it is a feast for the eyes with the Anthony Chapel and the Anthony Family Trust Carillon and the Bridge of the Full Moon in the Garden of Pine Wind, one of the most photographed places in the gardens.
Fun Fact... Did you know Arkansas has a derby? Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort is home to the Arkansas Derby and the Racing Festival of the South. From January - April, enjoy live thoroughbred racing.
Situated atop Lookout Mountain, as soon as you set foot in town, you realize you are somewhere different ~ a good different ~ one that encourages you to slow down and soak in your surroundings.
And you can start at DeSoto State Park. Stretch your legs on the many hiking trails, or go kayaking or zip lining if you're more adventurous. If you're looking for something different, arrange your visit around a Yoga on the Mountain class, or go horseback riding with Shady Grove Dude Ranch.
For those who love waterfalls, you are in the right place. The 107-foot DeSoto Falls, in the park, is one of the state's tallest (107 feet) and most visited waterfalls. There are other waterfalls, but DeSoto Falls is perhaps the most easily accessible and has a picnic area.
If you want more waterfalls, it's worth the drive to Little River Canyon National Preserve, which is home to three named falls, including the picturesque Little River Falls. The preserve also offers plenty of outdoor recreational opportunities.
Don't leave Mentone without popping in Mentone Arts Center at the Chuck Sennett Center for the Arts for a local art piece to take back with you.
Got to See... Between Mentone and DeSoto State Park in Fort Payne is the Sallie Howard Memorial Baptist Church.
Constructed around a massive boulder of mountain rock by Colonel Milford Wriarson Howard with the CCC in the 1930s, the church has a fascinating backstory.
The church is active and welcomes everyone to their 10 a.m. Sunday service.
About 30 minutes from Gatlinburg, Tenn., is Townsend, regarded as the "peaceful side of the Smokies," but that isn't code for "dull" or "boring" because it is anything but that. The destination is rich not only in outdoor adventures but also in the region's history and culture.
And most, if not all, is because of its location. Townsend is the only Smoky Mountain town with the closest entrance to the Cades Cove loop, the most visited place in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. More than just a scenic drive, ride or walk, the 11-mile loop is an outdoor museum of sorts, preserving the early history of the land before it was acquired to become a national park. Along the route, you'll see homesteads, barns, cabins, churches and more from the 1800s. There are also natural features, hiking trails to enjoy, and even the opportunity to spot wildlife.
Combine Cades Cove with a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center. View exhibits depicting the history and lives of those who once called East Tennessee home. Be sure to check out the Historic Village featuring 11 historic structures, from cabins to a smokehouse to an outhouse.
You've been outdoors; now go underground. There are 700 known caves in Tennessee, and you can explore one in Townsend. Not only are the formations interesting in Tuckaleechee Caverns, but so is the story of how they were discovered.
If you want to explore more museums, head to the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum. Documenting Townsend's time as a logging community, the museum buildings display various photographs, documents, memorabilia and artifacts from this time. Outside, you can view exhibits like a vintage caboose.
Make time to experience the cultural side of the area, whether it's visiting the Wood-n-Strings Dulcimer Shop in Townsend, featuring handcrafted dulcimers, the gallery at Townsend Artisan Guild, home to pieces created by members, or Rocky Branch Mountain Music in Walland for Friday night jams and more.
Sip, Sample and Unwind... Townsend is home to Company Distilling. Stop in for bourbon whiskey and gin tastings, a full cocktail menu, and distillery tours.
Even though Blue Ridge, Ga., is 90 minutes north of Atlanta via the Georgia Mountain Parkway, it feels as if the destination is a world away. Immediately, a sense of peacefulness washes over you as you take in the surroundings. Whether you are ready to indulge in various outdoor activities, relax at a spa, or in your cabin, Blue Ridge has you covered.
First thing first, stop in Mercier Orchards for some apple cider, apple cider donuts and fried apple pies. Depending on the season, you may also want to get apples to take home.
Recall that sense of peacefulness from earlier? Well, it'll morph into excitement as you approach downtown and see the many eateries, shops and more to explore. One place you don't want to miss is Oyster Fine Bamboo Fly Rods. Even if you aren't interested in fishing, it's worth watching owner Bill Oyster meticulously handcrafts the rods and the personalized engraved pieces.
A must-do in the area is riding aboard the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway. The train departs from down and moves along the tracks at a leisurely pace toward the adjacent towns of McCaysville, Ga., and Copperhill, Tenn. The two hours give you ample time to explore, dine and shop. Also, be sure to see artist Rip Mann creating his hand-hewn bowls.
Worth the Stop... Expedition Bigfoot!: The Sasquatch Museum in Cherry Log, about six miles south of Blue Ridge, provides visitors with an in-depth look at various Bigfoot fact-finding missions through interactive exhibits that include possible sounds from the creature and multiple artifacts found in the areas. The museum houses the largest permanent display of footprint casts as well.
Upcountry South Carolina is filled with hidden gems to discover, like the city of Anderson. In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the northwestern part of the state, the destination, formerly known as the "Electric City," continues to spark the interest of travelers.
It's all about the location. It is a short drive to the mountains and an even shorter drive to the popular man-made Lake Hartwell. With 56,000 acres of water, it's considered one of the largest lakes in the South. Head to Sadlers Creek State Park and see what you can hook off the fishing pier (if you didn't pack fishing equipment, check out South Carolina State Parks' Tackle Loaner Program.) There's also a hiking trail and a mountain bike trail.
If you want to spend more time outdoors, you can soak up the natural surroundings along one of the Rocky River Nature Park trails. It is also a prime spot for birdwatching.
Downtown Anderson shines brightly with its 16-block historic district with local restaurants, breweries, shops and more. Make sure you visit the Anderson County Museum and then take in the exhibits and local artwork at the Anderson Arts Center. Be sure to pick up some sweet treats from CocoBon Chocolatier and enjoy them at Carolina Wren Park. And speaking of wrens, see how many you can spot downtown and other public art pieces.
Agritourism is strong in Anderson, and that's best reflected at working farms like Split Creek Farm, with their award-winning cheeses, fudge and milk, and other goat milk-related products. Denver Down Farms is one of the state's oldest family-owned farms and hosts seasonal activities and events. Now, if you are searching for a taste of localism, you can sip your way through Palmetto Distillery, home of South Carolina's first legal moonshine, among other spirits.
Get Out and Explore... Less than 30 minutes southeast of Anderson is the town of Pendleton, listed on the National Historic Register. Here, you can tour historic homes, go antiquing and visit Timm's Mill, a restored 18th-century gristmill that's operational today. About 30 minutes northeast of Anderson is Pelzer. A visit is Happy Cow Creamery is a must-do, especially if you like chocolate milk.
Boone, N.C., named after frontiersman Daniel Boone, who is said to have spent in the area, is an energetic yet laid-back mountain town sitting high (over 3,000 feet) in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The destination is home to Appalachian State University, which keeps it fresh, and a cornucopia of outdoor activities and adventures year around, even snow skiing, which keeps it active. Experience the best of everything, from hiking along the Boone Greenway to exhibits at Turchin Center for the Visual Arts to cinnamon rolls from Stick Boy Bakery.
Take a drive along the 469-mile-long Blue Ridge Parkway, the second most visited entity of the National Park Services. Around less than an hour from downtown are miles and miles filled with sweeping views (you have to see the scenic Linn Cove Viaduct at Milepost 304.4), overlooks, waterfalls and more, like the Moses H. Cone Memorial Park (Milepost 294). Don't forget about Grandfather Mountain (exit at Milepost 305.1) with the opportunity to drive on the "Forrest Gump Curve" and walk across the swinging bridge.
Also on Parkway is Blowing Rock, about 20 minutes south of Boone. Check out its namesake, The Blowing Rock, the state's oldest attraction, and if time permits, head to Tweetsie Railroad, the state's first theme park, providing a taste of the Wild West in the North Carolina High Country.
Head to downtown Boone for its local shops, galleries, restaurants, and history. The Historic Downtown Boone Walking Tour highlights landmarks and other significant spots on the 1.3-mile loop. See the Daniel Boone mural inside the post office, take your photo next to the Doc Watson statue and more.
If it is history you're interested in, be sure to make your way over to Hickory Ridge History Museum to learn about the early settlers' everyday life in the area. Next to the museum is Horn in the West, the country's longest-running Revolutionary War outdoor drama, highlighting the fascinating story of Daniel Boone and the settlers. The nearby Daniel Boone Native Gardens is filled with various native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers.
Not to Be Missed... Even if you don't consider yourself a fan of the grapes, it is still worth exploring the Boone Area Wine Trail. You never know what you might discover or learn. Of course, you can't pass up the scenic views or the opportunity to dine at local eateries.
Nestled up against the rugged Cumberland Plateau, along the edge of central Kentucky's Blue Grass Region, is Berea, Ky. From the creative handicraft community to Berea College to the Pinnacles of Berea, there are many sides to this distinctive town.
Recognized as the "Folk Arts & Crafts Capital of Kentucky," the destination is bursting with various crafters selling their works. If collecting local pieces, whether pottery, jewelry or another medium, is your thing, then Berea is the town for you. The best place to start is at the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea, which features a wide range of products from Kentucky makers. In addition, the facility also hosts exhibits and more. You can even dine there before heading out. Artisan Village is also not to be missed. Not only is Berea's Welcome Center located here, but also working studios. So park, get out, get information and explore. Don't overlook Berea College, either. Along College Square, you can discover places like the Log House Craft Gallery that showcases students' works.
And speaking of Berea College, it's worth your time to wander the campus on your own or check out a student-led tour. If you opt for it on your own, step into the Berea College Farm Store, run entirely by students, for a quick bite to eat and purchase some goodies to take home. There are also exhibits at the LJAC Gallery inside Loyal Jones Appalachian Center that focuses on the Appalachian region.
Get outdoors in Berea by renting an e-bike to head out on a biking trail or a kayak to paddle along the Owsley Fork. For those who want to get their heart pumping, lace up the hiking shoes to discover why Berea is a certified Kentucky Trail Town. From the Berea Pinnacles to Boone Trace Trail and more, the trails vary in difficulty.
Got to Do This... Ever wanted to learn blacksmithing or try your hand at edible art? With Berea Ky Tourism LearnShops, artist instructors walk you through creating your masterpiece.
Located in Loudoun County, Va., at the foot of Virginia's Blue Ridge and Bull Run Mountains Middleburg, so named in 1787 because of its location between Alexandria and Winchester. Middleburg was the site of two encounters in 1863 with the Gettysburg Campaign during the Civil War. In the 1900s, the town's interest turned toward foxhunting and steeplechasing, thus earning it recognition as the "nation's hunt and horse capital."
And it's a noteable spot for wine enthusiasts out there, too. The town is part of D.C.'s Wine Country, and there are over 20 wineries within 30 minutes of Middleburg to explore.
You want to visit the National Sporting Library & Museum. Promoting the preservation and sharing of literature, art and culture of equestrian and field sports, the library, open to the public, houses over 24,000 books spanning 500 years. The museum portion highlights American and European sporting art.
Be charmed as you meander around the historic district, listed National Register of Historic Places, filled with various shops, boutiques, and eateries. You'll also find the Red Fox Inn and Tavern (ca. 1728) here. Considered the "oldest original inn in America," it once served as the Confederate headquarters and hospital during the Civil War. A little over a century later, John F. Kennedy held a press conference in the JEB Stuart Room. Elizabeth Taylor visited here, and it hosted Jacqueline (Jackie) Kennedy Onassis during fox hunting season.
Did You Know... Over 400 equestrian events occur in the town and surrounding areas. Middleburg is also one of the most popular training areas for Olympic equestrian athletes because of its terrain and location.
Charleston, WVa.'s appeal is its diversity. Whether walking along the Sunrise Carriage Trail, browsing Taylor Books, the city's independent bookstore or exploring one of the eclectic neighborhoods, the destination offers a lot. And that doesn't even cover the museums, outdoor activities and cultural experiences.
Situated in the Allegheny Mountains, West Virginia's capital city is within a day's drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population, making it a prime long weekend getaway.
There are certain spots or places you want to visit, beginning with the West Virginia State Museum, which highlights the state's rich history and its people. For art with stories, check out the self-guided Art and Architecture tour in the Downtown Charleston Historic District, or for art that tells stories, there's the self-guided public art tour.
Whether traveling with your family, significant other/friend or on your own, you want to check out the Clay Center. You'll find the Juliet Art Museum with permanent and traveling exhibits, workshops, and classes here. In addition, the Avampato Discovery Museum keeps young minds engaged with hands-on exhibits. The Center also houses the Caperton Planetarium and Theater, and the Maier Foundation Performance Hall, home of the West Virginia Orchestra and other performances.
It's effortless to enjoy the outdoors in Charleston. Whether you want to enjoy the Kanawha River or take a relaxing walk to unwind on a trail, it's doable. Check out the hiking trails at Kanawha State Forest for something a little more active.