Every autumn during the third weekend of October, the Blue Ridge Mountain town of Banner Elk becomes the woolly worm racing capital. That’s when this resort town welcomes visitors from near and far for the world famous Woolly Worm Festival.
The festival features two days of racing woolly worms, aka woollybear caterpillars, which crowds cheer for their favorite. The 2019 festival takes place Oct. 19-20 and the dates for the 2020 festival are Oct. 17-18.
Races are held throughout the day Saturday and Sunday at Historic Banner Elk School in the heart of downtown. The overall winner of Saturday’s races earns a $1,000 grand prize and the honor of predicting the winter weather for North Carolina’s High Country.
While Sunday’s races don’t involve forecasting privileges, participants still vie for prestige, along with a $500 prize.
“It’s really an all-American small town at its best,” says Mary Jo Brubaker, festival chairperson. “As a society, we go to such extremes to entertain people these days, but the down-home simplicity of this festival is wonderfully refreshing.”
The quirky weather-forecasting tradition comes from mountain lore that says the 13 segments of a woollybear caterpillar represent the 13 weeks of winter. Black bands mean cold, snowy weeks, while brown bands indicate warmer conditions. However, each woolly worm sports a different color pattern, so the festival was started in 1978 to determine which worm provides the official forecast.
All attendees are welcome to race a woolly worm. They may bring their own or purchase one from the local PTO. Races take place in heats of 25 contestants. Each worm inches its way up a string as its owner coaxes and cheers. The first to the finish line advances to the next round.
“We have families that have come year after year, and they wear family team T-shirts, like they’re a NASCAR racing team,” Brubaker says. “It’s so much fun to watch people racing the worms, and everyone’s laughing and cheering.”
In addition to races, the festival includes food, craft vendors and live entertainment.
Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Those interested in racing a worm must register and are encouraged to do so by 1 p.m. each day. Daily admission is $6 for adults, $4 for children ages 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and younger.
Few places in the North Carolina mountains have the variety of leaf-viewing options that Banner Elk offers. Nestled at 3,701 feet above sea level, Banner Elk normally reaches peak color around the third weekend of October. Typically, leaves begin to change in late September or early October, followed by a vivid progression for roughly three to four weeks.
Banner Elk is surrounded by scenic peaks and native hardwoods, with many vantage points to view autumn’s splendor. One of the best vantage points is the famous Mile-High Swinging Bridge atop Grandfather Mountain. People from all over the East Coast visit in fall to take in the panoramic view from Grandfather.
There are many different ways to view fall color in Banner Elk. Some prefer to take in the splendor from kayaks and canoes on Wildcat Lake, while others take to the hiking trails in and around the town limits. The Profile Trail at Grandfather Mountain State Park offers great views and has its trail head on the outskirts of Banner Elk. Another popular place is the high-altitude Emerald Outback trail park.
Another nice thing about a fall visit to Banner Elk is the close proximity to peak fall color from early October to early November. A quick 15-minute drive in early October up to Beech Mountain puts you at peak color because of its 5,506-foot elevation. Or, you can drive about 30 minutes in early November down to the Linville Caverns area and view peak colors there.
When the autumnal day is done, settle into comfortable lodging and indulge in a delicious cuisine from a number of eateries. A bountiful food selection gives Banner Elk its nickname of “the Culinary Hot Spot of the NC High Country.”
For a town with less than 1,500 residents, Banner Elk has an amazing culinary scene. So amazing, in fact, that Banner Elk is known as the culinary hot spot of the NC High Country.
An impressive array of locally-owned independent restaurants has made this resort town a dining destination. Whether you’re in search of a fine-dining white tablecloth experience, an upscale bistro, ethnic cuisine or a satisfying sandwich from a tasty deli, this town’s thriving food scene covers the spectrum.
Artisanal restaurant is the pinnacle of Banner Elk’s culinary offerings, a fine dining restaurant twice named among the Top 100 Restaurants in America by Open Table. Meanwhile, a new name on the Banner Elk dining scene is Chef’s Table, a farm-to-table eatery serving the freshest local ingredients in the High Country.
Speaking of the High Country, if you want a taste of the mountains, don’t leave without ordering fresh trout. Have it for dinner at long-time favorite Banner Elk Cafe & Lodge. Banner Elk Cafe is unique because its two kitchens offer a wide selection of lunches and dinners from two menus.
After a morning or afternoon cruising the slopes of the nearby ski resorts on Sugar and Beech mountains, stop into Dunn’s Deli to refuel. This New York-style deli serves mile-high clubs, tuna melts and cheese-steak sandwiches. Wash it all down with a cold draft.
Since 1985, Stonewalls Restaurant has been a destination for locals and visitors. Now under new ownership, the restaurant has upgraded to a chef-driven menu with plenty of culinary creations. Of course, Stonewalls remains the place for juicy steaks, slow-roasted prime rib and its well-known salad bar.
Soak up a season of holiday cheer with “A Small Town Christmas in Banner Elk” the first full weekend in December. Escape the rush and enjoy an authentic small town holiday Dec. 6-8 in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Festivities start Friday evening and run through Sunday. Most events take place within walking distance in the downtown area of Banner Elk, and the 2019 schedule is listed at the bottom of this page. For out-of-town visitors, weekend lodging packages are available that include a choose & cut Christmas tree from Elk River Evergreens.
Get in the mood for the weekend on Friday evening with caroling, hot chocolate and the lighting of the official town tree in the Corner On Main Park at 6:30 p.m. After the tree lighting, Ensemble Stage presents “A Banner Elk Christmas” at 7 p.m. just a short walk away at the Historic Banner Elk School. The holiday musical variety show is one of the most popular shows each year by the local professional theater group.
Saturday’s schedule starts early with the 5K Reindeer Run at 8:30 a.m. in Tate-Evans Park and concludes back at the park around 6:30 p.m. following the Parade of Lights. The parade, which starts at 6 p.m., finishes in the park with a synchronized Christmas light snow, train rides through luminary lights, visits with Santa and Mrs. Claus, a DJ with karaoke and the Avery County High School Band’s Christmas music recital.
During the day Saturday, events include a pancake breakfast with Santa at Dunn’s Deli, holiday market at Lees-McRae College, and a new event in 2019, the Banner Elk Polar Plunge at Wildcat Lake. Local businesses are also involved Saturday with events like ornament making and cookie decorating.
As the sun sets Saturday, the Banner Elk Parade of Lights kicks off at 6 p.m. at Lees-McRae College. The parade includes the traditional marching bands, cars and floats, but also features surprises, such as dogs dressed in lights and Santa arriving on a fire truck.
“People decorate their cars, their kids, their pets with lights, and they’re all in the parade,” says festival organizer Jo-Ann McMurray of the Banner Elk Chamber of Commerce.
Visitors can put a bow on their holiday experience Sunday with a visit to one of many Christmas tree farms in the area, or they can opt for a 2 p.m. performance of “A Banner Elk Christmas” at Historic Banner Elk School.
“The whole town gets involved with A Small Town Christmas,” says organizer Jo-Ann McMurray of the Banner Elk Chamber. “We love seeing families and couples get away from the hustle and bustle to enjoy a simpler celebration in a small town. And what better way to end the weekend than visiting a tree farm and driving home with a hand-picked tree on top of the car?”
Also available all three days are Christmas-themed walking tours of Apple Hill Alpaca Farm. Tours are hourly from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each. Cost is $12 for adults and $7 for children ages 4-10. Children 3 and under admitted free.
An added bonus is the Banner Elk Chamber of Commerce’s Christmas Tree Contest. Town businesses try to out-do each another with decorated outdoor Christmas trees. The trees must be real trees from Avery County Christmas tree farms. Everyone is encouraged to vote for their favorite at the Visitors Center and the winner is announced Saturday evening as everyone gathers among the lights in Tate-Evans Park.
Great Lodging Options Available
Because it is a resort town, Banner Elk has many accommodations that allow families and couples to find the idea lodging option for this special weekend. Seek out your perfect accommodations by clicking here. Or, check our special Choose & Cut Christmas tree lodging packages by clicking here.
Schedule of Events for 2019
Friday, Dec. 6
6:30 p.m. – Christmas Tree Lighting & Caroling at Corner on Main Park 7:00 p.m.– A Banner Elk Christmas musical variety show at Historic Banner Elk School
Saturday, Dec. 7
8:30 a.m. – 5K YMCA Reindeer Run in Tate-Evans Park 9:00 a.m. – Pancake Breakfast with Santa at Dunn’s Deli (through 10:30 a.m.) 9:00 a.m. – Holiday Market at Evans Auditorium at Lees-McRae College (through 5 p.m.) 10:00 a.m. – Christmas at Apple Hill Alpaca Farm (through 4 p.m.; tour purchase required) 1:00 p.m. – Banner Elk Polar Plunge at Wildcat Lake (through 4 p.m.) 6:00 p.m. – Parade of Lights on Main Street (ending with festivities in Tate-Evans Park)
Sunday, Dec. 8 All Day – Choose & Cut Christmas Trees at Avery County tree farms (get a free tree with Choose & Cut lodging package) 10:00 a.m. – Christmas at Apple Hill Alpaca Farm (through 4 p.m.; tour purchase required) 2:00 p.m.– A Banner Elk Christmas musical variety show at Historic Banner Elk School
For additional info about A Small Town Christmas in Banner Elk, call the Banner Elk Chamber of Commerce at 828-898-8395.
There’s no tubing like snow tubing, and the Banner Elk area is home to four of the best places to snow tube in the North Carolina mountains.
Snow tubing is among the easiest — and most fun — winter sports because it requires little preparation, equipment or skill. Just hop on a tube and whoosh your way down the hill.
Visitors to Banner Elk have a quartet of options. Within a few minutes of downtown are snow tubing parks at Sugar Mountain Resort and Beech Mountain Resort. About 25 minutes from town is Hawksnest Snow Tubing at the former Hawksnest ski resort. And, 30 minutes from Banner Elk is Jonas Ridge Snow Tubing.
All of these tubing parks provide 100% snowmaking to help with snow conditions when Mother Nature is taking a break, and they are considered the cream of the crop for snow tubing in North Carolina. But as far as which one is the best depends on what you’re looking for.
Hawksnest Snow Tubing is the biggest. It converted from a ski resort to snow tubing in 2008, giving it plenty of space. There are more than 30 runs in four sections, all connected by conveyor carpet lifts. The runs range in length from 400 to 1,000 feet.
Hawksnest also offers a winter zipline tour that soars above the tubing lanes. Because its elevation is not as high as Sugar Mountain or Beech Mountain, it occasionally encounters slightly warmer temperatures that create challenges in snowmaking.
The snow tubing park at Beech Mountain Resort is the newest. This state-of-the-art facility opened in winter of 2015-16 in the Alpine Village at the base of the ski slopes. The eight runs are extra-long and punctuated by small moguls known as rollers. It is lighted and surrounded by high-tech snow guns and a sound system. A Magic Carpet conveyor whisks tubers quickly back to the top.
Customers can buy tickets right there in the Beech Mountain ski village and enjoy other activities in the village, including ice skating and shopping, when finished with snowtubing.
Sugar Mountain Resort has the closest snow tubing park to Banner Elk. Sugar Mountain is known for strong snowmaking capabilities on the ski slopes and that goes the same for its snow tubing runs. Six runs are served by a conveyor carpet lift and Sugar probably stays open the most days each winter. The tubing runs are adjacent to the skating rink and both are easy to access because they have their own parking lot before you get further up the mountain to the ski resort.
Jonas Ridge is a smaller operation that has been in business since 2004. It has five lanes and recently replaced its rope tow with a conveyor carpet lift. Photographers take pictures as you tube and the photos are available for purchase on the spot, or later online. There is a small, cozy lodge with a fireplace and an observation deck.
Although snow tubing is easy and no lessons are needed, there are a few things you can do to maximize your adventure:
First, wear warm socks and waterproof or water-resistant winter boots. Otherwise, your shoes will get soggy, wet and/or ruined, and your feet will be cold the entire time.
Second, wear a winter jacket that is either waterproof or water-resistant for all those same reasons. You will be on ground level and encountering snow and slush.
Third, pay attention to your pants. If you don’t have waterproof/water-resistant pants, make sure to wear thermal underwear or some other layer underneath your pants (jeans are okay, but they are 100% cotton and absorb a lot of water).
Fourth, wear a ski cap (or beanie, tobaggon, whatever you call it) and an old pair of sunglasses. Your head and face will encounter wind as you whoosh down the tubing runs!
Finally, when the day of fun is done, head to your choice of lodging in Banner Elk and then check out the amazing culinary scene. Better yet, stay a couple nights and visit all four tubing parks in one trip!
Trip Advisor analyzed user ratings for all U.S. towns that have rental properties available on its website. It then calculated the average cost of a week’s stay in a two-bedroom vacation rental in those cities and towns.
The end result? Banner Elk made the list thanks to a user rating of 4.8 stars on a 5-star scale and its affordable, yet upscale, lodging options.
“There’s nothing cozier than a family cabin rental in the woods, where nights are spent around the fireplace drinking hot cocoa and enjoying each other’s company,” says Trip Advisor in its ranking. “Banner Elk offers this in spades, with rentals going for just $765 per week on average for a two-bedroom property. Depending which winter month you visit, you may catch temperatures warm enough for hiking and outdoor recreation, or it could dip low enough for fresh powder on the slopes.”
Banner Elk has long been known throughout the Southeast for its close proximity to two of the largest ski resorts in the region – Beech Mountain Resort and Sugar Mountain Resort. Both are less than 15 minutes from the town’s lone stoplight.
And, the list places Banner Elk in very good company. Among the other hidden gems are: Redmond, Ore.; Cody, Wyoming; Fort Pierce, Fla.; and Garden City Beach, S.C. Of the 10 places ranked, only Chelan, Wash., had a better user rating than Banner Elk.
“Trip Advisor is the top website in the U.S. for consumer-rated travel. It’s a big deal when a site of that magnitude recognizes Banner Elk,” says Nancy Owen, representative of the Banner Elk Tourism Development Authority. “This exposes Banner Elk to millions of people throughout North America and paints us in a very positive light. It also lets people know that, even though we have very nice accommodations, we are also reasonably priced.”
For more info on Banner Elk lodging options, go to the lodging section of this website.