10 Tiny Treasures: Small North Carolina Towns to Visit This Winter

The Festival of Lights in Blowing Rock, NC. (Photo via Visit NC)

By Ryan Pitkin

December 1, 2023

From the mountains of western North Carolina to the shores of the eastern coast, North Carolina knows how to do winter. Here are 12 small towns worth visiting this cold season. 

Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the … winter? Summer activities like NASCAR races or walks along the seashore might come to mind when you think of the Tar Heel state, but we do winter right, too. 

From the Appalachian Mountains to the shores of the Outer Banks, North Carolina is home to many small towns that only become more beautiful in the winter—whether it be for holiday festivities or…pickles? 

Here are 10 tiny treasures of wintertime North Carolina that are worth a visit this cold season, categorized by region. 

Western North Carolina

Blowing Rock

Named “Best Tiny Town” in the November issue of Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine, Blowing Rock has more than just skiing in the winter—though it does offer plenty of that. Appalachian Ski Mountain is one of just a handful of ski resorts in the state, with this season running from Nov. 30, 2023 to March 17, 2024. There are snowboard and ski rentals available or an ice-skating arena for those who want to stay off the slopes. 

Nearby, Chetola Resort offers a great way to wind down after a day of skiing with its Festival of Lights, during which the entire resort is lit up with thousands of dazzling illuminations. The beauty lasts through Jan. 26, 2024. 

Looking for a more challenging walk? Moses H. Cone Memorial Park invites visitors to bring their snowshoes or cross-country skis to explore its miles of trails whenever the 3,500-acre estate inevitably becomes blanketed in snow. 

From Jan. 26-29, the town hosts Blowing Rock Winterfest, which features the Polar Bear Plunge, Rotary Chilly Chili Challenge, and WinterFest Beer Garden along with ice-carving demonstrations, curling, and more. 

Bryson City

Jammed between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Nantahala National Forest, Bryson City is a tiny town tucked into a wooded wonderland in western North Carolina. While there isn’t quite as much snow as other parts of the mountains—they average three to five snowfalls per year—the cold temperatures do bring a drop in tourists, meaning more room for you to enjoy your trip. 

Bryson City is home to the iconic Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, and winter is the best time to take a ride, as the railroad offers a specialized Polar Express train ride, transporting families from the Bryson City Depot through the quiet wilderness for a special visit at the North Pole, where Santa awaits with a gift for each child on the train. The Polar Express rides run through Dec. 31 this year. 

Looking for a place to cozy up? Watershed Luxury Log Home Rentals has no shortage of cabin properties for rent in the Bryson City area, with the lack of leaves making for even better mountaintop views of the national forests in all directions. 

High-fives all around on Bryson City’s Polar Express. (Image via Explore Bryson City)

West Jefferson

Nestled into the Blue Ridge Mountains of Ashe County in the northwest corner of North Carolina, West Jefferson is known for its arts district, which features an array of interesting murals, distinctive public art, and numerous galleries. But wait, there’s more—West Jefferson offers a vibrant downtown district that features a slew of unique boutiques and emporiums; great dining establishments; a butcher shop; antique shops; coffee, tea, and wine shops; and two craft beer breweries.

While the summer features festivals, concerts, gallery crawls and a farmers market, people flock to West Jefferson in the winter for a different reason: Christmas trees. According to Business NC, Ashe County produces more Christmas trees than any county in the country. Driving into town you’re sure to see the farms lining the hills around you. Pick a farm, choose a tree, chop it down, bring it home. It’s that simple. 

Don’t want to put in the effort? There’s no need to leave downtown. Remember that farmers market we mentioned? It stays open year-round, with a focus on Christmas trees in December. 

The Piedmont

Old Salem

Winston-Salem, the fifth most populous city in North Carolina, was founded in 1913, the result of a merger between two towns (Winston and Salem, if you hadn’t guessed). Descendants of the early Moravian villagers who first settled Salem didn’t want to let that history be forgotten, so in 1950 they formed Old Salem, Inc. The organization has advocated for the preservation of the town ever since, and today it remains the longest-standing Moravian village in the country, known as Old Salem Museums & Gardens. But this village is more than just museums and gardens—it looks largely as it did a century ago, providing a trip through time that you won’t soon forget. 

During the winter, the village invites visitors to see what the early Moravians did to keep themselves busy in the long, dark months by hosting Salem Saturdays in Winter. Visit the Single Brothers’ House, the Potter’s Workshop at T. Bagge, and the Doctor’s House, among others. 

Set to open Feb. 15, the St. Philips African Moravian Church will provide an in-depth look at the history of North Carolina’s longest-running Black church while exploring Old Salem Inc.’s ongoing research into the lives of the free and enslaved people of African descent who lived in the town of Salem.

Immerse yourself further in the spirit of Christmas in the 1800s with Old Salem’s Joy of Christmas evening tours

Pro tip: Do not leave Old Salem without stopping by the Winkler Bakery and stocking up on some of those famed Moravian cookies.  

Old Salem is ready for the holidays! (Photo via Old Salem)

Statesville

With a population nearing 30,000, Statesville is not what we would call a small town, per se, but it certainly feels like one during the month of December. A Christmas tree lighting on Nov. 30 kicks off downtown Statesville’s 2023 ’Tis the Season programming, which includes shopping, horse-drawn carriages, holiday music, festive trolley rides, a few snowflakes (maybe even some real ones, if you’re lucky), and special guest Santa, of course. 

‘Tis the Season includes a slew of family-friendly events spread across December, including horse-drawn carriage rides on Dec. 7 and 14, the 30th Masonic District of North Carolina Christmas Parade on Dec. 10, and for the first time this year, a Home for the Holidays gingerbread house competition for cash prizes, which ends on Dec. 8. 

The family fun doesn’t stop early in the month, however, as kids are invited to participate in the Statesville Story Stroll, traversing downtown shops to learn the story of (and try to catch) the Gingerbread Man, between Nov. 21-Jan. 5. 

McAdenville

When a town is dubbed “Christmas Town USA” and recognized as such by national media outlets like USA Today, safe to say it’s worth a visit come wintertime. Since 1956, residents of McAdenville have transformed the small Charlotte suburb into Christmas Town every holiday season, with each year becoming all the more grandiose. 

The main attraction in Christmas Town is the 1.3-mile light display made up of 200 evergreen trees covered with a half-million red, white, and green Christmas lights and culminating with a large lake dotted with floating, beautifully lit Christmas trees. And that’s just the official town display—homes all along the path are decorated to the nines as well. 

Beginning with a tree-lighting ceremony on Dec. 1, the display will show every night regardless of weather from 5:30-10 p.m., with visitors welcome to walk or drive through the neighborhood. An annual Yule log lighting ceremony is scheduled for Dec. 14, with a small parade leaving from Pharr Corporate Office at 5 p.m. and ending with the lighting of the Yule log at Legacy Park at 6 p.m.

Tip: Organizers suggest driving through the display on a weeknight, as the streets get crowded and the trip gets longer on weekends.  

“Christmas Town USA” in McAdenville, NC.

Eastern North Carolina

Mt. Olive

You will see neither mountain nor olive while driving into Mount Olive, but it won’t be long until you come across a pickle or two. Located an hour’s drive east from Fayetteville, you may know the tiny town of Mount Olive by name thanks to the popular brand of pickles. Founded in and named after the town in 1926, the Mt. Olive Pickle Company is proud of its hometown and its hometown is proud of those pickles. Each winter, townsfolk get together for one of the state’s (and country’s) more bizarre New Year’s Eve traditions: the pickle drop. 

The New Year’s Eve Pickle Drop is exactly what it sounds like. Each year on New Year’s Eve, several thousand people from the town and surrounding areas gather in front of University of Mount Olive’s Kornegay Arena to watch Mount Olive Volunteer Fire Department’s Tower 23 truck lower a giant, glowing pickle into a huge pickle jar to mark the end of the year. Note that, in the interests of keeping things family friendly, the event does not occur at midnight like many ball drops. Festivities start at 5 p.m. and are all over by 7:30 p.m. 

Beginning with a few Mt. Olive employees in 1999, the yearly pickle drop has since become the stuff of legend, drawing several thousand people each and every year (for context, just over 4,000 people live in Mount Olive). Last year, for the first time in its 22-year history, the event was canceled due to weather, so expect folks to be that much more jazzed to resume the tradition in 2023. 

Beaufort

North Carolina’s coastal towns clear out of tourists during the winter, leaving all the year-round attractions wide open for your enjoyment. Beaufort hosts the NC Maritime Museum, home to Queen Anne’s Revenge, infamous pirate Blackbeard’s ship, which ran aground near Beaufort in 1718 and wasn’t recovered from its watery grave until 1996. 

Beaufort also takes its holiday seasons seriously. It all begins with the Crystal Coast Christmas Flotilla, scheduled for Dec. 2, featuring boats, yachts, oars, kayaks, and commercial vessels all decked out for the season. Following the flotilla, the month of December is filled with events including a tricycle race to the North Pole, the annual Beaufort Holiday Art Walk, and a Claus Crawl. 

The fun doesn’t stop with Christmas, either. Beaufort hosts a New Year’s Eve Cannon Blast celebration to ring in the new year with a bang and a weekend-long Mardi Gras celebration in February

An annual tradition on the coast, the Crystal Coast Christmas Flotilla. (Image via The Inn at Pine Knoll Shores)

Southport

Located on just 3.8 square miles at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, Southport has a rich history going back to the 15th century that involves pirates, privateers, and blockade runners. The vibrant and historic waterfront village is worth a walking tour at any time of year. However, December is an especially great time to visit. 

That’s because of Winterfest 2023, made up of 18 events that range from the staid Winterfest Tea to the more lively Southport Winterfest Flotilla, which will close out Winterfest on Dec. 9. Throughout the week-long celebration from Dec. 2-9, the third annual Storefront Showcase will see shop owners along the famed retail strip of downtown Southport compete by outdoing each other with decorations and judged in five categories: Most Original, Most Kid-friendly, Most Traditional, Biggest Surprise, and Best Overall. 

Of course, this is all done in the spirit of supporting small businesses during their offseason, so don’t just gawk at all the beautiful decorations, get in there and knock out some Christmas shopping. 

Elizabeth City

You’ve heard of the Outer Banks, but how often do you visit the Inner Banks? Elizabeth City makes it all the more inviting with a month full of holiday festivities the whole family can enjoy. The celebration begins on Dec. 1 with a parade of festively decorated and lighted boats of all sizes and kinds circling the harbor for folks to enjoy from two nearby parks. 

If you can’t make the boat parade, the Dances Bay neighborhood hosts a driveable or walkable light display that remains on display through Dec. 31 and includes a half-million Christmas lights, a 30-foot Santa lighthouse, and a life-size gingerbread house, among other attractions. 

Catch a local stage adaptation of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at College of the Albemarle on Dec. 8 or follow the Hot Cocoa Crawl, a trail of 40 local businesses and organizations offering up the yummiest hot cocoa treats and cocoa-inspired experiences for locals and visitors to sip and savor. They don’t call Elizabeth City the “Hot Cocoa Capital of the World” for nothing. The Cocoa Crawl is available through Jan. 7. 

(Photo via Visit Elizabeth City)

Author

  • Ryan Pitkin

    Ryan Pitkin is a writer and editor based in Charlotte, where he runs an alternative weekly newspaper called Queen City Nerve. He is also editor of NoDa News, a community newsletter in the neighborhood where he has lived for 15 years.

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