A polar plunge and a pickle drop: Here’s your NC winter bucket list

Polar Plunge

Carolina Beach's annual Polar Plunge is one NC winter tradition you won't want to miss. (Shutterstock)

By Ryan Pitkin

December 19, 2023

NC is often thought of as a warm-weather destination. But there’s loads to do in the winter. Here’s a guide to winter activities for every region of NC.

Winter is one of the most beautiful—if undefinable—times to be in North Carolina. Why undefinable?

Well, the experience can differ greatly depending on what part of the state you’re in. While a winter visit to the western North Carolina mountains will surely involve snow, a trip to the eastern NC coast will likely look more like a sunny day with a chilly breeze.

What these two regions (and the central Piedmont area between them) have in common is that there’s always something great to experience in the wintertime.

Related: Everything you want to know about NC’s Cheerwine soda. Click here to read.

We’ve broken the following North Carolina winter bucket list items down by region so you can plan accordingly, but we promise that whichever direction you venture in, it will end in a great time.

Western

Biltmore Estate

Asheville

The historic Biltmore Estate in Asheville is one of the most beautiful properties to visit any time of the year. It is the site of America’s largest home, built during the Gilded Age for the famed Vanderbilt family, and is surrounded by beautiful botanical gardens and iconic landscapes. Things get taken up a notch during Christmastime.

While a daytime trip features fragrant wreaths, glittering garland, and the sparkle of thousands of ornaments, a visit during the seasonal candlelight evenings at the estate means thousands of ornaments reflect the soft glow of candles, with added ambiance from fireplaces and twinkle lights. Nearby on the property, Antler Hill Village is festooned with glittering lights, ornaments, and other Christmas displays.

Biltmore also hosts exhibits throughout the year, and this winter season is your last chance to catch Italian Renaissance Alive, which has been on display since March and runs through Jan. 7, 2024. The multi-sensory experience takes patrons on a journey across Renaissance-era Italy. Set to a powerful operatic score, it showcases the masterworks of such icons as Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, and Caravaggio.

Tweetsie Railroad

Blowing Rock

The East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad company opened the ET&WNC line through the rugged Appalachian Mountains in 1882, eventually extending it to Boone. Unsurprisingly, none of the early ET&WNC nicknames stuck—“Eat Taters & Wear No Clothes” was reportedly one of them—but “Tweetsie,” based on the shrill tweets the engine sent bouncing off the mountains, did.

The line saw some troubles beginning with a flood in the 1940s and went through a few ownership changes in the following years—western movie star and musician Gene Autry among those owners. Blowing Rock native Grover Robbins Jr. eventually brought Tweetsie back to his hometown, and over the years it evolved from an excursion railroad into North Carolina’s first theme park. It now runs on a scenic 3-mile loop.

There’s perhaps no better time than winter to take a ride on Tweetsie, as patrons are invited to take a nighttime trip around the loop on the historic steam locomotive to gander at the surroundings decked out with more than a million lights. Tweetsie Christmas, your last chance to visit Tweetsie until the season starts back up again in April, also includes a live Christmas variety show, kid-friendly amusement rides, meetings with Santa in his gingerbread house, and roasting s’mores over an outdoor fire. It lasts through Dec. 30.

Midnight Blast at Appalachian Ski Mountain

Blowing Rock

Not far from Tweetsie Railroad at the Appalachian Ski Mountain (ASM), you’ll find the region’s only opportunity to experience late-night skiing with Midnight Blast Sessions, held from 8:30 p.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday nights through the end of the season in mid-March.

Late December sees a slew of special Midnight Blast sessions on the schedule—every night from Dec. 26-31, in fact. Take note that the session ends just a bit early on New Year’s Eve, though for the best reasons. The slopes close at 11:30 that night so staff can prepare for the annual Torchlight show and fireworks celebration. ASM also offers an outdoor ice-skating rink at the bottom of the mountain for those who aren’t so adept on the slopes.

“People looking for a good value will discover that this is the best ticket value that we offer, at a time that is actually convenient,” said ASM President Brad Moretz on the company’s website. “As the closest ski destination to significant markets within a two-hour drive such as Charlotte, Greensboro, Winston Salem, High Point, Hickory, and Gastonia, we feel that Appalachian Ski Mountain is in the best position to offer many skiers and riders a night option that wouldn’t otherwise be possible without a longer night session.”

Piedmont

US National Whitewater Center

Charlotte

Opened in 2006, the US National Whitewater Center has been providing Charlotte-area residents with a place to run, paddle, ride, climb, kayak and more ever since. Located on 1,300 acres on the outskirts of the city, in winter staff drains the humongous man-made whitewater rapids course and places two beautifully lit ice-skating rinks on the upper portion of the course.

Open from mid-November through mid-February, the site consists of more than 24,000 square feet of unique skating space split into four distinct skating areas, including two ice trails and two free-skate zones. Centered among the skating rinks is an old Airstream trailer from which staff sells cold and hot beverages including beer and hot cocoa. Ice skating costs $25 per person and is available from 4-10 p.m. on a nightly basis (including holidays) through mid-February. Bring your own skates or rent one of the regularly sharpened pairs at the facility.

Old Salem

Winston-Salem

Winston-Salem 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, or 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 their famed Moravian cookies.

The Avett Brothers Concert

Raleigh

Americana folk-rockers The Avett Brothers could arguably be called the biggest contemporary music artists to come out of the Piedmont region. Hailing from Concord, a small suburb of Charlotte known more for its NASCAR history than music, Scott and Seth Avett rose to prominence after gaining attention for their album “Live at the Double Door Inn,” recorded at the since-closed blues and rock venue in Charlotte.

The band has earned three Grammy nominations and won five Americana Music Association awards.

Scott and Seth’s dad, Jim Avett, still plays regularly in the Charlotte area, and the boys haven’t forgotten where they came from. Since 2003, the group has played a special New Year’s Eve show in their hometown of Concord or nearby Charlotte—even during the pandemic they hosted a special live-streamed concert online—though in recent years they started taking turns and throwing some of the shows in the state capital.

The 20th anniversary Avett Brothers New Year’s Eve concert this year lands in Raleigh at the PNC Arena, where they’ll be joined by singer-songwriter Marcus King. The guys have partnered with Marriott and Sheraton this year to offer tickets bundled with overnight accommodations at one of the two companies’ local hotels, plus an exclusive merchandise item, but those tickets appear to be sold out. That just gives you all the more reason to jump on what’s left before it’s too late.

Eastern

Experience the Outer Banks

Nags Head

OK, so the Outer Banks is a broad swath of land and islands that includes well over 120 miles of barrier islands and three counties inland of those islands. It may be a little broad just to say, “Go to the Outer Banks in the winter,” and leave you with no plans for what to do once you get there.

Don’t worry, we’ve got very specific plans for you. Head to Nags Head and follow these instructions.

First idea: rent an e-bike. Of the 5 million tourists who visit the Outer Banks each year, a huge percentage of them show up in the summertime. During a winter visit, you’ll find the beaches all but empty of sunbathers and the roads all but empty of vehicles, making each more safe and more beautiful to navigate on an e-bike. Through its partnership with The Bike Barn in Kill Devil Hills, Outer Banks E-Bike Rentals offers a number of different models to get you started. The best part about e-bikes—you don’t have to pedal hard to fight that bothersome Outer Banks winter wind.

Second idea: Hang gliding. Here’s another way you can avoid fighting the wind: Use it. Sure, you can buy a kite at Kitty Hawk Kites, but you can ride one too, as the company offers hang-gliding lessons year-round. There is perhaps no better place to learn this hobby than at Jockey’s Ridge, the largest system of dunes in the eastern United States. Even kids are welcome to learn. Not into flying? Jockey’s Ridge State Park still has plenty to offer, from scenic walks to riding down the dunes on sleds, rugs, or whatever you can get your hands on.

Carolina Beach Polar Plunge

Carolina Beach

There are plenty of opportunities to take a polar plunge across North Carolina this winter, from Lake Lure in Asheville to Wet’n Wild Emerald Pointe in Greensboro, so what we tried to do was bring you as far east as possible, where the weather at least has some chance of being warmer—if not warm. Disclaimer to follow that last sentence: It will not be warm.

The 20th annual Polar Plunge and 5K Run-N-Plunge at Carolina Beach is a family-friendly event that includes opportunities for a 5K or a 1-mile fun walk for all abilities on a flat course inclusive to strollers, wheelchairs and dogs. What comes after is only for the brave, as participants will dive directly into the chilly Atlantic Ocean. Scheduled for Feb. 17, 2024, contestants are encouraged to dress up for the event. They can participate in the 5K, the fun walk, or just take the plunge. Even dogs are invited to take the dive. Music, vendors, games, and food trucks will be onsite for a great time, and it all benefits the Special Olympics.

Mt. Olive Pickle Drop

Mount 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 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 interest 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 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.

 

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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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