If crisp air, endless autumn-hued views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and a wealth of arts and culinary wonders are your idea of autumn bliss, then hightail it to little Spruce Pine in North Carolina, about an hour north of Asheville. Home to just over 2,000 people but rural Mitchell County’s largest metropolis, Spruce Pine is a mining town through and through; the majority of the world’s supply of ultra-pure quartz comes from the area.
It also has become renowned for culture and dining, thanks to the presence of the historic Penland School of Crafts, the Toe River Art Studio and the James Beard-nominated Knife & Fork restaurant.
October in and around Spruce Pine is also a great time to enjoy hikes for all levels and other outdoor activities, including apple picking at the Orchard at Altapass, which grows 15 kinds of heirloom apples and is a Monarch butterfly preserve.
And October’s annual Potters Market and Mineral City Heritage Festival are fun draws, too.
The Switzerland Inn in nearby Little Switzerland (86 High Ridge Road, 800-654-4026), about a 20-minute drive from Spruce Pine, is a sprawling resort modeled after a Swiss ski lodge, with stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Stay in a traditional room in the main lodge, a mountain-view “chanticleer” or one of the charming A-frame cabins. There are also a pool, spa and great dining. Be sure to take the 12-mile drive through Pisgah National Forest, which starts and ends at the resort; you’ll traverse almost 200 curves and see endless views of autumn foliage. From $129
The Richmond Inn, in the heart of downtown Spruce Pine (51 Pine Ave., 828-765-6993), was built in 1929. This bed and breakfast, a former country estate, feels like an authentic mountain lodge, with traditional décor and furnishings. Fill up on the home-cooked breakfast before you head out for a day of exploring; the inn’s owners partner with local farmers to bring in the freshest ingredients available. From $105
Spend a day on the Penland campus (67 Doras Trail, Bakersville). Founded in 1929, Penland’s campus is gorgeous, so your first order of business should be taking a long walk around it. Then visit the gallery, where there’s always an exhibit on display; stop in at the little coffee shop, which serves sweet treats and small bites; and peek in at classes that are going on. Don’t leave without picking up some student-made cards or ceramics from the gift shop.
Go gem panning. Touristy? Yes. Fun? Absolutely. At Emerald Village Gem Mines in Spruce Pine (331 McKinney Mine Road, 828-765-6463), you purchase a gem bucket and then sit down at one of the two flumes and clean your gems in fresh, cold mountain water. If you’re feeling adventurous, sign up for one of the monthly black light mine tours to explore the Bon Ami mine by ultraviolet light after dark.
Take a hike. There’s a hike for every level of ability in the Spruce Pine area. A favorite is Crabtree Falls, a rugged, three-mile loop with large, mossy rocks and a waterfall. Other great ones in the area: Grassy Creek Falls, Wildacres Trail and Linville Falls.
Do not, we repeat, do not miss the opportunity to have dinner at Knife & Fork (61 Locust St., 828-765-1511) in Spruce Pine. This unassuming space serves some of the best fare in the region, all locally sourced. Get the tasting menu (a bargain at $55) and ask for a seat at the bar, where you can observe chef/owner Nate Allen and his team at work. For Sunday brunch, head to Knife & Fork’s more casual sister restaurant, Spoon.
The Switzerland Inn serves a full breakfast, lunch and dinner in its Chalet Restaurant every day for resort guests and locals (think hearty favorites like waffles, prime rib sandwiches and pork chops), and the more casual Fowl Play Pub offers bar fare like burgers and fried seafood in a clubby atmosphere.
Also in Little Switzerland, Books & Beans (9426 Highway 226A, 828-766-2601) is a charming café and bookshop with good coffee and tea and locally made breakfast sweets. Our picks: the cinnamon roll and the apple turnover; take them outside to the patio and enjoy the scenery and brisk morning air.