Travel

N.C. spot has European flavor

Little Switzerland – near Marion, in the N.C. mountains – offers many diversions, some even served with cheese.

Distance

From Charlotte, it is a solid but relatively easy two-hour drive, one way.

Getting there

Take Interstate 85 South; in Gastonia, take U.S. 321 North; at Hickory, take Interstate 40 West to Marion (Exit 86). Head north on U.S. 221/N.C. 226, remaining on N.C. 226 and then N.C. 226 Alternate. When you reach the Blue Ridge Parkway, continue about three miles more on N.C. 226 Alternate to reach Little Switzerland.

To see and do

If you enjoy scenery and nature but like a soft pillow at the end of a day, there are several nice spots in this small rustic town to explore – from historic inns to quaint B&Bs and rental cottages. Little Switzerland today remains much as it was planned more than 100 years ago: a place to get away from the hectic pace of city life to relax.

This area of the Blue Ridge has an average elevation of some 3,000 feet; as a result, it is decidedly cooler than the Catawba River valley, which lies below it.

The cooler weather makes an ideal habitat for many plant species and also a favorable climate for some specialty farming. It was one of the reasons settlers came here in the late 1700s. The railroad arrived in 1908 and brought a new wave and new breed of settlers. Charlotte attorney Heroit Clarkson visited the area looking for a summer retreat. When he reached nearby Grassy Mountain and looked around, he declared “this is it.” The view was stunning: In addition to the South Mountains, he could see Mount Mitchell, Table Rock, Hawksbill Mountain, Grandfather Mountain and more.

He returned to Charlotte, put together a land deal, and gushed about the mountain area's beauty – comparing it to Switzerland, which he visited the year before.

His secretary suggested Clarkson call the area Little Switzerland – and the name stuck.

Today, the town has several buildings with a decidedly European design, and many of the community's street names conjure images of a small, far-away country with snow-capped mountains.

In the little burg itself, you will find excellent food options as well as an excellent used book store, general store and several boutiques. Nice trails are in the area, and a couple of easy ones are within walking distance of the post office; folks at the Switzerland Inn, the largest of the local lodging choices, have maps and directions they are happy to share.

For kids, no matter what the age, a trip to the Emerald Village is a must. Just three miles from the center of Little Switzerland, it offers a museum and mine tour (maximum $6 fee required) as well as several free exhibits. It also offers gem mining opportunities that are popular.

If you head back up the Parkway, at Milepost 331 you will find the Museum of N.C. Minerals at a National Park Service Welcome Center. It's a delightful, free exhibit and provides interesting information about the area.

You will certainly encounter road enthusiasts with cars, motorcycles and bicycles. Nearby, the curving, elevation-shifting Blue Ridge Parkway offers outstanding viewing. Little Switzerland is one of the more popular spots for over-nighting along the route. Mark Alan Hudson

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