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Away We Go: Banner Elk is an outdoor oasis this time of year.

Away We Go: Banner Elk is an outdoor oasis this time of year.

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Visitors wind their way up to Apple Hill Farm in Banner Elk for all sorts of reasons.

Some want to see alpacas and llamas for the first time. They get excited when the animals cock their heads and offer a dewy-eyed stare. Others want to purchase socks and scarves woven with alpaca wool. Many prefer to stand at the farm’s overlook, watching the fog drift in  and out of the valleys below.

The farm’s motto goes like this: Get back in touch with what’s real.

“Being on a farm, being out in nature, and  seeing animals puts us back in touch with what’s  real,” says Lee Rankin, owner of Apple Hill Farm. “Especially for families who’ve been inside and cooped up, the experience helps them get away from worries  and uncertainties.”

Rankin and her team lead 45-minute tours of the  property, stopping to observe the llamas, alpacas, pigs, donkeys, and goats. (Tours must be booked in advance  at AppleHillFarmNC.com). The educational walking tours of the working farm encourage questions along the way.

But Apple Hill Farm is just one of many attractions in  the small town of Banner Elk.

Located two hours west of Winston-Salem, the town occupies a peaceful perch in the North Carolina High Country. Thirty minutes west of Boone, situated between Beech and Sugar ski resorts, Banner Elk experiences the charm of all four seasons, but fall is a perennial favorite.

“There’s not a bad place to be in the mountains in the fall with the leaves changing and the temperatures getting cooler,” says Nancy Owen, tourism development authority director with Banner Elk.

The one-stoplight town is home to numerous shops and galleries. From local artwork to fine fashions, shoppers delight in parking the car and strolling around downtown. The town also boasts an impressive collection of restaurants with varied cuisine.

Recently remodeled Stonewalls Restaurant is a longtime favorite for its salads, steaks, and desserts. Banner Elk Cafe creates a cozy dining atmosphere with some of the best local trout in the region. For a fine-dining experience, make reservations at Artisanal, which serves upscale fare in a rustically elegant barn.

“All of our restaurants, businesses, and attractions have gone above and beyond to make sure safety is a top priority,” Owen says. “And we’re seeing people come from bigger cities all around to take in the mountain air and get outside.”

Another Banner Elk treasure is nearby Grandfather Mountain. The nature preserve includes animal habitats, hiking trails, and the famous Mile High Swinging Bridge. An engineering marvel, the suspension bridge was constructed in 1952 and stretches 228 feet. The name “mile high” refers to the bridge’s elevation, 5,280 feet above sea level.

Eleven hiking trails vary from easy walking paths to challenging routes that scale cliff faces. Whatever path you choose, you’re bound to encounter a curious collection of wildlife. Grandfather Mountain is one of the most biologically diverse places in the Southeast, containing 16 distinct natural communities.

Several wildlife habitats provide an up-close glimpse of  cougars, black bears, bald eagles, elk, and river otters. Daily animal encounter events allow visitors to talk with staff members and watch animals participate in enrichment activities. (Grandfather admission tickets must be purchased online at  Grandfather.com.)

As you return to Banner Elk after a day at Grandfather, take the scenic route, curving your way northward along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Holloway Mountain Road back to N.C. Highway 105, which runs through the Foscoe community.

The highway affords travelers the most popular vantage point of Grandfather’s namesake profile. Picking out the old man’s face on the mountainside has delighted travelers of all ages for decades. During this era of uncertainty, it’s comforting to find continuity in things that remain unchanged.

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