Spanning 13 US states and 5 Canadian Provinces, the Appalachians are an expansive region where the majestic Appalachian Mountains run. These 280 million-year-old geological formations, with their peaks eroded over their long lifespan, are smaller than their western sister ranges – the Rocky Mountains, and the Sierra Nevadas. But with the highest peak reaching almost 7,000 feet, the Appalachian Mountains definitely hold their own when it comes to grandeur, and the Appalachian Trail has become known as the longest hiking-only trail in the world. Visitors to the Appalachians can expect stunning natural landscapes, mouthwatering home-style meals, and a thriving music and arts scene. Whether you’re thru-hiking and looking for great trail stops, or just taking a weekend getaway, check out these small towns that come alive in summer.
The Appalachian Trail draws over 3 million hikers each year, 20,000 of which have completed the entire 2,000-mile trail since its establishment in 1937. Hiking any portion of this trail is something to celebrate, and the town of Damascus, Virginia, does just that with its annual Trail Days festival in May. The tiny population of just under 800 swells as an estimated 20,000 people, many of who are currently hiking, or have hiked the AT gather for live music, fun activities, workshops, and outdoor gear giveaways.
But this town isn’t just for thru-hikers. Connoisseurs of spirits will be delighted by the local breweries and distilleries. The Appalachian Heritage Distillery has been in the same family since 1919 and produces beautiful Bourbon, Gin, Vodka, and Rye with their traditional family recipes.
Straddling the Virginia-Tennessee border, this small, unassuming town gave rise to big things as the “birthplace of country music”! Any visit to Bristol, Virginia, wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Smithsonian’s Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which tells the story of the roots of country music and the vital role the 1927 "Bristol Sessions" played in the burgeoning recording industry (including recordings of the infamous Carter family!) You can even try your hand at the mic in the interactive mini-recording studio.
Stay in the nearby Bristol Hotel, a refurbished 1925 boutique lodging, and enjoy a barrel-aged whiskey with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains from their rooftop bar. With the musical history and the Appalachian trail next door, Bristol is a happening place to be in the summer.
Blue Ridge, Georgia
Blue Ridge, Georgia, is an ideal location to explore the iconic Blue Ridge Mountains. Beautiful at any time of day, sunset is a particularly stunning time to view these uniquely blue mountains, with the layered shades of indigo, sapphire, and cerulean blues contrasting with the yellows, pinks, and oranges of the evening sky. With over 300 miles of hiking trails, including a trailhead to the Appalachian Trail, and a plethora of waterways and waterfalls, summer is the perfect time to visit Blue Ridge. Enjoy the simple, traditional pleasures of taking a ride on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway and stopping in for fried apple pie and fresh apple cider at the Mercier Orchards.
Recognized several times as one of the best small towns in America, Pikeville, Kentucky, has all the small-town fixings for a fun and fascinating trip. Horseback rides through the mountains, explorations of historic museums, churches, and graveyards, and lore of a decades-long feud between mountaineer families. Take the self-guided Hatfields and McCoys feud tour to see the feud sites, artifacts, monuments, and graves associated with the "world’s most famous feud." Leave the feuding in the past and join together to enjoy the region’s best moonshine at Dueling Barrels brewery and distillery, made using a traditional copper pot, a tried-and-true method since the days of yore in this town.
North Adams, Massachusetts
Although the town of North Adams, Massachusetts, may not be well known to the general public, it has made a big name for itself in the art world, housing the largest contemporary art museum in the country! Once a manufacturing hub, the former mills and manufacturing plants have been transformed into art galleries, studios, and artist lodging. It is no wonder that this town has inspired a confluence of artists with nearby natural muses like the only natural white marble arch in North America, made of 550 million-year-old bedrock marble sculpted by glacial melt-water. Not only do the bridges inspire art, but the artists inspire bridges! The Harmonic Bridge was created by two artists who installed resonating tubes under a highway overpass, producing beautiful music as the cars rushing past blow air into the tubes. A visit to this town in the summer will light up all of your senses.
Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania
Home of the "eighth wonder of the world," the Delaware Water Gap is a unique geological feature where the Delaware River cuts right through the Appalachian mountain ridge. A popular stop for thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, the town really gets buzzing in summer, with hordes of hikers and other outdoorsy people taking advantage of the confluence of mountains, rivers, forests, and floodplains. Those who stop by will be delighted not only by nature but by the warm hospitality of the townsfolk. A stay at the Stony Brook Inn will keep you cozy and fed, and a night out at the Deer Head Inn will be a treat for the ears of music lovers.
The last town on the Appalachian Trail before entering the 100-Mile Wilderness, Monson, Maine, is a welcome sight for weary and hungry hikers. A stay at the Shaw Hikers’ Hostel provides a comfortable bed, and their famous hikers’ breakfast, stacked with eggs, bacon, and pancakes, as well as vegetarian and vegan options, promises to "leave no hiker unsatisfied." And it’s not just hikers who appreciate this forested haven. Author Henry David Thorough wrote about his experience through them in his collection of essays, The Maine Woods. The artistic inspiration continues to this day, with a recent reinvigoration of Monson’s art scene, including a writers’ and artists’ residency program, and workshops and programming open to the public. Monson, Maine, is a beautiful summer retreat where nature and the arts collide.
With gorgeous natural scenery from the stunning blue-layered mountains to white marble rock bridges and a unique melange of cultures, it’s no wonder the Appalachian region draws crowds and has become a hotbed for artists and musicians. A summer trip to these small towns in the Appalachians will be a balm for the soul providing a slow pace, natural wonders, home-style food and libations, music for the ears, and art for the eyes.