Peak college: Planning a trip to the High Country with your future Mountaineer? Here’s a guide to exploring Boone.
by Page Leggett
Growing up with a mother and grandfather who went to Carolina, I thought Chapel Hill (the town) and Chapel Hill (the university) were the same thing. I didn’t realize anything existed in the town besides the school and its football stadium.
But on childhood vacations to the mountains, it never registered that there was a university in Boone. That’s where the Dan’l Boone Inn was — where we always went for a big, Southern supper. And it was near Tweetsie Railroad, where a hysterically crying, 4-year-old me forced the train to stop and the actors playing cowboys and Indians to explain they were just pretend fighting.
Visit Boone today, where Appalachian State University enrolls more than 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students, and there’s no mistaking it’s a college town. It’s hard to tell where the school ends and the town begins. The campus and its football stadium dominate the city. And downtown’s main drag, King Street, might remind some of Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street back when it was still home to independent diners, bars and bookstores.
Boone and Blowing Rock, next-door neighbors, are often mentioned in the same breath. But they are distinctly different towns, and each has its own charms. Blowing Rock is refined; Boone is a little rough around the edges, like a college town should be.
Taking your college-bound kid to Boone on an App State scouting mission is a good excuse to explore the town. (Not that you need an excuse — Boone’s a fun destination for anyone, anytime.)
You’ll hardly need to venture beyond downtown, which is also where the campus is situated. It’s highly walkable, as long as you’re prepared for steep hills.
You and your future scholar will need something to eat, and there are many tasty options nearby. Pizza and college go together like cheese and pepperoni, and ASU students have more options than we did in my college days, when it was Domino’s or nothing.
You could get your order to-go from Lost Province Brewing Co., but then you’d miss out on the taproom’s lively atmosphere and, depending on the night, the live music. The cheese boards include local and international cheeses, and there are substantial salads for those who don’t want pizza. But how could you turn down toppings that include country ham, prosciutto di Parma, pickled jalapenos and cheese curds? Lost Province’s wood-fired take on Hawaiian pizza — the “Aloha Y’all” with San Marzano tomato sauce, mozzarella, country ham, pineapple, rosemary and Parm — is a work of art.
Speaking of art, it’s everywhere in Boone. Murals are painted on the sides of many of the town’s red-brick buildings, and statues (of school mascot Yosef, folk legend Doc Watson, Daniel Boone himself) dot downtown. ASU’s Turchin Center for the Visual Arts on King Street features a rotating series of exhibitions throughout several galleries, and the university’s Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts brings regional and world-renowned musicians, dance troupes and theater companies to campus.
Every college town needs an independent bookstore, and Boone delivers. Foggy Pine Books on King Street gained a following beyond Boone when Stephen Colbert made it famous in March. The Late Show randomly chose a small business that had been impacted by Covid and created a TV ad for them. This ad happens to feature the voice of Sam Elliot. And it stars Tom Hanks. The little shop has creaking hardwood floors like the Intimate Bookshop (formerly of both SouthPark Mall and Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street) and was forward-thinking enough to have set up a drive-thru during last year’s lockdown.
My own favorite activity when my parents came to Wake Forest University for visits was … shopping. We had to drive to Hanes Mall for that. ASU students and their parents need only wander over to … you know, King Street. My first stop will forever be Common Good Co., an artisan market and art gallery. Candles, ceramics, jewelry, prints, plants, textiles and original art are all here in what could be Watauga County’s most charming retail experience.
Mothers and daughters may love with equal fervor Lililu on King. The independent boutique offers a well-edited selection of women’s clothes, shoes and accessories.
And if your college-bound kids need to pick up a logo’d sweatshirt or koozie, shops selling ASU merch are as ubiquitous as Starbucks. If one shop is too crowded, keep walking. There’ll be another two doors down where you can stock up.
More eats and drinks
While Mom’s buying school clothes for her daughter, fathers and sons can bond over exceptionally good bar food and sports at The Local, which is not on King St., but it’s a short walk from it. (The gals shouldn’t miss this either — make plans to join after the shopping spree.) This industrial-looking spot is deceiving from the outside. The menu is made up of elevated bar food: pulled pork and smoked Gouda nachos, truffle frites and a fig-and-bacon grilled cheese. For dinner, there’s heartier fare, such as salmon, steak frites and local trout.
The 15-room historic Horton Hotel’s small, sophisticated rooftop lounge offers the best view in Boone. Enjoy regional brews, light bites, cocktails and, if needed, blankets — and the best perch in town.
For something really special, and a chance to see more of Boone than its downtown, make dinner reservations at The Gamekeeper. There’s a reason people have been coming to the old-house-turned-restaurant for decades. It’s fine dining, but wildly unfancy. Normally, you need to get gussied up to enjoy emu, bison, elk and boar. Not here — you could wear jeans and a T-shirt and not feel out of place.
For a weekend in nearby Blowing Rock, you might feel the need to dress up a bit. But Boone will welcome you just as you are. It’s a town so cozy and comfortable, your college student may try to convince you they need to be on the five-year plan. SP