Labor Day Road Trip to Hot Springs, North Carolina

By Labor Day, the summer heat becomes oppressive, and the wait for cool weather is just a little too far off. The best bet is to head for the hills and enjoy some cool mountain air before fall blows in. There's no shortage of North Carolina mountain towns to choose from, but for the perfect combination of outdoor adventure, relaxation, and general cool vibes all around, Hot Springs, NC is the ideal long-weekend destination.

Don't let the word hot in Hot Springs fool you. The average temperature for September is a balmy 81 degrees. At approximately 96 miles from downtown Greenville, SC, and 73 miles from Knoxville, TN, you'll be cooling off in less than two hours. It's a breeze to get there, too. From Knoxville, take I-40 east to the Hot Springs exit, and you're practically there. From Greenville, head north of Asheville, then take highway 25 through Marshall as you curve your way up and around to the small town of Hot Springs. You'll pass several river rafting outfitters before the town of 563 comes to view.

The 2,185 mile Appalachian Trail passes right through the center of town, and you can spot the official trail marker on the city sidewalks. As such, Hot Springs very much caters to the some 2000 thru hikers who attempt to walk across all 14 states that the trail touches. From laundromats to the post office, the AT permeates the setting and distinguishes Hot Springs in a unique way. Seeing the trail culture, even as an observer, is interesting and inspiring; however, for even more inspiration, experience the trail itself, beyond the sidewalk.

Follow the trail north, over the French Broad River, and up to the well-known Lover's Leap. From the top, the town, French Broad, and the sweeping mountain views can be seen from the viewpoint, making the difficult, 1.6 mile loop well worth the effort. Once you descend, you'll walk right along the river, another incredible asset to this area.

The north-flowing French Broad beckons some attention. Adventure-seekers can navigate the rapids on kayaks, or for a more relaxing time, anyone can watch them from the shore. The river is accessible from the trailhead to Lover's Leap. Cross the bridge over the river, and you'll see the break in the railing which takes you down to the river. Dip your toes in, but the river typically flows quickly, so do be careful.

And of course, as the name of the town suggests, the healing hot springs attract visitors in their own right and provide much needed therapy to weary hikers. Natural mineral water is pumped into modern jacuzzi tubs at the Hot Springs Resort and Spa to relax the muscles and calm the mind.

After a day of recreating and relaxing, a good dinner is in order, and Hot Springs doesn't disappoint. Although the options may be limited, the restaurants in Hot Springs serve up tasty, hearty, and not-too-expensive eats for tourists, hikers, and locals alike. The Iron Horse Restaurant and Tavern features filling burgers, an impressive beer list, and live music, but the local trout is the highlight. Every so often, the train will come rolling through right out the front door.

Down the road and around the corner, the Spring Creek Tavern boasts a riverside patio. More of a bar than restaurant, Spring Creek seems like a locals hang-out, with a casual atmosphere and plethora of beer options. Don't fret if you're hungry though. The pizza, sandwiches, and burgers are satisfying.

The Iron Horse, Spring Creek, and Hot Springs Resort all offer reasonable rooms to lay your head, but to truly embrace Hot Springs, consider staying in a cabin or lodge, or camping. The Laughing Heart Lodge and Hostel sits just steps from the AT, and bares expansive grounds with a garden, pond, and small chapel. For camping, Creek Ridge Camping gives you the option of a car camping spot, or a hike-in spot, depending on the type of camping experience you seek. The sites directly next to the river will drown out any noise, and you'll sleep like a baby.

Hot Springs is perfectly situated for a long-weekend trip perfect for families, couples, friends, or individuals. The roundtrip travel from Greenville or Knoxville and back will set you back less than a tank of gas, and when it's time to head back home, you'll be back home before lunch. To beat the heat and experience the great outdoors, this Labor Day weekend, Hot Springs is the clear choice.
Jannan Poppen is a travel writer based in Greenville, SC. She's an explorer at heart and will try just about anything once.