N.C. mountaintop hideaway offers calm, comfort and fabulous views of Smoky Mountains
In a tiny swath of North Carolina’s ribbon of the Smoky Mountains sits a spectacular garden, one crammed with a kaleidoscopic patchwork of brightly hued zinnias and dahlias, clumps of blackeyed Susan, and clusters of butter-and-eggs, a sweetlyscented flower that is a natural magnet for jeweltoned butterflies and bumblebees.
This luxuriant garden of flowers, herbs and vegetables is at The Swag, a mountaintop inn just outside of Waynesville — one of those special places that change your mindset so that you can truly leave the rest of the world in your rearview mirror and not think of it even once.
High atop Hemphill Mountain, The Swag shares a common border with Great Smoky Mountains National Park right at the historic Cataloochee Divide, a ridge that runs along the verge of the Smokies and frames Cataloochee Valley. Step outside of the front door of the inn, and there’s the park in all its verdant glory. And its elevation teeters right on the sky-high 5,000-foot mark, which allows the most dramatic and spectacular see-to-forever views imaginable of the Smokies and beyond.
An endless mélange of nature trails, tailored for both the serious and unserious hiker, thread not only through the inn’s 250 acres but also the park. The myriad hiking opportunities are part of the magical draw of The Swag, for here is a portmanteau of towering forests lush with rhododendron and fern, pastures of sweet grass where elk and deer feed, and flower-filled meadows reminiscent of a fairy tale.
Add into the mix the incredible quietness punctuated only by the wingflutter of dozens of hummingbirds that have taken up residence around the inn, and you have the perfect antidote for type-A personalities and modernday stress.
This mountaintop hideaway is where log cabin meets luxury, where ritzy meets rustic, and where the walls are lined with too many hospitality and tourism awards to list.
The Swag — its name comes from the word meaning a dip between two mountains — is built of stone and hand-hewn logs, mostly from the hardwood of tulip poplar trees. The main lodge contains the dining room, library and a few guest suites, and is partly built from sturdy, old timbers from the now longgone Lonesome Valley Primitive Baptist Church in Tennessee. The Swag’s then-owners Dan and Deener Matthews bought the wood from the church after it was dismantled, plus wood from other log buildings scattered across North Carolina and Tennessee, to build the inn with its heavenly views.
The Matthews first opened The Swag in 1982 and ran it until 2018. That’s when Annie and David Colquitt of Knoxville, Tennessee, who had honeymooned there several years earlier and fallen in love with its beauty and tranquility, bought it.
Just 14 suites, cabins and cottages make up the inn, all with wood-burning fireplaces and no televisions. (Before you ask, wireless internet is available in case you simply can’t become unglued from your phone.)
Each room is different from another, but the commonality is Appalachian woodwork and crafts combined with touches that include comfortable handstitched quilts, perhaps a terrace or an outdoor shower, and stunning views. And at check-in, you select a handcrafted walking stick that is personalized for you. At the end of your stay, it’s yours to keep.
The Swag is all-inclusive (except for wine and beer), and a typical day begins with a country breakfast buffet. Lunch is brown-bag and is ready before you take off hiking or for a picnic. Inside of the bag of goodies is the Swag Bar, the popular homemade concoction of chocolate, peanut butter and cornflakes. Hors d’oeuvres are served just before dinner that might include vegetables from the garden paired with delicacies such as local trout or beef. During the day, feel free to graze on ice cream, apples, trail mix or hiking bars.
There are myriad things to do at this place where the forests touch the sky, Prices: most notably the unreal hiking and exploring the National Park over lands that were once the happy hunting grounds of the Cherokee. But the inn, throughout its open season, also hosts special events and programs that give a stay here extra oomph, among them:
Bear hikes led by bear expert Dr. Michael Pelton from the University of Tennessee. (Aug. 27-31 and Nov. 24-30)
Birding hikes led by Dr. Bob Collier, an expert birder from Tennessee. (June 30-July 5, Sept. 1-6 and Oct. 13-18)
Cooking schools led by The Swag’s Executive Chef Jake Schmidt. (Aug. 6-7 and Sept. 30-Oct. 1)
Nature walks led by Joel and Kathy Zachry, authors of “Bears We’ve Met” and instructors and directors of the University of Tennessee/National Park Service Smoky Mountain Field School. (June 9-14, Sept. 8-13 and Oct. 20-25)
Painting and printmaking led by artist and hiker Gay Bryant. (Nov. 10-17)
Photography lessons and hikes led by renowned outdoor adventure photographer Steve Yocom. (Sept. 16-20, Oct. 1-7 and Nov. 17-24)
Storytelling and hikes with master storyteller Donald Davis, a guest host with NPR’s “Good Evening” (Oct. 7-13)
Wildflower Walks led by Master Naturalist Esther Blakely of Cataloochee Valley Tours, a certified interpretative presenter for the national park (July 14-19 and Aug. 11-16)
At an elevation of 5,000 feet, The Swag has dramatic views at every turn, especially from Gooseberry Knob, a popular spot for picnicking or simply relaxing.