There are all kinds of paradise. And then there's Leatherwood Mountains.
Ideally located in the northwest Appalachian Mountains and just off the Blue Ridge Parkway of North Carolina, Leatherwood Mountains is a wilderness paradise that seemingly has something for everyone. Equal parts vacation resort and gated residential community, it beckons both nature lovers and equine enthusiasts alike.
From the deck of any of its 100 mountain homes, you can see a stunning sunrise and a breathtaking sunset all in the same day. Trail riders can take advantage of 100 miles of mountain trails that wind through forests of poplars, oaks and pines. Along the way, there's blooming pink mountain laurel and fuchsia rhododendron, as well as patches of wild-berry patches. Bring your camera along, as you are sure to see deer and wild turkey.
If you're so inclined, there's a tennis court and pool both surrounded by nature. There's also fishing in a lake, tubing along the creeks, or sitting out on a deck waiting for the stars to come out. If you're hungry and not in the mood to cook, delicious meals are served in the on-site Elk Creek Inn. And if you need to play tourist, you can zip on over to the Blue Ridge Parkway and explore the Boone/Blowing Rock area. At Leatherwood, you can do as much or as little as you want in the middle of 3,000 acres of mountain splendor.
It was the trail-riding opportunities that drew me to Leatherwood. Having taken riding vacations for nearly 20 years, my interest was piqued by the claims of a place billing itself as "an adventure for you and your horse." And a place that not only provided lodging for you, but for your horse as well! Now that's a tough combination to resist.
Opting not to haul a horse from my home in Ocala, Florida, I decided to fly into Charlotte and made arrangements to ride a privately owned horse during my stay. From Charlotte, it's a quick two-hour drive northwest to the mountain community of Ferguson, and where Leatherwood is officially located.
It's hard not to be impressed. The welcome center, barns, on-site restaurant, tack shop, riding arenas, and pastures sit in a lush green valley meadow and make visitors immediately smile.
From there, it only gets better. Shortly after my arrival, I was taken to my lodging for the week, and the house was nothing short of my dream mountain home hidden away in my own little private forest. The lodge-like house had wood interiors, vaulted ceilings, a stone fireplace, and a loft master bedroom.
But the best part was the covered front porch-complete with rocking chairs-and a back deck too. And it was on that back deck, looking out to a peaceful mountain valley, that I spent the last two hours of daylight each and every day.
The rest of my time was spent happily in the saddle or hiking around Leatherwood. I've ridden through some spectacular country out West, but the Leatherwood trails are some of the best I've ever experienced.
The map provided to riders details all the 32 named trails. Each trail is given a rating of easy, moderate, difficult, extreme, and/or a combination, as well as helpful notes about each. For instance, Ambush Trail is a moderate-difficult trail with no water crossings and is shady with short, steep climbs. Big Pine is easy, no water crossings, and good for beginners.
The variety of trails has made this area popular with endurance riders, both for training and competition. Leatherwood has hosted a 25-mile and 50-mile endurance ride, and a 100-mile event is being planned for the future.
On my first day's ride, we rode through Leatherwood Meadow, up to Keys Cabin, picked up the Big Pine to Daniel Boone, looped over to Black Rock, swung over to Apple Tree, back down to the Meadow and on to the barns. Other rides incorporated Ambush, Johnnycake, Ramblin', and Keyes Pass. Each trail has its own unique characteristics and beauty; the footing is a combination of red clay and some rocky terrain.
One ride actually took us off Leatherwood property, but it is a must-do. The ride to Raven Rock takes you down Elk Creek Road and across a private homestead meadow, where you pick up a trail that goes up, up, up. The long, moderate climb will eventually take you to a clearing where you tie your horse and hike to the Raven Rock overlook, which offers a stunning view of Leatherwood.
The homes of Leatherwood range from one-bedroom cabins to four-bedroom luxury mountain lodges. You can ride onto the trails right from the home you're staying in.
The two barns offer 60 stalls for resident, fulltime, and visiting boarders. You can also trailer into Leatherwood for the day. Plus, there are round pens, a show arena, and lush pastures.
If you want to leave your horse at home, no problem, nearby Mountain View Stables offers guided rides on the Leatherwood trails.
Also a popular spot for riders is the Leatherwood Campground. You can bring your horse and board it in the barn while you camp along Elk Creek under the stars.
Leatherwood Mountains was born from the dream and vision of Dick Johnston. His grandfather (who founded American Drew Furniture) owned some 47,000 acres of North Carolina mountain property. From that property, Johnston set aside more than 3,000 acres in the mid-1980s to create a mountain community and vacation resort, all the while preserving the natural environment.
For most people, it's love at first sight. And it was no different for Phil Whitson and Phil Rash. Last February, the duo became co-owners and operators of the welcome center, on-site restaurant, barns, tack shop, pastures, and all other amenities that fall outside the development property itself. The pair also acts as real-estate property managers and agents of Leatherwood.
"We've got it all here," says Whitson. "A great community of people who love horses and nature in a unique setting."
Rash agrees, saying, "Most people come for a vacation and end up staying for a lifetime."
For more information, contact Leatherwood Mountains, (800) 462-6867; www.leatherwoodmountains.com.