Spanning North Carolina’s majestic western mountains, the Land-of-Sky Region is a dynamic center of tourism, manufacturing trade and education. The 1,867 square mile region encompasses Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania Counties and almost 320,000 people. Once known as the "Land Beyond" due to its isolation, today the region is accessible from any direction by major interstates, rail lines and air service.
Today the "Land-of-Sky" can attribute much of its vitality to its unique geographic setting. Extending from Tennessee on the north and the South Carolina border on the south, its topography ranges from fertile valleys to rugged mountains. The region is framed by the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east and the Great Smoky Mountains on the north and west.
The presence of an ancient plain, a long flat stretch of land known as the Asheville peneplain, allowed the region’s core to develop differently from the surrounding mountain counties. The plateau, with an elevation of approximately 2,000 feet, averages about forty-five miles in width. It is bisected from south to north by the winding French Broad River and from east to west by two major tributaries, the Swannanoa River and Hominy Creek.
It was on the French Broad River that the first recorded settler acquired land in 1787. The City of Asheville, in Buncombe County, was laid out at the point where two Indian trails intersected, offering access to outlying areas. Early settlers could travel in all directions along the river valleys radiating from Asheville, and today the city extends four directions from its downtown hub.
Because of extremes in elevation, the climate varies widely from one section of the region to another. Here the summers are cool and the winters are moderate, with small amounts of snow. Higher elevations receive considerable amounts of snow and the summers are much cooler.
By 1886, an estimated 30,000 "summer people" were descending upon the region annually. Soon visitors recognized that the winters were also mild. Visitors were generally well-to-do and brought with them new ideas and visions for the future. Subsequent to their settling in the area, many became enthusiastic businessmen and community leaders.
George Vanderbilt was one of those who visited the region and decided to spend more time in the area. In 1890, he began construction of his 250-room "chateau," the foundation of which covers almost five acres. Today the Biltmore Estate is the region’s biggest tourist attraction and is known for being the largest private home in the nation. Pisgah National Forest, much of which was part of the original Vanderbilt estate, covers extensive portions of the region with half million acres.
It and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an hour to the west, attract millions of tourists who enjoy the wide expanses of mountain scenery from the Buncombe Turnpike (1827), a "plank road" to Greenville, South Carolina (1851), the Western North Carolina Railroad and later the federal and interstate highways and aviation.
Today, the highway network includes the intersection of Interstates 40 and 26, US 25, US 70, US 19/23, and other major thoroughfares. The renowned Blue Ridge Parkway, which traverses the region, brings millions of tourists each year to enjoy mountain vistas.
Unique to the mountains are traditional crafts, which in recent decades have gained national attention. Because life in the mountains before the era of easy accessibility required inventiveness, mountain crafters made many of the goods they needed. Skilled craftspeople made banjos, fiddles, dulcimers, and recorders. Potter’s clay was plentiful and there were a number of potteries. Baskets were made of oak splits, willow switches and wild honeysuckle vines, and people carded, spun and wove wool into unique patters. Today, using techniques pioneered by early settlers, an increasing number of individuals engage in the production of traditional crafts throughout the region. "Heritage Trails" have been designed so visitors can see artisans work in their studios.
During this century the Land-of-Sky Urban Center has developed a diversified economic base with large and small firms manufacturing products which range from medical devices, data storage systems, fine papers, automotive techniques and electrical equipment. At the same time the region continues to serve as an important commercial, medical and educational center for an area which stretches from Piedmont North Carolina into the Tennessee Valley, and from the Virginia border into South Carolina and Georgia. The region houses one university, five colleges, and two community colleges and technical schools.
The continued population growth is encouraging the local governments of the region to work together to manage that growth in a way that provides for the required infrastructure and yet maintains the quality of life and the natural beauty for which the region is known.