Cataloochee Ranch: A Smoky Mountain Landmark Returns

How a Tennessee couple is leading the longstanding North Carolina equestrian getaway into the twenty-first century

Two people on horseback ride over a ridge on a mountain with a grand landscape in the background

Photo: Brie Williams Photography

On horseback near Cataloochee Ranch in North Carolina.

Founded nearly a hundred years ago by the Alexander family, North Carolina’s Cataloochee Ranch predates the vast national park it now abuts. The storied spread, originally located within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offered the first overnight accommodations for early park enthusiasts. The family eventually moved the ranch outside the park to the 685 acres on which it now resides, but generations of families, friends, and outdoorspeople continue to make their way up the mountain (all 4,800 feet of it) to experience the Alexanders’ generous Appalachian hospitality and Cataloochee’s rugged natural beauty. 

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It was the unique landscape—high-elevation meadows, open balds, and breathtaking views—that originally piqued the interest of Annie and David Colquitt, the Knoxville, Tennessee, entrepreneurs who purchased the Swag, a neighboring property, in 2018. “We had heard the Alexanders were probably going to sell,” Annie says. “At first, our interest came from a simple desire to preserve the land. But as we got to know the property and its history better, we realized it was even more special than we’d thought and the ethos of what the Alexanders had created here was worth preserving.” Ultimately, just before the pandemic hit in early 2020, the Colquitts took the reins of three generations of mountain tradition and prepared to shepherd Cataloochee Ranch into its next act.

A group of riders and horses go through a mountain landscape

Photo: Ben Finch

The Cataloochee stable has fifteen Tennessee walking horses, quarter horses, and Percheron draft horses, in addition to a few mules.

The ranch, which reopens to guests this month following three-and-a-half years of thoughtful renovations, already had charm, character, and natural splendor to spare, so the Colquitts set about preserving its spirit while bringing the property into the twenty-first century with new amenities, comforts, and activities to reflect the expectations of modern travelers. “Part of the magic at Cataloochee is that it does feel like you are going back in time—rocking chairs on the porch and kids running around by the pond,” Colquitt says. “So in some areas, we leaned into the past during the renovations. For example, we removed all the televisions in guest rooms.” Wi-Fi, however, remains. 

A guest room with wood details and framed butterfly illustrations

Photo: Ben Finch

A wall of a guest room with a brick fireplace and chair.

Photo: Ben Finch

Inside a cozy guest room.

All eleven of Cataloochee’s existing cabins have been carefully updated, while a twelfth cabin and the new six-room Lodge are still under construction and will open later this year. The Colquitts have also added two new event spaces—a barn-style party venue and an outdoor amphitheater.

The ranch’s new arts program is a passion project for Colquitt. “We’ll have things like leatherworking classes, watercolor lessons, and printmaking workshops,” she says. But the planned pottery studio, honoring the region’s rich ceramics traditions, will be the program’s star. And for adventure seekers looking for thrills beyond the impossibly scenic trail rides and picturesque hikes the ranch is known for, the Colquitts added a waterfall-traversing high ropes course to the property’s offerings. 

A couple sits in rocking chairs on a porch attached to a living room

Photo: Ben Finch

Relaxing on a guest cabin porch.

Perhaps the most significant change to the Cataloochee guest experience is the ranch’s new culinary program, led by executive chef Jeb Aldrich. “What people expect from food when they travel is wildly different today than it was in the early thirties when the ranch house and kitchen were built,” Colquitt says. The property’s new restaurant, Switchback, which now occupies the entirety of the historic ranch house, will be open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and dishes marry local Appalachian food traditions and ingredients with subtle influences from Northern Italy and the Austrian Alpine region, where Aldrich spent several years as a young chef. See: the breakfast schnitzel and the in-house pasta and pizza programs. “We’re using spring water from the mountains to make the dough,” Aldrich says. “There’s also a garden going in, and we have plans to start raising our own cattle. We’re committed to making something special here.”

A chef stands by a large fire pit grill with food on it.

Photo: Ben Finch

Chef Jeb Aldrich.

Despite the cosmetic changes at Cataloochee, the guest experience remains rooted in the surrounding mountain landscape—just as it was when the Alexander family welcomed those first national park guests in the early part of the twentieth century. And like any good ranch, horses are central to that endeavor, with heart-stirring ridgetop trail rides among the most popular ranch activities. The Cataloochee stable currently houses fifteen sure-footed Tennessee walking horses, quarter horses, and Percheron draft horses as well as a few reliable mules, a favorite among the Cataloochee guides. “Our trail rides are very accessible—even if you’ve never been on a horse,” Colquitt says. And one thing hasn’t changed a bit: “The views are glorious.”