About Western North Carolina

Western North Carolina is a primarily rural, mountainous Appalachian region with a population of fewer than 800,000 people across 16 counties.

The communities in this region vary in size, with Buncombe County (population 252,268) as the mostly densely populated.

(ACS, 2019)

The 16 counties of western North Carolina.

The culture and natural beauty of this area attract visitors from around the world, while many families have called it home for generations.

This mix of deep tradition and innovative economy creates a rich regional patchwork of unique communities. Though the mostly rural context of western North Carolina creates challenges, the culture and closeness of community members have created a thriving environment for collaboration and innovation, both locally and regionally.

Haywood County, by Ecocline Photography

Photo courtesy of McDowell Health Department

Photo courtesy of Polk County Health Department

Rural and Urban Populations

Roughly 81% (81.3%) of the counties in western North Carolina are designated as “rural.” The WNC region covers 6,685 square miles; a quarter (25%) are national or state forests.

(North Carolina Department of Commerce, 2019)

Rural and Urban Population in WNC, 2010

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010

Rurality based on the Rural-Urban Commuting Area (RUCA), 2010

Source: Rural-Urban Commuting Area Codes, 2010

The estimated total population of the region in 2020 was 799,949.

(ACS, 2020)

Total Population per County, by Year

Source: American Community Survey, 2021

Population Density by Census-Tract, 2015-2019

Source: American Community Survey, 2015-2019

Data users often question why certain American Community Survey (ACS) estimates are not available. The missing estimates can be caused by data suppression. Data suppression refers to the various methods or restrictions that are applied to ACS estimates (e.g. population thresholds) to limit the disclosure of information about individual respondents and to reduce the number of estimates with unacceptable levels of statistical reliability.

(ACS, 2019)

Population Age

Compared to North Carolina (median age of population is 38.9), Western North Carolina is about 8.3 years “older” (median age of population is 47.2).

(ACS, 2020)

By 2030 projections estimate there will be more than 232,390 persons age 65 and older in the WNC region.

(Office of State Budget and Management, 2022)

Percentage of the Population Over 65 Years of Age, 2019

Source: American Community Survey, 2015-2019

Regional Diversity

Compared to North Carolina, western North Carolina has lower proportions of all racial and ethnic groups, except American Indian/Alaska Native, as the region is home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

(ACS, 2020)

Western North Carolina is 89.3% White, 4.2% Black or African American, 1.4% American Indian/Alaskan Native and 6.3% Hispanic or Latino (of any race).

(ACS, 2020)

Racial Percent by County, 2021

Source: American Community Survey, 2021

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Qualla Boundary

There are approximately 16,000 enrolled members in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; nearly 11,000 live in WNC.

(EBCI PHHS, 2023)

Tribal lands in Western North Carolina are roughly 57,000 acres and are known as the Qualla Boundary. Tribal lands encompass parts of five western North Carolina counties:

  • Cherokee (Andrews/Murphy)
  • Graham (Robbinsville)
  • Haywood (Waynesville/Maggie Valley)
  • Jackson (Sylva)
  • Swain (Bryson City)

(SDVCJ, 2015)


Compared to the entire state of North Carolina, the WNC region has a larger number of adults (25+) with only a high school diploma (29.6%) and fewer adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher (25.8%).

(ACS, 2021)

In the WNC region, the median household income ($47,640) was $24,832 less than the North Carolina average ($56,642) in 2020.

(US Census Bureau, 2022)

Haywood County, by Ecocline Photography

Mitchell County, by Ecocline Photography

Regional Key Health Priorities

In 2021, the majority (82.3%) of community leaders, health care, and social service providers selected “Substance Misuse” as a key health priority to be addressed in these communities.

(WNCHN – WNC Healthy Impact Key Informant Survey, 2021)

“Grow Food Where People Live,” Photo courtesy of Polk County Health Department

Photo courtesy of Mitchell County Health Department