Years ago, folks who were into sports-car rallying – a motorsport that pits a driver-navigator team against directions crafted to throw them totally off course – had bumper stickers that said: “Discover America: get lost on a rally.”
Seven counties of north-central North Carolina are a great place to do just that. It’s a region with plenty of places worth setting out to see, but it’s also a region where following a road to see what you find is even more fun.
First off, stay away from Interstate 40/85 and seek out roads that let you keep your own pace without having too many drivers in a 21st-century hurry crowding your rear bumper.
If you’re speeding along U.S. 158, for instance, you could pass through Leasburg without ever knowing it – or noting its wealth of antebellum homes or its history as Caswell County’s seat from 1777 to 1792.
Not that this a region of villages. Person, Caswell, Rockingham, Guilford, Randolph, Alamance, Orange and Chatham counties have cities, too – such as Greensboro, where artists share workspace in a museum of thrift-store curiosities intriguingly known as “Elsewhere.”
You might refresh your body at a fresh, local bakery in funky downtown Asheboro, and refresh your spirit along the Eno River while winding along Hillsborough’s new Riverwalk. For a stroll of a different sort, seek out (and it may really take some seeking) the Chinqua-Penn Trail near Reidsville, where you pass remnants of two millionaires’ quirky estate with some of the flair befitting “The Great Gatsby.”
With the Triangle at one end and the Triad at the other, this region lies between stretches of open country and graceful roads, rolling pastures and hills that feel like mountains, where you might visit a nonprofit dedicated to environmental sustainability.
You don’t need a sports-car rally to go discovering this chunk of America, though if you’re doing the driving, you might want to have a navigator along just in case you do get lost – or maybe to help you get that way.
The Best-Kept Secrets series continues through Labor Day, hitting each of the state’s 100 counties.
81. Alamance County
Cedarock Park, Burlington
A visitor can learn a lot at Alamance County’s Cedarock Park, including this tidbit from the 1830s: “Since toilet tissue had not been invented, the soft corn husk was the preferred choice.” That informative note is thoughtfully posted near the outhouse at the park’s restored and reconstructed farmstead. There is, though, more than history at the 414-acre county-owned park at the northern tip of the Cane Creek Mountains (well, big hills). There is a playground, volleyball and basketball courts and plenty of plain old open space to inspire adult tranquility and allow kids to let off steam. There are two ponds, fishing allowed (no swimming, though), and an 18-basket, 10-acre disc golf course. There is a 6-mile bridle trail and 6 more miles of hiking trails with various reasons to take advantage of them: piney woods, a pretty stream, a waterfall and old mill site, signs to tell the stroller what kind of trees, bushes and flowers she or he is looking at. Cedarock Park is at 4242 R Dean Coleman Road, off N.C. 49, south of Burlington. The park is open daily, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., no charge for admission. For information and directions, call 336-570-6759.
82. Caswell County
Leasburg, on U.S. 158 between Yanceyville and Roxboro, is one of those places you could miss entirely if you blinked when you’re driving through. Maybe that’s why some local interests have built eye-grabbing welcome signs of stone that indicate this no place to be so dismissed: “Welcome to Leasburg/Established 1752/First Caswell County seat 1777-1792.” Between the signs, you’ll spot one large, old, striking home after another, for Leasburg (pop. 1,662) holds a modest wealth of buildings from Caswell County’s tobacco-boom years before the Civil War. They aren’t tourist sites. They’re mostly occupied residences, but a walk around town with the Caswell County Historical Association’s Leasburg Architecture page ( http://bit.ly/1jvIrof) will let you know what you’re looking at. It’ll also give you a little exercise, as well as some appreciation for a place you might have blinked away but for those signs: one in Caswell County, the other in Person, which originally were both one county with a centrally located seat.
83. Rockingham County
Chinqua-Penn Walking Trail, Reidsville
The quirky stone mansion where tobacco heir Jeff Penn and his electric-power heiress wife, Betsy, lived and entertained is closed now, its eclectic collection of art work and travel souvenirs scattered in a 2013 foreclosure auction. You can, though, still get a sense of their Jazz Age high life with a stroll along the Chinqua-Penn Walking Trail. There are a picnic ground, a springhouse and a pit where Jeff Penn served up Brunswick stew, prepared from his own recipe, in a cauldron so big it had to be moved on and off the fire along a pair of streetcar rails. Visitors can also see the “summer house” – a circular stone pavilion overlooking a pond where the Penns served Sunday brunch on tables made of millstones – and the artificial waterfall Jeff Penn dubbed “Little Niagara” in honor of his father-in-law, who made his fortune turning the big Niagara into an electrical generator. Besides relics, the 1.7-mile trail runs through a variety of habitats that attract more than 150 bird species and support a variety of wildflowers and woodland shrubs. The trailhead is off Wentworth Street in Reidsville, just west of the Chinqua-Penn manor’s massive stone gateway. For directions and information: www.chinquapenntrail.org.
84. Randolph County
The Table Farmhouse Bakery, Asheboro
Regulars say owner Dustie Gregson puts her love of community in everything she does at The Table Farmhouse Bakery, a European-style cafe in Asheboro. The restaurant’s fresh-made breads, pastries, salads and sandwiches change with the seasons; most ingredients come from the neighboring Asheboro Downtown Farmer’s Market. The centerpiece of the former B&H Panel factory office, built in 1925, is a dramatic chandelier made from bent metal and milk bottles hanging from the original tin ceiling. If you go for lunch, the line may look daunting, but it’s worth the wait. The restaurant is walking distance from shops and antique stores – parking is plentiful – and a reasonable drive from multiple attractions, including the N.C. Zoo, Seagrove pottery, NASCAR history and short-track racing. 139 S. Church St., Asheboro. Search for Table Farmhouse Bakery on Facebook or call 336-736-8628.
85. Guilford County
Sylvia Gray’s three-story collection of dishes, clothes, classic toys and countless other items spans the 58 years she operated a thrift store and, at times, boarding house in downtown Greensboro. Gray worked at the store until her death in 1997, but her memory and her vast collection form the heart of Elsewhere, a living museum and artists’ residency program. Founded by Gray’s grandson and others in 2005, Elsewhere charges visitors $1 for the opportunity to unleash their inner children and learn through art that spins, bangs and grows. Connect with young artists from around the world or spark your own creativity. The nonprofit museum, open 1 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, also holds weekend tours that offer access to the second and third floors, plus events and activities, for an additional cost. For $10, you can join the artists for a home-cooked meal (RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org). 606 S. Elm St. www.goelsewhere.org. email@example.com.
86. Chatham County
The Abundance Foundation, Pittsboro
The Abundance Foundation spreads a message of individual and industrial sustainability from the grounds of an abandoned chemical plant complex off U.S. 64, east of Pittsboro. The nonprofit shares space with Piedmont Biofuels and other businesses specializing in local agriculture, renewable energy, clean water and conservation. One-hour tours are held every Sunday and the first Friday of the month, but The Abundance Foundation is better known for its do-it-yourself workshops, kid-friendly activities and community events. The tour is free, but a $5 donation per person is suggested. Other activities vary in cost; check the website for details. Look for the seventh-annual Amazing Pepper Festival, this year on Oct. 5 at the Great Meadow Park in the nearby Briar Chapel community. 220 Lorax Lane, off Industrial Drive, Pittsboro. www.abundancefoundation.org. 919-533-5181.
87. Orange County
Riverwalk is a 1.8-mile commuter and recreational trail under construction near downtown Hillsborough. It follows the Eno River and eventually will connect five existing trail systems. Riverwalk is handicap accessible, with paved paths, boardwalks and two 100-foot bridges. The trail, including additional loop trails, is open from Gold Park to River Park through Hillsborough’s historic downtown. The final phase of construction, slated for completion next year, will run south to Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area and east to the Historic Occoneechee Speedway trails and the Poet’s Walk at Ayr Mount. Riverwalk is the first portion of the state’s proposed Mountains-to-Sea Trail to be built in Orange County, and one of only a few that will pass through a town. Free parking is available at Gold Park or at the Eno River Parking Deck beside Weaver Street Market. The trail entrance is behind the parking deck. Historic Hillsborough offers a number of great restaurants and historic sites to round out a day trip. Hillsborough Visitors Center, 919-732-7741. www.ci.hillsborough.nc.us/content/riverwalk-greenway.