In the mountain counties west of Asheville, the state quickly turns wilder, even spookier, as the crowds thin out, a canopy of trees blocks the sun and road signs issue this warning: “Dense fog likely.”
You can find yourself crawling along a 50-mile string of hairpin turns and never getting out of second gear, where the towns and rivers carry exotic-sounding names from the Cherokee tongue, such as Hiwassee, Cullasaja and Tuckasegee.
By the time you pass Murphy on U.S. 64, you’ve traveled farther west than Detroit. You’re almost nearer to Tallahassee, Fla., than to Raleigh. If you check out this region on a road atlas, the entire page will be green, marking uninhabited national forest.
These eight counties hold some of the state’s biggest crowd-pleasers, such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Oconaluftee Indian Village and Looking Glass Falls. In places, the kayak and craft beer culture spills over from Asheville – at the Heinzelmannchen Brewery in Sylva, Nantahala Outdoor Center outside Bryson City and Frog Level Brewing in Waynesville.
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But most of the sites in these counties remain charmingly obscure, requiring both time and stamina from a visitor. Getting here will wear out tire treads and boots, and you’re almost sure to come back soggy. Transylvania County gets more rain than any other in North Carolina – more than 90 inches a year.
If you imagine North Carolina as a left foot, these counties represent the pinkie toe, jutting out into Tennessee and a hair’s width from Georgia. In the eighth week of our Best-Kept Secrets series, we’ll go the state’s western extreme, as far as you can get from Raleigh and still say you’re at home.
The series will continue through Labor Day, hitting each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. And, except for the 54 counties we’ve already covered, it’s not too late to suggest a place we should include among our Best-Kept Secrets.
47. Haywood County
Highest Point on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Waynesville
The Blue Ridge Parkway is arguably the most famous road on the East Coast. But one spot might escape notice for a traveler bent on Linn Cove Viaduct, the Folk Art Center or other highlights farther north. At 6,053 feet, the winding highway hits its apex just south of Waynesville on the Jackson County line. Thanks to the signage, you can learn about the devastation wrought by the balsam woolly adelgid, a pinhead-sized bug that infests fir trees. But milepost 431 is worth a stop if only to see the crowds of bikers gathered around the big wooden sign, count the number of out-of-state license plates or to hear foreign tourists say “highest point” in German.
48. Macon County
Wilderness Taxidermy & Outfitters, Franklin
Just outside Franklin, Bill and Linda Fuchs run a taxidermy business that attracts clients as notable as Gerald McRaney, the actor of “Simon & Simon” who enjoys stalking big game. For more than 30 years, they have handled trophies shipped from as far away as Africa, and their studio is hung from end to end with the heads of elephants, lions and zebras. “Fortunately, we’re in a remote and rural environment where you can still pee off the porch,” Fuchs said. The pair draws roughly 70 people a day to their business’ ever-changing wildlife museum, which also includes a moonshine still seized in a raid and half a human skull. As taxidermists, the Fuchs treat a local boy’s first squirrel kill with the same care they give a hippopotamus. As outfitters, they arrange trips to stalk Cape buffalo in the African bush or black marlin off Costa Rica. The staff concedes, though, that some visitors take one look and walk out. To get there, drive a few miles east of Franklin on U.S. 64. Admission is free. Call 828-524-3677 or see more at www.wildernesstaxidermy.com.
49. Clay County
Clay’s Corner, Brasstown
The courts and legislators in Raleigh have long squabbled over the annual Possum Drop on New Year’s Eve, but few have actually seen the spot where the critter gets lowered at midnight. Brasstown is a flyspeck of a town in an intensely rural county, more or less an oasis in an unending forest. And what an oasis owner Clay Logan has built: stuffed opossum dolls for sale; an ice chest decorated with spray-painted opossums; a wooden opossum sculpture dangling upside-down; and fresh sandwiches. There’s no question how locals feel about the animal-rights group that has protested their live possum celebration. See the big sign reading “PETA=People Eating Tasty Animals.” Located at 11005 Old Highway 64. See www.clayscorner.com or call 828-837-3797.
50. Swain County
Tail of the Dragon, Deals Gap
In a short stretch of U.S. 129 that runs over the Tennessee border, a motorist will encounter 318 turns in 11 miles – hence the road’s menacing name. You can guess the type of driver it attracts: one with a large engine and a speedometer well-accustomed to speeds topping 80 mph. But it’s possible for a pleasant jaunt along the dragon’s tail, so long as you don’t mind being passed by people in helmets. Note especially the Tree of Shame, which is covered with smashed-up parts left behind by passers-by, each one lovingly signed and dated by the driver who lost it. To get there from the North Carolina side, follow U.S. 129 to where it meets N.C. 28.
51. Cherokee County
World’s Largest Ten Commandments, Murphy
Even knowing that this depiction of the Ten Commandments is the world’s largest, there’s no preparing yourself for taking in its true size. Every letter of the passages from Exodus is 5 feet tall, making the words from Scripture cover an entire mountainside. It’s the Bible Belt’s equivalent of the Hollywood sign; to take an adequate picture, you’ve got to climb the steps up another mountain across the way. Part of the larger Fields of the Wood Bible Park, the attraction also includes a baptismal pool, available by appointment only. Get there on N.C. 294, about 18 miles west of downtown Murphy. See www.fieldsofthewoodbiblepark.com or call 828-494-7855.
52. Jackson County
Judaculla Rock, Cullowhee
According to Cherokee legend, a slant-eyed giant named Judaculla lived in the Balsam Mountains off what is now Devil’s Courthouse. He lorded over sacred hunting grounds, controlled the weather and was capable of drinking entire streams. His footprint remains in the corner of a soapstone boulder in the valley below, the legend explains, just one of the figures in what is now called Judaculla Rock. The car-sized boulder is marked from top to bottom with petroglyphs that archaeologists now believe to be thousands of years old – the only ones of their kind in the area. Faint at first glimpse, they take shape as you stare at them and come alive with what appear to be figures in headdresses and animals with long antlers. Modern theories vary, including that the figures were carved as part of a ceremony, or that they tell a forgotten story or serve as a guide to an ancient language. The Parker family who lives there has since donated a portion of their land to the rock’s preservation, and it can be seen for free. To get there, follow N.C. 107 south of Sylva, turn left at Caney Fork Road and follow the signs.
53. Transylvania County
Gorges State Park, Sapphire
At Gorges State Park, the farthest-west state park in North Carolina, car-camping doesn’t exist. Every site is walk-in only, and the shortest walk is three-quarters of a mile. The second thing to know is that if you camp next to Ray Fisher Pond, you’re going to spend the night with some seriously loud bullfrogs. With this knowledge, you’re equipped to see Rainbow Falls and dozens of others, and maybe if you’re lucky spot a green salamander or a rare Swainson’s warbler. 828-966-9099.
54. Graham County
Tsali Recreation Area, Almond
Almost everyone you meet at Tsali, a part of Nanatahala National Forest, will be wearing Lycra shorts, a thick helmet padded with foam and a coating of thick mud. These fast, single-track mountain bike trails draw the hardiest riders in the state, and their bloody scars are worn like medals. The trails ring the edge of Fontana Lake, offering stunning views of the Smokies on the rare occasions when they emerge from thick forest canopies. There’s also some of the most laid-back camping in the area, where cuts and bruises get nursed with first-aid kits and well-stocked coolers. Just about every weekend guarantees rain, but it’s useful in cleaning off trail muck. Open April through October, first-come, first-served. 828-479-6431.