Every spring, a trickle and then a slow-moving tide of Appalachian Trail “thru-hikers” step out of the woods onto the side of N.C. 209 then turn downhill into Hot Springs. They plod along the sidewalk of the main street, many of them a little dazed, still in the hypnotic, left-right, left-right rhythm that has brought them 274 miles from Georgia.
Then, however briefly, nearly all of them stop walking.
For these northbound thru-hikers – the most common kind – Hot Springs is the first town that the trail passes directly through. And it’s a welcome break, with real and obvious charms that are magnified by weeks on the trail.
It is a place to replenish food, water and stove fuel, and maybe score luxuries like a chilled grape Nehi at the Hot Springs Home and Garden general store or, better yet, one of the region’s celebrated craft brews while zoning out on the screened deck of The Spring Creek Tavern. Some soak trail-battered muscles in a tub of naturally heated mineral water at the spa, and many check into a modest hotel or hostel for a heavenly night or two on a soft mattress.
For visitors, time in Western North Carolina is like a stop in Hot Springs for those weary hikers: a welcome break from normal rhythms of work, recreation and even weather. The climate, particularly in summer, is an attraction all by itself, and if air conditioning were banned in the United States, tourism in “WNC” would probably triple in the summer.
Asheville is the anchor, the gravitational center of the region. And in recent decades, it has become perhaps the state’s most lively city, with thriving scenes for those interested in art, food, craft beer and outdoor recreation.
But the city, for all its fast-multiplying charms, doesn’t embody Western North Carolina. It’s more about the mountains themselves and the small towns and the hundreds of unincorporated communities down a dip or around a sharp corner of the twisting mountain roads, places with evocative names such as Spruce Pine, Mountain Air, Banner Elk, Valle Crucis, Little Switzerland, Micaville, Flat Rock, Black Mountain and Wolf Laurel.
It’s a region of contrasts, a place where poverty stubbornly refuses to be uprooted, but where the wealthy, including the likes of the Vanderbilts, have come for more than a century to escape the heat of summer. It’s a place where, as in Hot Springs, at one end of town a woman may be selling used DVDs off the trunk lid of a battered Ford, while at the other, a tourist is parking a $20,000 Italian motorcycle outside a restaurant. But it is simply beautiful, much of it, thanks to charms that don’t really have to be magnified by hundreds of miles of hiking.
There are galleries, restaurants, bars and stores offering arts and crafts, extraordinary food, dozens of locally made beers. There are short hikes, long hikes, skiing, waterfalls, panoramas that can be enjoyed from your car seat just tooling slowly down the Blue Ridge Parkway, or from a rocker on an old hotel porch.
There is so much obvious beauty here that the state’s road planners wisely created dozens and dozens of places to pull off and just look. But many of Western North Carolina’s charms are subtle, and not any less terrific for being so. Here are a few.
88. Avery County
The Blair Fraley Sales Store, Crossnore
The Blair Fraley Sales Store has been dubbed the Saks Fifth Avenue of thrift stores. As that implies, it carries the things you would normally find in a thrift store – including used clothing, new clothing donated by clothing stores in the region (including the occasional designer gem), housewares, books, appliances – just a lot more quantity and variety than the norm, which is possible because it’s housed in a massive, two-story building that’s nearly the size of a department store. Profits go to support Crossnore School, a residential foster home for about 80 kids and young adults, ages 1 to 21, most referred by the Department of Social Services. The store is on the campus of the school, which is faith-based and nontdenominational. Visitors can also pop into the adjacent coffee shop and a weaving museum, where they can see local weavers practicing their craft and buy woven goods and pottery. It got its start in the early days of the 101-year-old school, when it served only elementary students. Donations of clothing for older students who were leaving grew into the idea of a secondhand store. To this day, the kids who live at the school get clothes from the donations. 100 DAR Drive. 828-733-4228. www.crossnoreschool.org/blairfraleysalesstore.php
89. Buncombe County
Laughing Seed Cafe, Asheville
Not so long ago, eating at a vegetarian restaurant could be an ascetic experience even for vegetarians. But all those meat eaters have no idea what they’re missing when they walk past the Laughing Seed Cafe. It distills much that is distinctive about modern Asheville’s charms and quirks to a single place. After the restaurant opened in 1991, it helped lead Asheville’s downtown revival and now highlights a list of eateries that likely give the city the heaviest concentration of vegetarian restaurants per capita on the East Coast. Owners Joan and Joe Eckert also founded the attached Jack of the Wood pub, which brewed Green Man Ales. They sold the brewing business, but still pour its distinctive products in the restaurant and pub. The food has an international turn, with influences on standing menu items that include Vietnamese, Thai, Cuban, Indian, Pakistani, French, Mexican, Jewish, and ingredients assembled in imaginative, clever ways. 40 Wall St, Asheville. 828-252-3445. http://laughingseed.jackofthewood.com
90. Henderson County
Flat Rock Playhouse, Flat Rock
For more than half a century, the Flat Rock Playhouse has officially been the state theater of North Carolina, but it’s a little off the beaten path, in a town with an unusual history as a resort for Charleston residents seeking refuge from Low Country summers and from yellow fever and malaria. So many summered here, along with plantation owners from elsewhere in the South, that Flat Rock became known as “The Little Charleston of the Mountains.” The playhouse opened in 1952, and at first offered only a few weeks of plays in the summer. Now it’s open eight months a year and stages elaborate modern productions of dramas and musicals such as this summer’s “Miss Saigon.” Its youth program, which teaches acting and dance, draws more than 600 students a year. The town, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, makes it worth a visit even if you aren’t interested in theater. Many of the 19th-century summer estates still stand, and it was the adopted residence of writer Carl Sandburg. His home, Connemara, is a big draw. 2661 Greenville Highway, Flat Rock. Box office is 828-693-0731 and information on shows is at www.flatrockplayhouse.org.
91. Madison County
Two things define this tiny town, which is tucked into a valley beside the French Broad River. The springs that it’s named for, and the Appalachian Trail, which passes right through the heart of town, with the distinctive AT trail markers molded right into the sidewalk and painted on the roads. Hundreds of thru-hikers (those who are trying to traverse the entire 2,185-mile trail in the same year) stop here each year, most in spring. Several local merchants target hikers as well as visitors who arrive by car. There are outfitters, hotels like the Iron Horse Station and hostels like Elmer’s Sunnybank Inn, and shuttle service for folks who want to hike a short segment of the trail and need to be picked up or dropped off. Even the library welcomes hikers: A card on a trail bulletin board notes that it offers free Wi-Fi and laptops. There is a handful of restaurants, all of them unpretentious, as is even the Hot Springs Resort and Spa, where an hour in your own private tub overlooking a creek can cost as little as $15. The faintly sulfurous water is hot at first, then comes to feel warm by the time your hour is up. The springs are at Hot Springs Resort and Spa, 315 Bridge St., 828-622-7676, www.nchotsprings.com.
92. McDowell County
Jack Frost Dairy Bar, Marion
There are no shocking modern advances in ice cream at the Jack Frost Dairy Bar. Nothing that changes colors as you eat it, is named after a ’60s rock band, or is flavored with kale or sriracha. The cones, sundaes, banana splits, parfaits and floats with the scoops in traditional flavors dominate the offerings. OK, the health-conscious can get frozen yogurt or sorbet that are made elsewhere. But the ice cream at the Jack Frost Dairy Bar is little changed in the 60 years since the Burgin family got into the business, first at another location, later in the current cinderblock building, just off Interstate 40. It’s a savvy, quick stop en route from the eastern part of the state to Asheville, except November through March, when it’s closed. If you do stop, you’ll be rewarded with what the Burgins bill as the authentic flavor of 1950s ice cream. All their flavors, from chocolate to rocky road, are blended in by hand in small containers, just as they did in 1954. The dairy bar often draws a line on summer afternoons, and if you get stuck waiting, check out the displays of historical photos and of information about the efforts of local missionaries. Jack Frost Dairy Bar, 2449 Sugar Hill Road, Marion. 828-652-1178. www.jackfrostdairybar.com
93. Mitchell County
Penland School of Crafts, Spruce Pine
The Penland School of Crafts is perhaps the soul of a region that sometimes seems awash in arts and crafts, and it’s also an unusual opportunity for regular folk to marinate in artist colony life – even if it’s just to stop in for a healthy lunch, or to bid at one of the school’s frequent, lively auctions of work donated by students, instructors and others. Better yet, if you have an interest in a particular art form, the school likely has a vacation-length class that’s a good fit. The peaceful, bucolic campus sits on 420 acres with meditative views. The housing is basic, and there are few modern distractions, though there are dances, volleyball, field trips to nearby studios, daily movement classes and a coffee shop. The school aims at creating a sense of community, even for short-term visitors. Some workshops last a week, others longer. The disciplines include book and paper making, clay work, drawing and painting, glass work, iron work, metals, photography, print and letterpress, textiles and wood. 67 Doras Trail, Penland. If you want to visit for lunch, call ahead at 828-765-2359. www.penland.org
94. Yancey County
Historic Nu Wray Inn , Burnsville
In recent months, the Nu Wray Inn had lost its title as Western North Carolina’s oldest inn because it could only be rented all at once for events like weddings. But it’s back: New owners bought it this month and plan to reopen Sept. 1 as a bed and breakfast and event venue. The three-story building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is steeped in more than 180 years of lore. You can sleep in the Elvis Presley room on the second floor, where the King himself once stayed while, like many current visitors, looking for real estate. As you wander the creaky wooden floors, you’ll be following in the footsteps of President Jimmy Carter, actor Christopher Reeve and authors Mark Twain and Thomas Wolfe. The Nu Wray, which overlooks downtown Burnsville’s town square, started life in 1833. Besides a pastoral garden, its charms include an extraordinarily long front porch equipped with an army of rocking chairs. A smaller second-floor balcony yields an even better perch for viewing the goings-on around the town square. 102 Town Square, 828-775-4025 or 828-768-7368. www.nuwrayinn.com