In North Carolina’s northwest corner, seven mountain and foothill counties share far more natural beauty and cultural treasures than anyone could ever explore in one lifetime.
You know the mountains are cool and lovely, and you know they’re out there – somewhere. But until you start looking, you can’t imagine what you’ll find.
Multiple strains of Appalachian arts thrive and intertwine at a farm, a sawmill and two pottery studios operated by Glenn and Lula Owens Bolick and their children in Caldwell County near Blowing Rock.
Lula is a fifth-generation potter from a venerable Seagrove family, and Glenn is renowned as a musician and storyteller. The Bolicks’ Heritage Day and kiln opening, each year on the last Saturday in June, features quilting and square-dancing, mountain music and storytelling, face jugs and goat-milk soaps.
Six state parks offer a sweep of remote outdoor experiences. In the rugged terrain of South Mountains State Park in southern Burke County, you can catch a trout, pedal a 17-mile mountain-bike loop or ride a horse to your campsite. A placid, scenic river invites canoeists to New River State Park in Ashe and Alleghany counties, where one of the campgrounds is accessible only by water.
The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, from the Great Smokies in North Carolina to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, counts the most visitors of any park of the National Park Service – but it still might be regarded as the very best of secrets where it winds serenely through northwest North Carolina. While summer weekend crowds fill tourist streets and state highways nearby, you can feel all alone as you drive the parkway at 45 mph through cotton-thick fog or green curtains of rhododendron, sycamore and oak.
Today we explore the secrets of cultural heritage centers, parks and wilderness areas, a revived mountain town and a scenic drive that rivals the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The series will continue through Labor Day, hitting each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. And, except for the 26 counties we’ve already covered, it’s not too late to suggest a place we should include among nando.com/ncsecrets.
You can keep up with our Best-Kept Secrets statewide over the summer at http://nando.com/ncsecrets.
20. Ashe County
Downtown West Jefferson
It’s hard to believe that West Jefferson counts just 1,300 residents when you cruise the sidewalks of its rejuvenated downtown that’s bristling with shops, eateries and about 15 art galleries. The town declined after the closing of apparel and furniture factories, and the windows of vacant stores rattled when rock quarry dump trucks rumbled down Jefferson Avenue. Then a simple downtown streetscape project became a catalyst for revival. Four-way stops replaced the traffic signals that once gave green lights to those noisy trucks. New trees and landscaping, attractive streetlights and benches, pedestrian crosswalks and roughly 15 colorful murals helped make the downtown strip a magnet for visitors. New businesses moved in. Cabot Hamilton, who runs the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce and the Visitor Center, says 30 vacant spaces have dwindled to a handful in the past three years. The funky Bohemia art-and-coffee hangout is popular, and there are plenty of places to find sweets, locally brewed beer and a range of dinner options. Wine, clothing, jewelry and art retailers from Boone and Charlotte have opened stores here. The venerable Ashe County Cheese factory and store, dating from 1930, is still a big draw. Information: 866-607-0093 or visitwestjefferson.org.
21. Alleghany County
Doughton Park, Blue Ridge Parkway
The parkway can get busy on the weekends around Asheville, Boone and Blowing Rock, but many North Carolinians never make it as far north as 7,000-acre Doughton Park, where the mountain landscape opens up to reveal less forest and more rolling meadows. The North Carolina Birding Trail invites birders to hike with their binoculars, and it points to the special appeal of a spot called Mahogany Rock at the north end of Doughton near Milepost 234. It’s a great place to monitor the migrating streams of hawks, falcons, merlins, eagles and other birds of prey each fall. The National Park Service also has preserved, on its original location, the 1885 Brinegar Cabin that was home to a family of subsistence farmers. If you’re lucky, when you duck inside the cabin door, you’ll meet Jackie Sloop, an interpretive park ranger who grew up in nearby Caldwell County. As she spins wool to be woven with linen into a sturdy fabric called linsey-woolsey, Sloop talks of the challenges faced by Martin and Caroline Brinegar until the National Park Service acquired their cabin for the parkway in 1937. Doughton Park lost major amenities several years ago with the closing of the Bluffs Lodge hotel, a gift shop and restaurant. Luckily, there’s a good restaurant and motel about 3 miles away on N.C. 18 near Laurel Springs, just off the parkway. Freeborne’s Eatery and Lodge has a laid-back vibe that appeals equally to traveling bikers and local families out for Sunday dinner. Reserve your camping spot in the woods or in a meadow online at bit.ly/Doughton.
22. Watauga County
Rocky Knob Mountain Bike Park, Boone
Hikers, dog walkers and runners are welcome on the trails at Watauga’s newest park, but they’d better be ready to yield right of way to folks on mountain bikes. Usually in the Appalachian mountains, it’s the other way around: Cyclists feel somewhere between tolerated and unwelcome on hundreds of miles of trails dedicated to folks on foot or horseback. The 185-acre Rocky Knob Mountain Bike Park is just 3 years old, and the bathrooms are still under construction, but mountain bikers aren’t waiting. “I come up from Raleigh just for the day sometimes, just to ride this trail,” says Corey Scheip, 27. Mountain bikers get bored on wide gravel trails. They like narrow, curving tracks with dips and bumps and rocks. The Rocky Knob park, just outside Boone off U.S. 421, was developed by the Watauga Tourism Development Authority with $2 million in grant money and 4,000 volunteer hours from cyclists and other residents who helped build its 8 miles of wooded mountain trails. There’s a playground that draws families with small children, too. “You know, cycling in general in this area is just off the hook,” says Paul Stahlschmidt of Boone Area Cyclists, a local club that helped build the trails. “It’s a big deal for tourism up here right now to have this park.” Information: rockyknob.wordpress.com.
23. Caldwell County
Wilson Creek Wild and Scenic River, Collettsville
Wilson Creek tumbles down steep mountain slopes, losing nearly a mile in altitude in its 23-mile run from Grandfather Mountain to the Johns River. For decades it has been a big draw for fishing, hunting, camping and hiking. There are surging rapids for kayakers, broad pools for swimmers and a few wide beaches for families with babies. A century-old creekside business, Brown Mountain Beach Resort, offers accommodation in pretty cabins. Wilson Creek was added to the National Wild and Scenic River System in 2000. It runs through a 49,000-acre wilderness area, including private lands and parts of the Pisgah National Forest, that once supported a healthy logging industry. Caldwell County operates a Wilson Creek Visitor Center, but it is hard to find 5 miles up a scarcely marked dirt road. On the day we visited, it was staffed with an unhelpful and unwelcoming attendant. Try your luck by calling 828-759-0005.
24. Burke County
Pisgah Loop Scenic Byway
The 47-mile Pisgah Loop Scenic Byway encircles mountain landscapes, American military history and a hypnotic natural mystery that has gone unsolved for centuries. The drive skirts the Blue Ridge Parkway and connects Linville Falls on the north with Lake James State Park on the south. Climbing north outside Morganton on N.C. 181, the byway follows the route taken by Kirk’s Raiders (Civil War guerrillas who fought for the Union) after their attack on a Confederate camp. Near Milepost 20 is the Brown Mountain Overlook, packed on clear summer nights with crowds hoping to glimpse the Brown Mountain Lights – which seem to float and flicker in the woods or above the mountain ridgeline. Are they gases or ghosts? “People who have seen the lights up close describe them as 4-foot orbs, 12 to 15 feet off the ground, appearing to move with a purpose,” says Ed Phillips, the Burke County travel and tourism director. You’ll want to travel the rest of the Pisgah Loop by day – and, if you can, by four-wheel-drive. A gravel road follows a precarious ridge into the Linville Gorge Wilderness, which offers rock climbing, fishing and backpacking.
25. Alexander County
Hiddenite Center, Hiddenite
William Hidden searched in vain for a source of platinum in North Carolina, but in 1879 he met Alexander County farmers who showed him pocketfuls of a green crystal they were turning up with their plows. The gem eventually was named in his honor, as was this rural community at the foot of the Brushy Mountains. The hiddenite was part of a vein 5 miles long that also yielded amethysts, tourmalines, sapphires and the largest emerald ever found in the United States. Tourists and schoolchildren still come to the Emerald Hollow Mine to pan for gems. Hiddenite was treasured for use in jewelry, and people here looked everywhere for it. “Everybody has dug up their front yard and their backyard at least once,” says Allison Houchins, education director of the Hiddenite Center. The center is a culture hub and museum founded in 1982 and housed in the restored 22-room Lucas Mansion. The Hiddenite Center is open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. The $4 admission includes a guided tour. Information: 828-632-6966 or hiddenitecenter.com.
26. Wilkes County
Wilkes Heritage Museum, Wilkesboro
The Wilkes Heritage Museum sprawls over both floors of the old county courthouse and into two buildings nearby: the restored Robert Cleveland log home, built in 1779; and a jail that in 1866 held Tom Dula (immortalized in folk ballads as “Tom Dooley”), who was hanged two years later in Statesville for the murder of Laura Foster. The Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame is here, too. Along with various folk and bluegrass greats who also have been honored elsewhere, the Blue Ridge hall named an honorary inductee in 2012: the late Bill Swofford, a Wilkes County native who recorded pop hits “Jean” and “Good Morning Starshine” in the late 1960s under his middle name, Oliver. The museum recognizes Chang and Eng, the original “Siamese twins” who settled here for several years, and entrepreneurial Wilkes farmers who became pioneers in the vertically integrated poultry industry. Its prize exhibit is the first race car driven by NASCAR godfather Robert Glenn Johnson Jr., better known as “Junior” Johnson. Sitting in well-worn seats from the old North Wilkesboro Speedway, you can watch a video with Johnson and his cohorts explaining how Wilkes County’s fabled moonshine liquor industry created a demand for fast drivers who could elude arrest and for supercharged cars that eventually found their way to the speedway. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and Saturday by appointment, with guided tours available. Admission is $6. Information: 336-667-3171 or wilkesheritagemuseum.com.