The central Piedmont rolls out unpredictably from the metropolis of the Triangle. Outside the fast-growing downtowns of the larger cities, the suburbs blend in a gradient with the crisscrossed woods and fields that still envelop the area.
For commuters who orbit on Interstate 40 and Raleigh’s Beltline, it’s easy to forget that countless secret spots are tucked away on hundreds of miles of country roads within 90 minutes of the Triangle, waiting to be explored.
And it really is exploration in a place like this, where the hills’ slow rolls and breaks in the pine unveil new sights with every turn.
These northern counties are thick with streams and creeks, which once discouraged settlement but later proved fertile ground for farms and mills. An agricultural economy, slowed today, left a network of towns and outposts that is host to artists, artisans and some of the state’s old culture.
Even the most-developed counties, such as Wake and Durham, offer up Southern specialties and hidden corners on their outskirts. All it takes is a car and a sense of adventure.
Our series will continue through Labor Day, hitting each of North Carolina’s 100 counties.
And, except for the 46 counties we’ve already covered, it’s not too late to suggest a place we should include among our Best-Kept Secrets. Let us know by going to nando.com/bestkept, sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 919-829-4751.
40. Durham County
Sennett’s Hole, Durham
It’s simple: This is the perfect swimming hole. Its cool, dark waters are edged on one side by boulders that luxuriate in sunshine, and a thick, shady forest rings the entire pool. Sennett’s Hole is fed by the Eno River and stands in Durham’s West Point on the Eno Park. The hole is said to be named after Michael Synnott and his mill that reportedly stood nearby. As the story goes, a surge of water took Synnott and his pot of gold and silver into the hole, never to be found in its interminable depths. So take that as a cautionary note: Sennett’s Hole, also known as Turtle Hole, should be carefully assessed before swimming. Access it from Landis Drive, which is connected to the hole by informal trails. Alternatively, park at the lot at 5101 North Roxboro St., take the Buffalo Trail from its southwest corner, follow it across the creek and switch to the Sennett’s Hole trail, which is blazed in red dots. West Point on the Eno Park is open daily 8 a.m. to sunset. 919-471-1623. http://bit.ly/1qCTnCV.
41. Granville County
Cedar Creek Gallery, Creedmoor
An artists’ community has grown in the woods between the northern arms of Falls Lake for several decades. Its grounds spread across 4 acres, including potters’ and glassblowers’ studios built into beautiful barns and fine metal sculptures throughout its gardens. The main attraction is the gallery itself, a 4,000-square-foot building that features a circulating set of art from about 200 regular artists, including many North Carolinians. Pat Oakley and the late Sid Oakley opened the place together in 1968, and it is run principally now by their daughter, Lisa Oakley. The mix of pottery, glass, wood and metalwork is always worth a visit, but the gallery also hosts periodic events – such as the teapot exhibition happening now – and festivals in the spring and fall. 1150 Fleming Road, Creedmoor. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 919-528-1041 or email@example.com, www.cedarcreekgallery.com.
42. Franklin County
Lynch Creek Farm, Rocky Ford
Barely marked and never advertised, this place truly is a secret. A drive out here takes motorists past tiny country stores and wooden houses dark with age, and onto a road so remote that even GPS devices are befuddled. But you’ll know you’re there as you emerge from a tunnel of trees into a beautifully sculpted spread of land. Bob Radcliffe and Kerry Carter open their gate three times a month for picnics, farmhouse dinners, and jazz and bluegrass music, charging $15 to $20 a head with room for only a few dozen guests in the cozy cabin they built. The meal might include one of Radcliffe’s pizzalike tomato pies, or herbs and vegetables grown on the premises, and a lesson in Franklin County history – not to mention good company, all soundtracked by bands from across the region. The cost of entrance supports the Ben Franklin Society, the couple’s nonprofit that helps historical and cultural endeavors. “People see it as belonging to a club,” Radcliffe said. “They’ll come in, and they might know two or three people and meet a half-dozen others. When the meal comes, they don’t get up and leave.” 1973 Rocky Ford Road, Kittrell. By appointment and reservation, call 252-492-2600 or email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.lynchcreek.com.
43. Warren County
Founded in 1779, Warrenton is one of the state’s oldest towns. By its own telling, it once was one of the richest towns, booming in the 1800s on the back of cotton, tobacco, education and railroads. It has grown little in recent decades – its population today is fewer than 1,000 – but the architecture of its heyday is its charm of today. A stopover here should start at the Chamber of Commerce for printed guides to the area. For lunch, locals love the Hardware Cafe, where a rolling ladder is still propped against the handsome shelves of the store that once stood here. Beyond downtown’s stretch of brick buildings is a spread of historic structures, with every other house seeming to boast a marker with its name and year of construction. The Greek Revival style, as implemented locally by architects such as Jacob Holt in the 1800s, is particularly popular near downtown. Warren County Chamber of Commerce, 130 N. Main St., Warrenton. 252-257-2657, www.warren-chamber.org/
44. Vance County
Bees’ Knees Country Store, Henderson
This little white building once was a gas station and grocery – so long ago, in fact, that the rusted pumps out front are frozen at 64.5 cents per gallon. Now those pumps are decorated with flower boxes, while the store is crammed with crafts, gifts and, most importantly, honey. Bill and Marie Craig keep 50 beehives on the 72-acre lot that stretches back into the woods and along a creek behind the store. A small jar of honey from those hives runs for about $5, and there’s also a variety of beauty products and soap made from it. You almost could miss the tiny store and its hand-painted sign, but once here you’ll find a trove of stories and historic details. An 18th-century gristmill sits next to the store, and a dam bridges the creek to form Weldons Pond. A few hundred feet down the road stands the Run of the Mill Bed and Breakfast, a huge house with a wraparound porch, also run by the Craigs. Some of the Craigs’ buildings are marked by the brightly patterned placards of the Tar River quilt trail. If you want to explore more of the area, pick up a quilt trail map at the Bees’ Knees. 2250 Weldons Mill Road, Henderson. Store hours are Wednesday-Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 252-492-9599 or email@example.com, www.runofthemillbandb.com.
45. Person County
Person County Museum of History, Roxboro
Seven historic buildings are home to a fascinating spread of memorabilia. Though the focus is Person County, the museum’s broad appeal is access to its cornucopia of artifacts and architecture. For example, your tour guide might allow you to play a few notes on a well-worn piano or to operate a huge radio that looks to be a century old. The impressive main house was the home of Gov. William Walton Kitchin, who served from 1909 to 1913. One annex is the office of one of the county’s horse-and-buggy doctors, complete with an amputation saw. Just across the courtyard stands a building that may be the oldest standing schoolhouse in the state – a dark, musty cabin dating to 1810, where a 12-year-old teacher led lessons. The incredible mix also includes a hall of dolls and several rooms on local African-American history that include a striking set of an enslaved woman’s clothes and a room dedicated to Major League Baseball star and Person native Enos Slaughter. 309 N. Main St. Open Wednesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. 336-597-2884 or firstname.lastname@example.org, www.visitroxboronc.com/personheritage.html.
46. Wake County
Wake County Speedway, Raleigh
The speedway is no secret to the people who grew up in Wake County, but it’s easily missed if you spend your weekends at the mall or looking for downtown Raleigh’s hottest new spots. The Simpkins family opened the quarter-mile “bullring” in 1962 and paved the place in 1987. Now, as then, Friday nights are soaked in the rumbling sound, bright lights and sizzling smells of a good old race. Just a bit off U.S. 401 south of Garner, the speedway generally runs races every other Friday through September. Drivers compete with several classes of cars, ranging from slower mini-stocks to swarms of speeding late models. Concessions are available, and coolers are allowed. 2109 Simpkins Road. 919-779-2171. www.wakecountyspeedway.com.