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The mountains of western North Carolina are no doubt one of the most beautiful areas of the southeast. There are some beautiful drives, scenes, valleys, and vistas to check out. On this tour, we’ll explore Statesville and Hickory, the rolling countryside of western North Carolina, and the start of the mountains where you’ll find the “Bat Cave” and a remarkable view from unique Chimney Rock. Finally, we finish in the eclectic city of Asheville, home to the Biltmore Estate, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and plenty of culture – and counter-culture.
We start in Statesville, a major crossroads where I-77 & I-40 meet, as well as U.S. 21, 64, and 70… some of North Carolina’s most important and connected highways. Statesville has about 25,000 people, a handsome downtown, and many tree-lined neighborhoods.
Mitchell Community College boasts a very nice campus just west of downtown; the school, established in 1852, became the first community college in the U.S. to be accepted into NASA’s University Student Launch Initiative competition. Downtown is a nice place to walk, as you check out a number of historic 19th century buildings including a stately, imposing City Hall.
Congregation Emmanuel, built in 1891 on nearby Kelly Street, is the oldest house of worship in Statesville and one of the few remaining 19th century-era synagogues in the nation. Just north of downtown, Fort Dobbs was an early frontier fort – it was established in 1755 – that played a significant role in the French and Indian War and the Anglo-Cherokee War. Only eleven years later, it was abandoned. Archeologists unearthed the fort’s remains in 2006, and now those remains and some well-appointed replicas are available for viewing and exploring at what is now called Fort Dobbs State Historic Site. The Best Western Statesville Inn is conveniently located along I-77 just south of I-40 and is an excellent place to begin this tour.
From the Statesville area, follow U.S. 70 west. The road parallels I-40 and you can use the interstate for a faster option, but let’s face it: the better look at everything is on the two-lane roads. Cruising through the western Piedmont region and into the Catawba River Valley, enjoy the rolling hills and farms. Just past the Catawba River and the little town of Catawba, look for the connection to the Bunker Hill Covered Bridge.
The bridge, accessible just off U.S. 70 via a pretty walkway along Lyle Creek, was built in 1894 and is one of only two remaining covered bridges in North Carolina. Believed to be the last remaining example of the Haupt truss construction style used on wooden bridges, it’s a National Civil Engineering Landmark. The information signs by the bridge provide an informative look at the bridge and travel of the day, and you’re welcome to stroll through it.
From the bridge, continue west on U.S. 70 through Claremont and into Conover, a town of 8,000 golfers recognize as the home of the Greater Hickory Kia Classic at Rock Barn each June. Just to the south via NC Highway 16 is Newton, which has over 100 historical buildings in its downtown area, including an original cotton mill, St. Paul’s Church & Cemetery, which dates back to 1808, and the Catawba County Courthouse, which houses the county’s Museum of History.
Back to U.S. 70, we head into Hickory, a bustling town of 40,000 founded under a hickory tree in the 1850s by Henry Robinson, who built a log tavern. The town was called Hickory Tavern until the name was shortened in 1873. The city spreads out over a wide area, but the downtown remains a busy place and Union Square offers shopping, indoor and outdoor dining, frequent farmers’ markets, and just a nice area to relax and enjoy the day.
Nearby, you’ll find plenty of intriguing places on what’s called the SALT Block, a block-sized complex featuring the Catawba Science Center, the Hickory Museum of Art, the Western Piedmont Symphony, and more. There are plenty of exhibits and shows – some available all the time, some by special event – for all to see. Nearby, the lovely Harper House offers a nice look at Hickory’s history – inside a lovely 1887 home with Queen Anne styling.
The city’s history was built heavily on furniture, with Hickory White still operating as one of the oldest furniture manufacturers still on its original site. The Hickory Furniture Mart is popular with shoppers and furniture dealers from around the world; inside, the Catawba Valley Furniture Museum traces the industry's roots in the area. Check out the reproduction of an early shop, complete with vintage tools and furnishings.
Hickory Motor Speedway – known as the “Birthplace of NASCAR Stars” and the “World’s Most Famous Short Track” – has launched many future NASCAR stars onto the big circuit; the storied track opened in 1951 as a ½-mile dirt oval and had the likes of Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett, and Ralph Earnhardt winning championships here during the track’s first decade. Today the track is.36 miles, paved, and hosts features from the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. The “Wall of Fame” at the entrance features some of NASCAR’s biggest names from the past six decades.
You can enjoy minor league baseball with the Hickory Crawdads, a Class-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers. They play at L. P. Frans Stadium, where up to 5,000 fans enjoy play in the South Atlantic League vs. teams from around the Carolinas, West Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky, and Maryland.
The Best Western Hickory is conveniently located along I-40 near U.S. 70 on Hickory’s southeast side, close to the Furniture Mart and Hickory Motor Speedway and only minutes from downtown.
To continue the Tour, follow either U.S. 70 or I-40 west from Hickory. You’ll notice the terrain getting hillier and the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. The views and vistas get better and better as we continue. In Valdese, you can check out the Old Rock School, built of native field rock in 1923 by the Waldensian settlers there. Old Rock School hosts concerts, the Piedmont & Western Railroad Museum, and the local tourism office. The earliest settlers were from Italy, and the Waldensian Heritage Museum offers up artifacts and exhibits on their heritage and experiences establishing the town in the late 1800s.
When you reach Morganton, feel free to check out this city of 16,000; U.S. 64 and 70 are main streets through downtown. Check out the handsome Burke County Courthouse, the charming Morganton Rail Road Depot, originally built in 1886 and restored in 2004, explore the area’s colorful history at the History Museum of Burke County, or shop for local art in the Jailhouse Gallery, housed in the city’s former jailhouse. The Quaker Meadows Cemetery on the western edge of town is notable in that it dates back to 1767 and is one of the earliest identified sites of inland European settlement in North Carolina.
Side Note: Near Morganton, the archeologist or history buff in you might like to check out Joara, once a large Native American settlement that was a regional chiefdom of the Mississippian culture. In 1540, Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto and his party met with the Native Americans; 27 years later, explorer Juan Pardo created a European settlement here and established Fort San Juan. Archeologists found and verified remains of the fort in 2013. To find out more or check on tours to the site, contact the Exploring Joara Foundation at (828) 439-2463. Their office is in Morganton at 220 New Street.
From Morganton, head to U.S. 64 and go southwest out of town. On this route, we’re heading into the mountains and also following the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, which stretches 330 miles through four states. The Trail traces the route of patriot militia during the Kings Mountain campaign of 1780, and between Morganton and Rutherfordton U.S. 64 follows along or near the original path. At various locales on this stretch, you’ll have opportunities to stop and hike on portions of pathway.
This stretch of U.S. 64 takes you past the South Mountains, with numerous peaks approaching 2,500 and 3,000 feet; that’s just part of the terrain that awaits. Approaching Rutherfordton, U.S. 74A joins us for the ride west through more mountains that start creating hairpin turns and scenic views.
Just past Uree you’ll reach beautiful Lake Lure, a resort town named after the eponymous lake along which it is nestled. The lake was created by a dam constructed on the Broad River in the 1920s for the purpose of generating hydroelectric power, which is still does today. A few resorts have sprung up, and some good restaurants provide an overlook so you can enjoy good food and a good view.
Meanwhile, train enthusiasts may want to stop at The Right Track Toy Train Museum, which features a wide variety of toy trains and miniature buildings. Kids can play with some of the trains, and proceeds from the $5 admission are donated to fight pancreatic cancer. The picturesque nature of the area – the blue lake against a backdrop of green mountains towering several thousand feet – has drawn many a filmmaker, beginning with Thunder Road in 1958 and continuing with Firestarter, A Breed Apart, My Fellow Americans, and also famously, Dirty Dancing. Because nobody puts Lake Lure in a corner.
U.S. 64/74A winds gently around the southern shore of Lake Lure and continues west. When you cross the Broad River, check the bridges. There’s the new one you cross today; next to it, the original bridge from the 1920s. Instead of tearing down the old bridge, it was repurposed to serve as a community garden and pedestrian walk. Now known as the Lake Lure Flowering Bridge, it’s open for pedestrians to walk across and enjoy not only the detailed bridge architecture, but a wide variety of colorful plants and flowers adorning a stone walkway. It’s truly a terrific repurpose of an old road bridge. [pictures available]
Next up is one of the Tour’s crowning features: Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park. A 315-foot granite monolith towering above the valley below. The Park itself, established in 2007 after a century-plus period of private ownership, also features “Devil’s Head,” a balancing rock on the edge of a cliff that looks like you-know-who, Hickory Nut Falls (a 404-foot waterfall), miles of hiking trails, bird-watching, rock climbing, and much more. You may recognize some of the pathways from the 1992 movie Last of the Mohicans, where the climax scenes were filmed.
The pinnacle of all this Chimney Rock, accessible via a winding road that leads you to a Visitors Center. You can take a scenic but laborious climb up stairs to the Rock, or hop in the elevator that shoots you up 27 stories to save time – and your legs. Either way, the views from the top are stunning. Up to 75 miles of Piedmont scenery is yours for the taking on a clear day; climb around on the rock, take some great pictures, and explore the rest of the park for plenty more to do and see. It’s definitely worth a chunk of your day.
On either side of the park entrance is the town of Chimney Rock, which consists of a tight collection of stores, restaurants, and watering holes wedged in the valley between the Broad River and U.S. 64/74A. Then it’s right into the Bat Cave, which of course evokes the TV show and comics… but the settlement is actually named after a real bat cave located in Bluerock Mountain. The cave itself is the largest granite fissure cave on the continent and serves as a preserve for the numerous bat species who call it home; it is not open to the public. But it’s still fun to say “To the Bat Cave!”
From Bat Cave, follow U.S. 74A. A 20-mile drive consisting of dizzying more twists and turns, up and down the hills that mark the Blue Ridge Mountains. Over the Eastern Continental Divide, the road begins its descent into the Asheville area, where plenty of options await.
Coming into town and right after the connection with I-240, U.S. 74A provides easy access to the famed Biltmore Estate, the largest privately-owned home in America. Built in 1895 by George Vanderbilt II, the mansion boasts 250 rooms and covers 175,000 square feet (we can imagine what the utility bill runs in an average month.) The estate sprawls across 8,000 acres and features spectacular gardens, fountains and pools, beautiful vistas, the Antler Hill Village & Winery, and more. Antler Hill Village offers up a farm showcasing life in 1890s raising livestock, tending crops, and dairying.
The Farmyard area is kid-friendly, and they’ll delight in petting and feeding a variety of animals. Adults will delight in the winery, which offers tours and tastings of their award-winning wines. Outdoor activities include bike rentals for wandering around the estate grounds, hiking, carriage rides, fly fishing, river float tours, sporting clays, and more. Finally, the shops at Biltmore offer crafts from artists throughout the Appalachians, books, dry goods, candy, and other gift items.
Near the Biltmore, U.S. 74A crosses under the Blue Ridge Parkway and heads right into the city of Asheville. Fast-growing Asheville is the largest city in western North Carolina, with about 85,000 residents – and climbing. The downtown area hums with activity, especially in gathering places like Pack Square in the center of the city.
The western end is anchored by the Vance Memorial, a 65-foot tall obelisk built in 1897 dedicated to Zebulon Baird Vance, a colorful historic figure in North Carolina whose legacy includes terms as the state’s governor and Congressional representative. The Asheville Art Museum and the Colburn Earth Science Museum are within eyeshot of the memorial, which also faces a variety of shops and restaurants that look over Pack Square. The Square also offers fountains and other things kids like to play in or on, as well as numerous events throughout the year.
Further west along College Avenue downtown, you’ll also find the smaller Pritchard Park, a triangular park that provides a tree-filled respite from the surrounding streets. It’s the kind of park where you’ll more than likely find a few people playing guitar or harmonica. More eclectic shops and restaurants surround the park, and brewpubs like the adjacent Thirsty Monk and the nearby Lexington Avenue Brewery offer up locally-brewed beverages sourced from area crops.
The early economy relied heavily on textiles, tobacco, and transportation. Today, Asheville has diversified further, and tourism is a big piece of the economy, with museums and arts-related places to visit drawing in people from all over. Asheville is the boyhood home of Thomas Wolfe, and you can go to this home. The Thomas Wolfe House & State Park remains as a museum and tribute to Wolfe, who is often considered North Carolina’s most impactful author. The aforementioned Asheville Art Museum is downtown along Pack Square, and nearby is the unique Asheville Pinball Museum, which showcases pinball machines but also lets you play them – and perhaps even buy them.
A new addition – opened in July, 2014 – is the aSHEville Museum. As you may infer by the selective capitalization, the museum focuses on the lives, culture, and contributions of women; it’s the first of its kind in the southeastern United States. Outside of downtown, the University of North Carolina at Asheville makes the city a college town; the Botanical Gardens at Asheville are next to the campus to add further beauty to a city that is surrounded by it. McCormick Field offers pro baseball with the Asheville Tourists playing in the Class-A South Atlantic League; they are a farm team in the Colorado Rockies system, which makes sense since both teams play at higher elevations than most.
The Best Western Asheville – Biltmore East is right along U.S. 70 near the Blue Ridge Parkway, close to downtown, the Biltmore Estate, I-40, and more for ease of exploring Asheville and taking the tours around North Carolina.
Trivia: Asheville’s pro baseball teams date back to 1897, with the “Asheville Moonshiners” taking the field (one wonders what the concession stands offered.) Today, spectators can view the scoreboard and note “Visitors” in the guest column and “Tourists” in the home column.
But wait, there's a different route one can take from the Bat Cave!
From Bat Cave, follow U.S. 64 southwest, paralleling portions of the Blue Ridge Mountains to Hendersonville. Just prior to the junction with I-26, the Best Western Hendersonville Inn is ready to serve as a relaxing stop for the night – there are a lot of mountains to be crossed ahead!
Hendersonville is a city of 13,000 that has done a terrific job of preserving its Historic Downtown Hendersonville and keeping it filled with a variety of shops, museums, and small businesses. The town celebrates its most popular local fruit crop with the annual North Carolina Apple Festival each Labor Day weekend; it’s one of the most popular festivals in North Carolina. In the same building as their offices on Main Street you’ll find Hands On! Children’s Museum, which has plenty of interactive exhibits popular with kids. Hendersonville “rocks” too: the Mineral & Lapidary Museum of Henderson County is a geology and paleontology wonderland, where they literally split geodes every day – in demonstrations. The museum offers one of the country’s most diverse mineral deposits and plenty of fossils, including castings of a wooly mammoth bone and Tyrannosaurus Rex skull.
In the heart of downtown is the Henderson County Heritage Museum, located in the lovely, gold-domed Historic Henderson County Courthouse. The museum delves deeply into the history of the county and area with exhibits, dioramas, and collections showing everything from apple orchards to railroad activities to the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding the area; a new exhibit on the Civil War is loaded with artifacts too, including an authentic 35-star U.S. flag and an original Confederate “Stars and Bars” flag from the war era.
Just southeast of downtown Hendersonville on the grounds of the local airport, the Western North Carolina Air Museum has a nice array of classic airplanes to view and explore. You can check them out in hangars or, weather permitting, do a little flying in one! Just south of there in Flat Rock just off NC Highway 225 the Carl Sandburg National Historic Site sits in a beautiful setting on a pond, displaying the 1928 home called Connemara Farm, which the Sandburgs bought in 1945. Sandburg lived here for rest of his life, publishing more than one-third of his works during that time. The site features the residence, their dairy goat farm, an apple orchard, woods, small lakes and ponds, and five miles of hiking trails that let you explore them all.
From Hendersonville, jump on U.S. 64 west and prepare for a forest- and mountain-filled adventure! U.S. 64 heads through Pisgah Forest, a small unincorporated community known for waterfalls; the settlement is named after the Pisgah National Forest, which lies to the west. U.S. 64 skims the boundary, heads through Brevard, which is the seat of Transylvania County. To the east is the DuPont State Forest, which has hiking trails accessing many waterfalls including Triple Falls, which has been made famous in the movie The Hunger Games.
Continue on U.S. 64 through Rosman and wind your way into the Nantahala National Forest, where you’ll also continue to climb in elevation. Just past Cashiers you’ll find Highlands, an increasingly popular tourist town established in 1875 due to its founders believing that its location, roughly where the halfway points between Chicago and Savannah and New Orleans and New York meet, made a major city there inevitable. That hasn’t happened, but the less than 1,000 residents are joined by over 20,000 tourists in season – so it is a mecca of sorts. Highlands became a golf mecca when Bobby Jones and some cohorts established the Highlands Country Club in 1930; today, a series of golf resorts draw people year ‘round. The Highlands is also very well known for a wide variety of antique stores and four performing arts theatres.
As we cross the Eastern Continental Divide, U.S. 64 becomes a very twisting, turning road from the Highlands through the mountains. The scenic beauty of the area is capped by the Cullasaja Gorge, which features 7.5 miles of scenic byway along the Cullasaja River. Waterfalls, including the 120-foot Bridal Veil Falls and 75-foot Dry Falls (which is usually wet), cap off mountain and river views; this is also an excellent spot for fishing.
Franklin is up next, known as the “Gem Capital of the World” for the abundant gems and minerals in the area. Gem mines are a big part of the town’s history, and the popular “Macon County Gemboree” is held here twice a year. The Franklin Gem & Mineral Museum is housed in the town’s old jail on Phillips Street, showcasing one of the largest collections of gems and minerals in the Southeast, including rubies weighing over two pounds and minerals from 49 of the 50 states and several overseas countries. Admission is free, and the museum is open from May through October.
Ruby City Gem Museum is a large gem store that also houses a museum, laying claim to one of the largest collections of gems and minerals in the world as well as petrified wood, fossils, Native American collections, and more. The area’s Scottish heritage dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries and can be explored at the Scottish Tartans Museum, also on Main Street. The Scottish Tartans Museum has more than 500 tartans on display as well as kilts, Highland dress, artifacts, and more – and of course, they have an extensive gift shop. You may also hear bagpipes at some point.
The Appalachian Trail cuts through Franklin and hikers make Franklin a popular stop. The lesser-known Bartram Trail also crosses in Franklin, which focuses on the journey of 18th century naturalist William Bartram; the trail reaches its highest point at Wayah Bald, a treeless open area with a stone observation tower 5,385 feet above sea level offering views for many, many miles (weather permitting – it can change quickly this high!) Wayah Bald is particular popular in spring, when azaleas, rhododendrons and other flowers are in bloom.
Heading west from Franklin on U.S. 64, the drive is still mountainous and beautiful but less challenging. We still wind through the Nantahala National Forest, past Hayesville and then finally landing in the state’s westernmost county, Cherokee County.
The seat of Cherokee County is Murphy, a town of 1,600 perched where the Hiwassee and Valley Rivers meet at the southern end of the Great Smoky Mountains. The town has a two-mile riverwalk that blends the town with its natural surroundings while providing nice views of the rivers. Along with U.S. 64, U.S. 19 and 129 come into Murphy, as well as the return of the same U.S. 74 we followed back in the Charlotte and Gastonia areas. Murphy’s location along the Unicoi Turnpike connected it with towns in Tennessee, helping to fuel growth. The “Trail of Tears” ran through here in 1836 and the U.S. Army established Fort Butler, which preceded the town of Murphy; the Cherokee County Historical Museum features information about this era and has over 2,000 artifacts from the Cherokee natives, as well as other Native American tribes and early European settlers; the museum also has a collection of over 800 dolls, ranging from Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton to Shirley Temple, Scarlett O’Hara, and John Wayne. It is located downtown next to the Cherokee County Courthouse, a graceful 1926 Classic Revival style structure adorned in blue marble with a tall monumental cupola. One unique feature of this building the way it is perched at an angle right on the corner of Central and Peachtree Streets. Downtown is fairly small but features a number of small shops; Cherokee Cellars (23 Hickory Street) offers up locally-made wines from Georgia and North Carolina along with a fine art gallery,
Outside of the downtown area, Murphy has a number of places to check out. The Salty Dog Gem Mine lets you pan and dig for gems and minerals in case you didn’t get your fill of that back in Franklin. If local wines are of interest, Valley River Vineyards & Winery produces several wines from native, French hybrid, and vinifera grapes along the Valley River on beautiful grounds nestled in the mountains; the Nottely River Valley Vineyards & Winery cultivates eight varieties of grapes on land that has been in the family since 1820; they began producing wines in 2011 and have a tasting room open from April through early December. Fields of the Wood is a 220-acre Bible-based theme park in the mountains that includes a gigantic marble and stone rendition of the Ten Commandments.
Much of Murphy’s other activities are outdoor and recreational, taking advantage of the abundant fishing, hiking, hunting, and boating opportunities. The Best Western of Murphy has terrific accommodations on the north side of town and plenty of information on these and other recreational and tourist activities.
And there you have it – all the way from Wilmington at sea level, through pine forests, golfing meccas, mile high mountains and overlook sites like Chimney Rock, major cities like Charlotte and smaller towns like Albemarle, Lumberton, Hendersonville, and Gastonia to North Carolina’s western edge in Murphy. That’s quite a tour of North Carolina’s southern edge!
From Murphy, you can connect to the Blue Ridge Parkway Tour by heading northeast on U.S. 19/74 through Andrews (home to several breweries) to the parkway’s western start near Cherokee or off junctions near Maggie Valley via U.S. 19 or Dillsboro via U.S. 74. There is so much to see and do in North Carolina! Enjoy, and stay with people who care.