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Exploring Wilmington to Murphy
Wilmington is North Carolina’s main coastal city; Charlotte is the largest city; Murphy is the westernmost town in the heart of the Appalachains. Why not meander through the Carolina pine forests, historic sites, golf destinations, and more that lie between them? Here, we’ll wander from Cape Fear to the Queen City and the far tip of western North Carolina through Lumberton, Southern Pines, Albemarle, Charlotte, Gastonia, Chimney Rock, Hendersonville on our way to Murphy…essentially climbing from sea level to more than one mile high along the way!
Let’s start from an endpoint, shall we? South of Wilmington at the tip of Cape Fear, where the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic, is where U.S. 421 ends/begins (you basically get there by driving down to it, or accessing it via ferry from Southport, across the Cape Fear River). Plenty of sights beckon right from the start; the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is highly-rated nationally for its exhibits and collection of land and aquatic species, both river and ocean. Dolphins, sharks, sea turtles, and stingrays are just some of the featured water species, and some of them you’re allowed to touch. They even have an albino alligator. Speaking of water, the tricky geography of the Carolina coast features treacherous capes, shoals, two major ocean currents meeting offshore, and the legacy of Naval warfare; so now you’ll understand why the North Carolina coastline is considered the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The North Carolina Underwater Archeology Center is a small museum that explores this topic, exhibits on shipwrecks, dive sites, and other elements of maritime history.
Speaking of warfare, this Cape (as well as the entire Wilmington area) was a crucial strategic point during the Civil War for both Confederate and Union forces. This is why you’ll find Fort Fisher right here, which saw the largest land-sea battle of the War. By 1865, this access point from the ocean was the last supply line remaining open through Wilmington that could reach General Lee’s troops in Virginia. The falling of Fort Fisher to Union forces on January 15, 1865 essentially sealed the fate of the War; three months later, it was over. Fort Fisher wasn’t your typical brick-and-mortar or wood fort; much of it was constructed with earth and sand. That allowed for easier absorption of shelling during battles, but it’s also resulted in the ocean reclaiming the area more easily. While once the largest earthen fort in the South, only about ten percent of it remains. It’s open for touring though, and among the artifacts, you can see a 32-pound reconstructed (and fully operational) heavy seacoast cannon, and explore 15 wayside exhibits. Inside the Fort Fisher Historic Museum, plenty more exhibits await. Fort Fisher hosts a number of special events and serves as the hub of underwater archeology in North Carolina.
The first actual town along the way is Kure Beach (pronounced “KYUR-ee”), a beach town of 2,000. The peninsula is very narrow here, and Kure Beach is only a few blocks wide; U.S. 421 is the main street on the ocean side. The Kure Beach Fishing Pier is the oldest fishing pier on the Atlantic coast; it dates back to 1924, although portions have been built due to periodic hurricane damage – the most dramatic being Hurricane Hazel in 1954. The Pier is great for a free stroll, fishing for a small fee, or dining in the Ocean View Restaurant. Up and down the town, you’ll find plenty of beaches, boutiques, and eateries… most specializing in fresh seafood.
The Sunny Point Army Terminal and a National Guard Training Center are both located in Kure Beach, and nearby the North Carolina Military History Museum has both indoor and outdoor exhibits representing all branches of service.
Carolina Beach is next; they make full use of their beautiful beachfront with a pier, a boardwalk, and Carolina Beach State Park, which offers six miles of hiking trails and natural history exhibits. Freeman Park is a popular beachfront site for four-wheeling and events. The beachfront community of 5,000 also has a local brewery, Good Hops Brewing, near Carolina Beach State Park on Harper Avenue. Good Hops started in 2012 in the mountains of western North Carolina and expanded to brew closer to the beach; they offer tastings of their beers plus other craft brews from across the state.
All of these places were technically on an island (called Pleasure Island), and we hit the mainland bridging Snow’s Cut - a short cut for boats between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic that is almost always snow-free but is part of the Intracoastal Waterway.
Continue on U.S. 421 toward downtown Wilmington. The Best Western PLUS Wilmington/Carolina Beach is right along the main road, with convenient access to both downtown and the beach towns. A lovely stop is Airlie Gardens, noted as “a century of gardens by the sea.” Located along the Intracoastal Waterway, Airlie Gardens blends horticultural splendor, wildlife, historic structures including a chapel, walking trails, sculptures, over 100,000 azaleas, and an Airlie Oak tree that is almost half a millennium old. Azaleas are popular in these parts; downtown Wilmington hosts the North Carolina Azalea Festival every April, which brings hundreds of thousands of attendees to the area for a five-day period.
North Carolina’s major coastal city, Wilmington crowns the top of “Cape Fear.” The city and area brims with history, beautiful beaches, championship golf courses, and an eclectic blend of local cuisine, a laid-back atmosphere, and TV and film production. Seriously, Wilmington is one of the top production centers for TV and movies outside of Hollywood: EUE/Screen Gems Ltd. established a Wilmington location in the mid-1980s and a whole slew of movies and TV shows have been filmed in and around Wilmington since, including Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill, Sleepy Hollow, Tammy, Iron Man 3, and plenty more. Tours of the facility will resume in spring 2015; call (910) 343-3433 for details.
Downtown Wilmington features a nice riverwalk along the Cape Fear River. Riverboat tours are available on water; on land, trolleys and horse-drawn carriages offer a great way to tour downtown. Front and Market Streets form the focal point of downtown. One popular locale is the Front Street Brewery, which offers a number of unique beers brewed on-site and a massive selection of bourbons and whiskeys; free tours and tastings are available and while you’re there, it’s also a darn good restaurant, housed in an 1865-era building. Other popular ones in town include Manna, Dock Street Oyster Bar, The Flying Pi, The Dixie Grill, The Blue Post, and Circa 1922 – and don’t be surprised if some movie and TV producers or actors are in these places. It happens fairly often in Wilmington. Many restaurants, shops, and much of the nightlife is concentrated along Front Street and are part of the Cotton Exchange of Wilmington, a transformed former industrial district (where, yes, cotton was exchanged).
The riverwalk itself offers looks up and down the Cape Fear River and access to the Best Western PLUS Coastline Inn right along the promenade. In front of the hotel toward the street, you’ll find the Wilmington Railroad Museum with its steam engines and train cars out front; inside are artifacts from the Atlantic Coast Railroad, galleries, replicas, a kids’ area, plenty of buttons to push, and an impressive layout commemorating a 161-mile railroad line from the 1840s. Orange Street offers two venues kids will love. One is the Children’s Museum of Wilmington, a 17,000 square foot cornucopia of kids’ activities. Next door is the Cape Fear Serpentarium, North Carolina’s largest reptile zoo and museum. The Serpentarium features a large collection of world’s most poisonous snakes – many of them are milked to help make anti-venoms. Moving from critters to culture, the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts is one of the oldest theatres in the country and pretty much been at it non-stop since 1858. The complex houses a variety of performing arts groups and players as well as events from film festivals to award ceremonies. The city’s main art venue, the Cameron Art Museum (CAM), is just southeast of downtown along 17th Street, near U.S. 117 and 421. The CAM opened in 2002 in Pyramid Park amidst woodlands, nature trails, sculptures, and the historic “Battle of Forks Road” Civil War site, one of the last battles of the war.
Near downtown and heading east away from the river along Market Street (U.S. 74) you’ll find a series of mansions, memorials, and museums. The Bellamy Mansion went up in 1861 and offers tours showcasing its 22 rooms, history (especially Civil War era), and beautiful gardens surrounding it. Nearby in the center of the historic direct is the Burgwin-Wright Museum House, which dates back to around 1770 and features a nice collection of Georgian architecture, antiques, and a large terraced areas of gardens with seven distinct themes. The Cape Fear Museum showcases regional history and offers everything from historical exhibits to science, including how tar is made. All of this leads toward the campus of UNC Wilmington, whose student body of 14,000 adds a nice college town atmosphere to the city. The Best Western PLUS University Inn is located by the campus, with good access to downtown via Market Street and the rest of the country via U.S. 17 and I-40.
Other areas of the city have some nice attractions, too. The New Hanover County Arboretum is a nice oasis in the Midtown district of Wilmington, featuring Japanese gardens, a tea house, rose gardens, and more. Along U.S. 17 the Poplar Grove Plantation offers tours of the beautiful manor and grounds of this former peanut plantation, which operated from 1795 until 1971. Many local events including a weekly Farmers’ Market from April through November and an annual “Zombie Run” take place on the 15+ acres of the plantation. A new permanent exhibit called From Civil War to Civil Rights: The African-American Experience at Poplar Grove opened in June, 2014 inside the Manor House.
From downtown, head across the Cape Fear River on U.S. 421 and U.S. 76 and Business 17 via the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, a vertical lift bridge that stands as the highest bridge (over water) in North Carolina. Just north following U.S. 17/421, you’ll find one of the top attractions in the state: Battleship North Carolina. Quite an impressive sight, the USS North Carolina was the first battleship to join World War II effort and earned 15 battle stars during Pacific operations. The Battleship was decommissioned in 1947 (she had seen enough) and has been parked in a berth on the Cape Fear River since 1961. Plan on a big chunk of the day to visit the battleship; you won’t waste a minute. Nine levels of the ship are available to explore, from the boiler room below to upper decks above. You simply have to see it to realize how awesome a tour of this place is!
Just to the west, Leland is growing quickly as part of the Wilmington area. Located on the west side of the Brunswick River close to where it meets the Cape Fear River, Leland offers terrific boating and fishing opportunities, as well as a mixture of old and new from its downtown to the expanding neighborhoods. The Best Western PLUS Westgate Inn & Suites is just to the west along U.S. 17, offering terrific access to the Carolina coast southwest of the Cape Fear River. It’s also an excellent location to relax and enjoy before heading out on the rest of the tour.
From the Wilmington/Leland area, cut back to U.S. 74/76 and follow them west. You’ll enjoy a nice four-lane express drive west.
Side Trip: Moores Creek National Battlefield!
For a great piece of history, follow NC Highways 11 and 210 to Moores Creek National Battlefield. Site of a major Revolutionary War victory on February 27, 1776 that essentially ended British rule in the North Carolina colony, it is credited with being the site of the first Patriot victory in the American Revolution.
The grounds of the Moores Creek National Battlefield offer two long interpretive walking trails, commemorative statues, and a Visitors Center with plenty of resources, including an auditorium. It’s a beautiful site with well-documented history amidst the solitude of rural coastal North Carolina. Just follow NC 210 and 11 back to U.S. 74/76 to continue the journey.
Trivia from the National Park Service about Moores Creek we had to share: “Every free male, regardless of race, between the ages of 16 and 60 was required to serve in the colonial militia. He was expected to provide his own weapon and equipment. Learn more about colonial militias at Moores Creek National Battlefield.”
Along U.S. 74/76, you’ll pass Lake Waccamaw, a unique freshwater lake in North Carolina. Measuring about 14 square miles, oval-shaped, and fairly shallow, the lake is very popular for fishing. Limestone bluffs along the lake’s north end helps neutralize the water, giving rise to an array of aquatic life including a variety of mollusks, silverside, mussels, clams, and snails. Alligators populate the area too, so keep an eye out! Just off the highway, the Lake Waccamaw Depot is housed in a 1904 Atlantic Coast Line Railroad depot. The museum houses everything from local industry artifacts to old cabooses to canoes dating back to the 1700s. Admission is free.
From Lake Waccamaw, continue west on U.S. 74/76 to I-95 and check out Lumberton. Why the name? Well, it was located along the Lumber River and established primarily as a commerce center to float (surprise!) lumber down the river to ocean ports in South Carolina for shipping. Lumber River State Park runs along the river for 115 miles, 81 of which are designated as “wild and scenic” waters. The river is popular for paddling and floating, just as it was popular for floating logs years ago. In Lumberton, the river has a riverwalk and the historic downtown section features the Carolina Civic Center Historical Theater, which opened in 1928 but today features state-of-the-art electronics for shows.
I-95 crosses past Lumberton, and a quick trip southwest to Exit 10 will bring you to the Border Belt Farmers Museum & Welcome Center, which houses a series of exhibits on the area’s history in tobacco, textiles, lumber and more in a former railroad depot. In Lumberton proper, kids can enjoy Exploration Station, where they can do everything from milk a cow and put on a play to “work” in a make-believe hospital. If you’ve ever used the term “when pigs grow wings,” Exploration Station will validate you: the outside is distinguishable partially because of flying pigs. Lumberton is a popular retirement destination, being so close to the coast, to great golf destinations, for its mild climate, medical care, attractions, and pleasant small-town charm; in fact, it was the first community in North Carolina to become a state-certified retirement community. The Best Western Lumberton is along I-95 and just north of U.S. 74 and NC Highway 211 for easy access and convenience.
From Lumberton, head northwest on NC Highway 211. After about 11 miles you’ll reach Red Springs, which features the local Red Springs Historical Museum that displays artifacts on everything from military and family life to baseball and medical/dental tools of earlier centuries – which will make you glad you live in this century! Continue to Highway 211 northwest past Raeford, skirting the massive grounds of Fort Bragg, and into the Sandhills Region.
The Sandhills Region is spearheaded by the towns of Aberdeen, Southern Pines, and Pinehurst. Where Highway 211 comes into Aberdeen, it meets with U.S. Highway 1, 15, and 501, starting a busy corridor filled with small boutiques and big retailers, restaurants ranging from burger joints to upscale bistros, and more golf stores than you can shake a club at. Over 30 championship golf courses are close by; the first were established prior to 1900 in part because the area was thought to be a “biological desert” due to logging and soil erosion. Land was cheap, and two entrepreneurs – James Tufts and John Patrick – swooped in and bought up thousands of acres to fulfill grandiose plans. Patrick called his settlement Vineland and opened a resort on it; soon, he changed the name to Southern Pines, and since 1887 it has beckoned visitors.
Meanwhile Tufts, who made his fortune with silver plate tableware and soda fountains up in Massachusetts, opened a health spa in 1895 which evolved into the Pinehurst Resort shortly thereafter. The first golf course was laid out by 1898 and they were hosting championships three years later. Today, Pinehurst Resort operates nine golf courses and is the world’s second largest golf resort, after Mission Hills Golf Club near Shenzhen, China. Pinehurst No. 2, perhaps its most famous course, was laid out in 1907. Pinehurst hosted its first PGA Championship in 1936 and the Ryder Cup in 1951; by 1996, it had been designed a National Historic Landmark.
In 2014, Pinehurst No. 2 hosted both the men’s and women’s U.S. Open, an unprecedented move. Pinehurst also hosts three championship croquet courts and one lawn bowling court in case you’re up for a little variety. The village of Pinehurst itself is laid out in the New England style; Tufts hired famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design the village in the 1890’s. In town, the Tufts Archives inside the Given Memorial Library offers a look into the history of the town and insight into golf course design; from memorabilia of James Walker Tufts to some of the original plans from designer Donald Ross for the first Pinehurst course, a golf enthusiast would have a field day checked out the archives. The Village Shops at Pinehurst are nearby, offering a wide variety of boutiques popular with local residents and a multitude of visitors.
Trivia: The North/South Amateur Golf Championship, first held in Pinehurst in 1901, is the longest consecutively-running golf championship in the United States. Today, the Sandhills Region’s courses have over 165 miles of fairways and leading to over 720 holes – and counting.
Aberdeen is named after the Scottish city, brimming with small shops, restaurants, a historic train depot, and more. The downtown area is where Highway 211 and U.S. 1/15/501 all come together. The original depot was built around 1900 for the Aberdeen & Rockfish Railroad Company, which still ships logs today. The original depot now houses the Union Station Railroad Museum, which contains plenty of artifacts about the area’s logging and railroad history, one of only two inspection cars remaining in the U.S., and even a renovated caboose you can check out. The museum is free, but it’s best to call for an appointment to visit (910-757-0161). More history can be found at the Malcolm Blue Farm Museum & Farmhouse, which brings you back to 1825 and the early pioneer days, when this area was known as “the Pine Barrens.” The farmstead and home features authentic furniture, tools, machines, and artifacts from the period. A newer barn-style building houses a portion of the museum with larger exhibits on the old railroad, life in town, pottery, and Native American crafts. There is also a Civil War exhibit detailing the Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads, which took place eight miles away and was one of the last engagements of the War.
While many golf courses are in neighboring Pinehurst and Southern Pines, Aberdeen is home to Legacy Golf Links, one of three area courses that has played host to the USGA National Championship.
In Southern Pines, you’ll find the Best Western Pinehurst Inn right along U.S. 1. Pinehurst itself is close by, as well as Southern Pines Golf Club, another popular draw for golfers in the area. Designed by Donald Ross (original designer of Pinehurst), Southern Pines is consistently ranked among the best courses in North Carolina and receives recognition nationwide. Other Donald Ross-designed courses include the Pine Needles Golf Club and Mid Pines Golf Club, which wind through pine forests and have since their inceptions nearly 100 years ago. Pine Needles have a “golf learning center” in case you could use some brushing up on the game (and couldn’t we all?) Hyland Golf Club is another popular course on the north end of Southern Pines just off U.S. 1; Knollwood Fairways & Driving Range is a good 9-hole choice; and the list goes on and on. Basically, if you love golf, this area is paradise.
To enjoy nature without clubs, the Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve offers 900 acres of unspoiled natural wilderness on the east side of Southern Pines, where you can hike trails and enjoy longleaf pine forests that escaped the logging activities. Red-cockaded woodpeckers (which you can hear working on the trees, too) as well as fox squirrels and other endangered species are often seen on hikes through this preserve. Closer to Pinehurst, the Sandhills Horticultural Gardens takes advantage of the fact that many landscaping experts live in the area; they not only design beautiful golf courses, they played a role in developing 27 acres of horticultural splendor on the grounds of Sandhills Community College. The Sandhills Horticultural Gardens are open from dawn to sunset; admission is free.
Of course, it’s not all golf here; harness racing and equestrian activities are very popular in the Sandhills. Over 80 horse farms are in the area and there is plenty of training for bred harness horses, trotters and pacers, and thoroughbreds for racing, Olympic activities, and more. The Pinehurst Harness Track is a 111-acre equestrian facility with three training tracks. Dating all the way back to 1915, the track welcomes visitors and hosts plenty of events open to the public, including horse shows, rugby matches, car shows, and more.
Southern Pines has a beautiful downtown off U.S. 1 where the main drag, Broad Street, is bisected by an active rail line that includes the local Amtrak station. Lining Broad Street are plenty of boutique shops, cafes, and the Sunrise Theater, which opened in the 1940s in a former hardware store built in 1898. For forty years it showed movies before closing down in the 1980s; in the 2000s, it was revived as an entertainment center that today hosts a variety of performances. Nearby on Connecticut Street, the Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities is located on an historic estate with beautiful gardens, a mansion, and more, all of which function as one of the area’s prime cultural centers. For more history, the Shaw House Properties on Broad Street feature a trio of historic museum houses: the Shaw House is an antebellum home built in the 1820s, while the Garner House and Britt-Sanders Cabin went up in the 1700s; they are open for tours Tuesday through Friday afternoons.
All in all, the Sandhills region cities of Pinehurst, Aberdeen, and Southern Pines have a nice variety of activities to offer – especially for golf and shopping enthusiasts!
Alright, let’s continue on the tour. There’s more of the state left!
Head north from Southern Pines on NC Highway 22 to Carthage, once known as the “buggy capital of the world” not for the presence of annoying multi-legged flying creatures but for the actual manufacture of buggies by the Tyson Buggy Company in the 1800s. The town still hosts the “Buggy Festival” every spring to celebrate their contribution to the history of wheeled transportation.
A quick side trip 10 miles north of Carthage via Glendon Carthage Road and Carbonton Road brings you to the House in the Horseshoe, a plantation home built in 1772 nestled in the horseshoe bend of the Deep River on 2,500-acres. The property saw significant action during the Revolutionary War, as house owner Philip Alston and his band of colonists (Whigs) seeking independence were attacked by British loyalists (Tories) in 1781. The walls still carry scars and bullet holes from the battle. Alston eventually left the state and the House in the Horseshoe later became the home of four-term North Carolina governor Benjamin Williams, who bought the property in 1798 while serving one of his four one-year terms. Williams named the plantation “Retreat” and used the land for growing cotton and for training and breeding horses. Along with being a North Carolina governor, Williams served as a colonel under George Washington, served in the national Congress in Philadelphia, and was a founding trustee in the new University of North Carolina. He died in 1814, and his gravesite is part of the tour. The Visitor Center is located in a former packhouse; the tour includes the Alston House with furnished rooms and a loom house, a monument to the 1781 battle, and a gift shop. There is no charge for a tour but, not shockingly, they will accept donations.
From Carthage, head west on NC 24/27 through the pine forests, past the I-73 & I-74 junction, and past Troy, where you head into the Uwharrie National Forest, a 50,000-acre area named after the ancient Uwharrie Mountains. While not mountains now, they were once a coastal mountain range along the Atlantic that may have risen as much as 20,000 feet; erosion and uplift in the many millions of years since has left them a series of hills, some rising to 1,100 feet or more, 150 miles from the coast. Once cleared for timber and farmland, woodlands have returned and host a bustling ecosystem of plants and animals. Over 31 miles of national recreation trails are within the park, wandering through the hills, abutting the Pee Dee River and Lake Tillery, and providing access to beautiful views and plenty of wildlife (although they may include ticks, timber rattlesnakes, and copperheads, so watch it!)
Close to Uwharrie National Forest is the Best Western Albemarle Inn in the city of Albemarle. With 15,000 residents, Albemarle is the largest town in the Uwharrie area; singer Kellie Pickler hails from the town and was awarded a “key to the city” in 2006. Albemarle is in the western area of the Uwharrie area, and Morrow Mountain State Park is a popular local place for hiking, fishing, and enjoying the Uwharrie Mountains (Morrow Mountain being one of the highest in the chain). It’s popular for fall colors and canoeing, horseback riding is available on the trails, and several vineyards are also nearby. If you prefer something from the comfort of your car, why not check out a movie at the local drive-in? That’s right, the Badin Road Drive-In Theater keeps the American drive-in movies alive, complete with concessions, the little speaker for your car, and – because time marches on – wi-fi access. Albemarle is the county seat of Stanly County, and the Stanly County Museum traces the history of the area going back 10,000 years; the museum features a unique collection of artifacts, including Native American art and pottery to restored pioneer homes.
From Albemarle, continue on NC Highways 24/27; just past Locust, you can access the Reed Gold Mine, where the first documented discovery of gold in the United States in 1799 created the first “gold rush” in the country (yes, California, you weren’t first on this one.) On land held by the Reed family at the time, gold rock nuggets of 17 and 28 pounds were found on the property, touching off the Carolina Gold Rush. Tours of the Reed Gold Mine include the underground tunnels, where mining activity took place until 1912. Gold extracted from the Reed Mine contributed to the establishment of a U.S. Mint facility in nearby Charlotte in 1835.
Speaking of Charlotte, let’s head there! Continue west on NC Highways 24/27 and, upon crossing I-485, you’re in the “Queen City,” 16th largest city in the nation and anchoring a metro area of over 2.3 million people. Charlotte is a world-renowned banking center, second only to New York nationally.
Highwhay 24/27 is Albemarle Road coming into Charlotte and merges into U.S. 74 just north of Matthews, home to the Best Western PLUS Charlotte/Matthews Hotel. Remember how the Carolina Gold Rush started just a few miles back and inspired a U.S. Mint to be built in Charlotte? That original building is now the Mint Museum Randolph, which opened as North Carolina’s first art museum in 1936. Permanent collections range from American and European art, ceramics, decorative art, North Carolina pottery, international art from Asia and Africa, historic maps and photographs, and of course original gold coins minted when the building was the U.S. Mint. The Mint Museum’s sister museum is in Uptown Charlotte. Charlotte doesn’t have a Downtown like most cities, it has an Uptown (sounds more optimistic anyway, doesn’t it?) Part of the reason is the city center is on high ground, which only adds to the majestic Charlotte skyline, dominated by the 60-story/871-foot Bank of America Corporate Center, the 54-story/786-foot Duke Energy Center, the Hearst Tower, One Wells Fargo Center, and a 51-story, 600-foot residential tower called The Vue, which opened in 2010 and is the tallest all-residential building between New York and Miami.
U.S. 74 & Highway 27 head into Uptown as a freeway and meet I-277, which forms a circle around Uptown. A variety of exits will bring you into the city center and all the sights. The heart of town is the intersection of Tryon and Trade Streets, the two main axes in Charlotte’s street system. Known as The Square, this intersection is marked by four statues – one on each corner – and is easily referenced from anywhere around the city.
There’s plenty to see and do in Charlotte, particularly throughout Uptown. For sports, the NFL Carolina Panthers play at Bank of America Stadium, which also hosts the annual Belk Bowl; the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets play at Time Warner Cable Arena, which also hosts the minor-league hockey team, the Charlotte Checkers. The Charlotte Knights are an “AAA”-affiliate of the Chicago White Sox (part of the same farm team as the Winston-Salem Dash earlier in our tour) and play at BB&T Ballpark, which offers a beautiful view of the Charlotte skyline in the outfield. Aviation fans can enjoy the Carolinas Aviation Museum on the grounds of the busy Charlotte-Douglas International Airport (don’t forget, North Carolina is “First in Flight” – the license plates throughout the state should remind you anyway.) Nightlife in Charlotte bustles in the nearby NoDa neighborhood (along Tryon northeast of Uptown) or in Uptown itself, with the EpiCentre development considered one of the top entertainment destinations in the South.
Charlotte offers many museums in Uptown. The Levine Museum of the New South explores the post-Civil War history of the American South with a variety of interactive exhibits, including their primary permanent exhibition “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers.” Nearby is Discovery Place, a science and technology museum with plenty of hands-on exhibits for all ages as well as an IMAX Dome Theatre. Following Tryon Street southwest from there you’ll find a massive mix of skyscrapers, restaurants and bars, some parks, and shopping. More museum appear on the southwest side of Uptown in a complex known as the Levine Center for the Arts. This area includes the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, which features an innovative design and focuses on mid-20th century art and architecture. Across the street, the Mint Museum Uptown showcases a rich and diverse collection of local, national, and international art between this location and the aforementioned Mint Museum Randolph just a few miles to the southeast. The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts & Culture lies across the street from the Mint Museum Uptown in a distinctive modernist building.
Charlotte is racing central, and you’ll find the NASCAR Hall of Fame just down the street from the Gantt Center and the Mint Museum Uptown. This complex on the southeast corner of Uptown covers 150,000 square feet and showcases the history and heritage of NASCAR, honoring drivers, crews, cars, and fans. From the sweeping circle of real race cars and descriptions of NASCAR tracks past and present to interactive exhibits where you can do everything from change a tire to climb into one of the famous “76” observation balls that were used for decades to get a birds’ eye view of races, to the Great Hall, Glory Theater, Hall of Honor, and more, you could easily spend an entire afternoon – or more – checking out everything here.
From Charlotte, jump on either I-85 or Wilkinson Blvd, (U.S. 29/74) and let’s head west out of town. The Best Western PLUS Sterling Hotel & Suites is just a few miles south via I-77 or Billy Graham Boulevard.
A few miles past I-485 and just north of I-85 and U.S. 29/74 right before the Catawba River crossing, you’ll find directions to the U.S. National Whitewater Center, a bustling recreation grounds offering whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking, rock climbing and rappelling, and more. It opened in 2006 and serves as an official Olympic Training Center for whitewater slalom racing; it boasts the largest recirculating artificial whitewater river in the world. There’s something for everybody at the Center: if you prefer above ground rather than being on the water, newer zip-lines, the “Mega Jump” which allows you to experience a controlled free-fall from a tower 46 feet high, and a Canopy Tour zipping you across different tree platforms. It’s truly a unique place to check out, and don’t be surprised if you and your crew spend a whole day there.
Across the Catawba River in Belmont is the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden, a 380-acre conservatory along Lake Wylie that is filled with gardens, tropical plants and orchids, nature trails, and a visitor pavilion. It can be quite relaxing after the rush of the U.S. National Whitewater Center!
Next up is Gastonia, a city of 72,000 that serves as the seat of Gaston County and one of the largest satellite cities in the Charlotte area. I-85 and U.S. 74 go through the heart of Gastonia, and the Best Western Gastonia is conveniently located right off the freeway for easy access to the sights.
The Schiele Museum of Natural History, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is in the heart of town but has a “get away from it all” feel. Popular forested trails, a farm exhibit with live animals and the largest collection of land mammal specimens in the southeastern U.S., a new “green roof” interactive exhibit, a Catawba Indian village, planetarium, and more make the natural history of the Piedmont region come alive in a fun and educational destination. For hiking on more strenuous trails amidst rugged terrain, Crowder's Mountain State Park just southwest of town features 150-foot vertical drops along cliffsides, valleys and foothills, and views over 25 miles from peaks like the 1,705-foot high Pinnacle. The park abuts the South Carolina state line and easily connects to nearby Kings Mountain National Military Park, which is packed with Revolutionary War history. For a different kind of rush, racing fans can enjoy action at the Carolina Speedway. Often called “the action track”, Carolina Speedway is a 4/10 mile oval that opened in 1961. The track hosts the King of the Carolinas and Annual Shrine 100 races, along with dirt track races through the season.
From Gastonia, U.S. 74 becomes our main road for a while; after a junction with I-85, follow U.S. 74 west past Kings Mountain into Shelby. Shelby is a city of 20,000 with a uniquely passionate taste for livermush, a Southern delicacy made of pig livers, head parts, and cornmeal with a spicing of sage and pepper. While attracting the likes of Andrew Zimmern for Bizarre Foods, the dish is celebrated in the town every year with the Livermush Expo; if you visit in October, you may want to stop by and try it. Maybe. Shelby also hosts the Earl Scruggs Center: Music & Stories from the American South, which opened in 2014. The Center honors the native banjo legend and his finger-pickin’ “Scruggs style” of play while showcasing the history, cultural, and musical traditions of Cleveland County, the Carolinas, and all of the South. Located right in downtown (read: “uptown”) Shelby in the historic Cleveland County Courthouse, the Earl Scruggs Center is open Wednesday through Sunday. Country musician Don Gibson also hailed from Shelby, and in his honor a renovated art deco theater from 1939 re-opened as the Don Gibson Theater in 2009. It features an exhibit of the life and accomplishments of singer/songwriter Gibson along with a 400-seat music hall that regularly hosts performances.
Continue west from Shelby on U.S. 74 to Forest City, a town that began life named Burnt Chimney and has certainly evolved: today, it hosts of the largest Facebook data centers in the world and the downtown business district has free and open wi-fi. A great selection of vintage autos can be seen at The Bennett Classics Auto Museum, which features over 70 autos, Mack trucks, fire trucks, and more, many of which are unrestored originals. One is a new 1963 Ford Mayberry Sheriffs car, signed by Barney Fife himself (the real Don Knotts, of course.) Some of the vehicles date back to the 1920s. The Rutherford County Farm Museum, which focuses on antique farm equipment and home goods along with hundreds of other historic items. Large murals illustrate the historical influence of the area’s cotton and textile mills.
From Forest City, jump on U.S. 74A and follow it to Rutherfordton, where evidence of the larger mountains is often well in view. Right along Main Street (U.S. 74A) in Rutherfordton is the KidSenses Museum, a children’s museum with a wide variety of interactive exhibits, programs, and activities. Exhibits range from nature, science, gardening, and health to communications, theatre, art, and fitness. In Rutherfordton, U.S. 74A meets up with U.S. 64 and becomes Chimney Rock Road; follow it west. This stretch is winding road, lined with lush greenery in many places as we head into increasingly mountainous territory; that’s our terrain for the rest of the tour – and there’s a ways to go yet.
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.
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. 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.