Off the Beaten Path

You’ve crossed Grandfather’s Mile-High Swinging Bridge and been hiking at Bass Lake, enjoyed a show with Ensemble Stage and ridden the rails at Tweetsie, and now you’re looking for more. Or perhaps you just like to find those out-of-the-way gems first. Below, we’ve outlined a great weekend of activities and sights that are sometimes overlooked, but should definitely be experienced! You’ll get a good dose of local history, culture, and personality, as well as leg-stretching activity with this lineup.

Friday:
-Head over to Ashe County for some great hiking and attractions! Start your day at Todd Mercantile.  This little country store features locally made crafts and goods in a historic building. Warmed by a wood-stove, of course. The bakery inside features the best cinnamon buns you’ve ever had, plus a sourdough made from a starter that’s been going since 1847. If you come in summer or fall, time your trip around one of the community Contra Dances and come back later in the evening! Bonus: the drive from the shop takes you along the beautiful banks of the New River. Open March-December. toddmercantile.com

-From there, make the drive to West Jefferson to the Ashe County Cheese Factory, where you can get a glimpse inside! Check out the viewing room where you can watch curds moving down the factory line, being made into cheese, much of it still done by hand. And, don’t forget to take a picture with the giant milk-vat cows outside the factory! Local high school students welded cow the cow heads, which were attached to milk storage tanks at the Ashe County Cheese factory. Viewing hours are available on the company’s website. While you’re there, pick up an artisan cheese or two to go with that delicious sourdough from Todd Mercantile. Open year round, but cheese making schedule varies. Call ahead! ashecountycheese.com

-Spend some time seeing downtown West Jefferson and grab some lunch while you’re there. Or, get a lunch to go and take it up to the picnic area at your next stop.

Mount Jefferson looms large over the town of West Jefferson, and is a focal point for the area. Just seeing it makes one want to go to the top. Hiking at Mount Jefferson is full of incredibly long range views. Perhaps the best thing about the State Park is that it features ridgeline trails. This means you can drive all the way to the top and enjoy the views and high-elevation plant life without the steep climbs. Plus, the picnic area is the perfect spot to enjoy some snacks in a peaceful setting after your hike. The park is open year round until sunset, weather permitting.  See more details on the park’s page at ncparks.gov.

-The Churches of the Frescoes in Ashe County are well known for the original paintings inside. During the 1970s, internationally renowned fresco artist Ben Long created magnificent enduring works in two small antique churches in Ashe County. If you’ve ever wondered how frescoes (made by layering paint into wet plaster) look up close, these works are beautiful examples. Enjoy the lovely architecture of the country churches while you’re there. The churches are open year round. Directions to both St. Mary’s and Holy Trinity Churches are available on the Frescoes Organization’s website: ashefrescoes.org

-If you’ve timed your trip right, you can wrap up your Friday evening with the Community Contra Dance back at Todd Mercantile. This fun community event is great for the whole family, and just $5. All are invited this once-a-month party! Call ahead or check the shop’s website for a schedule. The caller for the evening will teach you all the steps prior to each dance, so don’t worry about extra left feet. toddmercantile.com

daniel boone native gardensSaturday
-Begin your day at the Daniel Boone Native Gardens. This gem is located in Boone, and is open daily May-October. Note that the Boone Farmer’s Market is held near the gardens on Saturday mornings during the same months, so it’s a good spot to grab a fresh baked pastry or other tasty bite for breakfast. The Native Gardens are home to dozens of indigenous plants and trees. Admission costs, just $2, go directly to maintaining the flora here, some of it endangered. These public gardens include a bog garden, fern garden, rhododendron grove, and more. danielboonenativegardens.org

-The Hickory Ridge Homestead, right next door, is a Living History Museum, staffed with interpreters in period clothing demonstrating the norms of pioneer life in the Appalachian mountains. The suggested donation is there is just $3 per person. See much more at hickoryridgemuseum.com

-Grab a lunch in Boone, perhaps at one of the many unique restaurants in town. See some possibilities at booneindependentrestaurants.org

-Head over to the Banner Elk area to visit Apple Hill Farm for a farm tour! Tours are offered year round, though many more are scheduled during warmer months. This farm is known for adorable alpacas and alpaca-fiber products. The farm is also home to llamas, angora goats, and guardian donkeys.  See more information on tours at applehillfarmnc.com

-The last stop for the day is Country Retreat Family Billiards, where you can enjoy a game or two of pool in a fantastic setting. Family Billiards is a friendly, non-smoking, alcohol-free facility with quality pool tables in top condition. It’s well known among locals and billiard players, and features league games, too. There is a great restaurant on-site, too, so you can enjoy a delicious root beer float between games or settle down to a hearty burger and fries. See hours and menu at www.countryretreatbilliards.com

Sunday
docsrocksMoses Cone Manor is well-known as the location of the Parkway Craft Center. But did you know that upstairs tours are also offered during the summer and fall? On weekends, park rangers will take groups upstairs to see the rooms, while they tell lots of stories of the Cone family. The conversation is fascinating, and the views from the upstairs will take you back in time. The tours are free, but you have to reserve in advance by calling ahead or signing up. Reservations are accepted beginning at 9 a.m. on Friday for the weekend of the requested tour only, and a limited number is allowed on each tour. Five tours are offered each Saturday and Sunday, May through October. See details of a past tour event at the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation’s website.

-It’s a very short drive from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Appalachian Fossil Museum at Doc’s Rocks. Also available only on the weekends, this unique museum is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays year round. The museum features the largest private collection of fossils on display in the United States. One of the most impressive pieces is the genuine Tyrannosaurus skull- you can get close enough to take a fantastic picture of this amazing fossil. While you’re there, take note of the dinosaur figures stationed around the outside of the building. These were custom made based on the most updated fossil structures, and offer a realistic portrayal each species. Don’t hesitate to ask the folks at Doc’s Rocks if you have any questions- they are the friendliest mine and museum hosts, and they love to tell you all about their work and collections. See docsrocks.net for more details.

-Head next door to Mystery Hill to see the Appalachian Heritage Museum. The collections are housed inside a large house that used to stand on the campus of Appalachian State University as one of the original school buildings. Inside, you’ll find everything from antique sewing machines to ledgers and furnishings, putting old Appalachian life on display. Downstairs is the Native American Artifacts Museum, which features an incredible array of arrowheads from all over the country. There are also tools, ceramics, pipes, and more. mysteryhill-nc.com

-Your last stop is in Blowing Rock, so enjoy lunch at one of the many fantastic restaurants there on the way. Or, plan a picnic by the Middle Fork River. Before leaving Mystery Hill, take a finished portion of the in-progress Middle Fork Greenway. Head through the culvert under Hwy 321 and follow the path to the small but lovely Sterling Park. You’ll find picnic tables there.

-After lunch, head to Annie Cannon Memorial Gardens just off Laurel Lane. This tucked-away spot is a hidden gem in town, with a small stage, pond, and beautiful plantings. The water from nearby Mayview pond cascades into the park and joins New Year’s Creek, creating beautiful sound for a backdrop. The garden also serves as the trailhead location of Glen Burney Trail, which follows the waterway. Not everyone knows that there is a waterfall hike so close to Main Street! The trail is said to be a remnant from native American hunters of long ago. Take care, though: the trail is strenuous. Bring water and wear proper shoes. And bring a camera- you’ll be glad to have it once you get to Glen Burney and Glen Mary Falls. The trail is out-and-back. See a trail map here.

Need more ideas?
Blowing Rock Community Pool– Join the locals on days between Memorial Day and Labor Day at our updated and safe outdoor facility. Day passes are just $4. Lower rates for non-swimmer chaperones.
Trout Lake and Rich Mountain– Both are sections of the Moses Cone Carriage Trails, and are less-traveled than the Bass Lake Trail or the Flat Top Tower Trail. Well worth exploring.
Traditions Pottery Studio– The home of the workshop for the Bolick and Calhoun family, it’s also an old-fashioned homestead. There are several events throughout the year where you can enjoy the studio and the grounds.
Area wineries– See our post about the High Country Wine Trail!
Valle Crucis Community Park– A large public park funded entirely by donors, with a long walking trail, soccer fields, picnic shelter, playground, and access to the river for wading and tubing.
Todd Island– A unique park located on an island in the New River. Enjoy the undeveloped space, with a trail through native plants, offering great access for river swimming and fishing.
Florence Thomas Art School– Offering beginner and advanced classes in various mediums. Many one-day classes available for all ages. Downtown West Jefferson.

See more travel ideas on our Itineraries Main Page!