To help with the centennial celebrations of the U.S. National Parks in 2016, Lynn Houghton visits the most popular park of all, North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park and pops into the Biltmore Estate, North Carolina’s own Downton Abbey.
It’s time to grab a cherry soda and Krispy Kreme doughnut and head for the hills! It’s no surprise that Krispy Kreme doughnuts are one of North Carolina’s most popular exports and I’ve discovered Cherrywine seems to be the beverage of choice for the local population (excluding moonshine). But there are other North Carolina specialities I can’t wait to try out: pimento cheese and BBQ are high on my list.
I am getting ready for a road trip up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and then beyond to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The parkway is nestled high in the mountains at 1,500 m above sea level and provides drivers with some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the U.S. Then the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (a record 10 million visitors last year) beckons.
This 100th year anniversary of the national park system is an important mile stone. What began as an experiment in conservation, means that wild places in the U.S. are being saved for the enjoyment of future generations to come.
The Biltmore, North Carolina’s own ‘Downton Abbey’
Nestled between the Pigsah National Forest and the Great Smoky Mountains, is the Biltmore Estate, one of the most visited attractions in the U.S. Built between the years 1889 to 1895, it was home to George Vanderbilt, a Downton Abbey-era person of privilege and wealth who built a fortune on investment in the transportation industry.
The original grounds for the French Renaissance mansion covered a staggering 125,000 acres. The land was purchased when George was only 25 years old and his friend, Richard Morris Hunt, was contracted to build the chateau.
It is at least a mile from the entrance gates of the property before visitors catch a glimpse of the house and its sprawling front lawn. It seems the Vanderbilt family and guests spent many hours in the home’s library and enjoying wonderful dining in the grand hall. The modernity of the property is astounding when you think of the period when it was constructed, for instance, there is a gym, bowling alley and swimming pool all located within the house.
I was keen to visit Asheville as the town is experiencing a renaissance of late and now has a vibrant street, art, craft brew and food scene. Many of the town’s original art deco buildings are intact and have been refurbished, the upside of a depression era downturn where many buildings were boarded up and left alone rather than bulldozed. Stop in at Isa’s Bistro – 1 Battery Park, 28001 – famous for pizza and other delicious Mediterranean delights. I cannot recommend Vortex Doughnuts enough for a morning boost – 32 Banks Ave., Suite 106, 28801. The doughnuts are made from scratch every day. Also, the Thirsty Monk -92 Patton Ave., 28801 – serves up craft brew downstairs and has an old fashioned speak-easy upstairs. Another grand building in the Asheville area is the Grove Park Inn which was built by an elixir millionaire and has wonderful views of the valley below.
Black Bears and Rough Ridges
The beginning of my road trip is Charlotte, N.C. where I pick up US 321 and drive two hours to Blowing Rock – Blowing Rock, 432 Rock Road, 28605. A private, family run attraction since the 1930s, this overhanging rock formation has unmatched views of Pigsah National Forest and Grandfather Mountain. Unfortunately, a heavy mist hanging over the mountains today means poor visibility though some scenery is peeking out from below. Apparently, locals in the village say…”Blowing Rock is a drinking town with a weather problem.” Possibly something to do with it being the only place serving and selling alcohol in five counties?
But, it was climbing up to Rough Ridge Overlook – mile post 302.8, Blue Ridge Parkway – that gives me my first sweeping views of the Great Smoky Mountains including Mount Mitchell. The Rhododendron, mountain laurel and rare pinkshell azalea are all in bloom and the gorgeous pink colours contrast with the verdant, green of the landscape. The climb is a bit strenuous and rocky, but at least this section is only 1/4 of a mile before reaching the viewing platform. One of my companions had a twisted ankle but still managed the hike although she did so by navigating it slowly.
This is Black Bear country but the only bears I see are in the natural habitats of Grandfather Mountain – Grandfather Mountain, Linville, 28646. The bald eagles, deer and wolves are in large enclosures so visitors can view the animals without disturbing them; a bonus is spotting wild turkeys scavenging alongside the mountain road as well.
Driving further south along the Blue Ridge Parkway, I stop in at the apple orchards of Alta Pass – 91025 Orchard Road, Spruce Pine, 28777. This low lying pass in the Eastern Continental Divide was formerly called the McKinney Gap, an ancient buffalo trail and passageway for travellers in pre-historic times (a 10,000 year old spear point has been found here). Many skirmishes were fought over this land, particularly between the British, Colonialists and French throughout the 1700s. An American patriot named Robert Young shot and killed a British commander during the War for Independence with his gun nick-named ‘Sweet Lips’. This was reputedly a pivotal moment in the battle and helped bring an end to the war.
The pass caught the attention of the Clinchfield Railroad, which built a line through the gap in 1908 though it only carried passengers for a few years. The apple orchards planted by the railway company are still here and owned, along with the Appalachian Arts Centre, by a single person – Bill Carson. After purchasing the property, it transpired that the fabled young soldier, Robert Young, was the great, great, great grandfather of Carson. Bill has been preserving the heritage of this area ever since and organises old-time music sessions, dances and educational sessions for tourists and local school children alike.
Travelling toward the South Carolina border I stop in the small, charming town of Bryson City. This is the depot for the historic Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. There are numerous excursions that are well worth experiencing for the spectacular scenery alone. Bryson City’s main street boasts several shops, galleries and eateries. And there are some wonderful characters here, too. Tim the storyteller hangs around the train depot telling tales of the mountains to anyone who will listen. Cowboy Coffee is run by an honest to goodness cowboy named Steve who brews his ethically sourced coffee from freshly ground beans. I partake of an old fashioned breakfast at the Cork and Beans – 16 Everett St., 28713. Stop in and you might see the entire police force enjoying grits, bacon, pancakes and coffee.
Visitors and holiday makers come here for water sports on the Tuckasegee River and tributaries like Deep Creek as well as for using the numerous hiking trails. The most popular activities on the water seem to be rafting, kayaking and ‘tubing’. Tubing has come a long way since I was a child when we literally confiscated the inner tubes of cars and trucks and took them to local streams. There are now colourful yellow, blue and orange tubes to take you down a creek on a lazy summer’s day.
My last stop before leaving the Great Smoky Mountains is Transylvania County. I travel from Bryson City on US 276 to the Pigsah Forest to discover this unique area. This part of the state receives 80 inches of rain every year and is known for its numerous cascading waterfalls. I watched as kids take a tumble down the Sliding Rock (ground smooth from water rushing over it) and are jettisoned into the pool below. Great fun!
National Parks, forests and mountain spaces continue to grow in popularity as urban sprawl impacts Americans’ as well as tourists’ access to green spaces. You probably wouldn’t find more interesting people, folk art, food or craft brew than amongst the unspoilt mountain scenery of North Carolina.
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