Day Trippin’ is an occasional feature that explores travel destinations that are within an easy drive from Charlotte.
One of the joys of living in Charlotte is having the Blue Ridge Mountains so close.
Once or twice each year, typically in October, I pack the car with food and provisions and head for the hills, my wife and my daughter in tow.
We drive to a rented cabin where, for the next few days, we do essentially nothing — if by nothing you mean sitting by a rushing brook, swaying in a creek-side hammock, or traipsing through the woods in search of spectacular waterfalls.
Occasionally, we’ll roust ourselves and drive into town, get a store-bought meal, visit a museum, or maybe drift down a quiet river in a kayak or charge some churning whitewaters in a raft.
We’ve seen black bears on Mount Mitchell and breathtaking colors on Mount Pisgah. We learned new details about the sad removal of the Cherokee nation near the town of Cherokee.
Mostly, though, we do a lot of nothing.
With the coronavirus and Covid-19 still a concern, the mountains are one of the few places where I can feel at ease. Up there amid the oxygen-producing trees and away from all the people, I breath deeply, the air so fresh I could swear it heals.
Yet even there, we find folksy reminders of the need to protect ourselves and others.
One year I invited two of my sisters to join us. They drove up, took one look around, then looked at me as if I’d lured them back into the days of slavery. In short order, though, they were rocking on the front porch of their cabin, concerns be damned.
As a tourist destination, I think the mountains get a bum rap. So many of our friends and family members prefer the beach or some other crowded locale. But as the weather cools and the leaves begin to turn, it’s hard to beat a trip to the hills.
Here are a few of my mountain memories, ripped from the family scrapbook:
There’s no shortage of places to stay. We’ve rented cabins that were deep in the woods — one was a 45-minute drive straight up a mountain — while others were much closer to city folks. Our favorite is Mountain Springs Cabins, in the town of Candler. It’s only 17 miles from Asheville, but light years away in terms of solitude. (Leave the alarm clock at home; a proud rooster on a farm next door seems happy to announce each sunrise.)
These are not five-star accommodations, but expect to pay about $200 to $300 per night for a cabin, or about half that amount for a yurt. Rates are higher in the fall and on weekends.
The Moonshine Train
The official name is the Great Smokey Mountains Railroad, but all I recall are scenic vistas, throwing back shots of throat-scalding moonshine in a variety of flavors (apple pie was my favorite) and laughing mightily at the corny jokes of the host who kept us all entertained…and well hydrated. I recommend you upgrade to an inside table, which includes a modest meal — shrimp and quiche, I think we had.
The train leaves from the town of Bryson City and goes…well, somewhere. The roundtrip ride takes the better part of a day, but it’s still doable as a day-trip from Charlotte. (Covid-19 precautions are now in place.)
Yes, go chasin’ waterfalls
Over the years I’ve visited a number of falls in the North Carolina mountains, and seeing one never gets old. There are plenty from which to choose. On a recent trip, we made a stop along the Blue Ridge Parkway to visit Graveyard Fields Falls. It cost us about a 10-minute hike from the parking area. Anyone in reasonably good health could make the trip, but it’s a lot more fun going down than hiking back up.
WARNING: Every year I read about people who are swept to their deaths while wading above waterfalls in North Carolina. The rocks can be slippery and the currents can be deceptively strong, so resist the temptation.
Sometimes it’s not enough to sit and take in the serenity; you want to get your feet wet. That’s when we head to Nantahala Gorge, about 3.5 hours west of Charlotte. Whether you’re into whitewater rafting, kayaking, zip lining, fishing or horseback riding, you can find something there to keep yourself happy. And besides all that, it’s one of the prettiest spots in all of North Carolina.
TIP: If you decide to go kayaking or whitewater rafting, take a towel and a change of clothing. The temperature there can be cool, even in the summer months, and there’s nothing fun about walking around cold and wet.
Take a history lesson
The Blue Ridge mountains are rich with American history, including Black heritage. After emancipation, some of the men and women who had been enslaved formed thriving communities that contributed to the overall culture of the region. In the 1890s, the industrialist George Vanderbilt hired hundreds of Black artisans to help construct and furnish his Biltmore estate. Much of that history is preserved in the YMI Cultural Center in Asheville, a large Tudor-style structure commission by Vanderbilt for the Black craftsmen who had worked for him.
We recently visited the Cradle of Forestry in America to learn about the nation’s first forestry school, founded by Vanderbilt in 1916 to preserve the biodiversity of his beloved mountains. It is now celebrated as the birthplace of U.S. forest conservation. Today the site is run by the National Park Service. It costs $6 per adult to go past the visitors center.
Oh, the colors
Fall is our favorite time of year to visit the mountains. It’s also the most expensive (and crowded) time to go. Still, if you time your trip just right, an autumn drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway can yield scenes you won’t soon forget. Or better yet, take one of the winding back roads to experience the leaves up close. Pisgah Highway (151) is one of my favorites.
CAUTION: This road has some hairpin turns and switchbacks that will test your nerves, especially when the mountain is cloaked in clouds.
I get why others might prefer the beach or some more populated spot for a mini-vacation. (We sometimes head to the coast as well.) Unless you’re zip lining or kayaking or something like that, the mountains aren’t a place you’d go for thrill-a-minute fun. It’s more about connecting with the ageless forces that shaped this region, this nation, this incredible world of ours. You might even say it’s spiritual.