An active arts and crafts scene complements pretty mountain scenery in the Burnsville area
For casual tourists, ascending to the tip-top of North Carolina may take a little huffing and puffing, but there are no treacherous slopes to scale or rocky, root-riddled paths to negotiate. To reach the pinnacle of Mount Mitchell, they just follow the paved path from the summit parking lot, a steep quarter-mile walk.
Upon reaching the concrete observation deck at the summit, these curiosity-seekers chalk up an accomplishment of sorts—having made it to the highest point not only in North Carolina but in all of Eastern America.
Taller than any mountain east of the Mississippi, 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell is a prime destination for travelers on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the national scenic byway that follows the crests of the Appalachians for 469 miles from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. Almost a quarter of the road’s length is located in the High Country of western North Carolina—its most beautiful stretch, some would say.
A leaf-watcher who annually yearns for the fall-color season, I’ve ventured into the North Carolina mountains in early November the last two years. I go there for the glowing foliage that extends well into the month and daytime temperatures at least 10 degrees warmer than at home. I never tire of the vistas from parkway overlooks showcasing the forested hills and valleys, a mesmerizing mosaic of green, gold and pale orange punctuated by fireballs of scarlet. It’s just where I want to be this time of year.
An Unheralded Region Ripe for Discovery
On this most recent trip, I based myself at Mount Mitchell Eco Retreat, a new lodging option 20 minutes by car from Mount Mitchell State Park and the same distance, in the other direction, from Burnsville.
A delightful Main Street community of 1,800, Burnsville is the seat of Yancey County, which proudly bills itself the “Home of Mount Mitchell.” It’s a bit off most people’s radar and tends to get short shrift in travel guidebooks, but the town’s relative obscurity is part of its appeal, at least for me and others who like to stray from well-trampled tourist trails. Burnsville’s lovely mountain setting attracts artists and craftspeople as well, and there is no dearth of art galleries, studios and shops that showcase their creations.
At a period in our history when travelers are looking to social distance and connect with the outdoors, the Burnsville area seems to fit the bill for those who want to avoid crowds.
Jake Blood, of the NC High Peaks Trail Association in Burnsville, remarks, “In this time where we really have to be careful of how we’re getting out and doing our social activities, getting out into nature is about the best way I can think of. Burnsville is a great base camp for that.”
The area has about 250 vacation rental properties, says Christy Wood, executive director of the Burnsville-Yancey County Chamber of Commerce. They range from cabins, chalets and cottages to larger homes. Other lodging choices include bed and breakfasts, a 12-unit motel and a historic inn on the town square. Black Mountain and Carolina Hemlocks are popular Pisgah National Forest campgrounds located on the South Toe River, which offers swimming, tubing and trout fishing.
Mount Mitchell Means Mountain Majesty
The entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park is directly on the Blue Ridge Parkway; driving to the summit parking lot takes about 10 minutes. The lot is accessible to buses, and groups can take advantage of the picnic shelters at one end. Buildings house a museum, gift shop and concession stand; a new restroom building is under construction. A full-service restaurant is farther down the mountain, and the park has a nine-site tent campground. Established in 1916, Mount Mitchell was North Carolina’s first state park.
From the circular platform at the breezy summit, folks feast on fine views of Pisgah National Forest and the Black Mountains, a range that includes Mount Craig, second in height only to Mount Mitchell. On clear days, visitors can see as far as 85 miles and make out the skyline of Charlotte.
When I first got to the top, clouds obscured the view. But they soon passed, allowing some glimpses of the majestic scenery. Minutes later, the clouds rolled back in.
I knew it would be cold and windy at the top, so I was prepared with an extra layer and a woolen cap. The temperature was a chilly 42 degrees. Even in summer, visitors have to expect cooler weather at this altitude. At such elevations, the weather, plants and animal life are more like what you would find in the Canadian Rockies than in the southern U.S.
Just below the observation deck, I posed at the wooden sign declaring Mount Mitchell the highest point east of the Mississippi. I also saw the tomb of Elisha Mitchell, a University of North Carolina science professor who measured the area’s mountain elevations on geological surveys between 1835 and 1844. During a scientific exploration in the Black Mountains in 1857, he fell from a cliff and drowned in the waterfall below. A year later, the highest peak in the range was named after him.
Ambitious hikers can tackle the 5.4-mile Mount Mitchell Trail, which begins at the Black Mountain Campground (elevation 3,000 feet) and ends at the peak of Mount Mitchell. The strenuous trek is about 4.5 hours up, 3.5 hours down. Trails in the extensive Black Mountains system lead to other high peaks as well.
Six peaks in the small range are among the 10 highest in the Eastern U.S. Of the East’s 40 tallest peaks, all but one (New Hampshire’s Mount Washington) are bunched together here near the border of North Carolina and Tennessee.
Burnsville Exemplifies the Best of Small-Town America
While the mountains may be the stars in this unspoiled region, Burnsville plays a strong supporting role as a friendly outpost of civilization amid the wilderness. Centered on an idyllic town square with shops and restaurants all around, its commercial heart is a little slice of Americana. Some buildings date back to the late 1800s. Old-time street lamps add to the charm, and there’s not a single stoplight. (Two blocks to the south, you’ll find more traffic and national chains on Highway 19, which runs parallel to the historic corridor on East and West Main streets.)
I spent a sunny fall afternoon drifting in and out of downtown shops and enjoying views of mountains cloaked in all their color-splashed glory. A few murals, like one from the Wizard of the Oz, provided photo-ops.
Standing in the middle of the town square is a statue of the city’s namesake, Captain Otway Burns. I learned from the plaque that he was the North Carolina hero in the War of 1812.
Shopping and Dining on Main Street
Piquing my curiosity were Main Street stores like Something Special Gift Shop, Monkey Business Toy Shop, Yummi Yarns and The Book Cellar. I also dropped into the Toe River Arts gallery and spent time at Hammond Antiques, which offers everything from pianos to pool tables, mink coats to salt and pepper shakers. Its Teapot Room is filled with teapots from around the world.
Since temperatures were around 60 degrees, I grabbed one of the sidewalk tables at Appalachian Java Cafe & Desserts and savored a luscious slab of pumpkin bread, one of their seasonal specialties. Also tempting were the lemon and banana bread slices, oatmeal creme sandwich cookies and apple butter cupcakes. If I were a coffee drinker, I would have chosen the caramel apple or pumpkin spice latte.
Dinner that night at Cast Iron Kitchen presented more hard choices, but I finally decided on the Cast Iron Favorite, a hearth-baked flatbread with country ham, creamy pimento cheese, raspberry jam, greens and pickled onions. Another popular item is Not My Mommas Meatloaf with jerk barbecue sauce; chef/owner Chris Hall says he uses toasted oatmeal as a binder and seasons the meat with onion, rosemary, thyme, garlic, tomato paste, white wine and Worcestershire sauce.
Decorated with local art pieces for sale, the new restaurant on West Main opened on Labor Day in a building more than a century old. Antique skillets hang behind the bar.
Hall, though only 36, has been cooking professionally for 20 years. He describes his fare as “new Appalachian,” explaining that he puts a fresh twist on the kinds of foods he grew up with and uses farm-to-table ingredients.
Another happy place on West Main is Homeplace Beer Company, a three-level microbrewery with seating indoors, on the open-air deck and at picnic tables in the greenspace around the fire pit. Hog Hollow Wood Fired Pizza on the main floor serves pizza, sandwiches, burgers, wings and salads. Live music is a regular feature.
Artists Put Their Stamp on Burnsville and Environs
The area’s thriving arts scene intertwines cutting-edge contemporary with the deeply-rooted heritage crafts of Appalachia. I got a good sampling of it on a stretch of Highway 80 South, which runs more or less parallel to the South Toe River between Micaville and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
One afternoon, while traveling the road between Mount Mitchell Eco Retreat and downtown Burnsville, I stopped at McWhirter Pottery in the Celo area of the South Toe Valley. Pete and Kim McWhirter continue to create designs started by his parents nearly 60 years ago. Pete told me most of their pieces are functional tableware—mugs, cups, pitchers, bowls, plates. He works in a small studio in back of the store. A half mile away is Toe River Crafts, a cooperative gallery and retail shop housed in a rustic cottage.
At the studio of Bernstein Glass, fashioned from an old cow barn, I saw how William and Katherine Bernstein have been creating exquisite glass pieces together since 1971. Real artisans using traditional methods, they gave me a glassblowing demonstration and showed how they paint stripes and faces on the hot glass. Their wares range from pitchers and drinking glasses to pumpkins, vases and speckled chickens. No two pieces are alike. I came away impressed with their passion for creativity and skills that have been honed over a half century. It was an honor meeting them.
A Gallery Worth Some Time
In the Micaville community, where Highway 80 South meets Highway 19, a must stop is One of a Kind (OOAK) Art Gallery, located four miles east of Burnsville. Occupying a 1922 general store building with the original windows, wood floors, shelves and tin ceiling still in place, the area’s largest craft shop represents 180 artists who live within a 20-mile radius.
My favorite pieces at OOAK were the whimsical floor and table lamps formed from old musical instruments and other antiques by Edward Doyle. One of his art lamps incorporates a 1930s ukulele and guitar, while another features a 1950s brass coronet and euphonium. Also catching my eye were art lamps crafted from 1950s roller skates, a 1918 Kodak Brownie camera and a vintage Boy Scout bugle and canteen.
Store owner Kari Weaver, a former studio potter, makes soy candles infused with Fraser fir, garden mint and other natural scents. Other items for sale at OOAK include pottery, metal art, beeswax candles, Christmas ornaments and turned wooden bowls (elm, maple, cherry, walnut, birch). You’ll also find quilted jackets, purses made from scraps of upholstery, bracelets studded with gemstones like lapis lazuli and agate, and python-, rattlesnake- and lizard-skin earrings.
For those who want roam the countryside and take in some art at the same time, Yancey and neighboring Mitchell County offer 10 different quilt trails featuring over 200 painted quilt squares affixed to barns, homes, schools and commercial buildings. Printed guides for each trail give the stories behind the squares and can be purchased at OOAK.
Wilderness Oasis with Creature Comforts
Mount Mitchell Eco Retreat opened in October 2021 on the site of a former dude ranch. Bordered on two sides by Pisgah National Forest, it’s the perfect place to decompress and commune with nature. From rocking chairs on the porches, guests have views of Mount Mitchell and other peaks in the Black Mountains.
Sean Busher, who had a successful commercial photography business in Charlotte, and his wife, Heather, bought the property in November 2020. They are full of ambitious plans to make the 28-acre retreat a center promoting health, wellness and stress-free living.
Despite the remote location, guests can expect modern comforts in the 16 newly decorated rooms and suites in four buildings scattered across the hillsides. Chic and rustic at the same time, the cozy, pine-paneled units are outfitted with amenities like refrigerators, microwaves and coffeemakers. In keeping with the idea of getting away from everyday distractions, there are no TVS. Cell-phone service is spotty.
The main lodge, with its high-beamed ceiling, piano and stone fireplace inherited from the dude ranch, is a gathering spot where guests can come for coffee, tea and cocoa. Future plans call for a community kitchen/dining area and a market selling organic groceries, mountain crafts and books. The Bushers plan to convert the neighboring building, once the ranch’s bar, into a healing house offering yoga classes, massage therapy and energy healing, plus classes on topics like ecology and sustainability. The old swimming pool will become a koi pond and meditation garden. Also in the works: fire pits in several locations, a greenhouse and a “food forest” (a garden with a variety of edible plants).
—By Randy Mink, Senior Editor
Lead photo courtesy of Sam Dean