A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Wear your jeans and bring your camp chair. “It’s a big party, not a wine-and-cheese reception,” Katie Murray says. As director of the Orange County Arts Commission, Murray loves that

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Wear your jeans and bring your camp chair. “It’s a big party, not a wine-and-cheese reception,” Katie Murray says. As director of the Orange County Arts Commission, Murray loves that

5 Ways to Experience Historic Hillsborough

Ayr Mount in Hillsborough, NC

Wear your jeans and bring your camp chair. “It’s a big party, not a wine-and-cheese reception,” Katie Murray says. As director of the Orange County Arts Commission, Murray loves that Hillsborough’s First Fridays at the Mill and Last Friday Art Walk feel far from stuffy. “Our exhibits are diverse and accessible — reflective of everything we do here.”

Historic Hillsborough’s lively Last Friday event fills several downtown blocks with art lovers of all ages and from all walks of life. The programming is just as varied as the art on display. Each month, a different lineup of local poets and spoken word artists share their works with the community. The Living Arts Collective hosts contact improvisation sessions, and a drum circle gathers at River Park.

“There’s something for everyone here — it sounds cliché, but we have this super lively arts scene and a ton of talented artists and authors,” says Amanda Boyd, the executive director of the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough. “You can’t throw a rock without hitting someone who has a talent or an artistic skill they decided to share with the community.”

Because Hillsborough’s rich history and natural beauty have been preserved and protected, the town attracts people who celebrate this fusion of greenspace, arts, and community. Read on for some of our favorite ways to explore this destination in central North Carolina.


Rhododendron blooms in Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area

Lush thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron fill the Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area with blooms during the springtime. photograph by Jay Williams

Family-Friendly Parks and Trails

When hosting visitors from out of town, Boyd often starts her informal Hillsborough tour at the highest point in Orange County. “I take people to the Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area before we even go downtown, because it’s so beautiful,” she says. While the view that features glimpses of downtown as well as the Eno River depends on the seasons, “If you look straight out, it’s like a Bob Ross painting. The sky meets the trees, and the land doesn’t stop. Even though you’re not up very high, you feel like you’re in the clouds.”

Old structure from the Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough, NC

Vestiges of the Historic Occoneechee Speedway serve as a reminder of Hillsborough’s stock car racing days. photograph by Caroline Gilmore

Whereas the trails at Occoneechee Mountain offer a woodsy, off-the-beaten-path experience, Hillsborough’s two-mile, paved Riverwalk presents a leisurely stroll with an urban spin. After a Saturday morning spent perusing the farmers market at River Park, hop on the Riverwalk and follow it east to the historic Eno River Mill. “You’re walking right beside the Eno River, and it’s beautiful,” Boyd says, adding that interpretive signs along the way teach passersby about the Eno Mill, indigenous plants, and local history.

For a late-afternoon stroll, Boyd likes to head to the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail, a one-mile loop around the oval speedway that attracted thousands of spectators to its stock car races from 1948 to 1968. If you want to extend your exploration, you can add the three miles of trails that snake the Eno River. “In the summertime, I like to end my day here because it’s shaded and a cool walk,” Boyd says. “It’s great for people who want to let their kids run wild and see some old cars.”


Exterior of the Burwell School Historic Site in Hillsborough NC

One of the state’s earliest schools for girls, the Burwell School Historic Site now serves as a house museum that interprets the lives of the people who lived and worked on the property. Photography courtesy of The Alliance for Historic Hillsborough

Explore Historic Attractions

Emma Vadney, the site director at the Burwell School Historic Site, refers to the mid-19th century all-girls school as a microcosm of United States’ history. “The school provided white girls whose families could afford to send them here with a curriculum and model of teaching, and that legacy remains with us to this day,” Vadney says.

She adds that visitors are often surprised to learn about the ties between the Burwell School and the White House. A replica of Mary Todd Lincoln’s inaugural dress hangs at the school as a tribute to Elizabeth Keckly, who was enslaved by the Burwell family before she purchased her own freedom with the money she earned as a skilled seamstress. Eventually, Keckly worked as the First Lady’s personal modiste.

Visitors at the Occaneechi Village Replica Site

You can learn about the lives and history of the indigenous people who lived along the banks of the Eno River at the Occaneechi Village Replica Site. Photography courtesy of The Alliance for Historic Hillsborough

Less than a mile away, visitors to the Occaneechi Village Replica Site will find hut replicas of the Occaneechi tribe members’ shared sleeping quarters. “In that time, indigenous peoples lived as one. I believe that’s what is meant by ‘it takes a village,’” says Beverly Payne, a member of the Tribal Council of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation.

This “Occaneechi Town” village, which originally had about 11 structures, was occupied between 1680 and 1710. Today the village is situated along North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail, but it was established in close proximity to the Great Trading Path and used as a highway by generations of indigenous tribes.

Ayr Mount in Hillsborough, NC

Visit Ayr Mount and uncover the story behind one of Hillsborough’s grandest homes, commissioned by William Kirkland in 1799. Photography courtesy of Classical American Homes Preservation Fund

About a mile northeast of the historic site, Ayr Mount was also strategically built on the Great Trading Path. Visitors to this 1815 home — one of the Piedmont’s finest when it was built — learn about the original owner (Scottish immigrant William Kirkland), why he built his family’s home along the path, and the story of a more recent owner who carefully preserved the home’s original aesthetic.

After taking a tour through Ayr Mount’s three stories, complete with period-specific furnishings and decor, visitors can stroll along the one-mile trail that skirts the property and ends at the ancient Trading Path.


Musicians perform at First Friday at the Eno Arts Mill in Hillsborough

Eno Arts Mill comes alive every First Friday with live music, food trucks, art programming, and more. photograph by Steve Murray

Arts for All

It’s fitting that Hillsborough starts and ends each month with a celebration of the arts — and that the Eno River links the two.

While Last Fridays feature a lineup of more than 20 local venues in the walkable downtown, First Fridays occur at the 150-year-old Eno Arts Mill, the Riverwalk’s western bookend that once served as one of the town’s two textile mills.

Visitors view art in the Eno Arts Mill Gallery

At Eno Arts Mill Gallery, established and emerging artists share their talents with the public. photograph by Steve Murray

Now home to a 10,000-square-foot multipurpose space, the Eno Arts Mill includes 16 artists’ studios, a classroom, and the Eno Arts Mill Gallery. “It’s a phenomenal space,” Murray says. She describes First Fridays at the mill, where all the doors are opened so people can wander between artists’ studios, the two galleries, and take little ones to check out activities in the classroom space. Outside, live music and food trucks await.

Murray loves that the Eno Arts Mill Gallery features a wide range of artists, many of whom are showing their art for the first time. “That’s a game-changer when you’re trying to get yourself out there professionally,” she says. “And it means we’re able to be responsive to the community by doing interesting group shows, like one in April centered around climate change and themes like affordable housing in the Triangle. Our whole ethos with the Eno Arts Mill is inclusivity and accessibility. It’s a little bit of everything, and I think that’s the appeal.”


Round Out Your Trip

You’re bound to work up an appetite between sightseeing, taking in the arts, and strolls around Hillsborough. Here’s where to find casual fare and chilled libations to keep you fueled (and refreshed!).

  • Nomad: Housed within the historic Osbunn Theater, this moodily lit space with vaulted ceilings and exposed brick walls feels perfect for date night. Global flavors and cooking techniques drive the menu, which is complemented by the elevated cocktail program. Get the crispy samosas or empanadas to start before trying the lamb massamum curry.
  • Eno River Brewing: The ever-evolving beer menu seems right at home in this easy-going, outdoorsy space where relaxing is second nature.
  • The Wooden Nickel: Beers, burgers, and wings taste even better in a communal and celebratory atmosphere. Next door in the James Pharmacy Building, Pastry Chef Kimberly Mayer serves up the desserts of your dreams — cakes, pies, doughnuts, cookies, you name it.
  • Samantha’s Pupusas: Ask any local, and they’ll point you in the direction of this always-packed restaurant that specializes in pupusas and other dishes like curtido, salsa verde, and chicken tinga.
Inside Dwell and Volume Records, two shops in Hillsborough, NC

Take your time browsing the selection of decor and home goods at Dwell. Then, make your way over to Volume Records to shop the record selection or simply unwind at the bar. Photography courtesy of The Alliance for Historic Hillsborough

If you want to pick up a keepsake from your trip to Hillsborough, head to the local shops for artisanal goods, one-of-a-kind finds, and vintage treasures.

  • Purple Crow Books: This independent bookstore lets bibliophiles find kindred spirits, favorite authors, and their next read (likely signed!).
  • Uniquitiques: This vintage shop is known for its tremendous selection of cowboy boots and hats.
  • Dwell: This delightfully curated shop is a trove of funky home goods, kitchenware, and ceramics crafted by local artists. Here, you can also pick up vintage decor and other gems.
  • Say Wear Boutique: Clothes, purses, jewelry, and gifts — this is a one-stop-shop for every occasion.
  • Volume Records & Beer: What’s better than perusing row upon row of a carefully curated record selection? Doing it with a pint of your favorite beer.

Where will you begin your sightseeing in Hillsborough? Click here to start planning your trip and get a first-hand glimpse at this collaborative community’s present and past.

This story was published on Apr 24, 2024

Robin Sutton Anders

Robin Sutton Anders is a writer based in Greensboro.