When asked about distances in the North Carolina mountains, locals often answer, “Well, as the crow flies, it’s only a few miles.” Which means that although it’s pretty close if you could follow the straight-line flight plan of a bird, it’s considerably farther when you wend the winding mountain roads. It’s true that the crow might get there quicker, but the poor thing misses all of the roadside attractions. So if you want to chart a southerly course from the outskirts of Newland down to Linville Falls or Linville Caverns, ignore the crow and instead take the scenic route, U.S. Highway 221 South.
This gorgeous drive begins at the end of the short section of old road that tiptoes through the Eseeola community, a few blocks that are so pedestrian-friendly that they include stop signs at crosswalks. After that, travelers can pick up the pace as they head to one of the two most likely turnaround spots for an afternoon drive: the falls or the caverns, only about 11 and 15 miles south, respectively. (You ought to visit both places sometime, but the point of a sightseeing drive is that it lopes along, directed more by whim than destination.)
Stretches of Highway 221 twist and turn like a carnival ride, in a manner that old-timers describe as “crooked as a dog’s hind leg.” The posted speed limit is 45, but the practical driving speed is determined by road conditions, S-curves, and all of the gorgeous views. The narrow road passes farms, beloved old summer camps, homesteads, hovels, and gated communities, all the while slipping in and out of the deep woods. On a crisp, clear fall day, when temperatures are downshifting, the sky epitomizes Carolina blue, and the trees are changing from their summer into their autumn wardrobe, there’s a lot to see, if not gawk at — most vistas are postcard-worthy. The calendar can claim what it wants, but it’s obvious that the trees decide when it’s fall in the High Country.
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Locals still refer to this winding, two-lane road as Linville Falls Highway, although parts of it are now designated as the Dr. Mary Martin Sloop Highway, which leads to Crossnore School, the first of the drive’s must-stops. Here, renowned artisans weave silky-soft shawls, scarves, blankets, and table linens in the Weaving Room, also known as Home Spun House, which is a working museum with large wooden looms that date back to the 1920s.
The rural Avery County community of Crossnore (population 200ish) has been home to Crossnore School & Children’s Home since its founding in 1913 by Drs. E.H. and Mary Martin Sloop. Created as a boarding school for disadvantaged southern Appalachian children, it now provides residential foster care and outpatient therapy services for children in the region. Original buildings dot the property, several of which are on the National Register of Historic Places, including the cottage that houses Crossnore Fine Arts Gallery and Crossnore Weavers. The gallery and gift shop sell paintings, sculptures, glass, and pottery from local and regional artists and crafters, and proceeds support the school and children’s home.
The Sloops originally taught Appalachian hand-weaving techniques to local women as a means of economic opportunity through craftsmanship. These days, artisans weave to keep their art alive, and they’re happy to answer questions while you watch them work. Be sure to walk around the room so that you don’t miss any of the photographs and displays from the earliest days of the school. The Weaving Room motto, inscribed along the tops of the walls, reads: “Our Aim — To keep alive an almost forgotten art; to cherish in the young people of the mountains a reverence for this art; to provide a means of livelihood and pleasure for women and girls; to furnish homes with beautiful and lasting material.” Conversation with these cordial, expert weavers comes easily, but the rhythmic, clattering thumps and whooshes of the shuttles across the looms serve as the real voice of this place. They’re the same industrious sounds that have emanated from this room for nearly a century: the persistent cadence of work, art, and purpose.
Music from the chapel bells peals across the hillside, a soundtrack for the spirit of the place.
Up the hill a short distance — a quick walk along the campus’s well-tended paths — is E.H. Sloop Chapel, which is open to the public and home to one of Ben Long’s famous frescoes, which grace small churches in the High Country and draw visitors from around the world. This renowned artist uses a technique of applying pigment to wet plaster to create intricate murals that seem to glow from within. His Sloop Chapel fresco depicts Jesus ministering to children, illustrating the biblical passage, “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not.” Children from the school and from Long’s family served as models for the image. Music from the chapel bells peals across the hillside, a soundtrack for the spirit of the place.
Next, swing through the village of Crossnore. For luck — not that you’ll need it on this jaunt — take a sip from the town’s recently restored stone drinking fountain. Legend has it that anyone who makes a wish as they sip will see it come true. Back on the main road, you’ll soon pass Crossnore Presbyterian Church, another building on the National Register of Historic Places. It, like many noteworthy buildings in the area, is made of stone from the Linville River, and clad in the distinctive bark shingles you see all over town.
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Some drivers joke that the old road curves so tightly in spots that the front of your car might meet the back of your car coming around the bend.In the crook of one of those sharp curves, the next stop beckons: Linville River Mercantile and Bakery.
Both inside and out, this charming one-story white clapboard shop is brimming with sights to behold, surprises to buy, and good things to eat — all handpicked and homemade by owners Jennifer and Wayne Pinter. Some visitors are lured by the sign at the edge of the parking lot (which is also the edge of the road), promising apple butter and freshly baked sourdough bread. Other people say that they come to get the best cake and ice cream around. Still others say that nothing can compare to the pies and the peanut butter truffle torte. Any treat will do as you take a seat on the front porch or at one of the small tables that dot the garden. But first, take a minute — perhaps several — to browse the shelves and glass-front display cases stocked with all manner of eye-catchers, from cookbooks to china teacups to artwork tucked among jewelry and greeting cards.
There’s so much memorabilia — even stacks of vintage magazines (including classic issues of Our State) and newspaper clippings, walls pinned with advertising signs and calendars from yesteryear — that it’s practically a local museum, especially on the days when Ms. Rachel Deal stops by. This spry 89-year-old is the niece of the Sloops who founded Crossnore School, which makes her the reigning local expert on what’s changed and what’s lasted over the decades.
She’s also a local activist, known for her campaign to preserve and restore the historic footbridge over the highway, part of the path that the children once walked to the Presbyterian church. Ms. Deal prevailed, of course. Now, naysayers of any of her causes might hear her declare, “I’m going to Crossnore you!” That spirit earned her induction into the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, a prestigious award for North Carolinians for extraordinary community service.
There are several places to picnic or grab lunch along the drive, but one of the busiest and most beloved is Famous Louise’s Rock House Restaurant, a community nexus in more ways than one: Inside, right in front of the fireplace, is the exact spot where Burke, McDowell, and Avery counties meet, which means that you can visit all three by walking across the dining room. But you’ll want to take a seat: Perusing the lengthy menu might take a minute.
The servers know to bring a vinegar cruet for your greens and crackers for your soup.
Regulars know to place their pie order first (especially if they have their eyes on a whole pie to go) to make sure their favorite doesn’t sell out. Comfortable and homey, the restaurant offers everything from burgers, salads, and sandwiches to classic meat-and-three combos and daily specials. The servers, many of whom have worked here for years, know to bring a vinegar cruet for your greens and a basket of crackers for your soup without your having to ask. They keep your tea topped off, too, until it’s time to pay at the cash register — which sits in Avery County.
The Linville Falls Visitor Center and the entrance to Linville Caverns are only a few miles from Louise’s, although those of us just out for an afternoon drive might want to U-turn out of the restaurant’s parking lot and head back north, to make sure there’s time for places we might have missed on the first pass. However, if time allows, you can hike down to the falls or tour the caverns, or at least spend a few minutes exploring exhibits.
Linville Falls is one of the most popular waterfalls in the Blue Ridge Mountains because of its accessibility to the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s a spectacular three-tiered waterfall plunging into Linville Gorge, the “Grand Canyon of the East.” Round-trip, the hikes are as follows: Erwins View Trail is 1.6 miles and easy; Plunge Basin Trail is 1 mile and moderate; Gorge Trail is 1.4 miles and strenuous. Linville Caverns is privately owned and offers guided tours, although hours vary with the seasons. If the ticket line is too long or you don’t have your walking shoes anyway, that’s reason enough for a second trip. There are wonders aplenty on down the road.
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Newland, stretches of state forest and acres of Christmas trees blanket the hillsides. Keep your eyes peeled for the nursery beds where the state Forest Service nurtures tiny tree seedlings, lined up in tight, tidy rows, a microcosm of the forests they’ll one day inhabit.
At one point, on the right-hand side of the road, rows of Fraser firs are replaced by rows of grapevines, a signal to take the turn to Linville Falls Winery.
The tasting room of this family-owned winery sits at the end of the driveway in a Tuscan-inspired building with a copper-tiled roof. Owner Jack Wiseman was born nearby, moved away, returned home, decided to grow grapes on part of his tree farm, and opened his winery at age 80. The grape-based wines and fruit wines fortified with apple brandy are available by the glass, bottle, or tasting flight. Some afternoons, live music accompanies the sipping.
Back on 221, be on the lookout for other stops that suit your fancy. You’ll pass landscape nurseries, gift shops (many of which specialize in Christmas decorations to deck all those trees), art galleries, roadside produce stands (assembled from planks and cinder blocks, or perhaps nothing more than a lowered tailgate covered in bushel baskets), and gardening shops, some of which sell traditional, rustic bent-twig furniture and crafts made from native laurel cuttings and other local flora.
At Holden’s Arts & Crafts, Gail Edwards, daughter of the original owners, still handcrafts garden planters and baskets in the style she learned growing up. She forms her wares from twigs and vines, then decorates them with moss, bark, lichens, and pine cones gathered from the surrounding woods. She won’t reveal where she gets the materials (it’s a trade secret), but she does say that she has friends who help with the “wild-crafting” — men who know these mountains like the backs of their calloused hands. Before you leave, ask about her famous fresh apple cake, a beloved mountain specialty, because she might make you a photocopy of her handwritten recipe.
And before you know it, you’re back where you started, having covered only 20-some miles but a lot of ground. You can zip onto the 221 bypass and speed back into the hubbub. Watch for crows.
If You Go
Crossnore Fine Arts Gallery
205 Johnson Lane
Crossnore, NC 28616
(828) 733-3144, crossnore.org
E.H. Sloop Chapel
100 DAR Drive
Crossnore, NC 28657
(828) 733-3144, crossnore.org
Crossnore Presbyterian Church
200 Chapel Drive
Crossnore, NC 28616
(828) 733-1939, crossnore.wncpresby.org
Linville River Mercantile
5650 Linville Falls Highway
Newland, NC 28657
Famous Louise’s Rock House Restaurant
23175 Linville Falls Highway
Linville Falls, NC 28647
Marion, NC 28752
(828) 298-0398, fs.usda.gov
19929 U.S. Highway 221 North
Marion, NC 28752
(800) 419-0540, linvillecaverns.com
Linville Falls Winery
9557 Linville Falls Highway
Newland, NC 28657
(828) 765-1400, linvillefallswinery.com
Holden’s Arts & Crafts
4312 Linville Falls Highway
Newland, NC 28657