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Kyle Lanning, observatory manager at the Bare Dark Sky Observatory, points a green astronomy laser at a seemingly empty spot in the night sky. The light vanishes from sight at

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Kyle Lanning, observatory manager at the Bare Dark Sky Observatory, points a green astronomy laser at a seemingly empty spot in the night sky. The light vanishes from sight at

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Kyle Lanning, observatory manager at the Bare Dark Sky Observatory, points a green astronomy laser at a seemingly empty spot in the night sky. The light vanishes from sight at

An Artsy & Outdoorsy Weekend Around Mitchell County

Kyle Lanning, observatory manager at the Bare Dark Sky Observatory, points a green astronomy laser at a seemingly empty spot in the night sky. The light vanishes from sight at a point dozens of feet in the air. “Can anybody see anything at the end of that laser?” he asks. He’s answered with a chorus of “no’s” from the crowd of folks who have gathered at Mayland Community College’s Earth to Sky Park for one of the observatory’s regularly scheduled stargazing events. “I’ve got about 100,000 stars pulled up in the scope in that spot,” he says. Climbing a stepladder to reach the eyepiece of the gigantic Dobsonion-style Newtonian telescope, observers are amazed to see countless twinkling stars — some tiny specs, others giant balls — where the naked eye saw nothing.



Located just a few miles west of Spruce Pine, the Mayland Earth to Sky Park, on the site of a former mica mine, offers environmental education to visitors who want to learn about all things natural, from the earth to the sky. The site has been designated an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association, which works to protect the night sky from light pollution. In 2014, the Earth to Sky Park was one of the first locations in the world — and the first in North Carolina — to receive Dark Sky designation, making it one of many reasons to take a trip to Mitchell County and the surrounding area. Here’s what to see and do when you visit.

 

The Plunge Basin Trail from the Linville Falls Visitor Center leads to an overlook and then down to the bottom of the falls for close-up views. photograph by MargaretW/iStock/Getty Images

Day 1:

Start your weekend off with lunch in Little Switzerland. Take in views of the Blue Ridge Mountains while enjoying a fried green tomato BLT at the Switzerland Inn’s Chalet Restaurant, located in the Switzerland Inn. Or try the applewood-smoked whole trout or hickory-smoked pork barbecue at the Switzerland Café. On your way out, pick up a souvenir T-shirt from the attached general store.

After lunch, hop on the Blue Ridge Parkway and head toward Linville Falls Visitor Center for a hike to the three-tiered waterfall. The Erwin’s View Trail hugs the Linville River and offers a moderate, family-friendly hike with three viewpoints of the falls. For a more strenuous hike, take the Plunge Basin Trail — which offers a different perspective of the falls — to the bottom of the gorge. If you’re visiting the falls in the late spring or summer, you’ll catch the rhododendrons in bloom!

When you’ve had your fill of the falls, head to the Blue Ridge Boutique Hotel — housed in a 1921 school — which has a footbridge over the North Toe River and offers access to downtown Spruce Pine. The hotel boasts 16 rooms (with 16 more open soon), each named after a local landmark and featuring North Carolina mountain photography by artist Patti Grosh. Pick your room when you make your reservation, then find maps and information about visiting your room’s landmark when you check-in.

Marvel at amazing local works at Toe River Arts in Spruce Pine. Photography courtesy of Toe River Arts

Once you’ve settled into your hotel, check out Toe River Arts, a gallery in downtown Spruce Pine owned by the nonprofit Toe River Arts Council. The gallery’s two exhibition spaces feature works by local, regional, and national artists, while the gift shop offers functional and decorative items made exclusively by artists of Mitchell, Yancey, and Avery counties, and includes jewelry, pottery, blown and cast glass, woodworks, and other crafts. “Our space is really important,” says Nealy Andrews, executive director of the Toe River Arts Council. “It just shows how many artists live and work here in this community. And we’re really committed to making sure they’re earning a living and they’re supported.” If you’re in town on the last Saturday in April, stop by the annual Fire on the Mountain Blacksmith Festival, featuring blacksmith demonstrations, vendor booths, and activities.

Grab dinner at City Drive-In, where food is served curbside by carhops. If dining at a table is more your style, try 670 Oak, which shares a kitchen with City Drive-In and offers the same menu: burgers and milkshakes — hand-pattied and hand-dipped — foot-long hot dogs, and slaw and chili recipes handed down since the restaurant opened in 1948. The intimate restaurant features metalwork decor — an homage to Spruce Pine’s gem mining industry — and a live poplar tree growing through the middle of the live-edge oak and cherry bar, right up through the roof. On pleasant evenings, sit outside on the front porch or in the pavilion. Bands perform live inside the restaurant or outside in the pavilion on Friday and Saturday nights.

The Bare Dark Sky Observatory, part of the Mayland Community College Earth to Sky Park, is home to the largest public telescope in North Carolina. Photography courtesy of Mayland Community College

After dinner, it’s time for stargazing at the Bare Dark Sky Observatory. With a 34-inch mirror, the observatory’s telescope is the largest public telescope in the Southeast. Depending on the evening, you might see galaxies like Andromeda, nebulae like Blue Snowball or Cat’s Eye, or the rings of Saturn — viewed in the late summer and fall — and details of other planets. “My favorite thing to look at through the telescope at the observatory is the Moon because it’s so magnified and so detailed,” says Margaret Earley-Thiele, the foundation director at Mayland Community College. “It’s like you’re sitting in a rocket ship looking out the window. It’s incredible. It takes your breath away.” Visitors are often inspired to buy a telescope after the experience.

With the naked eye, you might see the Milky Way — best viewed in the summer — or satellites like the International Space Station. And of course, there’s always a chance of spotting a shooting star!

Soon, the Earth to Sky Park will also feature a pollinator meadow, meant to attract native pollinators whose numbers have dwindled in the area; a woodlands trail; and a planetarium, making it one of only two International Dark Sky Places in the world with both an observatory and a planetarium.

 

Day 2:

In downtown Spruce Pine, have coffee and breakfast at DT’s Blue Ridge Java, where all the food is made in-house and served in a warm atmosphere with exposed brick walls. Order items like bagels, waffles, or biscuits from the menu, or create your own meal. “We have a lot of specialty foods and drinks that people don’t even know to ask for,” says owner Tricia Niven. “We make just about anything and everything under the sun.” Sit at a table or in one of the cozy “living room” sections with sofas and armchairs.

Penland School of Craft is a national center for craft education. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Next, head out of town to Penland School of Craft, a craft education center featuring a gallery, artist studios, a supply store, and a coffeehouse. In the gallery, explore works by artists affiliated with the school, like well-known glass sculptors and husband-and-wife team John Littleton and Kate Vogel of Bakersville, who have taught at Penland, and Ronan Peterson, a former Penland fellow who creates decorative and functional pottery and teaches workshops at the school. At the Barns, a former barn that has been renovated into studios, watch Penland School of Craft resident artists at work, from jewelry makers to woodworkers.

Shop for beautiful pottery or jewelry at In Tandem Gallery in Bakersville. photograph by Jack Sorokin

For more arts and craftwork, drive to Bakersville and check out In Tandem Gallery, housed in a historic bank building and specializing in ceramics and jewelry. Neighboring In Tandem is Mica Gallery, featuring the works of 12 local artists in a variety of mediums. Just around the corner, you’ll find Sweetgrass Artisan Mercantile, offering art, furniture, soaps, and candles.

Fuel up for the rest of your afternoon with a burger from Bonnie & Clyde’s in Bakersville, named not for the famed Depression-era bank robbers but for the original owners, Bonnie and Clyde Byrd. Finish your meal with their popular coconut cream pie, made in-house.

Finally, if you’re up for it, drive over to Roan Mountain for a hike before heading home. The 2.4-mile round-trip Cloudland Trail, beginning near Carvers Gap and taking hikers through a spruce-fir forest and past moss- and lichen-covered boulders, delivers hikers to the Roan High Bluff, with an observation deck near the mountain’s summit. For a longer hike — 4.5 miles round-trip — trek along the Appalachian Trail from Carvers Gap to Roan High Knob through a balsam fir- and fern-filled forest, over several wooden bridges crossing bubbling brooks, past the remnants of a stone chimney, and terminating in a stone-walled overlook — a breathtaking end to a perfect mountain weekend.

This story was published on Apr 14, 2022

Rebecca Woltz

Rebecca is the staff writer at Our State.