A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

[caption id="attachment_171537" align="aligncenter" width="1140"] There’s no shortage of tunnels and ascents at Chimney Rock. In the 1940s, the Eagle’s Nest Trail was accessed by ladder (top right). An elevator (bottom

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

[caption id="attachment_171537" align="aligncenter" width="1140"] There’s no shortage of tunnels and ascents at Chimney Rock. In the 1940s, the Eagle’s Nest Trail was accessed by ladder (top right). An elevator (bottom

Chimney Rock: The Mountaintop Experience

There’s no shortage of tunnels and ascents at Chimney Rock. In the 1940s, the Eagle’s Nest Trail was accessed by ladder (top right). An elevator (bottom left) has carried visitors to the base of the rock since 1949 — otherwise, it’s nearly 500 steps to the top on the Outcroppings Trail (bottom right). photograph by Tom Moors; Courtesy of Chimney Rock State Park

A Grand Vision

The 30-second elevator ride to the base of Chimney Rock gives the short version of the story. Former fourth-generation park owner Todd Morse calls it his elevator speech: At the turn of the 20th century, Midwesterner Dr. Lucius Morse landed in the North Carolina mountains — as so many people did during that time — to recuperate from tuberculosis. He paid a local family 25 cents to ride a mule to the top of Chimney Rock, where he was awed by the expansive view of the mountains and valley below. In 1902, he purchased the property with the goal of making it a tourist attraction. Now, each year, hundreds of thousands of visitors ride the 26-story elevator inside the mountain or climb nearly 500 steps on the Outcroppings Trail to see the sweeping views that so captivated Lucius Morse.

A Family Legacy

In many ways, the story of modern-day Chimney Rock is the story of the Morse family, who owned the property from 1902 until it became a state park in 2007. In 2018, Todd, Lucius’s great-great-nephew, published the longer version of that story in his 500-page book, For the Love of Chimney Rock. He combed through more than a century’s worth of historical records, park documents, deeds, newspapers, and personal letters, uncovering stories of his family’s ownership of Chimney Rock. Although Lucius was the visionary, Todd considers his own great-grandfather, Hiram Morse — Lucius’s brother — to be the “unsung hero.” “I got to appreciate so much more the dreams that both of them had, and how it took [Hiram’s] financial acumen and [Lucius’s] vision together to make this work,” Todd says. “The biggest gift in [writing the book] was that I got to know my family.”

The Exclamation Point Trail leads from the base of Chimney Rock to the start of the Skyline Trail via the Opera Box (left), so named for the shape created by its rock overhang. If the short but steep hike seems daunting, imagine doing it in dresses and heels. photograph by Tom Moors; Courtesy of Chimney Rock State Park

Time Will Tell

Over the course of more than half a billion years, the earth around Chimney Rock — composed of a type of stone called Henderson gneiss — has continued to erode, leaving behind the iconic chimney, which appears to grow taller with time. Shaped by the wind and battered by storms, the rock remains an enduring symbol, no longer owned by the Morse family but by the people of North Carolina as a state park. In his book, Todd shares some of the many lessons that the mountain has to offer. “I am constantly reminded,” he writes, “of the power, majesty and sustainability that will exist at Chimney Rock — without the help of my family — for many eons to come.”

At the Flock to the Rock event held each September, bird-watchers can participate in guided hikes, a hawk watch, and live raptor programs, where they can meet birds like Gremlin, a great horned owl, pictured with General Manager Emily Walker. photograph by Tom Moors

A Bird’s-Eye View

When a great horned owl — now called Gremlin — was hit by a car, an injured wing rendered him unable to hunt. Because he couldn’t survive in the wild, Gremlin was eventually taken to Chimney Rock, where he’s been teaching visitors about birds of prey for the past decade. Many of the park’s animals have similar stories of finding new purpose after injuries, including possums Valentine and Ossie, a chipmunk named Peanut, and Cloppy the one-eyed screech owl. Some of the animal ambassadors can be seen at the Animal Discovery Den, while others come out only during programs, when they give visitors a new way to appreciate the park.

To learn more about the park’s animals and programming, visit chimneyrockpark.com/animal-discovery-den.

Don’t miss the Great Woodland Adventure Trail! This 0.6-mile trail next to the Animal Discovery Den is home to owls, frogs, salamanders, butterflies, and more, reimagined in metal and wood by local artists at 12 interpretive stations. photograph by Tom Moors

The Skyline Trail begins at Exclamation Point (left) and stretches for just over a mile to the top of Hickory Nut Falls. To get the best view of the falls, though, follow the 1.4-mile out-and-back Hickory Nut Falls Trail, more than 400 feet below. photograph by Tom Moors

A Legendary Land

In the dramatic conclusion to the 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans, a Mohican chief and a Huron warrior face off in a scene filmed atop Hickory Nut Falls — at 404 feet, one of the tallest east of the Mississippi. Neither the Mohicans nor the Hurons ever actually lived in this area, but arrowheads and other artifacts show that the Cherokee and earlier tribes passed through the 14-mile gorge seasonally to trade, hunt, and farm.

Located along U.S. Highway 64 and the Rocky Broad River (left), the village of Chimney Rock looks much the same as it did in the 1960s (top right). photograph by Tim Robison; Courtesy of Chimney Rock State Park

The Village in the Valley

After the road to Chimney Rock was completed in 1916, a village sprang up around the entrance to the park as local businesses sought to take advantage of the influx of tourists. Most of the buildings standing today date back to the 1920s through 1950s, giving the village a quaint, old-timey feel. The year-round population of about 125 swells during the busy summer months, when anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 people from across the region come to visit the park, browse in the shops, drink and dine, and dip their toes in the Rocky Broad River, just steps away from Main Street.

Running for a third of a mile parallel to Main Street, the Rocky Broad Riverwalk in downtown Chimney Rock offers easy access to restaurants and shops, yet — with plenty of spots to splash, sunbathe, or enjoy a picnic — it feels like it’s a world away. photograph by Tim Robison

Chimney Rock Brewing Company offers one of the best patios in town, with sweeping views of Chimney Rock, Hickory Nut Falls, and the gorge’s granite cliffs. photograph by Tim Robison

Chimney Rock Brewing Company

With a view like this — the Rocky Broad River flowing through Hickory Nut Gorge; Chimney Rock, with its American flag waving on top, rising above the trees; and Hickory Nut Falls cascading down a cliff face — one deck just wouldn’t be enough. Outside its small taproom, Chimney Rock Brewing Company has four levels of outdoor seating, ensuring that everyone can enjoy the view while enjoying a Broad River Blonde Ale, Mountain Pride original-style English ale, World’s Edge IPA, or other beers on tap.

461 Main Street
(828) 436-5461

Sip one of Burntshirt Vineyards’ 19 award-winning estate wines. photograph by Tim Robison

Burntshirt Vineyards Tasting Room & Bistro

The Chimney Rock outpost of this Hendersonville-based winery offers something different from its original location: seasonal Southern small plates designed to pair perfectly with Burntshirt’s 19 estate wines, all of which have won awards. Lemuel and Sandra Oates planted their first vineyard in 2009 and opened their wine production facility in 2013. The name is inspired by a mountain legend: Some say that farmers would burn their fields to clear the land for planting and toss their shirts into the fire for good luck.

438 Main Street
(828) 436-2490

The Old Rock Reuben is a café standby, while the build-your-own smashburgers — this one is topped with pimento cheese — are a more recent addition to the menu. Order them with onion rings or hand-cut fries. photograph by Tim Robison

Old Rock Café

Old Rock Café considers sustainability in everything it does — a fitting approach for a restaurant surrounded by so much natural beauty and operated by Chimney Rock State Park. Located at the park entrance since 1999, the counter-service café works with farmers and small businesses from the surrounding counties to offer salads, sandwiches, build-your-own smashburgers, craft beer, and desserts (try the fan-favorite apple brown Betty, served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream). Even dogs can get a high-quality meal here, with a beef bowl and peanut butter “pupsicle” made just for them.

431 Main Street
(828) 625-2329

Find local and mountain-inspired gifts at Gale’s Chimney Rock Shop, owned by Mary Jaeger-Gale and her husband, Steve Gale. photograph by Tim Robison

Gale’s Chimney Rock Shop

Steve Gale started working at his parents’ gift shop as an adolescent, selling Coca-Cola, candy, popcorn, and apple cider. Harvey and Bunnie Gale opened Gale’s Chimney Rock Shop on Main Street in 1947, and it’s been in the same spot — and in the same family — ever since. Steve and his wife, Mary Jaeger-Gale, who has worked at Chimney Rock for more than 40 years, bought the shop from his parents in 1983. Today, historical news clippings and black-and-white photos of the area hang on the walls among local art, rustic decor, and souvenirs emblazoned with images of Chimney Rock and Lake Lure.

418 Main Street
(828) 625-4126

Shop for old-school toys, candy, and more at Bubba O’Leary’s General Store. photograph by Tim Robison

Bubba O’Leary’s General Store

When Peter and Ann O’Leary decided to open a general store in 1992, Ann’s sister Mary Mahaffey, a graphic designer, created a logo featuring their yellow Lab, Bubba. They put the logo on a T-shirt, and “from day one,” Peter says, “that’s been one of our best sellers.” Like his predecessors, the third Bubba, also a yellow Lab, greets customers as they enter the historic building to shop for old-school toys, candy by the pound, home decor, and outdoor gear — perhaps a shirt that bears the image of a very good boy.

385 Main Street
(828) 625-2479

As the Rocky Broad River flows into Lake Lure, leaving the town of Chimney Rock behind, the Lake Lure Flowering Bridge — a pedestrian bridge covered with more than 2,000 plant species — bids a fond farewell, inviting everyone to return to the rock. photograph by Emily Chaplin

This story was published on Jul 19, 2023

Katie King

Katie King is a managing editor at Our State.