A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

It’s the people who make a place, says Becca Babbitt, assessing the clientele at her Sparta café, Becca’s Backwood Beans. She points out a group of high school girls —

Madison County Championship Rodeo

It’s the people who make a place, says Becca Babbitt, assessing the clientele at her Sparta café, Becca’s Backwood Beans. She points out a group of high school girls —

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

It’s the people who make a place, says Becca Babbitt, assessing the clientele at her Sparta café, Becca’s Backwood Beans. She points out a group of high school girls —

Hidden Gems and Local Secrets: Welcome to the High Country

It’s the people who make a place, says Becca Babbitt, assessing the clientele at her Sparta café, Becca’s Backwood Beans. She points out a group of high school girls — all athletes — gathered for their weekly chess club. And at the table beside them, a few young adults are meeting about how to make the community better for its youth. “In Sparta, the scenery is beautiful,” Babbitt says. “But, even better, I’ve found a community that is incredibly kind and generous.”

Sparta is tucked in the North Carolina High Country, a pocket of mountain communities that includes Blowing Rock, Beech Mountain, Boone, Wilkesboro, West Jefferson, and Sparta. Travelers flock here for the scenery — but like Babbitt, many have discovered that the region’s best highlights and adventures are unexpected.



 

1. Explore Sparta’s independently owned shops

Babbitt sources her ingredients from local farmers who are conscientious about the ingredients they use. She insists on using organic produce because, she says, it is “miles better, not just miles closer.”

Locals appreciate her diligence and rely on her kitchen. “They get cross with me when we run out of chicken salad,” she says, laughing, describing a take-and-go staple. The café also sells beer and wine and features a takeaway case for salads, as well as meals-to-go and pizza on Thursday nights.

When you’re fully caffeinated, pick up a souvenir “High Country” or “New River” soy candle at Sparta Candle Co., and watch artists at work at Magnum-Cater on Main, where you can purchase functional and decorative pottery made on-site. Browse the selection at Books ’n Friends, a volunteer-run non-profit that benefits the Alleghany County Public Library. And at the end of the day, satisfy your hankering for down-home mountain cooking at The Pines Restaurant, or head to Muddy Creek Café, which hosts live music on Friday and Saturday nights.

 

As they did a half-century ago, diners gather under The Bluffs’ A-frame ceiling — tongue-and-groove paneling set on a timbered frame held together by wooden pegs. photograph by Chip Henderson

2. Discover a beautiful (and tasty) pit-stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Bluffs Picnic Area within Doughton Park (which opens for the season on May 13) was one of the first picnic areas on the Blue Ridge Parkway and is a picturesque spot to take in a beautiful view. Stretch your legs, then grab a bite to eat at the Bluffs Restaurant. Opened in 1949, it was the first restaurant on the parkway. Pair the restaurant’s famous fried chicken with sides like collard greens, cathead biscuits, mashed potatoes, and something sweet, like blackberry peach cobbler.

Drive a little farther on the parkway, and you’ll find the clapboard Brinegar Cabin, a restored historic farming homestead built around 1889. During the summer months, you can watch weaving demonstrations by parkway volunteers or wander through the springhouse and mountain garden on the farm.

 

Spend a day hiking on the trails around the peaceful W. Kerr Scott Reservoir. photograph by North Carolina High Country Host

3. Get active in Wilkesboro

Another High County gem is hidden in the foothills. Spend a day at W. Kerr Scott Reservoir, where trails around the 1,489-acre lake attract nature lovers and cyclists. Younger explorers can search for natural treasures like birds, plants, and more on the .75-mile Fish Dam Creek TRACK trail and earn prizes for their discoveries (find more details at kidsinpark.com). Just be sure to leave the treasures you find in nature.

For a more vigorous adventure, bring your mountain bike for a wild ride on trails that run along the reservoir’s contours. The mountain bike trails’ bermed and banked turns are known for their intense flow and have been described as “a roller coaster that’s free.”

 

4. Follow the Barn Quilt trail

Order a pimento cheese burger and a craft brew at Dooley’s. photograph by North Carolina High Country Host

Think of this as a more subdued ride for history lovers: The Barn Quilt trail begins with the Heritage Square Splashpad downtown and zigzags across scenic spots in Wilkes County.

Wilkesboro has been dubbed the birthplace of moonshine, so while you’re here, swing by the Call Family Distillery for a history lesson. “The Uncatchable” Willie Clay Call hauled moonshine all over North Carolina, and his classic cars are still parked on the property. Catch live music on weekends at the distillery’s Mash House or stop by for a tasting and a good story.

For a delicious conclusion to your Wilkesboro adventures, locals swear by Dooley’s Tavern and Grill. Their house-ground handcrafted burgers might be the star of the menu, but the Brushy Mountain apple pie is a tough contender for the title.

 

Don’t miss the frescoes at St. Mary’s Church, which were painted by an internationally renowned artist. Photography courtesy of North Carolina High Country Host

5. View the frescoes of West Jefferson

A short drive from downtown along streets dotted with flowers brings you to St. Mary’s Church, where you’ll be greeted with the unexpected pleasure of frescoes by internationally renowned artist Ben Long. At the Ashe County Arts Council, you can check out exhibits and purchase works by local artists.

 

Spend a day tubing down the New River — but don’t forget your sunscreen! Photography courtesy of North Carolina High Country Host

6. Get lost in nature at New River State Park

Make the short trek from West Jefferson to New River State Park. Spring wildflowers are abundant, as are fuchsia rhododendrons and dusty-pink mountain laurels that flourish beneath the hardwoods. Amble along one of the many trails or find a fishing spot on the oldest river in North America. The north and south forks of the river teem with smallmouth and redeye bass (check NC Wildlife Resources Commission for license requirements). Lucky visitors might also spot mink, muskrat, or river otters gamboling along the banks, or red-tailed hawks wheeling above the river, but make sure to respect wildlife by keeping a safe distance — this is their home, after all!

You can also canoe, kayak, or tube down the New River. Zaloo’s Canoes, operating since 1976, can outfit you with everything you need for your adventure, including equipment, a river map, and transportation. Trips range from two hours to three days, and their overnight trips are fully customizable. Overnight groups can use the bathhouse and find provisions at Zaloo’s exclusive Big River Outpost campsite.

 

7. Walk the Glen Burney Trail

Take a hike down the Glen Burney Trail to see Glen Marie Waterfall. Photography courtesy of North Carolina High Country Host

Park at Annie Cannon Gardens, a quiet spot just beside the trailhead, to find this trail tucked into downtown Blowing Rock. Younger visitors may decide to put on a spontaneous show on the small garden stage before you venture out. The Glen Burney trail winds along New Year’s Creek and descends to two waterfalls, Glen Burney and Glen Marie.

Watch your step and stay on the trail to help prevent impact on the surrounding environment — plus, the 1.5-mile (one way) trail is steep in places and peppered with roots and rocks. Once you reach the base of the falls, the large boulders that jut out into the creek are a perfect place to rest while you savor the sounds and sights of the falls.

 

Rest your feet and take in the beautiful surroundings at Pond Creek Trout Pool. photograph by Todd Bush

8. Hike Beech Mountain

Beech Mountain has more hiking trails than anywhere else in the High Country. For an easier trail, the local favorite is the 1-mile Upper Pond Creek Trail running along Pond Creek, where you’ll find 18 different information stations on the trail about the area’s flora and fauna. Leave no trace as you admire the spring beauty all around you: Wildflowers carpet the fields and golden trout lilies glow in dappled forest sunlight. Native brook trout swim in the creek’s pools, and anglers can catch and release them (license required).

 

Order a delicious pie from the Famous Brick Oven Pizzeria in Beech Mountain. Photography courtesy of North Carolina High Country Host

9. Eat like the locals

Finish your Beech Mountain adventure at another local hang-out, the Famous Brick Oven Pizzeria. Not only do they have an expansive menu, but they also offer plenty of activities for the whole family, including an arcade and mini-golf. In summer 2022, they’ll open the Mountaineer Adventure Tower, featuring a ropes course and giant tubular slide. Also nearby is Beech Mountain’s free Bark Park for your furry companions.

In Boone, locals rave about treats from Stick Boy Bakery. The original location near Appalachian State serves fantastic bagels and other baked goods along with local coffee from Hatchet roastery. Brown-butter chocolate chip and “magic” cookies are irresistible favorites.

For more substantial fare, visit the nearby Stick Boy Kitchen. Breakfast is served all day and the flaky, house-made buttermilk biscuits can be ordered with Southern staples like fried chicken, pimento cheese, or country ham. They also offer hot and cold sandwiches, soups, salads, smoothies, and their signature pastries and sweets.

This story was published on Apr 28, 2022

Alysia Yates

Alysia Yates is a writer, editor, and outdoor enthusiast. She lives with her family in Raleigh, where you can find her on the Greenways or in her favorite coffee shop.