When Heather and Sean Busher first toured the old dude ranch near Burnsville that had sat empty for five years, the amount of work the place needed to turn it into comfortable lodging seemed daunting. But the view from the front of the main lodge — lush rolling land with the Black Mountain range framed in the distance — made all the difference. “I thought if I lived around so much beauty, it would be worth it,” Heather says.
The Bushers are a part of a renaissance of sorts in this part of Yancey County. Much like this transformation of their dude ranch into Mount Mitchell Eco Retreat, fellow residents are infusing the area with new energy. All the while, they’re taking care to preserve the heritage, history, and natural beauty Yancey County is known for.
In this part of the state, the word is out: It’s easy for North Carolina explorers to come for the weekend and experience a dose of mountain charm. Read on for our three-day itinerary.
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Mount Mitchell Eco Retreat features five lodges comprising 16 rooms and suites. Photography courtesy of Explore Burnsville
Check into Mount Mitchell Eco Retreat. With your back to the crystal-clear South Toe River up Otter Rock Road, cabin-like lodges will begin to emerge from the trees. When a big brindle dog with white patches wanders over as you unload your suitcases, don’t worry — that’s Olive, the retreat’s unofficial greeter.
Wooden signs point you to your lodge, where uncluttered but cozy decor gives the rooms and suites a modern cabin vibe. Once you’re settled in, take the kids out to get acquainted with the grounds. Maybe they’ll want to play a match of Ping-Pong, walk around the spring-fed pond, or check out the game selection in the lounge.
Dine at Hog Hollow Wood-Fired Pizza. This pizza joint within Homeplace Beer Co. serves what Burnsville author and business owner Ronni Lundy calls “the best pizza in three counties.” Start your meal with soft pretzel rolls you can dip into Brown Mule beer cheese. Then pair your Whole Hog pie of pepperoni, bacon, and a kick of jalapeños with a pint of Faith Healer session IPA.
Enjoy live music at Homeplace Beer Co. Stick around after dinner for music at the brewery’s outdoor or indoor stages. Grab a Golden Heart American lager, made with corn grits grown in North Carolina, and settle in while the whole family enjoys bluegrass jams, country tunes, indie folk, and more, depending on the night.
Shop and stroll around in downtown Burnsville — and work up an appetite. Photography courtesy of Explore Burnsville
Try the buttery, delicious corn at Pig & Grits. Photography courtesy of Explore Burnsville
Enjoy a smokehouse breakfast. Pig & Grits, a homey Burnsville staple, has been serving Southern comfort food since 2014. Dig into hearty breakfast fare, like Eggs Benny Americana, an English muffin with buttermilk fried chicken, melted smoked Gouda pimento cheese, fried eggs, and a side of grits. Pick up a pint of pulled pork to go, or swing by for lunch or dinner to sample the brisket, chicken, or ribs, slow-smoked in-house with locally grown hickory.
Stroll through downtown Burnsville. After a satisfying breakfast, step into shops on Main Street, like The Grapevine, a clothing boutique with unique and stylish fashions for work and play.
While you’re exploring, you’ll happen upon specialty shops like the eco-friendly Fill-More Refill Store. From cleaning products like laundry and dish soaps to body care staples like shampoo and conditioner, bring in your bottles to fill and reuse, doing your part to cut down on single-use plastic. Other finds, like reusable water bottles, bamboo travel utensil kits, and headbands, make great gifts.
Right on West Main Street, Lundy welcomes you to peruse the thoughtfully filled shelves at her shop, Plott Hound Books. “I’m happy for you to browse to your heart’s content, or to guide you to a great book just for you. Oh, and there’s, of course, a lot of well-curated cookbooks here, too,” says Lundy, who also happens to be a two-time James Beard Foundation winner for her cookbook, Victuals, An Appalachian Journey with Recipes.
In the spring of 2022, Lundy transformed her lifelong love of reading into a nook with books of many genres for all ages, featuring those by Appalachian writers. Its sunny, yellow wall, table lamps, red-painted tables, decoupage “hound,” and comfy armchair make the shop feel like home.
When lunchtime rolls around, a BLT and soup of the day at Garden Deli is a great way to warm up on a chilly day. Or try the chef salad with pit-smoked ham, turkey, cheddar, and locally sourced eggs.
For more of an outdoorsy afternoon, take a drive along NC Highway 80 — a section of the Mount Mitchell Scenic Byway — to visit Roaring Fork Falls, a gorgeous 100-foot cascade. The best part? The half-mile hike along a forest service road to get to the waterfall couldn’t be easier. But if Roaring Fork doesn’t strike your fancy, there are also more than 100 miles of public trails in the area to choose from, so pull on those hiking boots and explore.
Unwind at the historic NuWray Hotel — which might just be older than the town itself. Photography courtesy of Explore Burnsville
Take in local history. In the middle of Town Square stands a statue of Captain Otway Burns, a naval war-hero-turned-politician who became the town’s namesake because of his role in increasing representation for North Carolina’s western counties.
Several historic buildings surround the square — the old Yancey County Public Library building; Town Hall, which inhabits the stately former county courthouse; and the rambling NuWray Hotel, currently under renovation.
The big white hotel with its massive gabled portico and two-story entranceway porch makes quite an impression. It’s as old as, if not older than, the town itself. “Everyone in Burnsville has a story about the NuWray,” says Amanda Keith, who, with her husband, James, bought the hotel and began renovations in January 2022. “Our great hope is for it to be a great place for the community to gather, have events, come eat some good food, and have good drinks.”
The couple anticipates having the restaurant up and running by late spring or early summer of 2023, when John Stehling, founder and former chef of Asheville’s Early Girl Eatery, will join the Keiths at the NuWray. The hotel will likely have its grand opening in the fall of 2023.
Take a self-guided tour of local studios to meet artists like Rob Levin of Levin Glass. Photography courtesy of Explore Burnsville
You might bump into artists Kristen and J.R. Page at Page Pottery. Photography courtesy of Explore Burnsville
Check out the art scene. The arts are thriving here, with hundreds of artists making these mountainsides and valleys home. Twice a year, Toe River Arts hosts a self-guided tour of the studios of area artisans, which is just one way that the organization promotes the arts and supports artists. Follow the organization on social media for this and other pop-up events in Burnsville.
Venture into Hearth Glass and Gallery, founded in 2022 by descendants of Harvey K. Littleton, father of the modern studio glass movement. The lobby of the former auto repair garage is now a gallery for the works of area glass artists, including delicate glass ornaments in a rainbow of watercolors. And inside the former garage-turned-studio, you can take a glass-blowing class.
When you see One Of A Kind Art Gallery, you’ll know it’s not like anywhere you’ve been before. Its storefront is a jumble of signs — one with letters that hang like laundry from a clothesline announcing that it’s an art gallery, one from when the building was a country store, and still other small signs that announce the store’s contents attached to a tall, slim, rusty creature with alligator-like teeth.
Kari Weaver, the gallery’s owner, represents more than 150 artists who work in a variety of media and are diverse in age, background, and style. She describes the store’s contents as “fine, folk, and funky local art,” and she knows every artist with art on display. “If you ask me about a piece, my first inclination is to tell you about the person who made it,” she says.
View the heavens at Earth to Sky Park. The recently opened Arthur Planetarium has daily shows about our planet and beyond. Join a community night at the Bare Dark Sky Observatory, boasting the largest telescope in the state. As the only designated International Dark Sky Park in North Carolina, don’t miss the chance to see stunning stars.
Feast at a local favorite. Enjoy a cocktail while you wait for a Spicy Island Burger, Dragon Spring Rolls, and a crispy-fried shrimp basket at the nautical-themed Snap Dragon, a favorite local restaurant inspired by Burnsville’s namesake Capt. Otway Burns and his ship, the Snap Dragon.
Order a cup of joe — and an oatmeal cream pie — at Appalachian Java. Photography courtesy of Explore Burnsville
Brunch at Appalachian Java. This Burnsville gathering place offers a well-rounded breakfast menu, as well as lunch and dinner. Choose from bagels; wraps with bacon, eggs, and cheese; banana bread oats; and more. Top off your meal with a cup of Einstein Dark coffee or an Appalachian fog — a warm mug full of English breakfast tea, steamed milk, and honey.
Take a self-guided barn quilt tour to see some of the colorful hand-painted squares on buildings in the area. Photography courtesy of Explore Burnsville
Tour a Barn Quilt Block Trail. No doubt you’ve noticed the colorful quilt squares on buildings in and around town. These creative, hand-painted wooden squares adorn buildings, barns, and churches throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains. Take one of Burnsville’s nine self-guided tours, and explore the mountain roads and scenic views, too.
Grab a Brew at Birdfoot. This craft beer, outdoor gear, and bottle shop features 17 taps and an ever-changing assortment of beers and wines in bottles and cans. “We look for smaller brands that are local-ish,” says Chris Sutton, one of the shop’s owners. “When I say local, I mean local to western North Carolina, as well as hometown brands — even though they might be made in Oregon.”
You can also buy natural and unique wines, as well as biking, hiking, and climbing gear. Why the unusual combination? Sutton is an avid outdoorsman, who climbs and races mountain bikes.
As you pack your car to head back home, you’ll see why the Bushers were willing to put in the work to transform their lodge. “It’s just so magical here, all the time,” she says. “My premonition that all the hard work would be worth it because of the beauty was accurate. It gets me by, for sure.”
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