A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

As you’re winding your way toward the historic mountain towns of Saluda, Columbus, and Tryon, they come into view — the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, rising in the distance —

Madison County Championship Rodeo

As you’re winding your way toward the historic mountain towns of Saluda, Columbus, and Tryon, they come into view — the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, rising in the distance —

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

As you’re winding your way toward the historic mountain towns of Saluda, Columbus, and Tryon, they come into view — the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, rising in the distance —

Wineries, Wildflowers, & Waterfalls at the First Peak of the Blue Ridge

As you’re winding your way toward the historic mountain towns of Saluda, Columbus, and Tryon, they come into view — the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, rising in the distance — and your excitement begins to build. But it’s when you start to climb, when you roll the windows down and let the cool air rush in, when they’re right in front of you, that you know you’ve arrived.

Southeast of Hendersonville, Polk County offers more than just the first peek of the Blue Ridge — it’s home to the best that the mountains have to offer. Plan a trip to visit wineries and waterfalls, but then stick around to explore the cute, historic downtowns, experience incredible arts and culture, dine in delicious local restaurants, and go on amazing outdoor adventures.

Ready? Roll down the windows, enjoy the cool mountain breezes, take in those Blue Ridge views, and prepare to explore the first peak.



 

Go chasing waterfalls

There are plenty of waterfalls worthy of a walk in the woods in this area — and even some that don’t require a walk at all. Start at Pearson’s Falls and Glenn. The Tryon Garden Club owns and maintains the 275-acre preserve, a “botanical wonderland” filled with 310 species of wildflowers and plants.

“It’s one of the top nature attractions in the area,” says Beth Rounds, president of the Tryon Garden Club.

Take a short stroll through a beautiful cove forest to get to Pearson’s Falls. photograph by Melinda Massey

While 90-foot Pearson’s Falls itself is gorgeous, the short trail that leads to it is pretty special, too. You’ll follow alongside rushing water in Colt Creek as you walk through a beautiful cove forest to reach the namesake waterfall. Pack a picnic — Thompson’s Store, the oldest grocer in North Carolina, has all of the provisions — and then spend some time relaxing.

You can drive right up to Shunkawauken Falls. photograph by First Peak Visitor Center

The next waterfall on your list should be Shunkawauken Falls, which cascades down White Oak Mountain (you can see the top 150 feet of it from this viewpoint!). The best part? Minimal effort for a stunning view. This is a drive-by waterfall — and getting there is half the fun. “The drive itself is quite thrilling,” says Melinda Massey, Travel and Tourism Director for Polk County. Take the two-mile, winding trip up White Oak Mountain Road to see the falls. Then, to complete a scenic 11-mile loop, continue as the road turns into Skyuka Mountain Road (which has incredible panoramic vistas — and fewer twists and turns!).
 

Raise a glass to a mountain getaway

After a day spent exploring the outdoors, take a seat — and a sip — for a more refined kind of fun. Polk County is home to four wineries with tasting rooms — Mountain Brook Vineyards, Overmountain Vineyards, Parker-Binns Vineyard, Russian Chapel Hills Winery — and each of them are within an easy drive to the next.

Sip a glass of wine at Mountain Brook Vineyards. photograph by Mountain Brook Vineyards

“This area is the best grape-growing region in North Carolina,” says Frank Lilly, winemaker at Overmountain Vineyards. “The undulating hills create multiple microclimates that make the weather good for growing wine grapes.”

In addition to tours and tastings, the wineries also regularly host live music and other special events in the vineyards. Overmountain Vineyards, which specializes in French-style, dry white wine, offers curated one-on-one experiences by reservation. Lilly calls it a Napa Valley experience in Polk County.
 

Horse around in Tryon

The picturesque Trade Street lined with local boutiques, a bookstore, antiques shops, and restaurants — all with great mountain views — make Tryon “the encapsulation of the perfect small mountain town,” according to Michelle Newman, chair of the Explore Tryon Tourism Development Authority.

Watch the sun set behind Tryon Peak — the first measured mountain peak of the North Carolina Blue Ridge. photograph by Melinda Massey

Spend time exploring downtown shops (Mountain Trail Soap Company and The Nest Artisan Market are local favorites) and checking out the thriving art scene at the Tryon Fine Arts Center and Upstairs Art Space before stopping for a bite. Newman loves Huckleberry’s Restaurant, where the menu includes salads, sandwiches, and frittatas.

Tryon also has a strong equestrian history (if you had any doubt, the town mascot, Morris the Horse, stands in the center of downtown and is a popular spot for selfies): It’s home to the Tryon Riding & Hunt Club, an equestrian club that dates back to 1925, and has hosted equestrian competitions and a Steeplechase throughout its history.

“Tryon has such a huge reputation and a history with equestrian sport — it’s central to the town’s identity,” Newman says.
 

Giddy up to the Tryon International Equestrian Center

Riding on the back of Tryon’s nearly 100 years of equestrian history, the Tryon International Equestrian Center opened in 2014 and is hailed as “the ultimate destination for all who love horses.” This renowned equestrian campus hosts major national and international competitions, from horse jumping and hunt seat competitions to an Olympic equestrian discipline called eventing.

The Tryon International Equestrian Center is worth a visit, even if you don’t know much about horses. photograph by Tryon International Equestrian Center

But no special know-how is required for a visit to this gem: Located 20 minutes outside of Tryon, the Equestrian Center is more than just a haven for equestrians and their horses. Housing several shops and restaurants — including sushi and Italian food! — the center is a destination for anyone visiting the mountains.

Newman loves the options for “fantastic, family-friendly events,” and calls the Equestrian Center a must-see for visitors.
 

Step back in time in Columbus

History and heritage are at the heart of this small town — the 1859 courthouse, one of the oldest operating courthouses in the state, is a popular downtown landmark.

Learn more about the people, industries, and events that shaped the small town at the Polk County History Museum, where exhibits showcase military memorabilia, traditional tools, and railway history. Columbus is also home to the House of Flags, where the motto is “every flag has a story to tell.” This niche museum maintains a collection of American flags and state flags, highlighting their history, evolution, and symbolism.

After your exploration into the past, refuel with a meat and three from Calvert’s Kitchen or dig into a sandwich — made with fresh-baked bread — at Southern Manners.
 

Stroll through Saluda

Downtown Saluda may only span a few blocks, but it has a storied history: The local railroad once transported residents from Charleston and Columbia to local mountain resorts for their summer vacations, turning the sleepy little mountain town into a popular tourist destination, according to Lynn Casey, coordinator for the Saluda Downtown Foundation Inc. And you can see it just as they did: “The architecture in the downtown historic district hasn’t changed since the late 1800s,” she says.

Thompson’s Grocery Market & Grill in downtown Saluda is the perfect place to pick up a picnic. photograph by First Peak Visitor Center

Downtown is also home to a number of great local shops, including Saluda Outfitters, Heartwood Gallery, and M.A. Pace General Store. The Saluda Historic Depot & Museum is also worth a visit. Located in the 1903 train depot, the museum showcases local railroad history, including information about the Saluda Grade, the nation’s steepest mainline standard gauge railroad grade, and how the railroad transformed the mountain town.

After shopping and browsing, order to-die-for sticky buns from Wildflour Bake Shop or stop in to The Purple Onion, where pizza is served with a side of local music.

“The Purple Onion has always attracted top-notch musicians from across the East Coast,” Casey says. “For a small venue, there’s some high echelon talent.”
 

Explore the outdoors in the Green River Gorge

The small towns of Saluda, Columbus, and Tryon serve as the gateways to big outdoor adventures: Get your adrenaline pumping with the folks at Green River Adventures, who will take you on a guided whitewater kayaking trip down the Green River, which, Casey says, attracts kayakers from around the world; hike to a secluded swimming hole; or sail over the treetops during a zip-lining adventure with The Gorge Zipline. For a slightly more mellow outing, sign up for a tubing trip: Green River Cove Tubing and Wilderness Cove Tubing offer family-friendly trips that provide spectacular views and a great way to cool off.

Relax & rejuvenate at a mountain escape

The best way to cap off an amazing day in the Blue Ridge? Kicking up your feet in a cozy local bed and breakfast or rental with an amazing view — or relaxing on the porch outside of a cute, vintage camper or on a deck beneath the branches of a tree house at Emberglow Outdoor Resort. Whether you’re in the mood for a fancier, modern stay, or something more rustic and laidback, you’ll find the perfect respite. To learn more about lodging options in this area of North Carolina, click here.

Spend the night in a vintage trailer at Emberglow Outdoor Resort. photograph by Emberglow Outdoor Resort

With waterfall hikes, whitewater adventures, small town charm, and delicious local wines, we’re certain your first peek — and peak! — of the Blue Ridge won’t be your last.

This story was published on Jun 29, 2021

Jodi Helmer

North Carolina-based journalist Jodi Helmer writes about food, farming, and the environment.