North Carolina State Parks

North Carolina chooses to celebrate the land and the landscape of the mountains in the state parks that surround the Smoky Mountains.  From the peak of Mount Mitchell to the slowly flowing New River, the state parks of the state of North Carolina provide days of recreational opportunities for thousands of visitors each year.  Whether you are wanting a simple day playing in the mountains or a strenuous hike to the top of a miraculous rock formation, check out the state parks of NC to find all that your travel needs desire.

Blue Valley Experimental Forest – This experimental forest was established in 1964.  The purpose of this forest is to study the eastern white pine and other hardwood trees.  Through the research that goes on in this forest, the understanding of the eastern white pine and hardwood trees in the mountains and foothills of North Carolina has increased and researchers have been able to help keep these forests vibrant and healthy.

Chimney Rock State Park – Chimney Rock’s main feature is the 315 foot spire of rock that just from the landscape and shares its name with the park itself.  Once a privately owned park, the family that owned Chimney rock developed the stairway and elevator that give visitors access to the top of the spire and also hiking trails to other geological formations in the park itself, including the 404 foot Hickory Nut Falls.

Elk Knob State Park – This is one of the newest additions to the North Carolina State Park system.  Right now it has just the basics:  a park office, a contact station, a maintenance facility, picnic areas and a hiking trail.  The hiking trail provides a glorious walk to the apex of Elk Knob.

Grandfather Mountain – Grandfather Mountain was added to the state park system in North Carolina in 2008.  The acquisition of this property helps to continue the vision of the Horton family (the family that owned the area known as Grandfather Mountain and turned it into the destination that it is today).  On top of the mountain you will find hiking trails, a swinging bridge and breathtaking views of the mountains around Grandfather Mountain.  Add to that the events that take place on Grandfather Mountain each year, like the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and you have a destination that could monopolize your vacation for days at a time.

Mount Jefferson State Park – Mount Jefferson rises more than 1,600 feet above the surrounding area on the Ashe Plateau.  From the peak you can see the Blue Ridge Mountains and of course the Ashe Plateau which spreads out in front of the peak.  The lush forest on Mount Jefferson bring one of the widest ranges of plant and wild life that is to be found in the Southern Appalachians.

Mount Mitchell State Park – Mount Mitchell is the highest point east of the Mississippi River.  Rising 6,684 feet above sea level, Mount Mitchell dominates the skyline.  Though Mount Mitchell is often shrouded in mist and mystery, a hike to the top of the mountain provides the visitor with an amazing view of the surrounding valleys and mountains for miles around.

New River State Park – Camping, picnicking, fishing and best of all canoeing and flat water kayaking are just a few of the reasons to visit the New River State Park.  Beautiful scenery and a pastoral landscape surround what may be the oldest river in the United States.  You can drive through this beautiful area, taking in the natural beauty or you can jump in a canoe or kayak and float gentle down this slow moving river form one of the four river access points.

Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum

If you are interested in the lapidary arts you might want to take a ride into Franklin, NC and visit the Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum.  Due to the history of the area, it is no wonder that a museum has been established to show off the gems and the mining industry that brought Franklin to life.  Inside you are going to find not only information on the history of the area but examples of the gems that they found in the mountains.  Of course, the fact that the museum is housed in the old jail house means that you are walking into history as you learn about history.

Drive around downtown Franklin and you are going to see typical, small town USA downtown.  This downtown has been revitalized in the past with the influx of tourism dollars into the area and especially into Franklin itself.  Look up and down the narrow streets, take in the beauty of what Franklin looked like at the turn of the century.  On Phillips Street you will see the old jail house.  If you find the jailhouse, you have found the Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum.  They have been in this location since 1974 and they are not only celebrating their love of all things gem mining but they are also keeping up the Old Macon County Jail.

Franklin Gem & Mineral MuseumThe Franklin Gem and Mineral Society started in 1971.  The rockhounds of the area had a close kinship from many hours spent digging for gems in the mountains.  It was no wonder that informal get-togethers turned into monthly meetings.  In fact, by 1972 there were almost 175 people on the roles of the club.  In 1972 they also opened the museum.  This museum was a growing collection of the lapidary dreams of the rockhounds of Macon County.  With the move into the jailhouse, they were able to expand the collection and improve on the exhibits.  The club stills hosts this free museum and it is one of the highlights of any visit to downtown Franklin, NC.

Stepping though the door of the Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum brings into the world of rocks, gems and fossils.  From the North Carolina Room that focuses on those minerals and rocks pulled from the local mountains.  You can also cool those minerals and gems pulled from around the world in the World Room.  There are also rooms dedicated to fossils, artifacts and much more.  Learn about the industry that caused the founding of Franklin.  The Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum celebrates that industry it is a great way to spend the afternoon.

Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum
25 Phillips St
Franklin, NC
828-369-7831

Blowing Rock, NC

Blowing Rock may be the first tourist town in the Smokies.  After people got word of the beautiful area, this became a vacation spot with people camping, just to spend time in the mountains.  Now, Blowing Rock is the one of the premier resort cities on the North Carolina side of the Smokies.  Shopping, art galleries, culture, great food and skiing give you more than enough reasons to make Blowing Rock a stop on your mountain vacation.

 

The Cherokee called this area home until the European settlers came to this area.  The Scottish and the Irish felt home in this are at the top of the mountain, in the shadows of the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains.  During the late 19th century, Blowing Rock adopted tourism as their main industry.  Hotels began to be built as people touted the healthy atmosphere of the town.

In modern times, with the development of better roads and the introduction of mass produced automobiles, Blowing Rock thrived.  People love the history and the legends surrounding the area.  The resorts that are around the area bring in thousands of people and the people love to come back year after year.

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Paula Deen’s Kitchen

Paula Deen’s Kitchen in Harrah’s Cherokee Casino closed in 2013. Information below is maintained for historical purposes.

Cherokee stepped up its reputation in the eyes of foodies in 2011 by adding a restaurant named after Food Network Star: Paula Deen.  Since that time, Paula Deen’s Kitchen in Harrah’s Cherokee Casino has become THE place to eat when you visit Cherokee, NC.  Her signature take on traditional southern food styles is causing ripples in the culinary minds of tourists and locals alike.

The food is the main reason that you visit a restaurant, so we will start with the menu.  Deen chose dishes that fit every taste when she picked the menu for this restaurant.  From lowland favorites like Shrimp and Grits to seafood feasts from the boiler, the variety will fit every taste.  The portion sizes are not small, so make sure that you bring an appetite.  For instance, this restaurant produces one of the largest and best tasting chicken pot pies that you will ever have.  The pot pie is topped off by a huge puff pastry that, when soaked in the juice from the chicken pot pie, is amazing. The boiler pots of seafood are also huge and prepared to perfection.

Paula DeenThe food is paired amazingly with décor and the atmosphere.  The way the restaurant has been designed, it is quite and you feel as if you are the only people seated in the huge dining room.  And if the décor and the atmosphere is amazing, you will be floored by the service. Polite, pleasant and professional are the catchwords for the day.  Firstly, they allow you to make reservations.  As one of the hot spots in the Smokies, the tables fill up fast.  Secondly, they are nice.  The wait staff treats you like you are the only person in the restaurant and your experience is their only concern.

Of course, the fact that it is located in the home of gaming in the Smokies doesn’t hurt either.  Harrah’s is an ever expanding project in Cherokee, NC.  They have added lots of shopping, lots of dining experiences and of course with the addition of Paula Deen’s Kitchen they have added an upscale dining establishment that is still rising like a shooting star in the culinary scene of Western North Carolina.  Located in the casino itself, you are mere feet from a great meal when you are playing cards or trying your hand at one of the many video gaming machines.

Paul a Deen's KitchenCheck out Paula Deen’s Kitchen at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.  If you are looking for a memorable meal that will make you wish you had more room in your belly and more time in your schedule, this is the only place you need to eat while you are in the Smokies.  Go in and try Paula Deen’s take on southern tradition.

Deerpark Restaurant

dpr1One of my favorite places to eat, when I visit the Biltmore Estate is the Deerpark Resturant.  A trip to the Biltmore is not complete without good food and the Deerpark puts on a culinary show like you would not believe.  A buffet like no other, the Deerpark is something wholly different for the person looking for a great way to experience the opulence of a fine meal at the Biltmore.  Housed in a barn that was part of the original estate, you get to experience some history along with a good meal.

Let me set the scene:  you have purchased your entry into the Biltmore Estate and it is a glorious Sunday afternoon, around lunch time.  You and your family decide to go to the Deerpark, after a suggestion from the ticket office.  They call ahead for you and make a reservation for you.  You hop in the car and instead of stopping at the house, you continue through the beautiful grounds of the Biltmore Estate, following the signs, to the Deerpark.  From the time you pull into the parking lot you will feel that you are somewhere different.  You are at a barn that used to house some of the four legged residents of the estate.  The seating area is built around a central courtyard that at times has ice sculptures and can also be rented out for receptions throughout the year.

dpr2One of the staff members will escort you to your table and you will find that you are already experiencing the glory of the Vanderbillts. The table is laid out with beautiful stemware and silverware, cloth napkins and a fresh tablecloth.  They give you a brief rundown of the special of the day and then point you in the direction of the buffet. As you approach the tables of food you are going to realize very quickly that this is not your usual buffet.  No piles of over cooked food, no turines of processed soup, this is a gourmet buffet where the chefs of the Biltmore Estate get to experiment and dream.  Their dreams are edible, their experiments are delightful and the food the produce is amazing.  Fresh meats and vegetables prepared differently all the time sit side by side with field green salads and made to order omelettes.  And of course then there is the dessert table.  An entire table devoted to desserts.  From tartlets to pie to cake and cookies, the pastry staff at the Deerpark has been hard at work.

The Deerpark Restaurant is a place that everyone should experience at least once.  You need to make sure that you include it the next time that you go to the Biltmore.  Of course, there are also those people that make the Deerpark their restaurant of choice whenever they go to the Biltmore Estate.  When you are in Asheville you are going to want to spend some time at the Biltmore.  Make sure that you pick a good place to eat, pick the Deerpark.

Deerpark Restaurant
Biltmore Estate
One Lodge Street
Asheville, NC
Reservations – 828-225-6260

Kermit Hunter

Kermit Hunter is a well known American playwright.  But, he is also known in the history of the Smokies due to the fact that he wrote Unto These Hills, the second longest running outdoor drama in the US and one of the highlights to any visit to Cherokee, NC.  He also wrote the outdoor drama, Horn in the West which is performed each season in Boone, NC.

kermit hunter1Kermit Hunter was born in West Virginia.  After a time in the US Army in World War II, he went on to manage the North Carolina Symphony.  Over time, working with various theatrical companies, Hunter went on to his graduate studies program in Dramatic Arts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  While he was there several of his plays would be produced by the Carolina Playmaker’s.  At this same time, the city of Cherokee started to look for someone to write a dramatic interpretation of the Cherokee people to be performed at an outdoor site in Cherokee.

Hunter jumped on this project and began to transform the information and the vision of the Cherokee Historical Association into a script and then into a production.  Hunters draft won the submission contest and his most famous play, Unto These Hills was first performed in 1950.  Though the play has been changed over the years and the current version has little resemblance to the original Kermit Hunter play it is still his vision that put this outdoor drama on the map.  Hunter parlayed the success with Unto These Hills into scripting the play that would be performed by the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma until the mid-90s – The Trail of Tears.

Hunter’s other legacy is the play Horn in the West which is performed in Boone, NC during season each year.  This play tells the story of the people that founded the city of Boone and the Western north Carolina mountains.  Horn of the West features such American heroes as Daniel Boone and the story of a very dramatic and at times tragic time in American history.  This outdoor drama, while not as long running as Unto These Hills is still a part of the history and cultural scene in the Smokies.

In all, Kermit Hunter wrote more then 40 historical plays.  He is still known for his work in the Smokies and the people that are performing those works today in the same theaters and venues owe the tales the tell to Kermit Hunter.

Dillsboro Chocolate Factory

When you are roaming through the streets of downtown Dillsboro, you are going to notice a smell in the air.  The smell of chocolate. If you follow the fragrance through the air you will eventually end up at the Dillsboro Chocolate Factory.  In this beautiful building, you will find a world filled with chocolate, candy and other goodies along with a great selection of gifts.  They are constantly making their own candies and confectioneries, that are served up fresh everyday and some of the best fudge that you will ever taste.

One of the most interesting things that the Dillsboro Chocolate Factory has to offer is the Shooter.  This is a chocolate toasting cup (yes, you read the correctly, the cup itself is chocolate), filled with a chocolate ganache that has been infused with a a touch of alcohol.  Now, this is literally just a dab of liquor as there is less then 3% alcohol in these wonderful creations.  They come in flavors ranging from apple martini to Irish creme so you will certainly be able to find a favorite.  If you are still having a hard time wrapping your head around the concept, imagine an open faced truffle.

dcf2Along with their shooters, they have tons of chocolate creations.  From truffles ti brio to bark to fudge, their are more varieties of chocolate in this shop then you will find in more stores twice its size.  You can find those items from the past that were favorites of yours as a child to new creations that are fresh from their research and development department.  For instance, they have an Aztec  “Spicy” Turtle.  This creation is just the right blend of pecans, caramel and dark chocolate with just a bit of spice to make it interesting.  Or maybe you are in the mood for something a little strange, like – Dark Peanut Butter Ritz Crackers.  These are honest to goodness Ritz crackers that have had a layer of peanut butter spread on them and then dipped in wonderful dark chocolate.  The slight bitter of the dark chocolate with the sweet of the peanut butter and the savory cracker is a treat that you will not believe.

Along with the chocolate madness, they have candy galore.  Jelly Bellies, jawbreakers, jujubees and much more, there is a flavor or style of candy for everybody in your group.  Whether you have that unusual person that loves licorice or the person that can’t turn down a bag of chocolate covered coffee beans, this is an awesome candy store that has a little bit of everything.  Almost all of it is homemade and made fresh on a daily basis.

Along with the the sweets they have a gift shop that you won’t believe featuring gifts that celebrate the Smokies and of course, gifts to warm the heart.  They are located right near downtown Dillsboro.  Roam the streets and stop in for some treats.  Sit down and enjoy the smells and sounds of a candy factory, take some fudge home to the neighbors and have a great time while you visit the North Carolina side of the Smokies.

Dillsboro Chocolate Factory
28 Church Street
Dillsboro, NC
828-631-0156

History of Highlands, NC

The town of Highlands was founded in 1875 by two developers living in Kansas who, according to legend, took a map in hand and drew a line from New York to New Orleans. Then they drew another line from Chicago to Savannah. These lines, they predicted, would become major trade routes in the future, and where they crossed would some day be a great population center. Their logic wasn’t completely insane when one recognizes that we are just over 120 miles from Atlanta.

What evolved was a health and summer resort at more than 4,000 feet on the highest crest of the Western North Carolina plateau in the Southern Appalachian mountains. This paradisal settlement, the highest incorporated town east of the Rockies, provided common ground for both northern and southern pioneers a decade after the Civil war. By 1883, nearly 300 immigrants from the eastern states were calling Highlands home. In the early 1880’s the town contained 8 country stores specializing in groceries, hardware, and general merchandise, a post office, a hotel and boarding house for summer guests, a public library, four churches, and a first class school.

Very little changed until the late 1920’s, when the Cullasaja River was dammed, forming Lake Sequoyah, to provide hydroelectric power. A spectacularly scenic road to Franklin was carved into the rock walls of the Cullasaja Gorge. The muddy roads in and out of town were reinforced with crushed stone. By the time the Chamber of Commerce was established in 1931, the town?s population had increased to 500 with 2,500 to 3,000 summer guests. There were now 25 businesses.

Again, very little changed until the mid 1970’s, when the influx of multi-family homes and shopping centers spawned land use plans and zoning laws intended to protect Highlands‘ natural assets.The town’s population stands at slightly over 1,100 year round residents with 3,200 on the plateau.

Since its creation in 1875, the demographic mixture of Highlands has been remarkably unique. Founded by hardy pioneers from all over the nation, sober industrious tradesmen from the north, Scotch-Irish laborers and craftsmen from the surrounding mountains and valleys, and wealthy aristocratic planters and professionals from the south, the town has served as a cultural center for well-known artists, musicians, actors, authors, photographers, scholars, and scientists who have thrived in its natural setting.

The result is a town too cosmopolitan to be provincial, too broadly based to be singular in attitude and prospective, too enamored of its natural surroundings to be totally indifferent to them, and just isolated enough and small enough to be anxious about the benefits and setbacks of growth and development.

Waynesville, NC

Waynesville is a cross between a resort town and all-Americana.  Great downtown eating and shopping makes for a great visit.  Waynesville is close enough to Asheville for a day trip and close enough to the Smokies to make it a fun place to spend some time or even overnight to enjoy a great meal and do some shopping.

Like most towns in Western North Carolina, the settlement around Waynesville really took off with the introduction of the railroad.  Waynesville was founded in 1810 by a former Revolutionary War soldier.  He named the town for his commanding officer.  After the Civil War when the train came to the area in 1881, Waynesville began to take off.

With the establishment of Interstate 40 and the Great Smoky Mountain Expressway, Waynesville was even more connected to the rest of the world.  The roadways and the railway (which sees multiple visits a day) make this towns connection to Asheville and Knoxville a vital link in the change of shipping.

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Tweetsie Railroad

You know, Dollywood isn’t the only theme park in the Smoky Mountains. A quick drive east in the charming mountain town of Blowing Rock, NC, you’ll find Tweetsie Railroad – one of the most original Wild West attractions in the nation. Since the 1950s, Tweetsie’s famous steam engine, No. 12, has taken park-goers on the ride of a lifetime through the old west. One of the best theme park train rides in the southeast, Tweetsie Railroad also offers plenty of other attractions to entertain its guests during their park visit.

Obviously, people come to the park to ride the train first and foremost. You’ll be taken back to a time when guns and horses were the things men relied on to settle the open plains of the West. Only this time, you’ll take a train through the Great Smoky Mountains. Look out for bandits trying to rob the train in true outdoor drama style. It’s a spectacular Wild West show, and while you enjoy it, sit back and relax on a grand piece of American history. Built in the 1800s, this particular steam engine had been around the country before the people at Tweetsie gained ownership of the nostalgic locomotive during the middle part of the last century.

Live shows also make up a big part of the theme park, in addition to the show on the train. Hop on over to the saloon and you can take part in a live 1800s style saloon show with bar girls, gamblers, bandits, and the like. Stay for the Tweetsie Cloggers, who have been entertaining crowds for years. Roam the streets with the Tweetsie Railroad cast as they pull you into their wild-west story.

Tweetsie RailroadKiddie rides abound at the Tweetsie Railroad theme park. Inline cars, a merry-go-round, planes or any of a number of other rides have been built with children being the sole focus. This is a great time – while the kids are enjoying the rides – for parents, or anyone else to get something to eat in the park. The food is all carnival-type fare, and really good. From cotton candy and caramel apples to ice cream and hot dogs, all are available at the park’s restaurants or food vendors. Just be sure to ride everything you want before you eat.

Whether you’re just there to hop a train ride or sample park food till your heart’s content, you will have the time of your life at Tweetsie Railroad. The Tweetsie Railroad theme park delights thousands of guests each year. You’ll find yourself having more fun then you thought you could ever have in Blowing Rock, NC. Check the Tweetsie Railroad website for operation times before you go because their hours are limited. They are only open during the better weather parts of the year so please plan your visit accordingly. Tweetsie Railroad is a sure-fire, fun time in the Great Smoky Mountains.