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Pat and Chuck Blackley
Music is passed between generations.
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Pat and Chuck Blackley
Rough Ridge, along North Carolina’s Tanawha Trail, is a favorite hiking spot for families.
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Pat and Chuck Blackley
Harpers Ferry, W. Va
Human history comes alive at Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
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Pat and Chuck Blackley
Childhood is kept alive at North Carolina’s Price Lake.
1. Music: High Lonesome and Down-Home
It’s the sound of the mountains, more than anything else – music here reflects the high lonesome of the peaks and the joy of the valleys, in the keen of the ballad singers, the lilt of the old shape-note hymns, the sweet violin and the energy of the banjo. These mountains have inspired the likes of Kathy Mattea, Doc Watson and Dolly Parton – and they also inspire the folks who gather in the local general store or coffee shop or campground once a week to jam and listen. Concerts set off the sunset at Fisher’s Peak Music Center each summer, and stages from FloydFest to the Galax Fiddlers’ Convention are host to bluegrass and old-time and country.
2. Shared Journeys
There’s romance in a road, and famous roads run north to south along these mountains, serving as gateways to mountain towns and hiking trails and campgrounds, and as destinations in themselves. The Blue Ridge Parkway covers 469 miles in Virginia and North Carolina. More than 1,000 miles of the legendary Appalachian Trail run through Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia, and hundreds of loop hikes can connect to the National Scenic Trail. U.S. 11 also runs through the region, paralleling the newer and faster interstate system; it’s Main Street for many towns, and hosts the giant U.S. 11 Antique Alley and Yard Sale, held each May along the road’s southern miles.
3. Romantic Weekends
A romantic weekend might translate as a cozy Victorian inn or a rustic log cabin or a tent in the middle of the woods – a long hike, a proposal by a waterfall, a dinner with candlelight. The Blue Ridge’s romantic spots are beautiful in quieter ways than their counterparts in the legendary romantic destinations of the world. The Blue Ridge Parkway alone is chock-full of proposal spots – charming Mabry Mill, or serene Abbott Lake or Price Lake, miles of hiking trails to summits and viewpoints, sunsets and sunrises on overlooks – or head off the road into our own City of Light – Asheville, N.C., nicknamed the “Paris of the South” – no need to fly to the one in France.
4. Country Hardball
The American pastime is alive and well on red-dirt Minor League Baseball diamonds dotting the landscape from Maryland to Alabama – teams with names like the West Virginia Power, the Lynchburg Hillcats, the Tennessee Smokies and the Asheville Tourists play ball through the warm months on fields like LewisGale Field, home of the Salem Red Sox, where the sun sets over the mountains beyond and the lights come on over the crowds.
5.“You’re never lost or alone.”
Everyone’s just so nice. Need directions? A suggestion for a good place to eat or listen to bluegrass on a Saturday night? Just ask. As our editor in chief Kurt Rheinheimer puts it, “people just want to say hi, ask how you’re doin’ and find out if you think it’s going to stay hot for the next couple of days.”
6. Artists and Writers, Constantly Inspired and Creating
All this beauty inspires artists in every form: potters, painters, sculptors, photographers, writers – many make their homes in these mountains, and others come to spend time at schools, learning modern and traditional crafts. Small towns throughout the region are supporting vibrant arts communities, with galleries, studios and museums, including Berea, Ky.; Brevard and Asheville, N.C. area (home to the Folk Art Center and the Allanstand Craft Shop); places such as Heartwood and Floyd and Abingdon in southwest Virginia.
Seems everyone has a favorite sunset spot. For college students and locals in the Shenandoah Valley around Harrisonburg and Dayton, Va., it’s Reddish Knob, a high peak that once had a fire tower, a long drive out past Mennonite farms and up and up until you’re looking into the ridges of West Virginia. That’s where the sun goes down and the stars come out, and then if you turn around you’ll catch some beautiful…
…over the distant city. On a full-moon night, that golden harvest orb rises over country and city alike, floating like a lamp in the sky. Get out of town to the woods, and the moon fills the hillsides with silver, shines off the silos and tin farmhouse roofs.
9. Long Walks (including long hikes)
Our national, state and regional parks are all wound about with trails for all levels and ages. One in four of thousands of hikers make it through the Appalachian Trail’s 2,180 miles every year, but there are countless shorter walks from afternoon strolls to overnight backpacking trips. Well-loved places like Cascades and Roaring Run in Virginia have picnic areas for meals. Other favorite places: Mt. Mitchell, Max Patch and Chimney Rock in North Carolina and Amicalola Falls in Georgia.
The dogwoods, the forsythia, the redbuds, the apple trees, the lilacs... the slopes of the mountains are laced with lavender and white and pink as these trees and shrubs bloom for what seems like a moment, filling the air with sweet aromas and the soft buzzing of honeybees.
Spring’s delicate flowers give way to the mountain laurel, rhododendron and azaleas of summer, fiery in the higher elevations – head for the mountain peaks and balds in May and June to witness small forests of these deep thickets bloom.
12. Fall (well, of course)
Cool air and an explosion of color make for crowded roadways in autumn – do your leaf-peeping on weekdays if you can. The leaves start changing north and head south. Keep an eye on peak days and take a camera.
13. (And Yes, Even) Winter
The quiet of snow and the sparkle of ice in late fall and winter have their own beauty. Enjoy the white winter with hot cocoa and good reading; this is the time of year that turns towns into wonderlands of holiday lights. If you like to be out in it, head for ski slopes throughout the region. When the parkway closes, stretches can be great spots for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing (and even dogsledding).
14. Our Mountain Resorts
Rustic lodges and inns bring together the best of worlds, offering spas, fine cuisine and luxurious lodgings with views of and access to the rustic outdoors surrounding them. Some new and perennial favorites: The Homestead, in Virginia’s Bath County area, around since the 18th century, with famous golf and spa. Primland, a stunning, relatively new destination in Meadows of Dan, Va., with an observatory, spa and hunting. The Swag, above Waynesville, N.C., right at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and known for its excellent meals. The Greenbrier, recently revitalized in West Virginia, with a casino and golf club. And two more: North Carolina’s Chetola Resort; Georgia’s Brasstown Valley.
15. Food as Comfort
Look for the crowded parking lots and you’ll find the best places to eat – spots where the menu includes buckwheat pancakes, fried chicken, spoon bread, mashed potatoes, deviled eggs, sweet potato casserole, cole slaw, grits, biscuits, sausage gravy, meat loaf, fried green tomatoes, homemade ice cream… well, we could go on. Longtime traditional eateries such as The Homeplace in Virginia serves up family-style comfort meals.
16. Food as Destination
Chefs both immigrant and homegrown are transforming southern mountain cuisine in delicious ways, concocting original recipes, wines, ciders, chocolates and five-course meals. For sweets: try Nancy’s Fudge (Virginia), Holl’s Chocolate (West Virginia) and other chocolatiers throughout the region. Wineries such as Chateau Morrisette in Virginia also offer fine dining. Check our calendars for festivals celebrating food from chocolate to ramps to beer to strawberries.
17. Healing (waters, massage therapists, spas and spa towns)
Berkeley Springs, W.Va. has long promoted itself as having more massage therapist per square inch than lawyers. Or something along those lines. Healing waters have drawn travelers to Berkeley Springs – and Warm Springs and Hot Springs, and White Sulphur Springs, and many others – for many years, and in modern days holistic therapies, hot baths and spas have grown up around these places.
18. Winding Roads (and wrong turns)
It’s the off-the-beaten-path journey that is so often the most beautiful, the most surprising – get off the highway and follow the little roads through small towns, farms and national forest. Make sure you’ve got the time for it, yes – but better yet, make the time for it. If you take a wrong turn, follow it and see where it goes. You might find yourself stepping back in time.
Mountain hollows and winding roads hide treasures – those places you find when you get off the interstate, places you might never see otherwise – little towns in north Georgia, Appalachian Trail heads in far southwest Virginia, little towns on the tops of mountains like Mentone, Ala., quirky historical markers, old family cemeteries, quaint churches and roadside antique shops.
20. Human History
In some places, it feels like you’re traveling in antique everything – from company coal towns to Victorian Main Streets. Some places have preserved the past brilliantly and purposefully: Asheville, N.C.’s grand Biltmore Estate; Harpers Ferry’s Civil War history in West Virginia; old farmsteads in Cades Cove, Tennessee; the carriage paths and architecture of North Carolina’s Moses Cone Manor; the military austerity and gracious front porches of Lexington Va.; the national historic sites throughout. But our people value the past in many ways, from century farms passed down through generations, to restored family homes, to antique shops we love to spend hours browsing, to museums and farmers’ markets.
21. Glorious Kitsch
And we love holdouts from more recent, and sometimes less serious, history too – we haven’t let go of our love for the over-the-top and the quirky, from the wedding chapels and country music stages of the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge/Sevierville, Tennessee area (also home to Dolly Parton’s Dollywood) to attractions reminiscent of mid-20th-century road trips – the wax museum at Virginia’s Natural Bridge, for instance.
22. The Ancientness of These Mountains
These mountains are old, old. The New River isn’t true to its name – in fact, it’s one of the oldest rivers in the world, said to be second only to the Nile. We don’t have the massive, snow-capped peaks of the western Rockies, but it’s because our ridges have been around much, much longer (480 million years to the Rockies’ 50 to 100 million). Rock chimneys – Chimney Rock in North Carolina, Natural Chimneys in Virginia – natural arches in Kentucky, gorges such as Breaks in far southwest Virginia – testify to the geologic ages that have passed in this ancient part of the country.
23. Things Growing (farms and gardens)
Agriculture was often difficult living in the Appalachian mountains, but apple orchards, long stone walls and beautiful old barns still remain in the landscape. And farming and planting is far from gone – it’s experienced a resurgence with the locavore movement. Farmers’ markets and co-ops offer fresh produce and homemade edibles; organic farming, lavender farms, dairies, chickens and backyard gardens are filling our tables with good, homegrown meals.
24. Water in All its Forms
Fly fishing, canoeing, whitewater rafting, swimming holes – head into our state and national forests and parks for cooling off in the summer. Visit Transylvania County, N.C. for its beautiful waterfalls – or spend time along the water in Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tenn.; Lynchburg, Va.; Charleston, W.Va.; Greenville, S.C. and other towns and cities that are building destinations around their rivers.
25. Campfires in the Woods
It’s the classic, inexpensive family getaway – get out in the woods, pitch a tent, build a fire and roast s’mores. There are endless options for camping from rustic to not-so, in the national and state parks and in private campgrounds. Bring hiking boots, bug repellent and marshmallows – and remember to Leave No Trace.
26. Mountaintops: Views from Them
What’s more beautiful than a sunset or sunrise from the top of a mountain, or just an afternoon gaze across the endless ridges? They’re perfect places to watch the stars come out, or catch a meteor shower. (Some of our readers specifically mention Table Rock in South Carolina; in Virginia: Hawksbill, the Black Rock overlook at Big Meadows; McAfee Knob is another favorite.)
27. Mountaintops: Views of Them
And it seems there are few places one can go in our region where we can’t see the mountains from down here. Turn a corner and there’s the familiar blue line of the Blue Ridge, visible far or near, at the edge of the valley or the edge of town.
28. Up-close, Under-our-nose Beauty
Sometimes the best views on hikes aren’t from the tops of the peaks, but under our feet – the beautiful variety of wildflowers, the twists of old tree roots, lush carpets of ferns, the tumble of dry creek beds. Don’t forget to look down!
29. Wonderful Accents of Mountain Voices
The overheard conversation in the shop, the letter carrier who tells you good morning, the sweet grandmotherly sort who tells you good morning, the kids flying past on bicycles – the voices are as diverse as the people, but what beautiful music our mountain voices make, just talking.
30. Crossroads, Small Towns
Small towns still live in the mountains. Well, they still thrive in the mountains. Our readers mention Sparta, N.C.; Fayetteville, W.Va.; Wears Valley, Tenn.; writer Lee Smith loves West Jefferson and Todd, N.C.
31. Mountain Urban – our Small Cities
Our urban areas are just as wonderful – somehow they manage to be just as friendly as their smaller neighbors – Asheville, N.C.; Roanoke, Va.; Huntsville, Ala.; Greenville, S.C.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Frederick, Md.; Charleston, W.Va. all offer history, discovery and beauty.
32. The Places the Locals Know and Go
We’re always in search of the lesser known, though – the best-kept secrets, the local watering holes – and swimming holes, the less crowded hikes.
33. Festivals and Celebrations
We celebrate everything. Festivals abound, marking the Fourth of July, Halloween, Christmas. Music festivals fill the summer air with the sounds of fiddle and banjo. Animals mark some of the quirkier events – such as Brasstown’s New Year’s Eve Possum Drop, Brevard’s White Squirrel Festival and Grandfather Mountain’s Woolly Worm Festival (all in North Carolina).
34. Church Picnics – Country Church Traditions
Whatever your faith, little country churches hold onto pieces of mountain heritage and community in their annual traditions – homecoming services, picnics on the grounds, rummage sales, sunrise services. Beautiful little white churches ring steeple bells on Sundays, their little cemeteries overlooking countryside views.
There’s a different kind of high lonesome – that beautiful, mournful wail of the train in the distance, the sound of the wheels on the tracks, the cars coupling and the headlamps of the engine shining up in the hills after dark. There’s an old history in these trains; though the steam engines are gone you can see them remembered in places like Roanoke, Va.’s O. Winston Link Museum and Virginia Museum of Transportation. Excursion trains take folks on leaf tours and special dinners, and some former tracks have been transformed into biking trails, including the Greenbrier River Trail in West Virginia, and the Virginia Creeper around Damascus, Va.
Bear, deer, wild turkeys, bald eagles, monarch butterflies, elk reintroduced into the Great Smokies – efforts by land conservancies and conservation groups have maintained much habitat for wildlife in our mountains, though development and road building have put some species at risk. Shenandoah National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Grandfather Mountain and other spots are great places for observing wildlife. Grandfather alone is home to seven environmental wildlife habitats. The Great Smoky Mountains is known for more biological diversity than any other temperate climate area – more than 17,000 documented species, and 30,000 to 80,000 estimated to live there.
37. Wild Places
Our national and state parks, wilderness and heritage areas, wild and scenic rivers and wildlife management areas help ensure that all this beautiful land won’t disappear eventually. Our three major national parks – Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway – all celebrated 75th anniversaries in the last few years.
38. Childhood That’s Still Childhood
Camping trips, small towns, family gardens, swimming holes – all the things generations have grown up loving are still there. It’s possible for our children to unplug, get outside and enjoy a childhood that’s about fresh air, discovery and time with loved ones.
39. Places that are Treasuring the History and Restoring the Dignity and Pride of the Region
We’re proud of our heritage. So many individuals, organizations and universities are recognizing and communicating the value of our heritage – not just putting our history behind glass in museums, but continuing traditions of craft, music, storytelling and more in academic programs, festivals, curricula and publications. Foxfire; Appalachian studies programs at colleges including Radford University and Appalachian State University; ETSU’s Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies program; and the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee are just a few examples.
40. Roots that go Deep
There’s something in the land that grounds us, that calls us back when we’ve been traveling or living elsewhere, something familiar in the sight of the mountains, the sound of the fiddle, the color of the summer flowers and the autumn sky that we can’t quite leave behind. This is home. It might just be as simple as that.