Nature's Playground: Burke County

If playing in the outdoors is your thing, this North Carolina destination has it all.

“I’ll be last,” I volunteered to the other pilots-in-training. On a warm spring morning in western North Carolina, we were lining up to go tandem hang gliding, most of us for the first time. I was slightly nervous, to say the least, but as I watched the others being pulled by an ultra-light airplane up to about 1500 feet and hang gliding back down unscathed, I began to get excited.

Then Craig Pearson, the friendly owner of Thermal Valley Hang Gliding, said updrafts caused by the heat were making conditions too bumpy to continue taking people up. “We can try again tomorrow morning,” Craig said. I heard the news with a mixture of relief and regret. Hopefully, I’d get to go up the next morning.

I’d arrived in Morganton, North Carolina, the day before, joining a group of travel writers for three days of adventure in Burke County, about an hour east of Asheville. The region is known as Nature’s Playground, and our itinerary was filled with biking, hiking, and—maybe—flying.

Carpeted with lush, forested foothills rising westward to the Blue Ridge Mountains, the county is home to two state parks as well as Lake James and the Catawba River, where boating and swimming are popular activities. I was looking forward to communing with nature on this trip since my busy schedule often keeps me cloistered in my office, staring at a screen. 

Morganton, NC—Cozy, Small-Town Charm

Take a Bike Tour with Overmountain Cycles

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Our first taste of the great outdoors was riding bikes around Morganton, a cozy town with a thriving Main Street, brimming with boutiques, shops, offices, restaurants, and brewpubs. Our guide was Michael Lowther, owner of Overmountain Cycles, who said one of his favorite things is to take people downtown and show it off.

I lucked out and got an electric bike, which made climbing Morganton’s hills easy and breezy. “Let’s ping pong around town,” Michael said, and we were off, touring beautiful neighborhoods and a peaceful cemetery. Pedaling is still required on an electric bike, but the motor adds a certain level of assist, depending on your setting. I felt guilty at one point and let another writer try the electric bike and realized afterwards how good I had it!

We dined our first night at an eclectic eatery downtown called Treat. I loved the charming décor and bright, cheerful interior. I nibbled on pesto hummus-topped cucumber slices and spicy Wham Pow shrimp as I nursed my grapefruit basil martini and chatted with my fellow travel writers about—what else?—travel! My entrée was an amazing N.Y. strip, grilled to perfection, with smashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Our lodging was a spotless Hampton Inn, just off I-40, minutes away from Downtown Morganton.

The outdoor adventures continued the next day. But first a fortifying lunch at Friday Friends, a family restaurant serving sandwiches and salads. It’s located next to the Catawba River Greenway, a lovely 3.8 mile trail that winds along the river with no hills and lots of shade!

But our group was seeking something a bit more challenging, so after lunch we headed to South Mountains State Park, where we hiked to High Shoals Falls. The trail was only a mile or so, but it was straight up, at least it seemed like it. The terrain was rugged with lots of steps—natural and manmade—and roots and boulders along the way. I kept my eyes glued to the ground the whole time, so I wouldn’t fall.

When we got to the top, the 80-ft. crystal-clear falls were breathtaking. As we stood on a wooden platform next to the torrents of water gushing down, a cool mist bathed our sweaty faces. We took photos, guzzled water, and caught our breath. The hike was pretty strenuous, but I loved being in the woods, listening to the birds and the bubbling creek. On the way down, we stripped off our shoes and socks and dipped our toes in the cool water. Ahhh, I could have stayed there all day.

Wine Tasting at Silver Fork Winery

Picture Perfect Place to Sip Four Dog Red Blend

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Just my luck, a wine tasting was on the itinerary, so after a quick change of clothes back at the hotel, our group headed to Silver Fork Winery. Owners Jennifer Foulides and Ed Wisnieski welcomed us to their 32-acre “slice of heaven,” which nestles at the edge of a valley with undulating views of grapevines, meadows, and forests. It’s one of most picturesque wineries I’ve ever seen, and the weather couldn’t have been nicer. Add in a wine tasting, sandwiches, and interesting conversation and you pretty much have one of those quintessential experiences that include all your favorite things—well, except, my darling husband, Peter, who was back home holding down the fort.

Jennifer and Ed’s story of how they found the winery, bought it, and started making wine with practically no experience is inspiring. Originally from New York, they drove along the entire East Coast looking for a new enterprise, and at one point decided to head inland to Asheville to see the Biltmore. They read about this piece of property on farmsandland.com and knew this winery was their destiny from the moment they saw it.

The couple give lots of credit to their mentors, local winemakers who have helped them every step of the way. The team effort is paying off. The winery just completed a new events center for weddings and is expanding its wine-making facilities. Their delicious small-batch wines range from Chardonnay to Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc to Four Dog Red Blend, a full-bodied red that I quickly decided was my favorite.

The tasting room, built from stone and rough-hewn timber, and the outdoor seating area, fringed with flowering plants, overlook the South Mountains and provide almost 360° of stunning scenery. As we drank wine and talked, the dusky sky changed color from peacock blue to plum purple to black. It was time to head back to town, but not before I grabbed a bottle of Silver Fork Four Dog Red Blend to take home.

Admire Ben Long’s Mural of the Nine Muses

The Brilliant Fresco a Centerpiece of Morganton’s COMMA

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Besides Burke County’s natural beauty and recreational opportunities, the region also has a few must-see cultural attractions. The City of Morganton Municipal Auditorium (aka COMMA) features a mural on its ceiling by North Carolina native son Benjamin F. Long IV. Completed in April 2004, the brilliant fresco features the voluptuously beautiful, perennially youthful Nine Muses of Greek mythology frolicking in the clouds.

To one side, giant tragedy and comedy masks stare down with formidable expressions as a diverse gathering of earthbound people line the edges of the mural, some looking skyward, some not. Comfortable chairs are placed in a circle underneath the mural. Later I learned the chairs are on a platform that spins lazily around, allowing viewers the opportunity to drink in the expansive mural from various angles. Instead of spinning, I moved from chair to chair and looked up. It was peaceful in the arts center with a fountain splashing softly somewhere in the background, and I was happy to have some quiet time immersed in art.

A completely different experience awaited at Henry River Mill Village. Ramshackle buildings in varying stages of disrepair line up like soldiers along a dirt road. They once belonged to millworkers who moved to this small village in the early 1900s, where they were given work, housing, and food for the table.

When the mill closed down, the town slowly waned, but the village came back to life when the director of Hunger Games decided to use the town as a setting for District 12. Today new owners envision Henry River Mill Village will grow into a top tourist destination. Meanwhile, visitors can take a Hunger Games tour on weekends and even learn how to shoot a bow and arrow. Historic tours of the village are also available Thursdays through Mondays.                 

Another interesting community is found in nearby Valdese, where a group of people who were members of a religious sect called the Waldenses, moved to North Carolina in 1893 and settled in Valdese. Founded in Italy in the Middle Ages, the Waldenses had faced persecution and were exiled to the Swiss Alps before finding their way to western North Carolina, where they began farming and continued practicing their Christian faith.

You can learn more about their journey of faith at Valdese Amphitheater, where the historic outdoor theatre production called “From This Day Forward” is performed by the Old Colony Players weekends starting July 12 through Aug. 10. Edyth Pruitt, the general manager of the theatre troupe, gave us a backstage tour and shared stories of the annual event, where anyone and everyone pitches in to make the shows happen. There’s also a museum dedicated to the story of the Waldenses and a Trail of Faith that allows visitors to learn about these pioneers and their extraordinary tenacity.

A favorite spot to dine in Valdese is Old World Baking Company, which serves light-as-a-feather baked goods, excellent soups, salads, and sandwiches. I tried the kale salad, which was huge and delicious. Besides baking their own breads and pastries, they roast their own coffee. I tried it iced, and it was the bomb. Donuts are also a specialty. I tasted a bite of one and could easily see why people flock here.

A Beer Flight at Fonta Flora at Whipporwill Farm

Then Dine at the Stylish root & vine in Morganton

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The last afternoon we enjoyed another hike, a much more leisurely one at Fonta Flora State Trail, an initiative that will eventually link Morganton with Asheville. The first section to be built—around Lake James—is a natural surface trail with gentle grades, perfect for hikers of all ages and abilities. We took a brief stroll to a spectacular covered bridge on the trail, which was recently built from Western red cedar and mountain laurel.

Next up? Time for a beer at Fonta Flora at Whipporwill Farm, a farmhouse brewery located on land that was once a dairy farm. I tried a flight of their brews and loved the creative flavors from ingredients like Earl Grey tea, cocoa nibs, and strawberries. Outdoor tables were full of millennials, many with a child or a dog or both, sipping on cold beers on a perfect afternoon.

Our last meal was in Morganton’s stylish downtown restaurant root & vine, where our group sat on a patio with twinkling lights, drinking cocktails as the sun sank slowly in the west. Using locally sourced produce and meats, Chef Brian Miller combines French techniques with Southern flavors to create unique dishes that delight. For starters, I recommend the cornmeal dusted oysters flavored with bacon atop pimento cheese grits. Yum! For dinner, I went for the N.Y. Strip again—this time Black Angus—and it was decadent, grilled over a wood-burning fire and served with hand-cut fries and harticot verts.

Our evening ended on a silly note with a quiz on factoids about Burke County. Everyone got a prize, and everyone agreed the trip had opened their eyes to Burke County as an ideal destination for outdoor lovers. Everyone also unanimously agreed that the best part of the trip was “Hang gliding!”

Oh, yes, the moment of truth. I did get to fly up in the air like a bird, as you probably gathered by now from my photo. It was scary and fun and thrilling, but I wasn’t petrified. In fact, Craig, who piloted my flight, has a gift for making conversation and putting people at ease. We chatted about this and that, and he showed me how to steer, speed up, and slow down.

From 1500 feet, I could see the whole world, it seemed, a beautiful spinning emerald-green orb with swaths of tall trees and patchwork farms and rivers and mountains. Of course, I actually only saw a small piece of the planet: beautiful Burke County spreading out in every direction, a peaceful sanctuary where you’ll discover the serenity of nature, the thrill of adventure, rich history, a creative arts scene, and eclectic Southern food and drink. So what are you waiting for?

For more information, call 828-433-6793 or visit www.DiscoverBurkeCounty.com.

Peggy Sijswerda

Tidewater Women Magazine, Editor & Co-Publisher.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com
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