Say 'Hay Now' to North Carolina's Appalachian Gem
Smack dab between the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway is a little-known North Carolina county with big-name neighbors—Asheville, the Biltmore Estate and Cherokee Indian Reservation to name a few—but with charm all its own. Haywood County is not only rich in southern Appalachian heritage, such as mountain towns and local legends, but also with unique attractions and outdoor adventures.
Long a favorite stop along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the destination has grown even more in popularity this past year thanks to an abundance of vacation rentals and off-the-grid experiences. It's still an ideal place to social distance, as there are around 62,000 residents across a region that covers 555 square miles (just over half the size of Rhode Island).
Read on to see why this area of North Carolina should be part of your summer plans.
Due to its proximity to a number of attractions in western North Carolina, Haywood County is a great place to make your home base. The county encompasses 46 miles along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic treasure of road that takes in valleys and vistas, and offers four entrances to its many hiking, overlooks and picnic spots (we’ll have more on that later). Asheville and its glorious Vanderbilt-era Biltmore Estate are about 20 miles east. Last but not least, the county is home to Cataloochee Valley, one of the remotest parts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Haywood County itself has been designated a Blue Ridge Heritage Area, a place noted for keeping Appalachian traditions alive, and is home to four mountain towns — Waynesville, Maggie Valley, Clyde and Canton — as well as Lake Junaluska. Whether you’re up for roughing it or splurging, the area has a surprising variety of accommodations.
There are campgrounds and RV resorts in Waynesville, Canton and Maggie Valley, as well as backcountry trails that are good for stargazing. (One of the best viewing of the dark skies is atop Purchase Knob, a popular hiking trail.) For motel options, there’s retro chic Route 19 Inn or well-reviewed Jonathan Creek Inn in Maggie Valley. Clyde has quirky overnight accommodations like caboose rentals or a bison ranch via Buffalo Creek Vacations. You can also rent log cabins with Buffalo Creek or through Boyd Mountain Log Cabins in Waynesville and Maggie Valley.
If you’re in the mood to splurge, check out The Swag, a Relais & Chateaux property in Waynesville; a 250-acre retreat seemingly high in the sky (it’s set 5,000 feet above sea level; for reference, the highest point of the Smoky Mountains is 6,643 feet), the hotel only hosts a few dozen guests at any one time.
Rich in mountain history and beauty, Cataloochee Valley is celebrating its 20th year of reintroducing elk to the region. Elk disappeared from North Carolina in the 1700s thanks to over-hunting and loss of habitat, but since 2001, the 52 animals brought to the region have multiplied to 200 and counting. Visitors can go on elk sightseeing tours at dawn or dusk to catch a glimpse of the majestic animal.
With average summertime temperatures in the low 80s, you’ll want to find a place to cool off. Those mountains come in handy, as they supply the (very cold) water to swimming holes such as Sunburst Swimming Area or Skinny Dip Falls. Head to Lake Junaluska and rent a paddleboard or kayak to explore this man-made lake. There are hundreds of waterfalls in the region as well, with local favorites being Graveyard Fields and Soco Falls.
One spot you will want to avoid the water is on the golf course, and the area has several courses available across different skill levels. Tee it up for 18 holes at the Maggie Valley Club & Resort and feel like you played two different rounds. The flat front Valley Nine has narrow fairways, while the challenging back Mountain Nine pairs elevation changes with stunning views of the valley. For another tee-to-green test, head to Springdale, a 6,800-yard course with impressive views of famed Cold Mountain, especially on the front nine. Try to avoid distractions on the fourth hole, the so-called Springdale Spasm, a 425-yard par-4 where you need to hit an elevated green protected by bunkers.
For a drive of a different sort, the Blue Ridge Parkway can be accessed via four locations in Haywood County (US 276 at Wagon Gap Road, NC 215 at Mount Hardy Gap, US 23/74 at Balsam Gap and US 19 at Soco Gap). Open year-round, weather permitting, some of the most scenic parts of the road can be found in this part of North Carolina. Stop at Devil's Courthouse (Milepost 422.4) and you'll be able to see South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee on a clear day. At 6,410 feet, you'll be at the highest point of the road if you stop at Richland Balsam Overlook (Milepost 431), a mountain near Waynesville. Waterrock Knob (Milepost 451.2) is not only home to the highest visitor center on the parkway, but it is also perfect for sunsets.
Soak up some history
Hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists ride the Blue Ridge Parkway each year, which explains why this next attraction is in a perfect place. Billing itself as “The Museum That Runs”, Dale’s Wheels Through Time is a museum dedicated to rare American motorcycles, memorabilia and one-off American automobiles. With a collection of over 300 rare machines in a 38,000-square-foot facility in Maggie Valley, it has the feel of an old garage — and sounds like it too. All the machines are kept in running and operating condition, and started for visitors regularly too, see you can hear the history of transportation come to life. The museum is seasonally open from April to November.
Continue your trek through history by visiting a few historic homes in the area. Built in 1795, the Shook-Smathers House in Clyde is a three-story cabin believed to be the oldest standing frame-built house in western North Carolina. The Shelton House in Waynesville, a Charleston-style farmhouse built in 1875, is the first property in Haywood County to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Jarvis Palmer House near Cataloochee Valley dates back to 1860, and you can still see bits of newspaper on the walls which was used as wallpaper to keep out the cold. Catalooche Valley itself has a preserved schoolhouse, church, homes and barns that you can walk around.
While you’re in this part of North Carolina, you might hear or see references to two local legends. The Boojum is a half-man, half-beast rumored to love two things: gems and pretty girls bathing in secluded mountain streams. As the local lore goes, the Boojum and a woman named Annie fell in love and whenever he would leave for extended periods of time to look for gems, Annie would go hollering for him in the woods; hence the origin of the term “hootenanny.” Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton is the other local legend, only he was a real man, known for his moonshine and bootlegging. Despite being arrested multiple times since 1974, Sutton continued with his craft until his death in 2009.
Eat and drink like a local
If the words “moonshine” or “microbrewery” are on your mind, they can soon be on your lips in this part of North Carolina. Craft beer is no stranger to the region and some area favorites include Boojum Brewing Company (16 beers on tap), Bearwaters Brewing (15 beers on tap at its two locations) and Frog Level Brewing (21 beers on tap). Elevated Mountain Distilling Company creates top-shelf whiskeys and spirits — including moonshine — and holds tours. (Due to the high elevation, the highest of any county east of the Rockies, all of the natural water for the distillery actually originates in Haywood County.)
Locals swear by the sunburst trout that comes from third-generation family-owned Sunburst Trout Farms, which has been in the area since 1948 and can be found on menus at places like The Sweet Onion in Waynesville. For another local favorite, check out Birchwood Hall Southern Kitchen and feast on comfort dishes like fried green tomatoes, collard green casserole and cast iron chicken pot pie.
If you’re hankering for a quick snack or produce to take home, there are a number of places to scratch that itch. In Waynesville, you can visit Haywood’s Historic Farmers Market (every Saturday from early April to mid-December) in the Hart Theater parking lot or pick up some apples at Barber Orchards Fruitstand, which opens August 1. Located in between Canton and Clyde, Duckett’s Produce offers seasonal local produce as well as old-fashioned candy. For a truly immersive experience, head to Ten Acre Garden in Canton, where you can pick berries of all kinds, as well as sunflowers and pumpkins, all with classic Smoky Mountain views in every direction.