Each Twelve Mile Circle journey has its own specific objectives. The western North Carolina adventure focused heavily on the burgeoning craft brewing scene. Collectively they also share common objectives, principally the pursuit of geo-oddities along with opportunities to pad my county counting totals.
I thought I did well, adding eighteen new counties with fourteen of them found in North Carolina and four in Virginia. In North Carolina I captured Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Caldwell, Jackson, Mitchell, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga, Wilkes, Yadkin and Yancey. The Virginia counties were Grayson, Floyd, Franklin and Patrick. These visits happened in six separate efforts, some of them requiring significant forethought and others pleasantly simple. I’ve numbered the efforts in chronological order and noted them on the maps below to show how I added counties sequentially throughout the trip. This labeling exercise also summarized the journey rather nicely and served as a nice bookend for this final article in the series.
North Carolina was the primary focus so I’ll begin there.
(1) Chapel Hill to Asheville
The logical path would have involved Interstate 85 from Chapel Hill and then Interstate 40 onward toward Asheville. That would have made perfect sense if I’d been trying to minimize driving time. It made no sense for this exercise. I’d already captured all of the interstate counties so it didn’t pay to repeat them.
Instead I devised several intermediary jogs that took my path through the towns of Winston-Salem, Wilksboro, Taylorsville and Lenoir. That slightly jagged track yielded new four counties: Yadkin; Wilkes; Alexander and Caldwell. I lost surprisingly little time on this track too, maybe less than an hour.
(2) Blue Ridge Parkway Loop
The wonderful Blue Ridge Parkway day-trip that included a a cave, a waterfall, the highest point of elevation in North Carolina, and a restaurant placed atop a county tripoint also netted three new counties. I captured Avery, Mitchell and Yancey that day.
(3) Oskar Blues
I mentioned before that Oskar Blues made my brewery visit list because it happened to be located in Transylvania County. I wondered if it had any connection to the Transylvania in Romania, the alleged home of vampires and other scary creatures. It didn’t. They both derived their names coincidentally from a couple of very common Latin words, trans ("across") and silva ("woods"). Thus, any place named Transylvania was merely something located beyond a forest. That certainly described western North Carolina a couple of centuries ago when the Transylvania Company tried to form a colony in that unforgiving part of the wilderness.
The Transylvania Company was organized as Louisa Company in 1774 to invest in vacant, nonpatented wild lands within the chartered limits of North Carolina and Virginia. In the fall of that year, Captain Nathaniel Hart visited the Overhill Cherokees at their Otari towns to negotiate for the lease or purchase of an immense tract of land between the Kentucky and Cumberland Rivers… Transylvania Company’s so-called purchase from the Indians was publicly denounced by the governors of Virginia and North Carolina, however, and the scheme was invalidated.
The Transylvania name lived-on when Transylvania County formed much later on some of the same land, in 1861.
(4) Cherokee Loop
We had another entertaining day on the Cherokee Loop that took us onto the lands of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, then onward to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the highest point of elevation in Tennessee. It also netted Jackson and Swain Counties.
(5) Lake Lure & Chimney Rock
I admitted a couple of days ago that I’d orchestrated a day trip to Lake Lure and Chimney Rock simply to capture Rutherford County, and fill a doughnut hole on my map. It was worth a stop regardless.
(6) Asheville, NC to Roanoke, VA
Returning home, once again the logical path would have involved the Interstate Highway System, specifically I-26 and I-81 here. However I had to capture a number of quite obscure rural counties and this became the most ambitious county counting adventure of the trip. It involved a complicated series of intermediary waypoints on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge including two short out-and-back detours designed to prevent doughnut holes.
Just as we left Mouth of Wilson, Virginia on a double-back to capture Alleghany County, North Carolina — the photo at the top of the page (map) — my younger son announced he needed to pee. Immediately. We were in the middle of nowhere, miles from the nearest facilities of any kind, and on a mission. Nonetheless, being the good father that I am, I pulled over to the side of the road and scouted a suitable tree to shield his act of desperation. That’s when I noticed I was standing within a patch of poison ivy. I grabbed a water bottle from the car and washed off furiously, then sped to the nearest gas station bathroom where I scrubbed my legs with soap and water repeatedly. I escaped mostly unharmed and chalked it up as another hazard of County Counting.
Don’t worry about the kid, he found a more suitable tree minus the poison ivy.
Those four new Virginia counties in an out-of-the-way corner left me within striking distance of finishing the Commonwealth. Virginia is notoriously difficult to complete because it has 95 counties plus 38 independent cities that are considered county-equivalents, for a total of 133 separate units that must be visited. I have five remaining in a fairly straight path. I figure I can knock-out the rest of Virginia in a weekend and I plan to do so within the next few months.
Western North Carolina articles:
I’m going to take a little bit of a departure from the usual Twelve Mile Circle travelogue format and actually suggest a couple of simple one-day itineraries. They mirror actual trips starting from our home base for the week in Asheville, North Carolina. Readers should feel free to customize them at their discretion because they reflect my peculiar interests and geo-geek desires. I’d love to hear if anyone actually follows the path.
The first loop involved a lovely jaunt on and near a segment of the famous Blue Ridge Parkway northeast of Asheville. The parkway included numerous mountaintop pull-offs where one could enjoy magnificent views in addition to the sites I’ve highlighted. Those went without saying so take a scenic break whenever it seems right. This was a route to be savored slowly. We chose to drive in a counterclockwise or anticlockwise direction although it could be adapted easily to a clockwise route or even a pure out-and-back depending on time constraints and sightseeing preferences.
I love caves and my kids love them too, maybe even more that I love them. We’ve taken tours of several caves during our wanderings to places like Idaho, Utah, Texas, Oregon, Kentucky and even Ireland. Naturally, Linville Caverns — which bills itself as North Carolina’s "Only Show Cavern" (and I have no way to verify that so I’ll take it at face value) — would have to be on our itinerary seeing how it fell directly along our desired path (map).
There were several interesting formations worth viewing although frankly I’ve seen more spectacular caverns elsewhere. The guides also went through the obligatory "turn out the lights and show everyone how dark it was" demonstration so it seemed to follow the usual script. The cave was a nice enough diversion and the tour took only about a half-hour so it didn’t gobble up too much of the day either. The passageways were also a cool, refreshing 53° Fahrenheit (12° C) on a day when the outdoor temperature was above 90° (32° C) with matching humidity. That almost made it worth the price of admission right there. I’d go back if I were driving through the area again.
The US Fish & Wildlife Service and the North Carolina Wildlife Commission recently discovered several bats in Linville Caverns with White-Nose Syndrome. That meant that anything I brought into the cave will never be allowed within another cave. That’s why I used my mobile phone camera instead of my nice one, and the lower-quality photos reflected that decision.
Famous Louise’s Rock House Restaurant
The 12MC audience would be right to wonder why I visited a restaurant that wasn’t a brewpub given my past history of articles. Famous Louise’s Rock House Restaurant deserved an exception because I featured it on these very pages in 2009. At the time I explained, "This is now included on my extensive list of places I need to visit someday." Well, someday finally arrived and I did indeed visit. Famous Louise’s was famous because it sat atop a county tripoint. One could walk between Avery, Burke and McDowell Counties, or stand in all three at the same time if one desired, all within the walls of a single restaurant (map).
Famous Louise’s got mixed reviews on various restaurant and travel rating websites. We arrived for lunch on the early end, around 11:30, and it was mostly empty. The opposite was the case when we left so perhaps that made the difference and for that reason I’d recommend arriving a little early for mealtime. We had great service and even got a wonderful tip about the homemade baked apples. The food was decent and a solid value. Plus we had the whole county tripoint thing going on in there, with each county line labeled on individual signs hanging from the ceiling. I love it when I can visit places in person that I’ve mentioned on 12MC beforehand.
There was some debate about whether the tripoint actually fell within the restaurant or not. Maps I consulted insinuated that the true tripoint might be found just outside along a gravel road. I got as close as I could get to take a photo and cover my bases, while respecting the no trespassing sign that had been placed there. Perhaps I wasn’t the first geo-geek trying to find the true magic spot. Who am I kidding? Nobody else has ever done that.
Linville Caverns, Famous Louise’s and Linville Falls were all located near each other in one convenient cluster. The falls were one of those iconic features along this stretch of the Blue Ridge that really shouldn’t be missed (map). Access required a fifteen minute hike from the visitor center although nothing too strenuous. There were various other hiking options available depending on whether one wished to view the falls from above or below. We didn’t have time to do both so we selected the first option. It was hard to tell if the view would have been better from ground level. That provided an excuse to come back again someday.
I’m not a traditional state highpointer. I don’t have a desire to highpoint all 50 states because, well, I’m lazy. I don’t ever expect to get to the top of Denali in Alaska and I hate to leave an open list, so I decided long ago to cherry-pick the easy ones and ignore the rest. The only highpoint where I expended any significant effort was Mount Frissell in Connecticticut, and that was only because Steve from Connecticut Museum Quest shamed me into it. Otherwise I like the kind where I drive all the way up to the top and claim the honor simply by walking a few feet, like New Jersey. Better yet, how about the little bump-out by the side of the road in Delaware? Or the subway ride to the District of Columbia highpoint even though it’s not actually a state? Those are more my style.
The North Carolina highpoint fit perfectly within that same low-effort mountaineering philosophy. It differed, however, because it was a "real" mountain. Mount Mitchell wasn’t a poseur, rather it was the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River at 6,684 feet (2,037 metres) (map). The good people of North Carolina had the courtesy to pave a road almost all the way to the top of the summit, bless their hearts. From the final base camp to the top, oh it was maybe a ten minute walk. There was one single hardship, and readers can sense it in the form of little black specs on the photograph — the huge swarms of insects at the summit. Your screen doesn’t need to be cleaned. Each of those dots was a bug.
Loyal 12MC reader and Twitter follower @thegreatzo diagnosed this as a particularly large outbreak of the Yellow Poplar Weevil. They were harmless to humans although nobody really likes the feeling of hundreds of insects crawling on them. Lots of people on the mountain thought they were ticks so it was pretty amusing to watch them freak out.
I’ll talk about a second day-trip loop in the next article.
Western North Carolina articles:
Subscribers to the 12MC Twitter site likely noticed that I’d been on vacation recently and probably already understood that it foreshadowed another travelogue. You’ll be happy with the next several articles if you like those.
I was in Western North Carolina using Asheville as my base of operations for the week. I wasn’t sure exactly what to call the region. Was it Western North Carolina, or merely Western Carolina? There was a Western Carolina University in Cullowhee and a Western Carolina Regional Airport in Andrews, both in North Carolina, although the name seemed to shortchange people who lived in Western South Carolina. Ultimately I decided to name this travel series "Western North Carolina" because it seemed to be more precise as well as the more common usage even though it offered an overabundance of cardinal directions in my mind. Either way I didn’t get too concerned.
First we had to get down to Asheville, though. I didn’t take the most logical or direct route. That would be anathema to any dedicated county counter worth his mettle. We headed first to Chapel Hill for an overnight stop. My wife had a connection to the University of North Carolina and this was her first trip back there in nearly twenty years. That’s how I sold a concept that would set-up a county counting adventure far away from Interstate Highways on the second day of the drive down to Asheville.
Chapel Hill remained as nice as it had a couple of decades ago so everyone seemed to enjoy the detour. I even noticed an interesting sundial outside of UNC’s Morehead Planetarium (map) that would have been a perfect addition to my remarkable sundials article had I known about it earlier.
What I Didn’t See
Biltmore House by Karl Palutke (cc)
We headed to Asheville after Chapel Hill. Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly, I spent several days in town and never caught a glimpse of its most famous attraction. I guess a random one-time reader who landed on this page through a search engine query might be surprised, even shocked with my decision. How could someone travel all the way to Asheville and completely avoid the Biltmore Estate — the largest home in the United States — constructed by George Vanderbilt in the 1890’s? Most of the regulars, however, probably knew that 12MC often disregarded the obvious sites for those more esoteric. Plus I’d already seen a bunch of large estates on my recent trip to Newport, Rhode Island. I didn’t need to see another house, not even the biggest one (map)
A tip of the hat goes to Loyal Reader Rhodent who suggested I focus my attention elsewhere. He offered sage advice that led to lesser-known attractions like…
Western North Carolina Nature Center
When I saw the phrase "nature center" I cringed a little because I thought it might be like the little nature center near my home. I expected the typical couple of rooms with turtles, snakes and a few dusty taxidermy birds, and maybe a short walking trail through the trees. The Western North Carolina Nature Center was actually more of a small zoo (map). It featured all the familiar fauna one would expect from the local area tucked into an expansive wooded hillside. The kids loved it. I will also add that the white-tail deer there were the luckiest ones alive. Imagine having shelter, regular feedings and a peaceful place to stay during hunting season!
I began each morning with a walk through a different section of Asheville. The city offered a compact inner-core and I became familiar with its basic layout quickly. Asheville centered on Pack Square Park (map) and radiated out in all directions from there. A larger share of what I’d lovingly call itinerant hippies congregated throughout downtown, certainly more than what I’d expected for a city of its size. They seemed harmless enough, as if the only real "danger" might involve an unexpected drum circle or getting tangled in a web of white guy dreadlocks, or perhaps catching a vague waft of smoke of questionable origin. I’m quite immune to panhandlers and buskers thanks to years of living and working in a highly urbanized environment so I just went about my walks.
Much of my wandering involved the South Slope area, named that way because it occupied a downhill slope immediately south of downtown. What the designation lacked in originality it made up for in accuracy. It was also an area of great transition and clearly hit a tipping point towards gentrification recently. The craft breweries came first and continued to arrive. A couple of years ago this was little more than several rows of small, grimy warehouses and blue-collar businesses in various states of disrepair. Some of those elements remained and I took great delight in finding the original remnants prior to their transformation. And certainly they will transform. Soon. I saw construction everywhere; loft apartments, boutiques and more breweries on the way.
I also enjoyed exploring the neighborhoods just north of downtown like Historic Montford and the areas around Charlotte Street (map) with beautiful homes from the turn of the last century up through the 1930’s. It reminded me a lot of my own neighborhood before people started bulldozing historic homes to replace them with McMansions. Hopefully Asheville has better zoning laws to protect its vintage character.
Asheville provided a great central hub to the natural beauty of the Appalachian Mountains with abundant hiking, climbing, swimming, and rafting. We would pursue all of those activities in due course. However I can’t deny that an immense concentration of breweries springing from the hillsides attracted my attention too. I like to visit breweries although I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll have an entire article devoted to Asheville breweries coming soon.
Twelve Mile Circle is just getting started on this Western North Carolina trip report. Hopefully there will be something for everyone whether casual tourists, outdoor enthusiasts, hardcore geo-geeks or whatever. In the meantime, feel free to view my public photo album if you simply can’t wait to see where this is all heading.
Western North Carolina articles: