Farms and towns unfold where they can in this mountainous corner of North Carolina, spreading out in valleys draped between high, forested ridges.
Ashe County once was called a “lost province” of North Carolina, cut off by poor roads and the swell of the Eastern Continental Divide. Today, a unique highland culture can be heard in the quietude thousands of feet above the Piedmont.
Each mountain hollow seems to have its own traditions and stories, from the surprising art stashed in the Church of the Frescoes to the legends of places like the Devil’s Staircase and The Peak.
Adventurers can ride down the New River on a guided canoe trip, while those in search of a slower day have their pick of the towns and villages scattered among the counties.
This is a place to explore, the endless roads as much an attraction as the places they connect.
Our series appears online and in print each Monday through Labor Day.
Phone service is spotty in Ashe County, so visitors are well advised to pick up free maps and some friendly advice at the Northwest N.C. Visitor Center on U.S. 421, just east of Wilkesboro. 2121 East Highway 421.
Sally Mae’s on the Parkway
From there, drive west toward the Blue Ridge Parkway, which you’ll take north. There may be a detour in place at the parkway intersection – if so, follow it through equally beautiful terrain and continue north when you return to the mountain road. Stop at the Mount Jefferson Overlook to survey the ocean of blue mountains and ridges you’ll be criss-crossing for the rest of the day, including the eponymous Mount Jefferson. Farther up the road is Sally Mae’s on the Parkway, also known as the Northwest Trading Post, a rare commercial outpost on the Blue Ridge. It has a pretty impressive selection of cabin-chic art, jewelry and baked goods. Parkway milepost 259, open 9 a.m to 5 p.m.
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
The tiny community of Glendale Springs is a quarter mile off the parkway. A westward turn at Sally Mae’s will put you among a handful of businesses. You’re looking for a white, wooden house of worship overshadowed by the trees around it. Holy Trinity Episcopal Church’s door is always open. Benjamin Long IV’s rendition of the Last Supper covers the front wall of the sunlit sanctuary. Long and 20 of his students painted the piece in 1980 as a finishing touch in the restoration of the church, which had stood empty for more than 30 years. An audio presentation about the fresco is available at phc.diocesewnc.org/holytrinity.html. The basement holds another fresco by Jeffrey Mims. 120 Glendale School Road.
Summit Mount Jefferson
From the church, a drive north along N.C. 16 will reveal your first glimpse of the New River, an early route for the exploration of undeveloped country in the later 18th century. Turn left at N.C. 88 and continue 6 miles in a grand arc around Mount Jefferson. A left at Mount Jefferson State Park will have you winding up the peak’s slopes. A short but strenuous walk along a sturdy, wooded trail will have you at the summit – which is the site of a communications tower. Follow the signs off the large trail for the Rhododendron Trail and Luther Rock for a superior vista. The mountain also is home to the legend of Moonshiner’s Cave, a hideout said to be haunted by the ghosts of 60 runaway slaves entombed with explosives by an angry mob.
Lunch in West Jefferson
Head back down the mountain toward downtown West Jefferson, where a surprising variety of shops and restaurants line the main drag. Black Jack’s Pub & Grill, 18 North Jefferson Ave., opens at 11 a.m. and serves a pretty mean burger in a laid-back bar room, but it has plenty of competition for lunch. Walk around town afterward in search of caffeination from no fewer than three coffee shops, plus plenty of furniture, antiques and craft stores. Take note of Quilt Square Girls and its beautifully painted barn quilts; you’ll see plenty of these colorful decorations out on the roads of Ashe County.
Much of Ashe County’s appeal is in the vistas and scenes of its backroads. Drive north out of downtown on Highway 88 for a glimpse. First, you’ll pass through an area called Devil’s Staircase, just south of Stanley Road. Local folk tales say that Lucifer himself will visit your backseat as you drive along. From there, branch out into the valleys to see livestock, Christmas tree farms and rolling meadows.
Make a stop for produce at a roadside stand, and look for a barn plastered with barn quilts as you follow 88 and the New River westward past Warrensville. Drive 10 miles and you’ll spot The Peak, an imposing and inaccessible mountain that tops out the entire county.
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Standing just south of West Jefferson (400 Beaver Creek School Road), this little white building is the sister church of Holy Trinity. The congregation switches between them every month, and Ben Long graced this one with his brush, too. Jesus on the cross, a pregnant Mary and John the Baptist mark the beginning of a “fresco trail” of Long’s work across nine North Carolina churches. With vivid stained-glass windows, St. Mary’s has an appeal all its own.
End your day in the little town of Lansing, on N.C. 194 north of Warrensville. Check out Phipps General Store, a restored building with local arts and craftwork at 2149 Lansing Creek Road. On Friday nights, it hosts a mountain string-music jam from 7 to 11 p.m. Round out your day at Pie on the Mountain with locally sourced pizza far tastier than you would hope to find in a remote town of 200 souls. 9360 N.C. 194 N., 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; open until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 8:30 p.m. Sunday.
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