Travel

Best-Kept Secrets: Watauga offers blue peaks, green valleys

Evelyn Gabler, 3, of Statesville, N.C., with her father Brock Gabler nearby, wades through the creek at Price Lake picnic site on Saturday, July 18, 2015 in Blowing Rock, N.C.
Evelyn Gabler, 3, of Statesville, N.C., with her father Brock Gabler nearby, wades through the creek at Price Lake picnic site on Saturday, July 18, 2015 in Blowing Rock, N.C. jhknight@newsobserver.com

Watauga County’s blue mountains and shady creeks invite visitors to slow down, soak up its natural beauty and have some fun.

The county, formed by an 1849 legislative act from parts of Ashe, Wilkes, Caldwell and Yancey counties, covers 313 square miles of craggy forests and farm land that faces increasing development pressures.

The most direct route is west to Boone on U.S. 421, after the Interstate 40 split west of Winston-Salem.

The trek is easier than frontiersman Daniel Boone would have encountered in his travels. While Boone remains the region’s best-known figure, the man for whom the town of Boone was named never lived in Watauga County.

His family instead settled in neighboring Wilkes County after leaving the lower Yadkin Valley area in the early 1770s. Boone was often away, hunting game in the Watauga forests and forging better routes west to Kentucky. His travels brought him into contact with the native Cherokee and Watauga tribes.

It’s easy to see what inspired Boone and subsequent generations to hike Watauga’s peaks and seek relief from the Southern humidity in its creeks and rivers. The very name “Watauga” is a tribal word meaning “beautiful river.”

Two main towns and a number of smaller, unincorporated communities speckle the county, each with a unique character shaped by the sheltering byways and waterways.

Blowing Rock is a small village of storybook homes near the Caldwell county line and the more diverse of the two towns, with antique stores, outlet shops and family-oriented theme parks. Boone – home to Appalachian State University and Mountaineers football – beckons visitors to soak up its funky, free-spirited vibe.

No matter where you go, planning is simple: Pack a lunch, pick a road and see what’s around the next bend.

Our series appears online and in print each Monday through Labor Day.

Morning

Watauga County Farmer’s Market

The Saturdays-only farmer’s market (nando.com/1lj) is a great place to fill your cooler with fresh, local produce, meats, cheeses and ready-to-eat foods. Arrive early to get good parking and to chat with the locals, who are chock-full of information about the region. The market also hosts special events, including a Kids’ Mini Market for young vendors held every other weekend, live acoustic music and cooking demonstrations with local chefs. Its located at 591 Horn in the West Drive, and open 8 a.m. to noon May-October and 9 a.m. to noon in November. Picnic supplies also are plentiful at the Blowing Rock Market. Take U.S. 321 South out of Boone; you’ll find the gourmet market and gas station at 990 Market St., just south of town. Call ahead to make sure they’re open, 828-295-7373.

Julian Price Memorial Park

Follow Blowing Rock Highway (U.S. 221) and the Blue Ridge Parkway about 10 miles west to Mile Marker 297 and the 4,200-acre Julian Price Memorial Park (nando.com/1lk). Price, chairman of the board of the Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Co., bought the park land in the late 1930s and 1940s to create an employee retreat. His estate and the company donated the land to the federal government in 1946 as part of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Hours can disappear while you’re hiking or fishing, canoeing and kayaking in the 47-acre lake at the foot of Grandfather Mountain. Rock-studded creeks beckon visitors to take off their shoes and sit under the oaks. Picnic tables, grills and low-cost campsites are abundant. Price Lake also has seven trails of various lengths and difficulties, including a roughly one-mile, disability-accessible trail around the lake. That trail starts behind the boathouse (nando.com/1ll), where canoes and kayaks can be rented for $10 to $13 an hour; cash and checks only.

Afternoon

Farm to Flame

Driving back up U.S. 321 to Boone is a refreshing way to relax and escape the muggy, midday sun. If you skipped the picnic or need more carbs after a long hike, Farm to Flame’s wood-fired street food truck (nando.com/1lm) is a popular option. The mobile business practices environmental responsibility, running on biodiesel from High Country Biofuels and powering the “kitchen” with an array of 20 240-watt solar panels. Utensils and containers are compostable, and the menu built on fresh, locally sourced ingredients. The pizzas – both regular and gluten-free – are thin and crispy, the right size for sharing with a travel buddy. Farm to Flame also sells strombolis, dessert pizzas, salads and appetizers. Find the truck every day at Appalachian Mountain Brewery, 163 Boone Creek Drive. It heads down to the farmer’s market on Saturdays, where even the vendors say they can’t get enough of the hot breakfast pizzas. 828-851-1712 or nando.com/1ln.

Browsing downtown Boone

Further up U.S. 321 is Boone’s historic downtown on West King Street, where walking is preferred and quirky thrift shops, co-ops and art galleries mingle with college bars and local restaurants. Hands Gallery, at 543 W. King St., is Boone’s oldest cooperative crafts outlet (nando.com/1lo). The store behind the bright red door is celebrating 40 years of selling pottery, baskets, paintings and more from member and consignment artists. The nearby Dancing Moon Earthway Bookstore and Funky Folks Collective (nando.com/1lp) has been around roughly 27 years. It was forced to adapt to survive the 2008 recession, herbalist and staff member Ann Newberry said, adding hundreds of used books and free space for more than two dozen small-time artists and craftspeople to sell their wares, some at rock-bottom prices. A new kid on the block, Art of Oil, has more than 45 varieties of organic and unfiltered olive oils and balsamic vinegars on tap. Sampling is free, and you can create your own palette of flavors to buy and take home. nando.com/1lq. Downtown parking is $1 an hour from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday on the street and in marked lots.

Dinner

Vidalia

Chef Sam Ratchford, a Boone native, and his wife and general manager Alyce Ratchford regularly host crowds for dinner at Vidalia (nando.com/1lr), at 831 W. King St. The couple met when Alyce Ratchford, who grew up near Asheville, was studying at Applachian. They both were working at Storie Street Grille in Blowing Rock; Ratchford was Storie Street’s executive chef and his future wife managed the front of the house. Since buying the restaurant from friends in 2008, they have taken Vidalia’s fare in a direction that is Southern, seasonal and local. A renovation project that wrapped up this year preserved the upscale casual vibe but accessorize it with a reclaimed wood bar and other comfortable touches. Good bets for dinner are the Vidalia onion rings, chicken and waffles and homemade pimento cheese. Be sure to check before going, as reservations are recommended.

You might also try ...

▪ Melanie’s Fantasy Foods: A local staple for breakfast and lunch seven days a week at 664 W. King St.

▪ Elk Knob State Park: The park offers a small picnic area with grills, backcountry campsites and trails, including a 1.9-mile trek to the summit for views of North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee.

▪ High Gravity Adventures: A new adventure at 215 Tweetsie Railroad Road in Blowing Rock challenges visitors to navigate 75 platforms, bridges, nets and other obstacles, some up to 50 feet high. 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily through August. 828-386-6222; nando.com/1lt.

Coming next Monday:

Kinston/Wilson

  Comments