N.C. 181

N.C. 181 guarantees pretty foothills scenery with few visual interruptions. It is an old road that starts in Morganton and winds through Pisgah National Forest, up into the Blue Ridge, crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway and ends at Newland, near the ski and tubing resorts east and southeast of Banner Elk.

You can get there much quicker taking the more direct U.S. 321, which you can pick up in Gastonia. But you’d bypass Brown Mountain – and the rare chance of seeing something that has lit up UFO and folklore fans as well as scientists for more than 100 years: the Brown Mountain Lights.

People have long reported seeing inexplicable circular, red-tinted lights after dark on Brown Mountain, the 1 1/2-mile ridge in Pisgah National Forest. The illuminations have tended to be reported on dark, haze-free nights in cooler months – bright, bulb-like and unmoving. They disappear before anyone can hike to their location; there are no known photos of them.

But Cherokee reportedly were seeing them before European settlers arrived; as early as 1771, explorers took note of these mysterious orbs.

Explanations for the glows have ranged from religious (departing spirits of dead warriors) to pseudoscientific (UFOs) to being the handiwork of pranksters, campers or bootleggers.

Dan Caton, the physics and astronomy professor at Appalachian State who writes a monthly “Up in the Air” column for the Observer’s Monday Sci-Tech section, believes most sightings are misidentifications – people are seeing campfires, headlights, aircraft, even the lights of distant Lenoir. Caton estimates that maybe 5 percent of reports are legitimate.

He favors a theory that legitimate sightings may be ball lightning, a little-understood but long -observed phenomenon: He has interviewed people who describe misty or fireworks-like miasma about as big as a beach ball floating up the mountainside, a good account of ball lightning. Why it occurs with regularity in that particular area, he said, needs to be further explored.

One place on N.C. 181 for potential viewing is so prime that’s it’s called the Brown Mountain Overlook. It’s about 10 miles northwest of Morganton.

The sense of remoteness on N.C. 181 can be profound. Upper Creek and Gold – the road’s two hamlets in the national forest – are dwarfed by Brown Mountain, Winding Stair Knob, Parks Mountain, Cranberry Knob and other looming landforms.

Stretches of N.C. 181 double as designated state bike routes (Mountains to Sea, or Piedmont Spur); there are paved shoulders to accommodate tourists on bicycles and motorcycles. John Bordsen