Back at the beginning of October (which feels like forever ago), Rob and I took our now-annual week-long trip to the Blue Ridge to get some cooler weather, changing leaves, a bunch of hikes, and a ton of good food. I’m sick today so I figured I’d brush the dust off of these notes and post a little journal-style entry of the highlights. Enjoy, and feel free to reach out if you need any recommendations or want to hear about anything else!
We started out the trip with a rather fortuitous stop: the Amazon Treasure Truck was in tourist-town Orlando with SNES Classics. Despite putting us a little behind schedule, it was such a relief to snag one of those on launch day. And it turned out to be a huge boon for the trip! Over the week, we played through Star Fox, Mega Man X, and Super Mario World (all 96 exits!). Rob made it through most of Link to the Past, but we couldn’t quite clear that one entirely. It was an awesome dynamic; outdoor activities in the daylight and classic gaming at night.
Another detour on the way up 95 that we just couldn’t skip out on was Southern Soul, an amazing BBQ joint we discovered in March on our short Jekyll Island trip. We’ve been back a few times since but it’s never enough. We tried to snag another stop on the way back home, but bad time management bit us in the butt.
We made a strategic pit stop at Waffle House the morning we started from Columbia, SC. I dropped Rob off and swung into the nearby gas station for a fill-up while he ordered. As soon as I came in, the food was ready (and was beyond excellent). Waffle House has become a treat for us on trips and vacations, and despite my meal clocking in at 600~ calories, we make it work.
Our first hike of the trip was a pretty popular one in the DuPont State Forest: the Triple Falls Trail. As with the springs in Florida, it feels like you’re driving as far away from civilization as possible only to end up in a near-capacity parking lot and a location teeming with people. It was an excellent, tough first hike, covering about 4 miles and taking us to a couple excellent waterfalls, an elaborate covered bridge, and probably tweaking my knee on the descent.
Brevard was our first food destination and Mayberry’s didn’t disappoint. As usual, I snagged a half-sandwich and a couple cups of soup (loaded potato and tomato bisque). Both were extra spicy and as good as I remembered. After mistaking a beer joint for a coffee shop, we stumbled into Kiwi Gelato for some espresso and a delightful conversation with the owner about busy times during the year and of all things, living in Charlotte. On the way back to the car, we dipped into Blue Ridge Bakery looking for a bathroom and wound up buying a small pecan square as penance. The first bite was a bit rough but it turned into one of the best-tasting pecan-pie-ish things I’ve ever consumed. The calories were worth it.
After we checked into the Pisgah Inn, we drove south for a short, strenuous hike and to see the highest point on the Blue Ridge. Just in time for sunset, we drove back up to Fryingpan Tower and hiked to the old fire tower. Despite my shaking knees (due to the shaking tower), we climbed it as far as we could and stuck around to watch the sun sink behind the peaks. You could notice the temperature drop almost immediately, and the hike back down to the car was a nice, chilly trek.
The Pisgah Inn is worth staying at if you can find the availability and don’t mind paying a little extra. It includes a full breakfast (which was a surprise) and gives you amazing views and access to a lot of trails in the area. The restaurant is also top-notch and has a lot of variety while still being above-average. For dinner I snagged fried chicken and a pumpkin bisque and scarfed some French toast the next morning. Be ready for a long wait, though: our dinner wait time was legitimately 90 minutes.
The morning we left the Pisgah Inn, we got up extra early, hit breakfast as soon as it opened, and requested late checkout before driving south to Graveyard Fields. The trail was a 3 mile loop with some spurs to waterfalls nestled in the small valley created by the creek. It was cold enough that morning that the trail and wooden boardwalks were covered in a light frost that crunched as we left boot prints. The trail wandered through lots of different environments and was constantly interesting. My knee was complaining the whole way, but it was a great warm-up for the day and was one of my favorite hikes of the trip.
We dipped off the Blue Ridge at the last exit in Asheville to grab some gas (after cutting it way too close). For I think the third time in the last few years, we ended up at Ingles for gas and Starbucks. We decided to grab some small subs for a light lunch, and we may have been the first ones ever to do so. The employees that cobbled together our subs put on a show of incompetence worthy of chuckles we could barely contain, stepping on one another while making the simplest sandwiches possible. After selling us on a combo that we could barely make sense of, we were asked for our required Ingles card, a requirement that was immediately waived. After scarfing down the subs, we ordered up our usual simple iced coffees from the small in-store Starbucks. My drink first showed up with no milk at all. After asking for a splash, the barista immediately dumped the whole drink and made a new one with room for that splash. At the end of the day we got what we wanted, but Ingles, please never stop being this entertaining.
After being on our to-do list since our first trip in 2012, we finally made it up to Mount Mitchell State Park, the highest point in the US east of the Mississippi River. It was a bit touristy for us , but the rocky nature trail loop was cool, shady, and excellent. We stopped in at the gift shop for some chili and grilled cheeses and mistook a mother and daughter team for a lesbian couple.
Our main home base in Blowing Rock this trip was the Hemlock Inn, a small log-cabin-like motel that I discovered when trying to book a short stay on a road trip earlier this year. We wanted to try this approach rather than a cabin rental to see if the convenience of walk-able food and shops outweighed the comfort of privacy. Parking was awkward the whole week, but the room was rather nice. The king bed was especially comfortable and firm. We didn’t spend much time in the room; we prioritized being out and active more. Walking to our meals and coffee was a huge perk, especially after we learned the shortcuts. We will likely be repeat guests!
Our traditional breakfast destination in town is Sunny Rock, a diner-like restaurant on the bypass route through Blowing Rock. On this trip, we visited three times (!) despite the honeymoon period wearing off. It serves a really solid breakfast sandwich, some spicy sausage gravy, and excellent crispy hash browns. I decided to take a chance on the corned beef hash and thoroughly enjoyed my choice. The layout of the seating and the atmosphere feels really inviting and comfortable and is highly recommended.
Our Daily Bread is another staple of the Boone/Blowing Rock trip, and as expected we ended up there twice. I took a chance on swapping the bread on my favorite sandwich, the Smokestack (turkey, bacon, smoked gouda, and a chipotle aioli), with grilled sourdough over the croissant, and boy was it an absolute winner. Another strong recommendation.
The Village Cafe is a hidden gem worth every penny. This little cafe is a bit off the main drag in Blowing Rock but has a little sign on the street leading you down a small ramp to a wooded area behind the front-facing shops. The actual indoor section is a small house with a creaky wood floor and a freestanding bar in the adjacent room. We snuck in just after they opened one morning and both ordered their special “fugasa” bread French toast (their own unique sourdough). The slices were fairly small but were out-of-this-world delicious, enough that we made another trip back later in the week. The service was excellent and we’ll definitely be back.
On our way to a hike after lunch in Boone, we decided to take a back road up to the lake we wanted to walk around. After some treacherous curves, dips, and bends, we ended up on this small dirt road following a stream that was right out of a movie. The sun was streaming through the trees as we drove over a couple wooden single-lane bridges. We came up on the deep blue lake and I just felt totally in the moment. Just one of those perfect little memories.
Tuesday morning we got up bright and early to tackle a hike I’ve eyed for a couple years: the Flat Top Mountain trail at Moses Cone, a ~5 mile there-and-back climb complete with fire tower. We got started with stretches, a new pair of hiking shorts from Mast General, and a pair of simple hiking sticks with rubber stoppers (that I promptly lost). The early morning climb took us through a pasture (with cows!), a forest, and a mist-covered field. Shortcuts were strewn about cutting across every switchback, but we took the long way most times to enjoy the gradual climb. The fire tower didn’t provide the best views but it was a nice place to stop for a snack bar and another stretch. The descent was even and relaxing; on our retread of the field, tractors were out mowing and churning the wheat. Despite its simple nature, this is one of the better hikes in the area and we both really enjoyed it.
Despite our new calorie-counting diligence this year, we made it a point to carve out one breakfast for Local Lion, a quintessentially hipster mountain town donut and coffee shop that Rob adores. We managed to snag a spot in the tiny often-full parking lot and walked inside to grab our regular order: two donuts (an espresso-glazed and an apple-cider-glazed) and two cold brews. I persuaded/forced Rob to buy a shirt and he wears it well. It was fantastic as always and is a nice reminder that sensible eating doesn’t have to exclude your favorites.
While we’re on the topic, let’s talk about Bella’s. We had planned to chow down on bison burgers Wednesday night (more on that later), but for whatever reason, the Blowing Rock Brewery is closed on Wednesday’s only. After a quick Yelping, we settled on a highly-rated Italian place: Bella’s in Boone. Before we stepped in the door, we both had a craving for Chicken Parmesan, but we were not prepared for how amazing it was. The staff allowed us to drop the pasta in some alfredo, and the combination of perfectly-cooked chicken and swirled angel hair in white sauce was one of the best bites we had all trip…enough to go back for a second helping a couple nights later. Don’t let the strip mall facade fool you; it’s definitely the best around. Rob insisted I mentioned the amazing Italian dressing.
A classic stop for us has been the Linn Cove Viaduct, an engineering marvel where part of the Blue Ridge arcs out from the mountainside for a few hundred feet. A hiking trail starts at the nearby visitor center and quickly winds under the giant concrete pillars and up a rocky climb just above the lip of the suspended curve. Each previous time we’ve stopped, the area has been covered in a thick fog that, while eerily beautiful, made the view a little hard to appreciate. This time we finally got to see the area all appropriately lit, green and leafy. It’s a small stop but very much worth it.
Early Thursday afternoon, we decided to give Bass Lake a try. The lake is at the bottom of the Moses Cone property and has a loop trail that also hooks into the other larger horse trails that spider the parkway land. We decided to hike the loop and a trail called “the maze”, which was really just a bunch of switchbacks up and down a hill that eventually led back out to the main trails. The lake turned out to be one of the nicest-looking trails in the area, complete with color-changing leaves, a well-manicured trail, and beautiful blue water. For whatever reason we spent most of the “maze” portion reading out loud from my Kindle. You can’t beat a leisurely, 5-mile hike while catching up on some reading together.
Even though we had to wait a day longer than we expected, the Blowing Rock Brewery didn’t disappoint. We avoided the brewery part but indulged in a pair of bison burgers covered in mozzarella and bacon. Rob requested that I mention the delicious, extra-spicy mustard they serve. So much horseradish.
Thursday night we joined maybe 6 other strangers to catch the premiere of The My Little Pony Movie at Boone’s only chain theater. We returned the following night to catch the very-different-but-equally-enjoyable Blade Runner 2049. On both nights, our tickets seemed unnecessary; no usher was present and even the concession staff seemed suspicious that we wanted to redeem the tickets. My tweets from right after each viewing best convey my feelings: “I left warmed and with a mild why-can’t-this-be-real-life sadness only great cartoons provide” and “Blade Runner is absolutely a unique thing that we just don’t get enough of. Lingering, contemplative, and beautiful.”
After one of the movies, we decided the night needed a tad more. We drove up to a high overlook on the Blue Ridge around 11pm and stared down into the valleys of city and car lights. The moon was mostly full and after our eyes adjusted, we could clearly make out shadows we were casting in the moonlight. It might not have been the best driving conditions, but it was totally worth it and rather cool.
One morning before breakfast, I popped open Pokémon Go and there sitting right outside our motel room was the only Wobbuffet I’d ever seen. I threw everything I had at it and caught it quickly.
Our favorite hike in 2015 was the Green Knob Trail near Price Lake, a shorter 2.5~ mile loop trail that covers quite a bit of elevation change in that span. It has a pretty large variety of environments to walk through despite the short length, including damp clay forest paths that wind back and forth across a small creek, open pastures on rolling hills that may or may not feature a few cows, and a really steep climb/descent through fields of tall grass. Last year Rob disturbed a bee’s nest in the trail and despite my best efforts to cross it, we were both stung. I almost instantly discovered a large scratch on my iPhone 7 and just deflated to nothing. It was a bad hike. This year we set out to erase that bad memory. We walked it clockwise (backwards) and got the steep incline over with right away. The trail was nice and bare of bees, and we even saw a cow! My anxiety was through the roof as we crossed the bee location from last year, but no bees and a smile for me. It was a fantastic hike and is now redeemed.
For our last full day in the mountains, we tried to save something a little different to keep it interesting. Rob found a corn maze just west of the Blue Ridge and we drove over that afternoon. After a quick game of pumpkin checkers, we walked into the maze, sunscreen applied, looking for the 6 “mailboxes” that contained a piece of paper that formed a full image when all were collected. Despite attempting to path-find our way logically and leaving sticks in certain shapes to indicate where we’d been, we were only ever able to find 4 of the 6 mailboxes. After two hours of sweating, we gave up. But the GPS map path image we created was worth it. The farm was near the more popular destinations of the original Mast General Store and Over Yonder, but both felt a bit too touristy and inauthentic to stick around too long.
Even the sad, final-day blues couldn’t keep us off the trails. On a whim we grabbed an early breakfast and drove up to Rough Ridge for a quick sprint up the incline to the lookout. This time it was covered in fog and evoked a lot of what we ran into a couple years back. On the way back down the slope, we ran into a couple we’d seen hiking at Graveyard Fields a full week earlier! We introduced ourselves a bit more this time and discovered they were from Charlotte (and then proceeded to ask every question we could about Charlotte).
The trip home was challenging. It’s not the easiest transition coming off of such a rich and fulfilling week right into the mindset of scoping out a city to move to (especially when that lag time torpedoed another stop at Southern Soul). Charlotte was different, but the stop was encouraging! I’ll likely visit in early 2018 a couple times to see if it could pan out as my next home base.
I grew up visiting the Blue Ridge with my family, but the last few years of Fall-time visits have really cemented it as a thing I can call my own. It’s quickly become one of the weeks we look forward to the most and the area has almost convinced us to move closer. The weather this year was as close to perfect as you could ask for, and I’m so thankful that I’ve been able to experience these trips as often and as well as I have. I already can’t wait to go back!