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8 Rustic Adventures in North Carolina

Deep woods, bountiful fly-fishing and diverse wildlife reserves make North Carolina a natural wonder. An hiker’s dream, North Carolina offers enough fresh air and outdoor experiences to leave even the most seasoned traveler exhausted with possibilities.

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1. Nantahala Gorge

1. Nantahala Gorge

Carved by the Nantahala River, this eight-mile gorge takes its name from a Cherokee word meaning “land of the noonday sun.” Indeed, the canyon here is so deep and narrow that only when the sun is directly overhead can its rays reach the bottom of the gorge.

The gorge burrows down some 1,800 feet at its deepest and is less than 100 yards wide at its narrowest. It is the centrepiece of the Nantahala National Forest, with easy access to the Appalachian Trail, which crosses the eastern end of the gorge.

The river offers a variety of recreational opportunities. Water released from the Duke Power dam several miles upriver rushes down the gorge for about 12 hours on most days, creating an ideal run for whitewater rafting.

Rafts, canoes, and kayaks may be rented in the area, and the trip, while exhilarating, is not overly challenging for novices. (Photo courtesy of  anoldent/Flickr Creative Commons)

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2. Love Valley

2. Love Valley

Growing up, Charlotte native Andy Barker wanted two things in life: to live in a church-centred community and to be a cowboy. He got his wish in 1954 when he bought 300 acres on Fox Mountain and founded Love Valley – now a replica Wild West-style town that’s become a popular destination for horseback riders, hikers and rodeo lovers. Open weekends only, Love Valley offers room and cabin rentals, campgrounds, meals, horse rentals, a tack shop and farrier – and Sunday worship services. 

 The town’s 120 permanent residents are joined by hundreds of weekenders who own houses here. Though cars aren’t allowed in the actual town, horse-drawn vehicles will take you from the spacious parking area to your destination.

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3. Stone Mountain State Park

3. Stone Mountain State Park

Plunging waterfalls, granite outcroppings, narrow dirt roads, and trails twisting through catawba rhododendrons and mountain laurel populate this park’s more than 14,100 acres.

Creeks stocked with trout – rainbows, browns, and “brookies” – make this is a fisherman’s paradise. In Bullhead Creek (a “fish for fun” stream where fly-fisherman may practice their techniques but must toss back their catch) rainbows as long as 26 inches have been hooked.

Trails lead to the 2,300-foot summit of rugged Stone Mountain, and you’ll also find paths to Stone Mountain Falls, Cedar Rock, and Wolf Rock. Mountain climbers can choose from 13 different ascent routes, many of which are difficult and not recommended for beginners.

Throughout this densely forested area, lady’s slippers, trilliums, bluets, and other wild-flowers and ferns are often seen in settings that also frequently include feathered population of red-tailed hawks, ruffed grouse, black vultures, wild turkeys, and owls. White-tailed deer, beavers, otters, minks, and foxes are occasionally glimpsed.

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4. Reed Gold Mine State Historic Site

4. Reed Gold Mine State Historic Site

In 1799 the young son of German immigrant John Reed found a shiny rock in Little Meadow Creek near his father’s farm. Unable to identify its composition, the elder Reed used it as a doorstop until a jeweler offered him $3.50 for it in 1802; Reed sold it.

The shiny rock was a 17-pound chunk of gold – the first authenticated gold find in the United States. Reed soon established a mining company, and in 1831 he expanded the operation from placer mining (creek panning) to underground mining, an operation that continued under several ownerships until 1912.

Guided tours of the site today take you through a maze of mine shafts, restored to memorialize the nation’s first gold rush.

A large building near the mine contains a restored 1895 stamp mill, used today to demonstrate how, with several crushing blows, gold can be extracted from quartz. At the panning area visitors are shown how to separate gold from soil. Lucky panners may keep their strikes. Gold objects serving monetary and other purposes are displayed in old bank and office safes at the visitor’s centre. (Photo courtesy of bnhsu/Flickr Creative Commons)

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5. Alamance Battleground State Historic Site

5. Alamance Battleground State Historic Site

On May 16, 1771, more than two years before the Boston Tea Party, a brief revolt here ended in defeat for about 2,000 of the then-colony’s independent Western frontiersmen, who stood in armed rebellion against the royal governor and the colonial militia.

Known as Regulators, these men and their families had been voicing increasing dissatisfaction with the corruption of British rule for years. They began acting on their frustration early in 1771 by refusing to pay taxes. After warnings from the governor, a royal militia was sent to challenge the upstart Regulators.

For all of their justifiable anger, the poorly trained and ineffectively led frontiersmen were unable to prevail against the Crown. Their efforts, however, were not in vain. Their bold use of armed resistance became well known throughout the colonies, and it set the stage for the coming battle for independence.

Flags on the battlefield show where each side stood, and a bronze map explains the events that took place. A granite monument dedicated in 1880 commemorates the battle.

Another attraction on the grounds is the 1780 Allen House, an oak-and-ash log dwelling typical of those built by settlers of the era on this frontier. A clock with wooden gears, a walnut desk, and other original furnishings evoke the homespun comforts of the past. The visitors centre displays weapons and uniforms of the time and presents a brief video show. (Photo courtesy of Tony Crider/Flickr Creative Commons)

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6. Vollis Simpson's Whirligigs

6. Vollis Simpson’s Whirligigs

Anyone who has enjoyed a toy pinwheel spinning in the breeze will be blown away by the whirligigs of Windmill Farm – huge spinning, turning works of art and engineering created by Vollis Simpson, a machinist who once designed and made equipment to move houses and farm buildings. When he retired in the 1980s, Vollis began constructing wind-powered whirligigs, making use of his house-moving machinery and old industrial materials. More than 30 large-scale sculptural towers, a few mechanically powered but most driven by the wind, stand on his rural property. The whirligig structures emphasize motion and sound as works of art, and each are covered by paint and reflectors, making them a spectacular sight both day and night.

His constructions have been exhibited by Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, the Baltimore Visionary Art Museum, and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Four 40-foot whirligigs commissioned for the 1996 Olympics are now permanent fixtures in Atlanta. (Photo courtesy of Jon Betts/Flickr Creative Commons)

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7. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

7. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

Each spring and fall geese, ducks, and other migratory birds use the Atlantic Flyway to get where they’re going.

This sliver of an island – almost 13 miles long and no more than a mile across at its widest – is one of the Eastern Seaboard’s finest vantage points to observe the migration. And beach lovers, fishermen, hikers, and photographers will also find much to enjoy here. 

This complex of salt marshes and freshwater ponds supports otters, muskrats, nutrias, diamondback terrapins, and loggerhead, sea, and snapping turtles. Ring-necked pheasants abound, while egrets, herons, and ibises are among the waterfowl and shorebirds that nest here. Peregrine falcons are often seen during spring and fall migrations, and more than 250 other bird species are occasionally observed.

A number of observation platforms facilitate sightings of all varieties, while ponds supporting ducks, geese, and swans are easily observed from the car.

Five access points to Atlantic beaches and one to Pamlico Sound along the western shore attract bathers. Anglers can cast for sea trout, channel bass, pompano, and bluefish. (Photo courtesy of bobistraveling/Flickr Creative Commons)

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8. Buxton Woods Costal Reserve

8. Buxton Woods Costal Reserve

Forests are rare on the Outer Banks, where wind and salt spray reign. But at Buxton the island broadens to nearly four miles, and the distance from the ocean and higher elevations combines to create an example of ecological interdependence. Here in the 968-acre forest, stunted trees form a protective canopy over the undergrowth, and this low foliage in turn stabilizes the soil the trees need.

The three-quarter-mile loop of the self-guiding Buxton Woods Nature Trail offers an introduction to this symbiotic environment and its various inhabitants, many seldom found elsewhere on the islands. (Photo courtesy of cutoffties/Flickr Creative Commons)