Hot Springs, Marshall and Mars Hill
Stretching from Georgia through Maine, the Appalachian Trail is no place for sissies. Boot soles peel off, backpack straps break, cooking stoves leak gas. Wanderlust turns into "wonder lust" as you search in vain for the trail. Not to mention those prickly encounters with porcupines or black bear.
Even without these surprises, trail life is challenging. Blisters rub, backs ache and legs burn at the mere sight of yet another switchback. Fantasies of hot baths torture and stomachs growl for impractical treats. It's no wonder A.T. hikers visibly relax when they walk into Hot Springs. The trail goes right through the town's main thoroughfare, not that A.T. hikers would miss the opportunity to enjoy a trail town as well-liked and counted upon as this one.
Scenic Hot Springs has long soothed those seeking comfort and pleasure. Its carbonated spring water is famous for its mineral content and healing properties, and starting in 1832, a succession of fancy resort hotels catered to the wealthy here. Fortunately for those with lighter purse strings, the town today offers restaurants and lodging that cover rich and poor.
Eatin' and shoppin'
As befitting a trail town, you can easily walk to nearly everything. The Smoky Mountain Diner is the place to score a hot, sit-down breakfast — it's revered for its generous portions and berry cobblers. Folks also like Spring Creek Tavern's hamburgers, craft beers and live music. Eat on its porch, if possible, and take the time to swing the old-time dangle successfully onto the hook out there. Sweet Imaginations serves tempting deli sandwiches, frozen yogurt, brownie sundaes and other ice cream treats. Dinner is open to the public at Mountain Magnolia Inn, and like the inn, the Ironhorse Station Restaurant serves fresh, organic fare in a hospitable atmosphere.
For outdoor gear and tips on local trails, go to Bluff Mountain Outfitters (152 Bridge St.). Ironhorse Station's complex includes ArtiSun Gallery and Marketplace (50 S. Andrews St.), a warm, pleasing space with a wine shop, coffee bar and artisan jewelry, fiber art, photography, wood working and pottery. Then stroll over to Harvest Moon Gallery & Gift Shop (81 Bridge St.), which sells a mix of art, antiques, vintage goods, records and tie-dyed clothing, and Hazelwood House Gift Shop (50 S. Spring St.), where you can browse more traditional arts and crafts such as teddy bears, dolls and rocking chairs.
Hot Springs Resort and Spa has modern, secluded Jacuzzi-style hot tubs in wooden outdoor decks along Spring Creek and French Broad River. It pipes the springs' mineral water into the tubs, which are sanitized and drained after each use. Prices start at $13 per hour, depending on tub, time and person-count. Open daily into late evening. For tub reservations, call (828) 622-7676.
The resort is located on 100 acres. In addition to luxury suites it has eight primitive camping cabins, RV sites and more than a 100 tent sites. Other town accommodations include $15 a night hostels (Laughing Heart Lodge), inn rooms and cottage and cabin rentals. For more information, visit hotspringsnc.org.
Trailfest, Friday-Sunday, April 19–21
It celebrates hiking in particular but also bicycling, skateboarding and river rafting. Festivities kick off with an inexpensive spaghetti dinner, and end with pancakes, a float trip, and family soccer. Other activities: music, a 5k run, chili cookoff, bonfire, talent contest, nature craft demo, Hula Hoop workshop, duck race and morning yoga. (828) 622-9575 or www.hsclc.org/newsevents/trailfest.html
French Broad River Festival, Friday-Sunday, May 3–5
Live music, mountain bike and whitewater raft racing. Arts and crafts and kids' village with facepainting, games and storytelling. www.frenchbroadriverfestival.com
Quaint, historic Marshall (pop. around 870) is perched over the wide French Broad River. Despite the surrounding green topography, it can feel like an old western town. Townfolk hold spirited community events, including dancing and cakewalks, along with country, bluegrass and mountain music, in its restored train depot. Step inside there and ask the oldtimers what's next on tap, then relax on its back deck overlooking the river. Also on Main Street: the Madison County Courthouse; Good Stuff, a combination music venue/beer hall/wine bar/restaurant; Lapland Bookshop, which sells gently used and new books and handcrafts from its storybook cottage; artsy Zuma's Coffee; and (of all things) a tattoo museum that features extraordinary photographs, artifacts and books. On French Broad Fridays, downtown businesses stay open late, with festivities and special restaurant menus, for kids of all ages.
They include a mermaid parade (June 7), "Bike-A-Licious" (July 12), and "Dog Daze" (August 9).
Mars Hill is the home of Mars Hill College, founded originally as the French Broad Baptist Institute in 1856. The name became Mars Hill College, inspired by Acts 17:22 in the Bible (King James Version) that said "Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill and said, 'Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious." Visitors like its charming campus, which features beautiful stone buildings and artful landscaping. The Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre holds performances at Owen Theatre there. SART's six-show season begins in June and runs through August (828-689-1384 or www.sartplays.org).
Other worthy stops: Main Street Deli, Papa Nick's Pizza (15 College Street) and Fiddlestix, which sells antiques, locally built furniture and other crafts (37 Library St.).
Madison County Heritage Festival, Saturday, Oct. 5
Crafts, live music and food, held on Main Street, College Street and the college's quad.
This area is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, offering awe-inspiring hiking, river rafting (several businesses in Hot Springs and Marshall), horseback riding (Sandy Bottom Trail Rides in Marshall), guided llama treks (Marshall), disc golf (at Mars Hill College's campus and at Blanahassett Island, a park in Marshall). If you fish, opportunities abound in active fishing streams, creeks and rivers. Wild trout fishing is open all year and hatchery supported streams open in April. StreamSide Experience (Hot Springs) schedules half and full-day guided fly fishing trips.