Secrets of the Mountains - Carolina Country

Secrets of the Mountains

These destinations offer something new off the beaten path

By Pamela A. Keene

Secrets of the Mountains

Max Patch Mountain on the Appalachian Trail. Photo courtesy of Explore Asheville.

Tourists flock to North Carolina’s mountains through all seasons for the scenery, the state parks, recreation opportunities, diverse cuisine, bluegrass music, and stately homes and gardens.

Locals and tourists alike can typically share some go-to options in each of our three mountain regions: Visit the Smoky Mountains and Cherokee region for hiking and waterfalls, golfing in Cashiers, or to learn about the history of the Eastern Band of Cherokees. Asheville and the Foothills are home to Chimney Rock and Lake Lure. North Carolina’s High Country boasts spectacular views from Grandfather Mountain, and kids love Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock.

But what about some of those lesser-known secret spots in the mountains of North Carolina? Look closer and you’ll discover some hidden gems that reveal history, natural beauty, creativity and living off the land.

Here’s a sampling of the hidden treasures that await.

Tale of the forests

Did you know that the North Carolina mountains are the birthplace of forestry? As George W. Vanderbilt developed his nearly 7,000-acre wooded estate near Asheville in the mid-1890s, he brought Germany’s Carl A. Schenck to manage the forests. Three years later, Schenck founded the Biltmore Forest School, the nation’s first school of forestry to teach forestry management. While the school operated less than a dozen years on the Biltmore Estate, its legacy and heritage are celebrated at the Cradle of Forestry American Heritage Site in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Guided Trail Tour

Guided trail tour at the Cradle of Forestry. Photo by Cradle of Forestry in America.

Visitors to the 6,500-acre destination can navigate three paved interpretive trails and view original structures, among them the one-room schoolhouse, a general store and the antique portable sawmill. The Forest Discovery Center houses interactive exhibits and activities for all ages. The center’s helicopter simulator recreates the experience of fighting a wildfire. Nature programs, tours and a nature-based scavenger hunt introduce youngsters to basic concepts of forestry.

“The Cradle of Forestry tells the hidden story of the Biltmore Legacy and a place where nature and heritage come together,” says Devin Gentry, director of programming and partnerships. “It’s an opportunity to step back in time, experience the beginnings of environmental stewardship and be inspired about the importance of our forestry and water resources.”

The Cradle of Forestry is located near Asheville in the Pisgah National Forest. It is open from mid-April until early November and hosts numerous special events, including Forest Festival Day/Intercollegiate Woodsmen’s Meet on October 6, and “The Legend of Tommy Hodges” outdoor drama on October 19–20.

Visit for more information.

Getting scenic

Panoramic. Stunning. Breathtaking. That’s what people say about the 360-degree views from Max Patch on the Appalachian Trail. Located near Hot Springs, this section of the AT in the Pisgah National Forest lures hikers, walkers and families to touch the clouds at an elevation of 4,600 feet. The unique bald mountaintop that was once a pasture draws hikers from around the world.

Panoramic. Stunning. Breathtaking. That’s what people say about the 360-degree views from Max Patch on the Appalachian Trail. The unique bald mountaintop that was once a pasture draws hikers from around the world.

“Max Patch Mountain is an epic hiking spot,” says Dodie Stephens, director of communications with ExploreAsheville. “Whether you’re a through hiker or just want to have a day in the mountains, it’s an iconic mountain destination.”

Two trails wind their way to the summit. “If you take the path straight up, the ‘wow’ moment at the top is instantaneous,” she says. “You can also climb the longer trail around the rim and be tempted by the glimpses of the landscape and the peaks along the way.”

Picnicking, kite-flying, taking photos, camping or just enjoying expansive views of the mountain skyline are excellent reasons to experience Max Patch. But there’s more.

“A visit to Max Patch gives people a chance to partake in the culture of the AT hikers,” Stephens says. “Some are very willing to share stories of their journeys as they cross over this space, and it can give you another perspective. It’s definitely an added bonus.”

Max Patch Mountain is about an hour’s drive from Asheville. Visit for more information.

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Building upon musical skills at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown. Photo by John C. Campbell Folk School.

Learn something new

Tucked away in the mountains at Brasstown, North Carolina, the John C. Campbell Folk School attracts people from around the world to its week-long and weekend classes. Topics range from lapidary to art, music to writing, gardening to nature studies. Opened in 1925, its mission is to preserve and promote crafts and customs of Appalachia.

The wooded 366-acre campus has nearly two dozen working studios teaching printmaking, blacksmithing, enameling and hot glass, quilting and weaving, taught in one-week immersive sessions. Students stay in dorms and houses; meals served family style are offered in the school’s dining hall. Classes typically have less than a dozen participants in both morning and afternoon sessions. At the end of the week, participants head home with at least one piece that they have created.

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John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown. Photo by John C. Campbell Folk School.

“Coming to the John C. Campbell Folk School gives people the opportunity to take a break from their everyday lives,” says Keather Gougler, who has been on the staff of the school for 16 years. “We’re not just a craft school. By coming here, they often open the door to a new path of discovery, plus they meet about 100 other people from all over the world who are on their own journeys.”

In addition to 15 to 20 classes each week, the school offers field trips, contra dancing, a Friday night concert series, community dances and a craft shop. The Folk School Fall Festival, October 6–7, showcases more than 250 artists and craftspeople, craft demonstrations, bluegrass, gospel and folk music, plus pony rides, a petting zoo and kids’ activities.

Visit to learn more.

Life on the farm

Connecting people with agriculture and farming has become big business in North Carolina.

“Agritourism is a large part of sustaining farms these days,” says Charlie Kissling, who spent years in the food and beverage business in New Jersey, before moving to North Carolina. Seventeen years ago, the draw of farm life brought him to Hayesville, where he now raises premium Black Angus beef at his Walnut Hollow Ranch in Clay County. Visitors to Walnut Hollow have a chance to see farming up close and personal, and to learn what happens at a working cattle ranch.
Charlie Kissling Black Angus

Charlie Kissling raises Black Angus at Walnut Hollow Ranch in Hayesville. Photo by Emilie Gates Photography.

Kissling shares farming practices with guests as they tour the ranch. Open on Fridays and Saturdays, the Farm Store sells beef raised there.

The pastures, ponds and woodlands of Walnut Hollow are the backdrop for catch-and-release bass fishing, swimming, hiking and bird watching.

Guests can stay in one of two rental rooms, camp or bring their RVs. The Ranch Room and the Loft Room each sleep four people.

“Walnut Hollow is a great vacation spot and a chance to learn about life on the farm,” Kissling says. “So many people have never experienced a farm, and it’s a learning experience for them, but for those who remember farms from their youth, being here takes them back.”

Visit for more information.

About the Author

Pamela A. Keene is a freelance journalist who writes for magazines and newspapers across the Southeast and nationally.

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