Experiencing the Blue Ridge Mountains near Charlotte is simple; the peaks are just two hours away by car, so head west in the morning for a day of adventure.
Destination options abound in this rugged western part of North Carolina, but hikers and other active travelers need not venture farther than a visit to Chimney Rock State Park, from which sweeping views of the foothills and Lake Lure are available from atop the 2,480-foot Exclamation Point. Those wanting less physicality, perhaps, but more dining, shopping (including antiques) and attractions options, meanwhile, may favor a jaunt a little farther south, to Hendersonville and the nearby community of Flat Rock.
Before either drive, fuel up not only at the gas station but at breakfast, loading up on grits, biscuits and other Southern standards at the Flying Biscuit Café (2 Charlotte locations). This eclectic Southern chain and its playful atmosphere opened its first location in Atlanta in 1993 and was backed by Emily Saliers of the folk duo Indigo Girls.
Things to Do: Chimney Rock, North Carolina
Ancient geology, unique hiking trails, rock climbing and the mountain scenery are the chief draws at Chimney Rock State Park, which has received chief improvements in recent years. Those include a 26-story elevator that takes more physically challenged visitors to the top of Exclamation Point. Others can take what the park calls the "ultimate Stairmaster," or 491 stairs, to the point's top. The stairs were rebuilt a couple of years ago and offer wider steps and landings every 12 feet, making the 25-minute climb easier.
From the top of the point, gaze in wonder at the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge foothills that surround—for up to 75 miles away. "Exclamation Point is the highest elevation in the park at 2,480 feet," notes park official Shannon Tucker, "and it offers gorgeous panoramic views of the Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure areas."
Rock climbers like to cling to the slope of nearby Rumbling Bald, particularly in the wintertime, because its south-facing wall collects heat. The boulders at the base are a popular destination by themselves, offering all the fun of climbing without the need for complex gear. (Tip: Chris Dorrity's guide to the bouldering problems at Rumbling Bald is considered the bible for this expansive area.)
Park visitors also should trek Chimney Rock's Hickory Nut trail, at the base of which they'll experience the cool, misty Hickory Nut Falls. At 404 feet, they're among the highest such falls east of the Mississippi River. They and their surrounding scenery impressed movie makers so much that they were featured as backdrops for the 1992 movie, "The Last of the Mohicans."
Travel tip: To get to Chimney Rock State Park from Charlotte, head west on I-85 to US-74 and then turn right onto Highway 9, toward and through Mill Spring, before arriving at Chimney Rock: A total trip of just under 100 miles.
Warning: Views of Lake Lure may impel visitors to extend their day trip by a day or two. If so, head just a few miles to the town of picturesque Lake Lure—home to the 1927 Lake Lure Inn and Spa, which features a grand lobby and hallways that display original antiques, furnishings and artwork. Recently restored to mirror its original spectacle, the inn includes inviting gardens that have proved popular as wedding locations, plus restaurants, an elaborate full-service spa named Allure and rooms furnished with modern amenities.
Things to Do: Hendersonville and Flat Rock, North Carolina
History lovers, particularly, would enjoy a day trip to Hendersonville, whose colorful downtown itself, filled with antique stores, other shops, galleries, museums, an aquarium and a variety of restaurants, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. So, too, is the Henderson County Courthouse, designed by Richard Sharp Smith, who was the supervising architect on the grand Biltmore house and estate in nearby Asheville. Within the courthouse is the Henderson County Heritage Museum, which includes a number of Civil War artifacts, including an SC Robinson Confederate Sharps rifle and full-dress uniforms of a Union artilleryman (circa 1865) and a Henderson County home guardsman.
Explore minerals, fossils and Indian artifacts at the Mineral & Lapidary Museum of Henderson County.
Visitors with children will want to head to the ECCO Ocean Center and Aquarium,whose 20-plus displays include eels, sting rays, sea horses, bamboo sharks and a touch tank (admission $3, closed Sun-Mon). Also see Hands On!—A Child's Gallery, which is designed to further stir the imaginations of children ages 1-10. Admission is $3 per person and kids 4 and under get in free (closed Sun-Mon).
Other attractions include the Western North Carolina Air Museum and the DuPont State Recreational and Pisgah National forests (you'll find amazing waterfall hikes and mountain biking trails in both these areas). The North Carolina Apple Festival is staged on Labor Day weekend, and the Henderson County Curb Market—open 8 am-2 pm Tue, Thu and Sat, April-December, and 8 am-1 pm Sat, January-March—augments the antiques and other shopping experiences.
Head 3 miles to nearby Flat Rock and see Connemara, where famed American poet and Abe Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg spent the last 22 years of his life. This 264-acre historic site of his home includes a farm where Sandburg's wife, Lilian, raised prize-winning Toggenburg, Saanen and Nubian goats, descendants of which still frolick there. Enjoy a guided tour of the home and walks and hikes around Connemara's pleasant grounds.
Looking to eat? Some of the best restaurants in the Hendersonville and Flat Rock include: West First Wood-Fired in Flat Rock, where a glass-mosaic-gilded oven churns out wood-fired pizzas and customers also enjoy homemade pasta and desserts; the Hubba Hubba Smokehouse, Flat Rock, where the barbecue pork, chicken and brisket are pit-fired in the Carolina tradition; and, the Fireside Restaurant & Pancake Inn in Hendersonville for a hearty, American-style breakfast. Also, for those wanting a good, old-fashioned steak, there's Binion's Roadhouse, an eclectic stop in its own right that features cowhide-style tablecloths and such displays as a cross-section of a giant oak that was removed from the Carl Sandburg home because of an infectious disease. The Green Room Cafe and Coffeehouse, meanwhile, serves up such dishes as crab cakes, sea scallops, and pecan and pineapple salmon; it features live folk and Americana music during dinner on Friday and Saturday nights.
Travel tip: While in western North Carolina, tune the car radio to WNCW (88.7 FM), Spindale. The non-commercial public radio station is known for a varied format that blends bluegrass and folk music with up-and-coming bands, blues, jazz, indie and rock.