In past blog posts, I’ve written about how we do our research as a family while planning our vacations. We spend time picking a suitable location, scouting well-recommended, local places to eat, and researching where we are going to stay. It’s worked out well and we’ve had wonderful travels.
For our summer road trip, we knew we wanted to see more of western North Carolina—we fell in love with the mountain and college town of Boone on a previous trip. For this trip, we decided we’d spend some time in the mountains south of Asheville. Looking at the map, we found a town that seemed to triangulate perfectly between parks and forests. The good news was that it turned out that it was, indeed. The bad news was that it wasn’t particularly close to any of them and was sorely lacking in charm. So, the town of Maggie Valley wasn’t ideal. But we’ve learned that part of travel is rebounding when things don’t work out perfectly. We ended up doing a bit more driving, learning lots more Appalachian geography, and discovering some amazing towns and sports for natural splendor.
We booked a cute (and dog friendly) cabin through Airbnb, located in a small, wooded neighborhood. We’d missed that this hillside neighborhood—while quaint—was only located about 150 yards away from the main thoroughfare. That street was a stretch of double lane blacktop with a couple of restaurants and a lot of one-level, drive-up motels. My favorite motel, which we drove by daily, and was closed, was named “The Hemlock Motel.” Probably the wrong name for a business. There were plenty of t-shirt shops, gas-stations, and some shopping centers with grocery stores. This was not what we had in mind for our week.
Fortunately, the nearby town of Waynesville offered the cute, small, town we were looking for. There was a walkable main street with plenty of great small businesses and a nice handful of restaurants some with the option to eat outdoors with our dogs.
Although we weren’t thrilled with our location, we were surrounded by so many hiking trails, mountains, and national forests. We even woke up one day to a gaggle of wild turkeys outside our door. The dogs made sure to chase them away.
Based on our travels, if you’re interested in the Blue Ridge south of Asheville, we’d suggest you look at two spots. One is Brevard, whose close proximity to Asheville allows for day trips or a night out. It has a cute main street with ample restaurants, gourmet shops, and is situated next to both the Pisgah National Forest and the Dupont State Forest. The other is Bryson City, which is picturesque (and makes the list for cute mountain towns every year); it also has some good restaurants, and a great bike shop that also sells local craft beer. What could be better?
Sam Knob Trail- Pisgah Forest
We started out our week with a moderately easy hike along the Sam Knob-Trail in the Pisgah Forest. Dogs are permitted, so we took our two happy, high-spirited Chocolate Labradors for the hike. To get the trail head we drove along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. A twisty road in with some of the most spectacular views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We stopped along a couple of the vistas to grab some pictures before heading to the trail. Having driven nearly all the Blue Ridge through North Carolina, let me tell you: it’s one of the world’s greatest drives. That’s without exaggeration. It’s one jaw-dropping view after another, with endless expanses of green and sky, full of wonderful hikes and stops.
The trail was a little busy, but still plenty of space to be on your own. We chose the Sam Knob trail for its varied terrain. It starts with a wonderful trek through a meadow of tall grass, then moves into a path in the trees uphill. There are some steep steps or navigating around some boulders, but nothing that was too difficult. Once you reach the summit, there are some rather large boulders to sit on and take a break while looking out at the Blue Ridge Mountain range. Our dogs loved the hike and it wore them out for the rest of the day. The hike was great family time while seeing some impressive landscapes.
Canyoneering in the Pisgah National Forest
Imagine using a rope and pulley system to rappel a waterfall. Straight down a rock face while water falls around your feet. For some this may not be too scary or intimidating, for us the anticipation was. However, we took the adventure head on and accomplished a climb down a waterfall.
We scouted out an adventure company called Pura Vida located near Brevard, North Carolina. They offer many different adventures including the rappelling, white water rafting, hiking and even an all-inclusive multi-day adventure suitable for families.
The guides met us at a shopping center parking lot (it was easier and closer to location than meeting at their home office) and we followed them with our car to the destination in the Pisgah. Upon arrival, they took the canyoneering gear and we carried our own daypack with water and rain gear.
The hike to the waterfall was an easy 20-25 minute hike. During the hike, I learned all about the owner of the company; his passion for the outdoors, how he lived in Argentina for years, and how he started his own adventure sports company. I was inspired by how much thought and care Joe Moerschbaecher has put into his company but not surprised; he has a masters in adventure recreation.
When we arrived at the waterfall, we were given a thorough lesson on rappelling: how to position our bodies and how to hold the rope in order to descend properly. One guide stayed at the top of the waterfall while the other was at the bottom. Both guides worked together with both primary and secondary ropes, as well for coaching and guiding us.
Looking out over the waterfall was a bit scary but once the rappel started, it became less frightening and more exciting. Moving down the side of the rock face was exhilarating and, in no time, we all made it to the halfway point. There, we walked over to another shorter area to continue the rappel. At this point it started to pour down rain, but that didn’t stop us, and we kept going and finished the entire waterfall with success.
On our hike back, our guide pointed us to a creek with long, sloping rock bottom. The kids immediately hopped in and took a ride down the natural slide and the water gently pushed them into a pool of water at the end of the slide. They did it a couple of times, not caring that the water was a cold 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
As we approached our cars, we were so excited about what we had just done and expertise and professional care the guides took of us, that we immediately tried to book another adventure with them for the same week. Unfortunately for us, but fortunately for them, they were booked the rest of the time we were in the Pisgah Forest. If you’re planning a trip in the area, call them first. They can help set up multiple activities; mountain biking, rapelling, hiking, rafting, and rock climbing.
Nantahala White Water Rafting
We always love the thrill of white water rafting and rafting the Nantahala River gave us the adrenaline rush we were craving. We booked with Nantahala Outdoor Center or the NOC and arrived 30 minutes prior to our rafting adventure. The company gave us a detailed introduction to white water rafting as well as safety instructions. We were a bit shocked that helmets were not mandatory and many participants decided not to wear them on their journey. We did wear them and felt good about our choice.
The portion of river we rafted was a bit tamer than what are used to, but that didn’t stop us from having a great time. It was just our family and a guide in the boat and the entire ride was 3 hours. It was a relaxing, sometimes thrilling ride down the river and we enjoyed the surrounding Nantahala Forest.
Trail Riding in the Smokey Mountains
Our next adventure was horseback riding in the Smokey Mountains with Smokemount Stables. No previous experience is required and the horses know the route as they do it repeatedly. The company was very accommodating, as we had reserved for a morning ride and then totally missed it due to sheer forgetfulness. When we called, they graciously assigned us another day without charging us.
We took the Blue Ridge Parkway to the stables early in the morning, before the fog and clouds had given way. Along our drive, we saw a beautiful, large, young elk grazing on the side of the road. I have never seen an elk–they are rather large compared to the deer that graze in our back yard. We then came across an entire herd of elk grazing in a field in the Smokey Mountain National Park. Their size is impressive.
The entire tour was about 3 ½ hours. We were split up into small groups, with our family having our own guide. Each group (there were 3 groups) left at different times to ensure spacing. It was Western-style riding, which is much different from what I grew up with, English style. When I mentioned my feet weren’t fully reaching the stirrup and could we please adjust. The response was polite but stern. I quote, “Ma’am this is Western style, not English style riding. This is how we do it here.” After that, I just shrugged and went with it.
The trail is narrow through the woods, eventually widening to a trail head as well. We were told that bears had been sighted, however, we didn’t see any that day. Just some wild turkeys running around. There’s a stop midway to see a small mountain waterfall, and then we turned around back.
Located in the Pisgah Forest is a natural water slide called Sliding Rock. Since we couldn’t head to any waterparks this summer, we figured we would do the next best thing and slide down a natural water slide. The name Sliding Rock, says it all, it’s literally a 60-foot slide down a rock into a 8-foot deep pool of water. The water is a cold 55 degrees Fahrenheit even in the summer. This sliding rock is much larger than the one our guide from Pura Vida took us to on our hike after the waterfall rappelling. It also has lifeguard.
We were told to arrive early as it tends to fill up in the shortly after the park opens. There is a charge for all visitors of $4.00 USD even if you are not sliding. Dogs are allowed, but they must remain on leashes. If your dog(s) love water like ours I wouldn’t recommend bringing them as they are not allowed in the water. Our dogs were going crazy trying to figure out how to get off the leash and into the water.
We arrived at 8:00AM to slide. The park doesn’t officially open until 9:00AM, but you can still get in and there are people working to collect the fee. By 8:30am it was filling up and by 9:00 AM we left—it was getting hard to keep social distancing. It was a great way to start a day and release some energy.
Looking Glass Falls
After a slide down Sliding Rock, a two-minute drive will take you to Looking Glass Falls. Not knowing where we were going after Sliding Rock, we had not fully planned this day out, we stumbled upon them. It was easy to park the car on the side of the road and walk to the falls. There are stairs leading down to the creek at the base of the falls where you can walk and splash in if you don’t mind the cold water. We headed down the stairs, about halfway down there is a perfect vista of the falls. This is a great place for a family photo with the cascading water behind you.
Triple Falls, Dupont National Forest
This trio of falls is a great morning hike and a chance to view close up, some very impressive and fast flowing waterfalls. Actually, these falls were used in two well-known movies, Hunger Games and Last of the Mohicans. The trails aren’t difficult and the paths are wide so you don’t get a log jam of visitors. The trail is also dog friendly.
We spent the better part of the morning hiking and marveling at the waterfalls. I even convinced my husband and kids to make a Hunger Games salute (three middle fingers held up straight pointed outwards) by one of the falls. We were impressed with the size and force of the falls and loved our morning out.
Finding your Own Waterfall
After the triple falls, we returned to the Pisgah and the trail that took us to the fall where we rappelled. Our youngest wanted to return to the sliding rock for some more slides in the cold water.
The great thing about the Pisgah Forest, is you can find so many little areas to stop at and swim in the creek, have lunch, hike (on a marked trail), without many other people around. We happened to stumble upon our own little waterfall with a wonderful pool of water for the kids to swim in.
It was along the trail where we found a small embankment, climbed down and had our own private waterfall, pool, and place to hang out. The dogs were with us and they loved swimming, climbing around and eating, yes eating, the water that fell from the waterfall. We spent over an hour just hanging out as a family. It was just us surrounded by the beauty of the forest and the sounds of the cascading water from the falls.
When we finally moved on, we walked about 5 more minutes to the sliding rock area we discovered after rappelling down a waterfall. There was only one other family there and they were far enough away that we still felt we had the site to ourselves. We slid down the rock with the dogs, over and over again. I was another perfect way to spend time as a family.
Where to Eat in the Pisgah
2020 has proven to be a bit difficult for eating out. We were okay with eating at restaurants with outdoor seating. (We did not feel 100% safe eating indoors.)
Butts on the Creek BBQ, Maggie Valley, North Carolina
While Maggie Valley was thin on places to eat, we did luck into a spot across the street from our Airbnb. Pot’s Butts was a barbecue restaurant perfect for ordering out on the night we arrived. My husband is a barbecue snob and judges all spots that serve brisket by it. Their brisket was well-smoked, and moist. The ribs and pulled pork were solid. The sides were great, with homemade mac and cheese and baked beans. It was a hit with our family.
Boojum Brewing Company, Waynesville, North Carolina
We love a good brew pub, hamburgers, sandwiches, good sides, and well-crafted beer. Boojum was a great fit. Located in the small town of Waynesville, we went with the kids and dogs for an outdoor table on the back deck. Prior to eating, we walked around the main street of the town window shopping all the cute clothing, art, even pet stores, before heading in to eat.
The food was solid and the beer tasty. We split the green bean fries and the wings, and were then satisfied with our burgers and sandwiches. The best part was that the staff was very attentive to our dogs, giving them a treat and making sure they had water while we dined.
Marco Trattoria, Brevard ,North Carolina
This was a perfect stop for lunch after rappelling and hiking around the Pisgah National Forest. The restaurant is in a cozy house at the edge of Brevard’s main drag. They had set up tables on their front porch all the way to the parking lot on the side of the building. The dogs were again lucky to join us on our culinary adventure. We ordered a bunch of their hand-made, brick oven pizzas to split. The crust on the pizza was crunchy and thin. For one of the pizzas, we designed our own toppings. It was a solid lunch.
Magpie, Brevard, North Carolina
We stumbled upon this place with the assistance of Google while driving through Brevard. It’s a hipster take on traditional foods, sourced with local ingredients and cooked with care. The restaurant featured smoked meats plates or sandwiches with some great choices to start. We shared some plates with sides of collard greens, fried okra, and potato salad. We introduced our kids to boiled peanuts (my husband likes them, I don’t, the kids do). The restaurant had shut down indoor seating and all seating was outdoor, with plenty of spots and distanced. Magpie also had craft sodas like lavender lemon and strawberry rhubarb as well as an array of craft beer.
Nantahala Brewing Burger + Bar, Bryson City, North Carolina
We worked up an appetite after white water rafting the Nantanhala River and headed to Bryson City for some outdoor eats at Nantahala Brewing Burger + Bar. They had a huge outdoor area for dining and we walked up to the bar to put in our order.
The menu was limited, but there was plenty to order for all of us. Burgers were solid and starters were exactly what we were wanting after water rafting, roasted brussels sprouts loaded with feta and bacon and some tater tots slathered in melted cheese. The local beer was delicious and we enjoyed trying their porter and pale ales.
Watami Sushi, Waynesville, North Carolina
This sushi joint on Main Street in Waynesville, NC was closed for eat in while we were there, but they were doing takeout. We ordered a bunch of rolls as well as soup to take back to our Airbnb. The food was decent and an easy location for a good sushi fix.
Wine Seller, Waynesville, North Caroline
This small wine shop offers a good wine selection that will meet any wine lovers needs. We stopped by to pick out a great bottle to match with our sushi order. Instead of wine, we chose sake to match with our sushi dinner.
Papas & Beer, Waynesville, North Carolina
We decided to eat here after passing by and realizing we were all in the mood for some good Tex-Mx cuisine. The restaurant is about a mile outside of the downtown of Waynesville and offers outdoor dining. It was everything you would expect from a Tex-Mex restaurant, fajitas, tacos, enchiladas, and more. It was a satisfying lunch and happy we found it.
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