Things to Do in Morganton NC Area
Tourism is alive and well in Burke County. You’re invited to take off your hat and stay a while. Take time to leisurely explore the county, touring its panoramic back roads. The shopping experience in Burke County is enlivened by the many opportunities for both casual and fine dining, often in the atmosphere of one of the county’s exciting festivals, which add music and art to the leisurely strolls through our business districts.
This charming small-town experience can readily be enjoyed in Morganton and Valdese with the numerous antique shops, art galleries, and vendors of items from jewelry to books, from outdoor equipment to homes. The real thrill of shopping here is the dazzling variety of locally produced arts and craft ware, such as pottery and woodcarving with their own distinct flavor, that sprang from the vision and skill of individual artisans.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Some of the most breathtaking scenery on this national scenic drive lies at the northern edge of Burke County. Just a short drive from Morganton is Mount Mitchell, the tallest peak in the eastern United States. To its south, toward Asheville, Craggy Gardens produces a spectacular display of the native Catawba rhododendron every year. Further north, the modern engineering marvel, the elevated Linn Cove Viaduct, sweeps around the slopes of Grandfather Mountain, making visitors feel airborne as they gaze out over the rolling Carolina piedmont a thousand feet below. Hiking and picnicking opportunities abound.
The highest peak in the ancient Blue Ridge Mountain Range, this rugged, world-famous mountain has been recognized by the United Nations as an International Biosphere Reserve. Here the annual Highland Games and the gathering of the Scottish clans is held. The privately owned park features the renowned Mile High Swinging Bridge as well as bear, cougar, otter, eagle and other wildlife habitats. One can hike in the preserve or motor the Parkway viaduct at its base.
Benjamin F. Long IV Fresco Trail
Let Morganton’s Municipal Auditorium with its Sacred Dance & the Muses ceiling fresco by internationally famous artist Ben Long be your starting point on the Fresco Trail.
A trail map available at CoMMA will direct you to both sacred and secular subjects painted by a process of applying pigments to damp plaster. Long’s frescos can be found in small, out-of-the-way places, such as West Jefferson and Glendale Springs, and in larger urban centers, such as Charlotte and Statesville.
Pisgah Loop Scenic Byway
Experience a great back-to-nature scenic loop that goes from Morganton high into the Blue Ridge Mountains and back. You can pause to picnic at the historic Bark House on Highway 181 or view Brown Mountain, home of the famous Brown Mountain Lights. You can also circle the rim of the rugged Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, while gazing down at Lake James far below as you descend to the piedmont area and head back to your starting point in Morganton.
Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail
Quaker Meadows, north of Morganton, was the gathering place on September 30, 1780, of the Overmountain Men who met there to plan their strategy for the Battle of Kings Mountain. Revolutionary War leaders convened under a huge tree, the “Council Oak.” The public motor route designated by the National Park Service leads west and east of Morganton to significant waypoints on the 1780 march, such as Gillespie Gap near Spruce Pine and Fort Defiance near Lenoir. Captain Charles McDowell’s 1812 house still stands at Quaker Meadows and nearby is the Quaker Meadows Cemetery.
Historic Sites around Morganton NC
Burke County is rich in its heritage thanks to a farsighted vision of the future and an abiding dedication to preserving the past. Morganton, the county seat, is divided into nine national register districts with a variety of architectural styles, including Gothic and Georgian Revival, Art Deco, Victorian, and Romanesque styles. Driving and walking tours might include the Old Burke County Courthouse; the North Carolina School for the Deaf; the Senator Sam Ervin Library; and Bellevue, Creekside, and Mountain View residences. Visits to Valdese could take in the Waldensian Heritage Museum, the Trail of Faith, the model train exhibit, and Village Park and mural.
Lake James Cellars
Wine touring is the latest recreational day trip event in the Western Carolina Foothills. Visit the Lake James Cellars, a family-owned winery operating in a restored 1915 textile mill building in Glen Alpine, a short drive from Morganton. The winery has a gift shop and a tasting room, and it is adjacent to the Old Mill Antiques store.
The winery was opened in 2007 by vintner Ed Yoder, a lifelong resident of the area. After making wine for family and friends for many years, he decided to open a winery to be able to share his delicious creations with others. Visitors to the winery often hear Ed tell stories about the area and explain how he chose the “fanciful names” he uses on his wine labels.
Waldensian Heritage Wines
Located in historic Valdese, the winery is housed in an old 1930s barn, constructed from local field rock and timber. Waldensian Heritage Wines offers visitors an opportunity to sample wines derived from centuries of experience in the Cottian Alps of northern Italy. Tours and tasting are available at the facility, which offers a bocce court and a covered seating area.
Trail of Faith
A series of 15 outdoor exhibits commemorate major events in the history of the Waldensian religious community. The exhibits show the years that the religious community spent as a persecuted minority in the Middle Ages in the Alps of northern Italy to the 1848 Edict of Emancipation, which granted the same political and civil rights as other citizens, to the eventual immigration and settlement in Valdese in 1893. The tour begins at a visitor center with a brief introductory talk on the trail.
The Waldensian Museum (Valdese)
The Waldenses were persecuted Christians from northern Italy who, for centuries, survived the edicts of rulers calling for their extinction. Though many were massacred, miraculously some survived centuries of inquisition. A growing population and limited farming land forced the Waldenses to seek new land, and in 1893, the first 29 arrived in Burke County, where they founded the settlement of Valdese. Retrace the lives of these Christians from the Middle Ages in Europe to their settling in a new world. Experience their daily lives as settlers and see artifacts such as rustic tools, garments and photographs that document their lives. Witness their journey of faith to a proud heritage of honor.
Contact: 828-874-1111 http://waldensianheritagemuseum.org
Piedmont & Western Railroad Museum
Located on the ground floor of the Valdese Old Rock School, the museum features replicas of a small-town depot and numerous artifacts, such as a Pullman porter’s compartment and a motor car, which saw decades of service on the Clinchfield Railroad. Vintage photographs capture both the people and the equipment which made railroad history. The Piedmont and Western Railroad Club displays an 800-square-foot HO-scale layout with a mainline over four scale miles in length.
Contact: 828-879-2126 www.pwrr.org or www.visitvaldese.com
From the banks of the Catawba River (900 ft. above sea level) to the highest peak (4,350 ft. above sea level) you will find that Burke County revels in the blessings of nature at its finest. “Go with the flow” on our lakes and rivers, in our two state parks, walking or biking on the Greenway, or on a golf course, soccer or baseball field. Take pleasure in the paradise that surrounds you in Burke County.
Lake James State Park Expansion
In August 2004, NC Governor Mike Easley authorized the purchase of nearly 3,000 additional acres for Lake James State Park, increasing its former size of 605 acres nearly six times. The new area is situated on the lake’s north side, where the Linville River enters the lake, and will offer greater opportunities for camping, fishing, hiking, and water-based recreation. The 24 miles of additional park lake frontage include stunning views of Linville Gorge and Shortoff Mountain to the north.
Pisgah Loop Scenic Byway
The panoramic 47-mile Pisgah Loop Scenic Byway leads travelers on a voyage through remarkable historic areas and scenic natural beauty as it winds north from Morganton to Linville Falls and the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, then descends to the piedmont and the spectacular shoreline of Lake James on its return to Morganton. Dedicated in June 2005, this 49th scenic byway in North Carolina includes 15 miles of rugged, unpaved U.S. Forest Service Road and unforgettable views of the Linville Gorge.
Linville Gorge Wilderness Area . . .and other challenging getaways
Located in the northern end of Burke County, the Linville Gorge is a rugged canyon of sheer cliffs, rhododendron and laurel thickets, and the tumbling white waters of the Linville River. Attracting hikers, sightseers, climbers, hunters and fishers, the Gorge is also home to a variety of tree and animal species. It harbors rare and endangered flora, such as Hudsonia Montana and the Heller’s Blazing star, as well. Some 40 miles of trails give access to the primitive wonders of the place, ringed about its rim by dramatic rock formations visible for miles around. The Gorge is famous not only as the most rugged wilderness area east of the Mississippi but also as the shooting location for the movie “Last of the Mohicans.” Here are some of the main features of the Gorge.
Facts About Linville Falls & Linville Gorge
- Benjamin Franklin’s nephew, Samuel, was an early settler in Linville Falls.
- The village, waterfalls, and gorge were named after William Linville and his son John, both killed in a surprise attack by Indians in 1766.
- The Cherokees called the place “Eeseeoh,” which means river of many cliffs.
- As early as the late 1700s the gorge and its peaks were popular tourist destinations
- In the 1960s the U.S. Army trained its Special Forces, or Green Berets, in the rugged terrain of Linville Gorge.
Table Rock Mountain
This distinctive peak dominates the views for miles around like some colossal silent sentinel. Since the early 1800s it has been a sightseer’s vantage point. A half-hour walk leads from the picnic area at its base up to the flat summit with its grand vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains rolling away to infinity. Jules Verne set his last novel here: “Master of the World,” dubbing the unusual rock formation “The Great Eyrie.”
Seen from the right angle the peak of Hawksbill resembles the bill of a great bird of prey. As hikers ascend the 40-minute climb to its summit, hawks circle high above on thermal currents looking for food. The craggy peak offers breathtaking views of Roan, Mitchell, and Grandfather Mountains as well as Lake James to the south. Far below one’s feet the silver thread of Linville River winds through the canyon walls. In his novel “Cold Mountain,” Charles Frazier wrote of Table Rock and Hawksbill.
From a pair of balconies atop a great rock outcropping on the Gorge’s western side (reached by Old Highway 105 and 4-miles from the village of Linville Falls) one can look straight across the Gorge at the profiles of Hawksbill and Table Rock, about a mile and a quarter away. On evenings throughout the year people gather here to view the famous Brown Mountain Lights, visible on occasion along the slopes of Brown Mountain for about seven miles. The lights have puzzled researchers for decades, and a host of legends have sprung up about these colored balls of light that rise and drift mysteriously, split in two and then vanish. An annual festival in the village of Linville Falls celebrates the mysterious lights with music, crafts, lectures, and trips to Wiseman’s View.
This great blunt-ended mass of rock marks the lower end of Linville Gorge as it looms dramatically over the foothills and Lake James. The rigorous Mountains-to-Sea Trail passes over Shortoff on its way north to Table Rock and eventually to the North Carolina coast.
Having wound peacefully through farmland from its sources in the Grandfather Mountain area to the north, the Linville River plummets in two great steps some 90 feet to a churning pool of water, then begins its 12-mile descent through the Linville Gorge to Lake James in the south. The Indians called it “the river of many cliffs.” Today, both the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service maintain visitor centers and a series of trails that lead to various dramatic overlooks of the Falls and down to the riverside. The Falls are a delight to view at any time of the year. Here also filming took place for “The Last of the Mohicans.”
Located at the base of Humpback Mountain on US 221, just four miles south of the village of Linville Falls, these picturesque and historical caverns are open year-round.
South Mountains State Park
Another natural treasure in Burke County, the South Mountains State Park, lies in a range of rugged mountains south of the Blue Ridge chain and the city of Morganton. Over 16,000 acres in area, the park offers hiking to peaks ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 feet in height. High Shoals Falls drops 80 feet down a rock face to Jacob’s Fork River. In addition to hiking, the park provides opportunities for camping, horseback riding, mountain biking, and trout fishing. It is the largest state park in North Carolina.
Created nearly 90 years ago by Duke Power Co. as a source of hydroelectric power, Lake James is one of western North Carolina’s favorite marine getaways. Fed by the cold waters of the Linville and Catawba Rivers and boasting over 150 miles of shoreline, this cool, sparkling mountain lake is a paradise for sail and power boaters, skiers, and wind surfers. Large and small mouth bass and walleye tempt the avid angler while folks ashore enjoy the state park’s hiking trails and sandy beach. A temporary fort was erected on the lake’s north shore for filming of “The Last of the Mohicans” in 1991, in which a stirring canoe chase was filmed on lake waters with Shortoff Mountain rearing grandly in the background. Today, the Foothills Conservancy group works to protect the natural environment around the lake.
From its sources high in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Catawba River flows through Burke County as a popular recreational waterway. Every summer it attracts hundreds of anglers and canoers, while walkers take advantage of the paths along its banks. The upper Catawba River Trail winds 82 miles from Lake James to Lookout Shoals, passing numerous boating access points and Catawba Meadows in Morganton on its way. The Catawba River Greenway Park, a delightful new addition to Burke County recreation, is a five-mile paved walking trail along the banks of the river. There are restrooms along the way as well as a playground, fishing piers, canoe launches, and a gazebo. A leisurely lunch overlooking the scenic Catawba River at the Boardwalk Grill or Judge’s Riverside Restaurant is a must.
Site of a Valdese gristmill that operated continuously until 1942, the McGalliard Falls Park was created in 1982. This community park features a 45-foot waterfall and tennis and picnicking facilities. Adjacent to the falls is a replica of the former Meytre’s Grist Mill.
The City of Morganton Parks and Recreation Department maintains over 178 acres of land developed for recreational use, including three recreation centers, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a soccer complex, 11 parks, a skeet range and Catawba Meadows Park. Children and adults especially enjoy Martha’s Park, which features a water splash pad. www.ci.morganton.nc.us
—Catawba Meadows Park Morganton’s Catawba Meadows Park is the largest city park in western North Carolina. The complex includes a wide variety of facilities, but the focus is amateur baseball and softball. Upon completion, the complex will offer 13 professionally designed ball fields. The amateur baseball/softball facilities will be complemented with numerous miles of existing and proposed Greenway paths; canoe, bike and raft rentals; tennis facilities; a mountain bike trail; a professional disc golf course; picnic areas and many other attractions.
—Catawba River Soccer Complex The City of Morganton maintains the 30-acre Catawba River Soccer Complex, a facility that includes two lighted regulation soccer fiends, a field house with office, a concession stand, a picnic shelter and playground equipment.
—Morganton Greenway Morganton’s Greenway System, which includes the Catawba River Greenway and Freedom Trail Greenway, offers more than four miles of year-round biking, jogging, strolling and picnicking. Enjoy the natural beauty of the great outdoors just minutes away from the heart of downtown Morganton.
High Country Skiing
Barely an hour’s drive to the north of Burke County can be found some of the finest ski slopes of the southeast. Beech Mountain, Hawksnest, Sugar Mountain, and Wolf Ridge are nationally recognized skiing facilities. Snow tubing can be enjoyed north of Morganton in Jonas Ridge on Highway 181.