Hike, bike or sip wine with a view: Adventure awaits in the North Carolina foothills.
By Vanessa Infanzon
Mystery and nature surround Burke County, situated in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. A short 90-minute drive from Charlotte leads to Morganton, the county seat with a charming mix of breweries, restaurants and shops. Backcountry roads reveal trails to waterfalls and overlooks. A centuries-old legend about unexplained lights intrigues locals and attracts visitors. For an easy day trip or overnight getaway, pack hiking boots and an open mind to explore the land and people who make Burke County unique.
Overmountain Cycles owner Michael Lowther is Morganton’s expert on bikes and bike trails. A Raleigh native, Lowther decided he couldn’t leave the region after graduating from Appalachian State University in nearby Watauga County. He opened his shop conveniently next to Fonta Flora Brewery on Green Street, the perfect place to wind down after a strenuous — or leisurely — ride.
Lowther recommends that beginning and intermediate cyclists head to Fonta Flora State Trail or Lake James State Park. You can bring your own bikes, or rent town cruisers or gravel bikes (with a wider tire) by the hour, day or weekend. Join the locals on free Tuesday (intermediate) and Thursday (beginner) rides through downtown Morganton and the surrounding area. The shop also offers bikes equipped to hold gear and bags for off-road weekend touring trips.
“For the more experienced cyclists, I would highly recommend they check out Wilson’s Creek,” Lowther says. “It’s the raw stuff that mountain bikers would be [seeking] to challenge themselves. You’ve got rock ledges and drops, roots, tight switchbacks and creek crossings. It’s that wild backcountry experience.”
South Mountains State Park’s 50 miles of hiking trails lead to waterfalls and family and group camping sites. There are more than 24 trails ranging from easy to strenuous. The .3-mile Hemlock Nature Trail follows the Jacob Fork River and is handicap accessible. Hikers seeking a more strenuous workout might want to take a the 2.7-mile loop trail to High Shoals Falls. At the base, cool off from the fall’s spray then continue the loop for a view from the top of the waterfall.
“I love that you can hike at South Mountains for hours or even days without seeing any buildings, paved roads or other man-made structures,” says Park Ranger Amanda Lasley. “You can immerse yourself in wild nature — if you are prepared to leave civilization and cell-phone signals far behind when you enter the gate.”
An encounter with the extraterrestrial might be your only form of contact in some parts of Burke County’s woods. Joshua P. Warren describes Western North Carolina’s famous Brown Mountain lights in Pisgah National Forest as “… multi-colored balls of light that either flare-up from one location, as a group, through the trees.” In his book, Brown Mountain Lights: A Viewing Guide, Warren suggests looking for them in autumn, during or just after a rain at mile marker 20 on N.C. Highway 181 N. Afterward, you can share stories of the mysterious illuminations with your travel buddies around the campfire.
At Thermal Valley Hang Gliding between Morganton and Lenoir, extreme adventurers swap tales with owner Craig Pearson. He makes a tandem hang gliding flight look easy after doing it for 27 years.
“We get some of the most vivid and awe-inspiring sunsets anywhere,” Pearson explains. “As we climb to our target altitude, we can see Grandfather Mountain, Table Rock, Hawk’s Bill Mountain. On clear days, we can see the Charlotte skyline to the southeast and into Virginia to the northeast.”
A Bailey Moyes Dragonfly lightweight tug plane carries the glider to a 1,500- or 2,000-foot altitude and then releases. Pearson hands over the controls for a few minutes, and his GoPro catches every expression on his client’s face.
Safely back on the ground, Silver Fork Vineyard & Winery provides a more relaxing experience. An outdoor patio surrounded by grapevines and rolling hills offers the perfect setting for sipping an award-winning wine. The 32-acre vineyard is named for the two creeks that come together on the property, Silver and White Fork.
Jennifer Foulides and her partner, Ed Wisnieski, moved from Manhattan to Morganton in 2011 and bought the vineyard. Having no farming experience, they apprenticed with the previous owner for more than a year. Two years later, Foulides and Wisnieski opened Silver Fork’s tasting room, featuring varietals such as merlot, chambourcin, cabernet franc, and cabernet sauvignon.
The Four Dog Red is a blend of four or five classic Bordeaux varietals with black cherry and raspberry notes. It’s aged in French and Hungarian barrels for hints of smoky cinnamon. “Four Dog Red Blend is our most popular and most awarded wine, because it’s delicious, easy-drinking and pairs with everything,” Foulides says.
The winery features live music year-round on Saturdays from 2-5 p.m. Grab a snack from the on-site food truck and listen to local acts play classic rock, reggae or bluegrass. Celebrate Halloween with Sip & Spook, an adult-only event with a costume party, DJ and, of course, wine.
“Coming from Manhattan, we were a little nervous that there wouldn’t be a lot to do,” Foulides says, “but when we got into the community, we were welcomed with open arms from businesses and neighbors. You cannot find nicer people than the people in our county.” SP