Haywood County, North Carolina

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Make Mountains of Memories and Recharge in the Valley 

North Carolina mountainsI will never tire of the mountains—any mountains. I have a special fondness for the ones just up the road from me, in part because of their proximity. The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia have provided me innumerable hikes, overnight stays, paddles, memories, and breathtaking views. Only the desire for new sights turns the familiarity into a negative. Fortunately, just a little farther south are mountains every bit as beautiful, with new-to-me peaks and hikes, towns and drives, restaurants and accommodations.

The mountains that run through Haywood County, in western North Carolina, are still part of the Appalachian chain—the Blue Ridge and the Great Smoky Mountains. Thirteen of the county's mountain peaks reach at least 6,000 feet—more than any other county east of the Mississippi River. Its mean elevation—3,600 feet—means cooler temperatures, with 71 degree average in June. It offers outdoor recreation and vistas galore as well as towns for creature comforts. Dining ranges from down-home to fine; lodging from campgrounds and cabins to motels and B&Bs.

My visit to Haywood County demonstrated the area's diversity. I began in comfortable cabins and finished at a motorcycle campground; roasted marshmallows, ate at a pancake house and dined at a B&B; rode horses and a Yamaha FJR; went fly fishing and browsed unique local shops—nd a whole lot more!

The two most active towns where tourists can roam are Waynesville (named in Where to Retire magazine's America's 100 Best Places to Retire, 3rd edition) and Maggie Valley. 



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North Carolina waterfallMy favorite way of enjoying the mountains is a hike: see the flora, the fauna, and the views; hear the birds and the breeze; feel the fresh air—all while improving fitness and burning calories (to prepare for the fine dining awaiting at the bottom of the mountain).

Haywood County has thousands of miles of hiking trails, from leisurely to strenuous. Along the county's northwestern edge winds the Appalachian Trail. Two national parks, a national forest, and two wilderness areas have a place in the county, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cataloochee Valley.

Our hike took us to Graveyard Fields, not so-named because of any dangers in hiking there but for the history of the area. Several hundred years ago, one story goes, a windstorm blew the trees down, leaving upturned rootballs that looked like gravestones. Another tale claims that logging left only stumps, and the moss that grew over them created the illusion of a graveyard. A fire that ravaged the area later destroyed even the stumps, leaving the “bald” fields that you see today.

Two options at Graveyard Fields, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, are the short hike to the Lower Falls and the longer trip to the Upper Falls. We turned left, towards the Upper Falls, a moderate trail with some elevation change, winding near the stream through open, grassy areas dotted with blueberries and views of the mountains, and ultimately to the bottom of falls, a pleasant place to rest and enjoy the scenery and sound of the water over the rocks. If you're up for the challenge, you can climb up the steep, rocky hillside on either side of the falls for a view from the summit.

Cataloochee RanchIf you want to enjoy the mountain views from atop a horse, you can visit Cataloochee Ranch. The mountaintop lodge adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts wildflowers, rhododendron tunnels, lush forests, and mile-high vistas. Unfortunately, fog and light rain obscured the view entirely the morning we were there. We rode the well-behaved horses on a short loop on the grounds of the ranch, wistful that we could not see the views. Our steeds were indeed well behaved, but not as lethargic as some of the trail horses I've ridden. In fact, the ranchers say they have more spirited horses for experienced riders. 


Cataloochee Ranch family wrangler, Judy BAlthough we only visited the ranch for the equestrian experience, we did get an mini-tour of the family-owned lodge. The ranch was one of the original guest facilities in Haywood County, founded by Tom and Judy Alexander, who also founded the Cataloochee ski area in 1961, one of North Carolina's first. The predominance of wood paneling and floors, post-and-beam-style rooms, and stone fireplaces, gives a rustic feel to the comfortable guest rooms, scattered among the main ranch house, lodge, and individual cabins.

Catalooche RanchGiven the large, high-ceiling gathering room and huge stone fireplace in the main house, the friendly hosts who are part of the original Alexander family, and family-style meals and outdoor barbecues, the ranch feels more like a B&B than a hotel. Besides horseback riding, guests can entertain themselves with horseshoes, table tennis, croquet, swimming, hiking, or fishing.

The high elevation of Haywood County results in another unique feature: unlike any other North Carolina county, water flows out only, not in. All of their rivers, streams, creeks, and springs originate there. This makes for some clear, crisp water—and terrific water sports.

Admittedly, I've never been reeled in by the sport of fishing, despite picking up a rod a handful of times. My experience fly fishing in a swift, pure Haywood County stream just might've hooked me. My guide from the Waynesville Fly Shop was knowledgeable and patient. He didn't let my obvious novice status fluster him, nor did he laugh at my awkward attempts to learn.

As nice as he was, though, it was the sport itself that appealed to me. With the sturdy waders on, I could step into the cold water like a bear going after his dinner, surrounded by the steady stream, the gurgle of the water over the rocks, and bird songs from the banks. I cast the line over the water, again and again working to improve my technique and attract some unwary trout.

I was surprised when it was time to move on to the next stop on our itinerary. I had become totally immersed in the fly-fishing experience, forgetting all sense of time and all thoughts that might've been worrying me that morning. I can only imagine I would've enjoyed it even more had I caught a fish, thrilled both by an achievement and a fresh fish dinner!

FJRmay10NC20The clean mountain water presents another natural recreation at Sliding Rock, a 60-foot waterfall worn smooth by the rushing water. The tilt of the rock and the pool at the bottom create a natural water slide, set in an environment that no theme park can match. The U.S. Forest Service provides facilities and a lifeguard seasonally.

Other active pursuits in Haywood County include road and mountain biking; kayaking, tubing, and rafting, including some Class III rapids; or just wading in the more serene of the many streams. Golfers have six courses to choose from, with plenty of panoramic views and challenging fairways. In the winter, the high elevation (with help from that great manmade invention, the snowmaker) bring snowfall for skiing, snowboarding, and tubing.

(Click here for my review of Wheels Through Time museum in Maggie Valley.) 

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