Western North Carolina is topographically the most diverse part of the state and therefore offers one of the richest travel experiences. Asheville, some 125 miles from Charlotte, is the area’s gateway.
Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, at the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers, it had been settled in 1794 by John Barton, who had originally named it “Morristown” after Robert Morris, a financier of the American Revolution, but it had been later changed to honor Governor Samuel Ashe. With the 1880 arrival of the Western North Carolina Railroad, it had developed as a livestock and tobacco market, and is today the economic and recreational center for western North Carolina and a tourism base for the area’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cherokee Indian culture.
Second only to Miami in art deco architecture, Asheville offers several interesting sights.
The Basilica of St. Lawrence, for example—jointly developed by Spanish architect Rafael Gustavia and Richard Sharp Smith—is a Spanish Renaissance design in brick and tile with a self-supporting dome and Catalan-style vaulting. It had been completed in 1908.
The early life of Thomas Wolfe, Asheville’s famous novelist, can be gleaned from a tour of the 29-room Queen Anne-style house in which he had grown up. It is now a designated state historic site.
Nucleus of the arts, Asheville is the cultivation point of painters, sculptures, and potters, who perfect their crafts in the Riverside Arts District.
Asheville’s—and all of North Carolina’s—most famous and most visited sight, however, is Biltmore Estate. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt and landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted (of New York’s Central Park fame), the 255-room, French Renaissance chateau, having required a five-year construction period during the height of the Gilded Age and some 1,000 workers, had been the result of George Washington Vanderbilt’s trips to the area in the early-1880s and his decision to have a summer residence, reminiscent of the chateaux’s lining France’s Loire Valley, built there. It is today the US’s largest private residence and is still partly used for that purpose by Vanderbilt descendants.
The Vanderbilts, one of the country’s wealthiest and most prominent families headed by Cornelius Vanderbilt, had amassed their wealth through railroads, corporations, and philanthropic activities. Passing the torch to the second generation, headed by William Henry Vanderbilt, he had been able to perpetuate his success, while William Henry himself had fathered the third generation, having four sons. George Washington Vanderbilt, one of them, had been the least active in developing the family’s business.
Opening Biltmore House on Christmas Eve in 1895, he had engaged in scientific farming, stock breeding, and forestry, and brought his bride, Edith Stuyvessant Dresser, there, three years later. His only daughter, Cornelia, had been born in the house in 1900, and thirty years later, it had been opened to the public.
The massive house, accessible by both escorted and unescorted tours, offers a glimpse into this century-old, opulent lifestyle. The entrance hall, portal to this era, had been the same access point used by the Vanderbilts and their guests and leads round the glass-roofed winter garden. Perhaps the most grandiose room on the ground floor is the banquet hall. Stretching seven stories to the wooden ceiling, it features huge tables, three massive fireplaces, Flemish tapestries from the 1500s, and a 1916 Skinner pipe organ mounted on its own loft. It had been the location of the estate’s parties, galas, and affairs.
The private sitting and bedrooms of George and Edith Vanderbilt are located on the second floor, although, of particular note, is the Louis XV bedroom, location of Cornelia’s birth and the subsequent birth of her own two sons.
Most of the servants’ bedrooms are located on the fourth floor.
The house’s basement, location of additional servant bedrooms, features several kitchens and pantries and the recreational facilities, inclusive of a gymnasium, a 70,000-gallon indoor swimming pool, and one of the country’s first private residence bowling alleys.
Sitting on 8,000 acres of land, Biltmore Estate features several other facilities of interest.
Fronted by a grass esplanade inspired by the gardens of the 17th-century Chateau de Vaux-le-Viconte in Melun, France, it features Italian, shrub, walled, spring, and azalea gardens, and a full conservatory.
Self-guided tours of the Biltmore Winery can be made, followed by a visit to the extensive wine and delicacy gift shop, while the nearby River Bend Farm, once the center of the estate’s farming community, is comprised of a barn, a farmyard, and the Kitchen Garden, where its “field-to-table” program items are grown, before being used in the dishes served in all of its restaurants. Aside from this produce and its wines, the dairy division of Biltmore produces its own ice cream.
Adjacent to the Biltmore Estate entrance is historic Biltmore Village. Also co-designed by building architect Richard M. Hunt and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and constructed between 1897 and 1905, it had been intended as a picturesque residential prelude to Biltmore Estate itself with a fan-shaped layout leading to the church, the railroad depot, and the estate’s entrance, its focal points. Its cottages had first been occupied in 1900.
Today, it offers the quaint atmosphere of an English country village with tree-lined streets, brick sidewalks, period architecture, some ten restaurants and tearooms, and 30 shops and galleries. In 1989, it had been declared an historic area and local historical district.
Aside from Biltmore Estate, the Grove Park Inn, overlooking the city, is another opulent building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The ruggedly beautiful, 512-room hotel, made of boulders hewn from the nearby Sunset Mountains, opened in 1913 and features massive stone fireplaces, four dining rooms, indoor waterfalls, a 40,000-square-foot spa, and beautiful views. It has hosted an endless list of prominent people, from politicians to movie stars.
Two small, but interesting museums are located on its ground, and their buildings can be directly traced to the Vanderbilts. Mrs. Vanderbilt, particularly, had been very interested in homespun fabrics, and ultimately established Biltmore Industries, a craft education program, which had later been sold to Fred Seely, son-in-law of Edwin W. Grove, himself architect and manager of the Grove Park Inn. Its weaving activities had been relocated to the small buildings currently on its grounds, whereafter it had achieved worldwide recognition for its hand-loomed fabrics.
In 1953, Henry Blomberg purchased the business from the Seely family and continued it until 1980. The daughters and sons-in-law of Blomberg, who had died 11 years later, restored the six English cottages and their surrounding landscapes, and created the two museums.
The first of these, the North Carolina Homespun Museum, had been opened to depict the history of Biltmore Industries originally founded on Biltmore Estate, but relocated to the present site in 1917, and exhibits examples of handiwork by North Carolina natives. America’s heritage of handiwork, which is now more than 200 years old, still thrives in the southern Appalachian Mountains. The museum itself displays a four-harness loom and examples of homespun fabric.
The second museum, the Estes-Winn Antique Car Museum, once housed 40 looms, but currently displays four horse-drawn vehicles and 19 automobiles, including a 1913 Ford Model “T,” a 1926 Cadillac, a 1929 Ford Model “A” with a rumble seat, a 1940 Packard “120” Coupe, and a 1959 Edsel, all in still-running, pristine condition.
The Grovewood Gallery, housed in a 1917 English Cottage next to the two museums, sells handmade furniture, ceramics, jewelry, glass, and artwork.
2. Chimney Rock Park
A popular day trip from Asheville is that to Chimney Rock Park. Located 25 miles away via winding, scenic Route 74-A, it had had its origins in 1900 when Dr. Lucius Morse, a physician from St. Louis in search of a better climate, had been entranced by its wall of stone and had envisioned a park incorporating it. Purchasing 64 acres of Chimney Rock Mountain two years later, he had taken the initial step toward that goal, but had elected to build an elevator inside it so that all could access its summit.
In 2007, the state of North Carolina had purchased the park from the Morse family, which had continued to own and administer it since its 1902 acquisition.
The 198-foot-long tunnel, leading from the parking lot to the elevator, had been created by blasting through 509-million-year-old rock designed “Henderson Gneiss,” which had formed as magma deep within the earth and had crystallized as igneous rock called “granite.” During the later formation of the Appalachian Mountains, it had metamorphosed into its present Gneiss form.
The 30-second elevator ride, which ascends 26 stories, could only be constructed after proper surveying had been conducted from its top and a 258-foot-high hoistway, requiring eight tons of dynamite and an 18-month construction period, had been drilled and blasted.
Completed on December 23, 1948, it had been North Carolina’s tallest elevator at the time, and today still uses its original, 3,500-pound capacity, stainless steel car, which ascends at 500 feet-per-minute.
A wooden bridge, 258 feet above the parking lot and spanning a water-carved gully, connects the Sky Lounge and Gift Shop, terminus of the elevator, with Chimney Rock, whose views, afforded by its 2,280-foot elevation, encompass 75 miles over Hickory Nut Gorge.
A recent visit, on a slightly cloudy day, had revealed multiple shades of green velvet-appearing, wave-like mountains based by the silver, reflective surface of Lake Lure.
Five hiking trails, varying between a half to one-and-a-half miles, and between “easy” and “strenuous” in gauge, afford equally beautiful vistas.
Hickory Falls, 404 feet in length, had provided the site for the filming of “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Firestarter,” and “A Breed Apart.”
Chimney Rock Park is a National Heritage Site.
Cherokee, located 50 miles from Asheville, can either serve as a day trip destination or an overnight location. An introduction to the highly developed Cherokee culture, it offers an opportunity for Las Vegas-style gaming and is the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
As a people, the Cherokee had called these southeastern mountains home for some 11,000 years and they are one of the few Native Americans to have continued to occupy their original territory, designated the “Qualla Boundary,” a 100-square-mile sovereign nation. Several significant sights within this area enable the visitor to learn about their history, traditions, art, and culture.
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, for instance—depicting its 11,000-year history—commences with their own beginning in the area’s mountains, before detailing their struggle for early survival amidst harsh climate and huge, now-extinct animals, such as the mastodon. Their later, sedentary lifestyle, centered round agriculture, had enabled them to refine their culture and enjoy increased leisure time.
After the Europeans had arrived and claimed their land, the Eastern Band of Cherokees had been forcibly exiled to Oklahoma in 1838 in an historic movement known as the “Trail of Tears.” Some, however, had been detoured and remained, ultimately preserving their customs and re-establishing the sovereign nation of today.
This culture can also be experienced in the nearby Oconaluftee Indian Village, which depicts mountain life in 1759. Amid the subtle, but ever-present wafts of smoke, traditionally dressed Cherokee demonstrate beadwork, pottery, finger weaving, basketry, weaponry, animal trapping, canoe burning, and wood and stone carving. A warrior house, waddle and daube houses, the village council house, and cabins from 1790 and 1800 surround the Village Square, where performances are periodically given.
The village is characteristic of the 64 towns spread over 40,000 square miles during this time.
A more extensive performance, entitled “Unto these Hills,” takes place during the summer months at the outdoor Mountainside Theater, and portrays the European arrival and Trail of Tears chapters in its history. Since its July 1, 1950 debut, it has played continuously, during which time more than five million have experienced it.
Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel, a 576-room complex in two, 15-story towers, thresholds the town and features 3,300 games in an 80,000-square-foot casino, five restaurants, and name entertainment in a 1,500-seat pavilion. It is adorned with the largest collection of Eastern Cherokee contemporary art.
4. Bryson City
Bryson City, located ten miles from Cherokee, is another mountainside community which serves as a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains with their diverse, outdoor activities, including hiking, fishing, horseback riding, white water rafting, camping, and climbing.
Incorporated in 1887, and named after Colonel Thadeus Dillard Bryson, it is located on the Tucksagee River and had been linked to the outside world for the first time when the rail line between Asheville and Murphy had been completed. Along with the Nantahala and Little Tennessee Rivers, the Tucksagee River itself had formed nearby Fontana Lake, while the small town, with a population of 1,400, had been laid out in accordance with the ancient trails and roads of the Cherokee.
Its most major attraction is the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Tracing its origins to the Murphy Branch Line completed in 1891, it had been intended as the first leg of an eventual rail connection between Asheville and the Midwest; nevertheless, it had exposed the isolated North Carolina communities to the rest of the world for the first time, introducing hitherto unknown lifestyles and ideas to them.
During the 1900s, the railroad had operated up to ten daily trains from Alabama and Georgia to the western North Carolina Mountains and hauled materials, equipment, and workers instrumental in the construction of Fontana Dam.
After the line had been obviated by road travel, the Southern Railway had discontinued passenger service in 1948, and the Andrews-Murphy stretch had been altogether closed by Norfolk Southern in the 1980s.
The tracks, purchased by the state of North Carolina, had provided the foundation for the current Great Smoky Mountains Railroad intended for tourism and sightseeing purposes, after a group of investors had sketched out a plan for it in 1988. Engines and coaches had subsequently been acquired from several US rail lines and extensively refurbished.
In 1999, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad had been purchased by American Heritage Railways, which operates sister lines in Colorado and Texas, and in 2007, the North Carolina branch had carried some 200,000 passengers.
All trains depart from the Bryson City depot. Of the two primary itineraries, the first is a 32-mile, eastbound, round-trip “Tucksagee River” excursion to Dillsboro, while the second is a 44-mile, westbound, round-trip “Nantahala Gorge” run, with price depending upon one of four car types: open car, coach, Crown Coach, or Club Car, the latter of which includes train attendant service, drinks, and snacks. There are also railroad and rafting packages, dinner trains, and several theme trips, depending upon season.
The Fryemont Inn, in wooded surroundings overlooking the town, is on the National Register of Historic Places and offers either overnight accommodations or an opportunity for excellent dining, even for non-guests.
Constructed in 1923, it features a bark-covered exterior; a rocking chair-lined, outdoor porch; a wooden lobby with a huge stone fireplace; chestnut-paneled guest rooms; and a dining room with a peaked, wooden roof supported by tree trunk beams, a second large fireplace, and polished, hardwood floors.
5. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, receiving some ten million annual visitors, is the most popular park in America.
The Great Smoky Mountains themselves, formed almost a billion years ago, had been created when the ancient sea had flooded what is presently the eastern United States, submerging a mountain range. Sea-deposited layers, exerting progressively greater weight upon each other, ultimately compressed the material into metamorphic rock, while a secondary layer of limestone, itself comprised of fossilized marine animals and shells, provided an upper covering some 300 million years ago.
Fifty million years later, the collision between the North American and African continents resulted in tectonic plate shifting and the older, metamorphic rock tilted upward, sliding over the limestone and creating the Appalachian Mountains.
Massive boulders, the result of ice age freezing and thawing cycles, gradually appeared, while erosive, water sculpting forces shaped the mountain’s rounded peaks over the millennia.
The area had first been populated when Paleolithic hunters and gatherers had crossed the frozen Bering Strait and then migrated down and across North America. A dissenting branch of the Iroquois Indians, later designated Cherokee, had arrived here from New England 11,000 years ago, and in 1540, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, ventured into the mountains, discovering a sophisticated Cherokee culture and religion. The Ulster-Scots, escaping repression in Belfast, Ireland, had also settled here because of the North Carolina Mountains’ resemblance to the Scottish Highlands.
Rural life can be gleaned at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee, and its adjacent Mountain Farm Museum, which had been created to preserve the cultural heritage of the Great Smoky Mountains at the turn of the 20th century.
Several original, relocated structures depict this era.
The Davis house, for instance, had been moved from the Indian Creek area, north of Bryson City. Completed in 1900 after a two-year construction period, it is made of split, chestnut logs and is divided into three rooms, including a living room with a fireplace and a piano and a kitchen with a hearth and a heavy block table.
The meathouse, relocated from Little Cataloochee, North Carolina, had always been positioned closest to the main house for convenience and security and preserved one of the most important food sources during this period. Although it could have theoretically housed several types of meat, pork, which had been standardly butchered during the autumn because of its characteristically lower temperatures, had been the predominant type and had usually been salted or smoked to protect it against bacteria and insects.
Chickens, stored in the chicken house, had provided both meat and eggs, and their feathers had been used for pillows and mattresses.
Apples, equally stored in earth and stone wall-insulated apple houses, had been a staple of rural, mountain farm diets and were eaten raw or used to make cider, vinegar, apple sauce, apple butter, and pies. Heartier winter apples had been stored in ground-level bins, while the more delicate summer variety had been stored above them.
Corn, the most important, multi-purpose crop, had been used for cornmeal, livestock feed (as leaves), kindling for fires (as cobs), and stuffing material for chairs, mattresses, and rugs (as shucks). The corncrib, the storage location, had protected it from weather and animals.
In the sorghum mill and furnace, sorghum cane had been converted to molasses, which had then been used for syrup and in cooking.
Hogs, the main source of meat on mountain farms, had also been formed the basis for lard and soup. Excess meat had been sold for profit.
The barn, the only structure original to the site, had housed livestock in the stable and feed, hoes, plows, and wagons in the loft above it.
The blacksmith shop, complete with a forge, an anvil, and a bellows, had been relocated here from Cades Cove, North Carolina, and had been used for ironwork forging and repair of existing tools.
The springhouse, purposefully located near a stream in order to provide a source of drinking water, had also protected food from animals, and cooled and preserved it by means of rock-line channels or elevated wooden troughs through which it had flowed.
The entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is just beyond the Mountain Farm Museum. Established in 1934 to protect the remainder of the Appalachian Forest, which had been severely depleted due to fires and rampant logging, the park itself, covering 500,000 acres, had been the 21st in the national system and the first to have been assembled from private land. Sixty percent of it is located in North Carolina and 40 percent is located in Tennessee. It features 800 miles of hiking trails, 700 miles of rivers and streams, and 200,000 acres of virgin forest. Its lower section of the Appalachian Mountains, the oldest in the world, are characterized by densely-forested, curving peaks once described as “blue, like smoke” by the Cherokee.
The Appalachian Trail, which stretches 2,174 miles from Maine to Georgia, runs along the crest of the Smoky Mountains and marks the North Carolina-Tennessee state line. There are three visitor centers: Oconaluftee in the former state and Sugarlands and Cades Cove in the latter. US Route 441, alternatively designed “Newfound Gap Road,” provides internal automobile access and crosses the Appalachian Trail midway through the park. The hiking trails, however, provide the best connection with nature and lead to 1,008 developed campsites and 100 primitive ones.
The park is comprised of five classifications of forest, depending upon elevation: “Spruce-Fir,” “Northern Hardwood,” “Cove Hardwood,” “Hemlock,” and “Pine-and-Oak.” It contains 60 species of mammals, 200 of birds, and 1,500 flowering plants.
I had recorded the following observations during a recent, late-May drive through Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
Clouds, hovering lower than the mountain peaks and nestled in their valleys, seemed to sheath the green-carpeted facades before rising like smoke tendrils, as if the entire mountain had been smoldering. The winding, ascending road through Great Smoky Mountains National Park seemed mired in thin mist. The multiple peaks, standing one behind the other and assuming dark blue, gray, and forest green profiles, appeared like ever-unfolding waves frozen at their upward-cycle apogees. The dense trees, providing tunnel-like walls on either side of the road with their extended limbs, formed canopies where they met in mutual handshakes, exuding an artist’s palette of greens: dark for fraser fir and light for oak–a green blur periodically interspersed by the brown shale rocks which appeared like vertical monoliths and from which these live tree sentinels grew, although I do not quite know how. Tiny trickles of water, gravity-induced downward over auburn and charcoal-hued rock and glinted by the afternoon sun, appeared like thin veins of liquid silver.
Atop Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 6,643 feet, the air is thin and cool and the only view to be had is down, to the almost green-velvet facades of the rolling peaks, as if one had been rendered the high and exalted one of North Carolina and of all of the Appalachian Mountains which thread their way down the eastern portion of the United states. With this view comes the realization that the Rocky Mountains in the west, although higher, have a reflection in the Great Smoky Mountains in the east. And with this view comes the realization that it is not the relative size of the reflection, but that we reflect at all…
Western North Carolina’s topographical diversity offers a rich travel experience encompassing the art deco city of Asheville and its opulent Biltmore Estate, the geological sculpture of Chimney Rock, the introduction to the highly-developed culture of the Cherokee, the beautiful vistas afforded by a journey with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, and the pristine, almost-ethereal experience of visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park.