By Sandy Schaack Masinter
In the shadow of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi, the sweet mountain hamlet of Burnsville, North Carolina, makes an ideal road trip destination. It offers up a dramatic landscape with plenty of outdoor diversions in Yancey County, just about 36 miles northeast from Asheville. The homey county oasis of about 1,900 residents charms with its old-fashioned main street, thriving arts scene and plethora of small-town attractions.
At the heart of Burnsville is its verdant public square, where the bronze likeness of town namesake Capt. Otway Burns, a privateer during the War of 1812 and state legislator, stands atop a granite pedestal at the center of the green. The two-acre space is a hive of activity during farmers markets, which take place on a street just off the town square. The Mount Mitchell Crafts Fair (Aug. 6-7, 2021), one of the region’s oldest crafts events, is a huge draw with live music and hundreds of juried crafters selling their handmade goods.
Jutting out from the town green is the historic main street with classic red-brick storefronts that are home to mom-and-pop shops brimming with eclectic finds. In this art-minded town, you don’t have to walk far to find lovely treasures with a local pedigree. Mountain Time On Main Street stocks a wide variety of keepsakes and home decor, and the neighboring Toe River Arts Council not only sells exquisite pieces from its gift shop, but also displays the works of community artisans from its gallery.
At Fill-More, one of the newest retailers here, fill up on all-natural shampoos, soaps, and cleansers sold by the ounce from self-serve pumps, and browse its curated selection of earth-friendly wares. Of particular note are the wool dryer balls with panda, raccoon or ladybug faces, among others. They’re just too cute to pass up.
To be sure, if you have kids in tow you’re going to end up at Monkey Business Toy Shop. Enticing puzzles, games and specialty toys make it a fun space to look around and pick up a gift. There’s a Wizard of Oz mural just outside at the corner too, and it makes a super backdrop for a family photo op.
The Quilt Trail
Large wooden squares painted in vivid hues in geometric patterns adorn many downtown buildings. They’re all part of the North Carolina Quilt Trail, a network of hundreds of quilt blocks inspired by rural Appalachian quilt crafts. You’ll see them on barns, businesses and homes throughout the region, and finding these quilt blocks makes a fun scavenger hunt. The Burnsville Trail, one of nine separate routes, has the most quilt blocks in the smallest area. You can pick up a map with details and locations from the Burnsville Chamber of Commerce at 106 W. Main St. Be sure to see the most famous block downtown, the “Burnsville Sundial,” located on the Yancey Common Times Journal building. It’s hailed as the world’s first quilt-block sundial, so it’s certainly worth a look.
Dine and Drink
Grab a steamy latte or slice of banana bread at Appalachian Java, a cozy spot and three-time winner of “Best of Western North Carolina.” They also serve up a mean southwest chicken quesadilla and signature orangeade made with cane syrup and fresh juice.
For Southern fare, Pig & Grits is the place to chow down on crispy fried green tomatoes, slow roasted meats and hearty skillet breakfasts. While over at Ye Olde Country Store, Amish specialty cheeses and deli sandwiches get star billing. The hot roast beef won’t disappoint.
Not long ago Burnsville was a “dry” town, but you’d never know it today. The three-story brewery and taproom at Homeplace Beer Co. pours “farm to pint” lagers, IPAs, malty English brews and more. Order pizza, wings and other pub fare from the on-site restaurant Hog Hollow and enjoy it on the ample covered decks or at picnic tables on the lawn.
In the center of town, the Snap Dragon is a snug space with a garage door that opens up to a pleasant garden patio across from the town square. Its bar, whose name is a nod to Capt. Burns’ ship, is a popular watering hole. Feast on specialties like the Thai market ribs or the Blue Ridge burger. Both go down well with a cold brew on tap, or, if you dare, the signature Category 5 hurricane.
Lace Up Your Boots
Thanks to its idyllic location, Burnsville is a hiker’s dream. More than 100 miles of trails crisscross the mountainous terrain and about a third of them reach above 6,000 feet in elevation, boasting matchless views of the Black Mountain Range and Pisgah National Forest.
At Mount Mitchell State Park, the Mount Mitchell Trail is the granddaddy. It begins at Black Mountain Campground and is a tough 12-mile round-trip climb that ascends steadily to the 6,684-foot famed peak. If you’re not conditioned for the long arduous trek, no worries. You can drive to the upper lot of the state park and hoof it a short distance on a paved trail to the summit for 360-degree vistas from the observation deck. The views are glorious no matter how you get there.
If guided hikes are more your thing, Snakeroot Ecotours offers leisurely two-hour treks or longer half-day or custom journeys. Choose from themed walks like mushroom hunts or night walks in the moonlight. Most of the hikes are on unmapped trails led by naturalist and owner Tal Galton, whose passion is introducing guests to the wonders of the Blue Ridge forest.
The stars shine ever so brightly at the remote Bare Dark Sky Observatory at Mayland Earth to Sky Park, about 10 miles from Burnsville. View the Milky Way, the rings of Saturn and other amazing celestial sights in stunning clarity through the high-powered Newtonian telescope with a 34-inch mirror, the largest public telescope in the state. It’s popular, so advance tickets are a must. Also, not to be missed is the park’s brand-new 60-seat planetarium that projects sky shows onto its domed screen for a truly out of this world experience.
Where to Stay
A number of vacation and cabin rentals, bed and breakfasts and campgrounds are located in and around Burnsville, including these two notable inns on the National Register of Historic Places:
The Nu Wray Inn, whose roots date back to 1833 to the town’s earliest beginnings, is centrally located across from Burnsville’s town square, within easy walking distance of shops and restaurants. Famous names who’ve stayed the night include Mark Twain and Elvis Presley.
Farther afield is The Buck House Inn, about 13 miles northwest from Burnsville. The gracious property with a wrap-around porch was built in 1904 and is nestled along the banks of Bald Mountain Creek on eight acres. It offers solitude in a lush, forested setting.