Step out and enjoy nature or step back in time on a diverse assortment of trails in the North Carolina foothills.
Anyone who is searching for spectacular scenery or a glimpse of history can get on the fast track to both with a visit to Burke County in western North Carolina.
To commune with nature, South Mountains State Park (ncparks.gov/south-mountains-state-park) in Connelly Springs is the perfect place to travel. Just ask the 248,820 people that visited the park last year.
Take a Hike
North Carolina’s largest state park, South Mountains offers more than 47 miles of trails across 21,000-plus acres. The park includes 33 miles of equestrian trails and an 18-mile mountain biking loop on old backcountry logging trails.
Hikers can access all of the park’s trails, which range from easy to strenuous. A one-mile climb on the High Shoals Falls Loop Trail takes hikers to the park’s most spectacular feature – High Shoals Falls on Jacob Fork River. The 80-foot waterfall cascades down a cliff of bare rock, and hikers have a picturesque view from a platform at the bottom of the rushing waters.
“The High Shoals Falls Trail is the most popular trail at South Mountains,” says park ranger Leigh Ann Fox. “It’s a destination trail that takes people to view the waterfall.”
The naturally surfaced, strenuous path crosses wooden bridges and a steep wooden staircase, but there is no need to rush to the top. In fact, hikers – ranging from 3-year-olds to septuagenarians to four-legged friends – should stop and smell the rhododendron along the way.
Large rocks in the water are natural playgrounds for visitors, and boulders that have fallen into the streambed have created a couple of small waterfalls of less than 5 feet along the trail. Spring wildflowers and several geological features, which are marked by signage, line the trail as well.
The entire High Shoals Falls Loop Trail covers 2.7 miles, and hikers can access the rest of it by climbing more stairs to the top of the waterfall. “It’s pretty here as well,” says Fox, “but the main view is from the bottom of the falls.”
Chestnut Knob, the second most popular trail for hikers, is a strenuous, four-mile round trip that shoots off the High Shoals Falls Loop Trail. The first half-mile is the steepest part of the trail, which ascends one mile to a view of High Shoals Falls and continues another mile to Chestnut Knob. This rock outcropping offers a beautiful view of Jacob Fork Gorge.
The high points in South Mountains, one of the state’s most rugged areas, average 2,000 feet in elevation. However, elevations range from less than 1,200 feet at points along Jacob Fork River to the park’s highest point, Buzzard’s Roost, which towers 3,000 feet above the landscape. The elevation at the bottom of High Shoals Falls is 1,580 feet.
A visitor center offers museum-quality exhibits on the cultural and natural history of the mountains, which were carved out of the Blue Ridge by erosion and once served as a buffer between the Cherokee and Catawba Indians. Campsites and picnic areas are available as well.
South Mountains started trying to preserve its hemlock trees, which are dying throughout the Southeast from insect infestations, in 2008. “We have lots of strong, healthy hemlocks in the park that are surviving due to being treated with insecticide,” Fox says.
The self-guided Hemlock Nature Trail, an easy hike along Jacob Fork River that measures 0.3 miles one way, features informational displays about riparian ecology. The South Mountains waters are designated trout waters, so the park is an angler’s delight. However, to fish there they must secure a license (ncwildlife.org) that covers fishing in public mountain trout waters.
Test the Waters
Nature enthusiasts can enjoy more outdoor adventures at Lake James State Park (ncparks.gov/lake-james-state-park), which includes a 6,812-acre reservoir.
Sitting at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Lake James was created between 1916 and 1923 with the construction of dams across the Catawba River and two tributaries, Paddy’s Creek and Linville River. A broad canal connected the impoundments to form the lake, which was named for Duke Power Company founder James B. Duke.
Lake James has been a hydroelectric unit for the power company since the early 1900s, but it also offers recreational opportunities such as boating, swimming, fishing, camping, hiking and mountain biking.
Hikers of all abilities can enjoy the trails at Lake James. The 0.75-mile, child-friendly Holly Discovery Trail, a national award-winning interpretive trail, includes 18 interactive information stations through riparian forest along Paddy’s Creek. Another easy trail, the historic Overmountain Victory Trail, follows a route taken by American patriots who shadowed a band of marauding British loyalists across three states. The two forces finally battled at King’s Mountain, where the colonists were victorious. Almost all of this two-mile (one way) trail along rolling terrain is shaded beneath a mature forest canopy.
Paddy’s Creek Trail, a moderate one-mile (one way) trail, goes through mature forest on mostly flat terrain along the Lake James shoreline to the mouth of Paddy’s Creek. About midway along the trail, rock piles and a few remaining foundation stones mark the location of a historic homestead.
Two moderate trails, Lake Channel and Sandy Cliff overlooks in the Catawba River area, offer sweeping views of Lake James and Linville Gorge, the deepest and one of the most rugged, scenic gorges in the eastern United States.
Riders of all skill levels can handle the park’s 15 miles of multi-use mountain biking trails. Canoe and kayak rentals also are available for $5 an hour in the Paddy’s Creek area from Memorial Day until Labor Day. The Paddy’s Creek area also includes a designated swimming zone, which is open from May 1 through September 30.
Trail of Faith
Visitors who prefer to travel on flat surfaces – and learn something new at the same time – can step back in history on another type of trail in Burke County.
The Waldensian Trail of Faith, an 11-acre outdoor museum in Valdese, tells the story of the Waldensians, who came to North Carolina from Northern Italy in search of religious freedom and economic opportunity (waldensiantrailoffaith.com or visitvaldese.com). Visitors can take self-guided tours, as well as guided tours by appointment for groups of 10 or more, of the trail’s 15 buildings and monuments. Replicated in full scale from the Cottian Alps in northern Italy, the structures along the trail mark the major milestones of the Waldensians’ journey from the time of the apostles.
Known as “people of the Book,” the Waldensians lived by Scripture and died for it. They worshiped in secrecy for fear of being captured and killed, and they memorized Scripture in case their Bibles, which they kept hidden, were confiscated and burned. “It took 300 sheep and two-and-a-half years to make a Bible out of parchment,” says Timothy Tron, the Trail of Faith director.
More than once, rulers thought the Waldensians – who were tortured, martyred and exiled – had been eradicated. However, a remnant always arose to continue the faith. In May 1893, the first group of 29 Waldensians arrived in Burke County, North Carolina and founded Valdese in the Blue Ridge Mountains foothills.
After a stop at the Visitors Center, the trail begins at Barbi College, which was built during the Middle Ages as a meeting place and seminary for Waldensian pastors. Thought to be the oldest Protestant seminary in the world, the school was used until the Waldensians joined the Reformation in 1532.
“The three bushes outside the building are a secret code. They were planted so people would know it was a safe haven,” Tron says. “Built as a military-style structure, the rooms had only one entrance in and out of each room.”
The Trail of Faith also includes a cave where the Waldensians worshiped; the Tron House, the first house built in Valdese; Beckwith School, where children napped on shelves; the steam-powered sawmill and its saw, “Big Waldo;” and the Temple at Ciabas. Thought to be the oldest Protestant church, the temple was built in 1555 with thick walls and tapered windows. The church has no bell tower, however, because it was illegal to call people together for worship.
Visitors on guided tours can enjoy a hot slice of bread from a loaf that was freshly baked in the community oven. One of the original settlers’ first projects, the community oven was built a month after the Waldensians moved to their new home. To raise money for the oven, Waldensian women visited area churches to sing hymns and share their story.
“We strive to have our guests leave with a sense of being strong in their faith and bold enough to be like those ancient Waldensians,” says Tron. “In fact, we ask they not lift up Waldensians or people of the valleys, but rather, that they lift up the Word.”
The seasonal outdoor drama, “From This Day Forward,” retraces the Waldensians’ journey from Italy to the hardships they encountered when they settled in America. The nationally recognized musical drama runs on Friday and Saturday nights from mid-July to mid-August (oldcolonyplayers.com). Other stops of interest in Valdese include the Waldensian Heritage Museum, Waldensian Winery and Old Rock School, an art gallery and performing arts venue.
For more information about the area, visit DiscoverBurkeCounty.com or call 888-462-2921.
By Betsy Gilliland
Photos courtesy of Burke County Tourism Development Authority