Picturesque Morganton and the surrounding areas in foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina are the perfect venues for outdoor activities. A moderate climate makes it perfect for hiking year-round, and the proximity of South Mountains State Park and Lake James State Park attract nearly a million visitors per year who love all the things to do in Morganton NC.
Hearing the nickname “Nature’s Playground” was enough to bring Kary and me to Morganton and Burke County for a long weekend. The outdoor adventures, combined with just the right amount of culture, history, and cuisine all contributed to a very enjoyable time.
Here are our favorite things to do in Morganton NC!
1. Tandem Bike Ride
I have to admit, I was very apprehensive as I sat down on the back seat of the “bicycle built for two” at Overmountain Cycles. First, I couldn’t see a thing past Kary’s broad shoulders and back. It was hard to balance my butt “blind.” Not to mention maneuvering around corners I could not see was also a bit scary.
We found our rhythm, though. Whenever we stopped, I just stayed perched on the bike unless Kary instructed me to “dismount.” It was much easier for him to restart if I was already on. I just kept my feet very lightly on the pedals (unless going uphill, then I helped), and often not even on the pedals at all – although Kary didn’t know that, so don’t tell him!
We rode around the charming downtown area, through a lush cemetery, and crisscrossed a lovely neighborhood with wide, tree-lined boulevards.
2. High Falls Shoals Hike
A 1.2-mile vertical hike, there are five waterfalls in the 170-acre area of South Mountains State Park. It took me a while to reach the top (my damaged hip makes for slow going), crossing the Jacob Fork River, and eventually a series of very steep steps. But when we arrived, the payoff was the observation deck with the gorgeous view of the 300-foot cascading waterfall.
3. Silver Fork Winery
Can a winery be considered an outdoor activity? It can when it’s at Silver Fork Vineyard! Stunning panoramas abound at the intersection of Silver Creek and White Fork Creek with the backdrop of the South Mountains on the horizon and vines and flowering plants in the foreground.
Add to the experience a tasting of their nine varieties of white, rose, and red wines on the outdoor patio, and it’s a match made in heaven.
4. Hang Gliding
The pinnacle of our outdoor experience was undoubtedly our airborne adventure with Thermal Valley Hang Gliding. Owner and 28-year-experienced tandem pilot Craig Pearson had us towed up into the atmosphere by an ultralight aircraft. The glider is then released from the tow strap, and off we went, 1500 feet in the air! Craig is very funny and personable while in the air, the perfect host, and he even showed me how to steer the craft myself!
This was my second time – I also did a hang glide in the Outer Banks. I absolutely loved both experiences and would highly recommend it – even to those who claim to have fear of heights. It’s thrilling, but not scary.
5. Fonta Flora Trail
The Fonta Flora State Trail is an ongoing project with a long-term vision to circumnavigate the entirety of Lake James with a 26.5 loop trail, and eventually to connect downtown Morganton to downtown Ashville. With an average grade of just 5%, the goal is to make the earthen surface trail as usable as possible and more family-friendly.
Walking or biking along the trail was a photographer’s dream (aka “Instagrammable”). Views combine natural forest, Lake James, and the White Creek Covered Bridge. (See photo at top of page)
6. Kayaking on Lake James
Tucked away in rolling hills at the base of Linville Gorge, Lake James includes 6,800 surface acres with more than 150 miles of shoreline and pristine water quality. The lake is best-known for its film sequences in The Last of the Mohicans and The Hunt for Red October. Kayaks and canoes can be rented at the lake and launched at either of two boat ramps (Hidden Cove and Canal Bridge).
7. Henry River Mill Village
Henry River Mill Village is a small textile village, long abandoned. The village is significant for two reasons:
- It is an unaltered but now-decaying example of an early cotton yarn mill. Today the remaining buildings of the mill village offer a peek back into the industrial heritage of the county.
- It is the filming set for District 12 in the Hunger Games films, with behind-the-scenes looks at the home of heroine Katniss, the bakery where Peeta “threw the burned bread,” and the site where the coal mining explosion was filmed.
Visitors can book either a historical tour or a Hunger Games fan tour.
8. Valdese Amphitheater
For nightly entertainment, look no further than the nearby small town of Valdese. Settled by the Italian Waldensians in the 19th century, the town has a cozy, local amphitheater which produces a seasonal drama about the Waldensians’ trials and triumphs entitled “From This Day Forward.” The theater also offers several different plays during the year, the most recent of which was Jesus Christ Superstar.
9. Whippoorwill Farm Brewery
For beer-lovers, Fonta Flora Brewery won the 2014 and 2015 gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival. They certainly do have many creative varieties of craft beers. I’m not a fan of beer at all, but I do love Champaign and Prosecco, so I was attracted to the beer named “Tiny Bubbles” – saison with chamomile flower and aged hops.
They have a tasting room in downtown, but even more enjoyable is their location at Whippoorwill Farm, a 9-acre pasture in rugged Linville Gorge, decked out with picnic tables and canopies.
10. Alfresco Dining
Even during the hot summer, the cool mountain evenings make outdoor dining perfect. Our favorite place was the attractive courtyard of root & vine in the middle of downtown Morganton. The restaurant serves New American cuisine, globally and locally sourced ingredients, hand-cut meats, and fresh seafood.
There’s much to love about the small-town feel, not the least of which are the easy access to its abundance of natural beauty, friendly, welcoming attitude, and so many things to do in Morganton NC!
Photos by Kary Kern
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Disclosure: Patti and Kary were honored to be the guest of Discover Burke County during their stay in Morganton, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are solely Patti’s.