The Orchard at Altapass
The Orchard at Altapass is part of the Farms, Gardens and Countryside Trail.
Tiny seeds can grow into mighty oaks, and one of the first seeds in the trend of tourism trails in Western North Carolina came in 1996 when the Asheville-based craft organization Handmade in America published its “Craft Heritage Trails” guidebook. Since that time, the development of tourism trails has grown at an impressive rate and offers visitors a closer look at everything from crafts to music to fly fishing, cheese to moonshine to quilts.
“I think the reason why so many trails are popping up is that the partners along the trails have recognized the opportunities that exist when they come together in a way that makes for a more robust experience for the traveler,” said Marla Tambellini, Deputy Executive Director at the Asheville Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
“The trails have the ability to move people throughout Western North Carolina. The more they learn about this area, the more likely they will come back and also share the experience with their friends.”
Some visitors may find it easy to choose a trail that fuels their personal passions and interests, but others consider the process mind boggling as they attempt to pinpoint where to start among the wealth of trails available.
“There are more than 300 different trails in Western North Carolina alone. One of my goals is to organize all the trails on one website,” said Gwynne Rukenbrod, Executive Director of Handmade in America. “That’s one of my grandiose ideas. How can we do this to make it more comprehensive? Doing it in a digital way will be the most useful.”
The State of Tennessee has also embraced the trend of tourism trails and has developed 16 trails that encompass parts of all the state’s 95 counties. The initiative is called Discover Tennessee Trails & Byways.
“The idea was given to us by Aubrey Preston of Leiper’s Fork, just south of Nashville,” said Dave Jones, the East TN regional representative for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.
Preston suggested creating a trail to show people other things they could do outside the major metro areas of Tennessee. By doing so, the hope was that visitors would stay longer and hopefully plan a repeat visit.
The first trail was called the Old Tennessee Trail, which was launched in November 2009. “The Governor has an emphasis on rural communities and finding ways to get some wealth into those areas,” says Jones. “Tourism is a great way to do that.”
In the process of creating the Old Tennessee Trail, officials decided they could create similar trails for the rest of the state.
“We designed sixteen trails originating from major metro areas. They are not linear trails—these are circle loop trails,” says Jones. “We wanted the names of the trails to reflect the culture and the heritage of the area. We gave them names almost like a theme park.”
Some of those unique trail names in the state’s program include The Jack Trail, Screaming Eagle, Ring of Fire, Promised Land and Pie in the Sky. Easy to download detailed brochures and self-guided trail maps are at the ready on tntrailsandbyways.com.
Here’s a look at ten trails that highlight a variety of interests in WNC and Eastern Tennessee.
Craft Heritage Trail
The trail celebrates the craft artist’s who are living and working in Western North Carolina. It highlights the studios, but also provides visitors with information on places along the way—from restaurants to bed and breakfast inns to historical sites and special attractions.
“We have expanded our service area to include 25 counties of Western North Carolina. It mirrors the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area,” said Rukenbrod. “When the first guidebook came out, it covered 21 counties. By the time of the third printing, it covered 25 counties, but was not thorough in every county. We have an online version where visitors can build an itinerary on our website.”
Farms, Gardens and Countryside Trail
After the Craft Heritage Trail guidebook came out, a group of farmers approached Handmade in America and said they wanted a book. This resulted in the first Farms, Gardens & Countryside Trails of Western North Carolina, which was first published in 2002.
The guidebook details six driving loops that cover almost 500 stops at farms, gardens, restaurants known for farm-to-table choices and dishes indigenous to the region, bed and breakfast inns with gardens and grounds deserving of recognition, plus stops at a variety of heritage sites including Grandfather Mountain, the Orchard at Altapass, Big Botanicals, Oconaluftee Indian Village, Waldensian Heritage Wines and The Garden of John C. Campbell Folk School.
“We don’t have any plans on updating the Farms books at this time, but we are working closely with WNC Agriculture groups to create farm to fiber tours,” said Rukenbrod. “This is where we highlight farms that produce the raw material for fiber and fiber artists along the routes.”
“We’re still surprised when we hear of people who don’t know about the Quilt Trail,” said Barbara Webster, Executive Director of the Quilt Trail of WNC.
While it’s hard to quantify the numbers of people who travel the trail, Webster said the Interstate Welcome Centers tell her the Quilt Trail rack card is the most popular one “This year, we’ll print 50,000 because we went through 20,000 last year,” she said.
The idea of developing quilt trails started 30 years ago when Ohio resident Donna Sue Groves put a quilt block on her barn in memory of her mother. There are now quilt trails in almost every U.S. state.
“It spread like wildfire, and it’s all been grassroots,” Webster said. “The more blocks we get up, the bigger the tourist attraction it becomes and that’s good for everybody.”
More than 1,000 quilt blocks are found in twelve WNC counties and are continuing to spread. Plans are underway to launch a trail in Henderson County soon, and Webster says they also have their eye on Buncombe County. Northeast Tennessee also has an expanding Quilt Trail effort.
Webster says one of the best places in WNC to begin the hunt for quilt squares is in Burnsville, N.C. This Yancey County town boasts 50 squares and leads to more than 200 squares in nearby Yancey and Mitchell counties.
“We can custom design a block to capture a family’s special story and they get to name the block,” Webster said. “We publish tour guides with the stories in them. It helps preserve the history of that site.”
WNC Fly Fishing Trail
Julie Spiro, Executive Director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, had a fun moment recently while traveling the interstate back home from a meeting in Hickory, N.C. She came up behind a tractor-trailer and spotted the wrapped ad on the truck’s side featuring Jackson County fly fisherman Josh Stevens, who won the national fly-fishing championship last year in Bend, Oregon. The ad promotes the WNC Fly Fishing Trail, which Julie helped spearhead.
“It was kind of like hearing your song for the first time on the radio,” Spiro said.
The truck, based in Jackson County, travels all over the southeast and as far away as California, and Spiro sees the results. She gets frequent emails from people who request maps and more information about the trail after seeing the truck roll past.
Since the trail was launched four years ago, Spiro says her office has gone through 50,000 maps pinpointing 15 spots for catching brook, brown and rainbow trout.
“We created a water resistant map so fishermen could hang on to it,” Spiro said. “But the 50,000 maps does not include the maps people have downloaded from our website and printed for themselves.”
When the idea for the trail emerged, Spiro was brainstorming for ways to bring new people into Jackson County. “This came about basically when the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad made a decision to stop departure points in Dillsboro,” she said.
She had a small brochure that she had created following tourist questions about fishing in the area. Her brainstorming group picked up on that and came up with additional fishing spots that offer public access. They drove to all the locations with a GPS in order to put the exact coordinates on the website.
Spiro is also working with state legislator Joe Sam Queen and the N.C. Fish and Wildlife Department to have three of the towns in her county—Sylva, Dillsboro and Webster—designated as official Mountain Heritage Trout Cities in N.C. She expects to receive that designation by the fall of 2013.
Blue Ridge Music Trails
“Western North Carolina is probably one of the richest places in America for roots based music making. I’d put it up against any place in the U.S.,” said Wayne Martin, Executive Director of the N.C. Arts Council.
The Blue Ridge Music Trails, which originated in 2003, ties North Carolina’s musical legacy together by providing visitors and residents alike with information on public community music venues in 28 counties.
It’s a self-guided process without any one particular route. When one goes on the website, one may look up all of the events happening in a certain time period and map out one’s own trail.
“One of the things different in WNC is we have some very well known musicians who have shaped the region’s music as well as the nation’s music—artists like Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs and Etta James,” Martin said.
“A lot of people want to come and be close to the traditions that gave birth to these musicians. That’s what this trail project is all about. They learn about the history, but they are also immersed in the contemporary music making that goes on in all of these communities.”
The Blue Ridge Music Trail highlights about 150 venues including small ones like community dances and jam sessions to fiddlers’ conventions and large events like Shindig on the Green and Merlefest.
The guidebook, which includes a CD of music from the region, sells for $20 and is available from UNC Press.
WNC Cheese Trail
The idea of creating a cheese trail had been simmering on the back burner for a long time, but last year, Jennifer Perkins at Looking Glass Creamery in Fairview, N.C., spearheaded development of the WNC Cheese Trail.
Cynthia Sharpe, owner of Oakmoon Creamery in Bakersville, N.C., praises Perkins’ initiative and says she sees the collaboration as a win-win situation for the cheese makers, the local communities and the travelers.
“People who come to our area who have epicurean interests can pick up our map, plot out an area or do the whole trail,” Sharpe said. “Right now, the trail features eight to ten cheese-makers and we’re hoping to bring more on.”
Some of the farmers don’t have an actual sales outlet on their property or availability to meet with visitors, but being part of the trail still provides visibility by giving travelers information about where the products are sold.
There are plans to add in affinity members, such as breweries, wineries and folks who do charcuterie. “We’ll look for anything that goes well with cheese as well as offer membership to eateries and accommodations that in some way have a connection to us as cheese makers,” Sharpe said.
The group is developing a print map of the WNC Cheese Trail, but downloadable maps are already available on their website. Right now the trail is concentrated in WNC with a few stops in the Piedmont, but interest is growing and Sharpe says it could become a statewide trail in the future.
Cherokee Heritage Trails
The Cherokee Heritage Trails has a distinction that sets it apart from most of the other self-guided trails highlighted here—visitors have the opportunity to request a personalized tour.
“You can actually meet up with a Cherokee tribal member who will take you to sacred sites and other important places while sharing stories and history they grew up with,” said Sally Peterson, Folklife Director of the N.C. Arts Council. “They work with tour groups and can also work with a single family.”
Tours are lined up through the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, located at 589 Tsali Blvd. in Cherokee. Barbara Duncan, Education Director at the Museum, has been involved with the project since the first talks in 1995. A task force of 23 people, representing a variety of agencies including the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian worked on development of the trail with the motivation that they could find a way to combine cultural preservation, environmental preservation and economic development for tourism.
In 2003 they officially unveiled the Cherokee Heritage Trails to the public.
“The next year, it received a Preserve America Presidential Award,” Duncan said. “These trails went on to become the basis of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.”
“It’s been an important factor in the tourism and economy of the area,” Peterson said. “It provides an opportunity for a much more accurate, detailed and interesting way to [explore] the area. Before the trail was started, the Cherokee had a number of attractions. Many were authentic, but others were not owned by people from the area and attracted tourists to a less authentic Indian experience.”
“The other thing that’s happened is the work on the guidebook has been picked up by Cherokee in Oklahoma to educate their youth and people about the history of their homeland here,” Duncan said. “There’s a larger cultural revitalization where people have come to value and appreciate the language and culture and historic places along with the interest of sharing these with the larger world.”
Rocky Top: Smoky Peaks to Crafts & Creeks Trail
The Rocky Top: Smoky Peaks to Crafts and Creeks Trail is one of the newest of the Discover Tennessee Trails and Byways Program. It officially kicked off in May 2012 and covers 282-miles showcasing 130 points of interest including historic sites, restaurants, music, and art attractions.
This trail begins in Gatlinburg at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Welcome Center. From there it leads visitors to 130 stops by way of a counterclockwise loop through Sevierville, Knoxville, Lenoir City Maryville, Wears Valley, and Pigeon Forge.
First-time visitors will take note of some of the “must see” attractions like the Titanic Museum and Dollywood in Pigeon Forge and Ripley’s Aquarium in Gatlinburg, but the trail also offers some surprises for regular travelers as well as locals.
Sunny Side: Early Country Trail
The Sunny Side Trail covers some of the same ground as The Rocky Top Trail as it moves through Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, but the 475-mile route also winds its way through many northeast Tennessee communities including Newport, Greeneville, Jonesborough, Johnson City, Elizabethton, Bristol, and others.
Trail organizers named this loop after the song Keep on the Sunny Side of Life. “It came from the northeast portion of Tennessee,” Jones said. “The northeast is also where settlers began coming in, so it’s called Sunny Side, Early Country Trail.”
The trail begins at the Sevierville Visitor Center and winds its way through the northeastern part of the state. A sampling of the stops includes lodging and restaurants located on the trail, as well as such attractions as the Birthplace of County Music Museum/Culture Heritage Center in Bristol, the Erwin National Fish Hatchery which provides 10 to 14 million trout eggs to units across the nation every year, and the Mahala Mullins Cabin which was relocated from Newman’s Ridge to the Vardy Historic District. She was one of the most famous people of the Melungeon heritage and she is known from openly selling moonshine from her log home.
White Lightning: Thunder Road to Rebels Trail
Speaking of moonshine, the 200-mile White Lightning Trail in the Discover Tennessee Trails & Byways Program takes its name from the route’s history as a moonshine-running corridor. During the days of the prohibition, rebels sped around the twisted roads in the dark of night to try to elude authorities as they transported their illegal, homemade corn whiskey.
There are 163 stops on this trail, which winds its way past the Tennessee, Clinch, Powell, Holston, Nolichucky, and French Broad Rivers. It also traverses part of the East Tennessee Crossing National Scenic Byway which as been used for centuries. It was known as the Cherokee Warriors’ Path then early settlers called it Wilderness Road. During the Civil War, it took on the name Dixie Highway and then was made famous as Thunder Road by the rebels carrying moonshine.
The beginning point of the White Lightning Trail is the Knoxville Visitor’s Center on Historic Gay Street. Notable stops include the Blount Mansion, which is the first frame house built west of the Appalachian Mountains in 1792, Norris Dam and Lake, and the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.