Scroll down this page or click on specific site name to view features on the following Watauga County attractions/points of interest:
The Blowing Rock, Blowing Rock Art & History Museum, Elk Knob State Park, Hickory Ridge Homestead & Living History Museum, Mast General Store, Mystery Hill, Tweetsie Railroad
Fast facts about Watauga County:
Created in 1849, the county is named for the Watauga River, the name of which was derived from a Native American word meaning “beautiful water.”
The county seat is Boone, named for the famous pioneer Daniel Boone, who often camped in the area during hunting season. Other communities include Beech Mountain, Deep Gap, Seven Devils, Sherwood, Sugar Grove, and Valle Crucis.
Watauga County’s land area is 312.51 square miles; the population in the 2010 census was 51,079 (2010 census).
It is worth noting that Appalachian State University is located in Boone; Tweetsie Railroad, located between Boone and Blowing Rock, is the oldest theme park in the state.
The Blowing Rock proudly bills itself as the oldest outdoor tourist attraction in the Blue Ridge, having opened to tourists in 1933. It is a “throw-back” to earlier days, when such natural attractions as Natural Bridge, Chimney Rock, and Ruby Falls were popular destination points for motorists. The Rock has been called “The Crown of the Blue Ridge” with some justification. Compact in size, the site features short walking trails, a small garden and miniature waterfall, an obser-vation platform, and a gift shop. The centerpiece, of course, is the legendary Blowing Rock, the much-photographed outcropping of jagged stone some 4,000 feet above sea level that overhangs the Johns River Gorge. Make no mistake. “Legendary” is the appropriate adjective. According to Indian lore, this was the place where a young Cherokee brave, in the throes of love, threw himself off the cliff. The prayers of his lover, a grief-stricken Chickasaw Indian maiden, were answered when strong winds blew her handsome brave back to her. That’s the way the legend goes. In truth, because of how the shape of the gorge affects the wind, lightweight objects which fall from the cliff can indeed be blown back. Ripley’s Believe It or Not once listed The Blowing Rock as a place where snow could actually be seen falling up! That novel sight notwithstanding, the Rock is a far more pleasant place to visit when the weather is fair. On clear days, The Blowing Rock offers a majestic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, including Table Rock, Hawksbill, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell, and Sugar Mountain. The Blowing Rock is open daily April through mid-January and weekends only, weather permitting, from mid-January through March. Hours vary seasonally. Admission charged. 828-295-7111
The Blowing Rock Art & History Museum is yet another attraction to this charming High Country haven. The handsome stone-and-timber, 23,000-square-foot facility houses the town’s visitor center as well as displays focusing on local history and changing themed exhibits. Among the Museum’s permanent collection are works by Elliott Daingerfield, examples of North Carolina pottery, and glass art by artists at the Penland School of Crafts. Admission charged. Hours are 10-5 Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday; extended hours on Thursday are 10-7, with free admission after 4 PM. 828-295-9099
Located about ten miles northeast of Boone, Elk Knob State Park is one of the state’s newest, still in an interim stage of development, offering somewhat limited outdoor opportunities. The very existence of the park is due to the combined efforts of local citizens, land owners, and the Nature Conservancy, first to purchase Elk Knob, and then to deed it to the State of North Carolina in 2003. Under the management of the Division of Parks and Recreation, the state’s goal was to both protect the headwaters of the North Fork of the New River – which, ironically, is thought to be one of the oldest rivers in the world – and to provide visitors with opportunities for a pleasant outdoor experience.
The Summit Trail is a 2-mile trek to the top, with a few rough-hewn benches conveniently spaced out along the way so hikers can stop and catch their breath. The hike is rated moderate to strenuous, but the spectacular views from the summit, 5,520 feet in elevation, are well worth the expenditure of time and calories. Looking from the observation deck on the north, visitors can see Peak Mountain and Mount Jefferson. On very clear days, Pilot Mountain, 66 miles distant, can be seen. A short trail on the south side of the summit leads to overlooks of some of the better known mountains: Grandfather, Sugar, Mount Mitchell, Beech, and Roan. Interpretive signs on either side identify the individual peaks and cite their elevations and distances.
Standard picnic facilities – eleven sites with charcoal grills and picnic tables – are located in nicely shaded areas near the park office; two are handicapped accessible. As it is still under development, the park does not yet offer modern restrooms. Camping is not currently permitted. Elk Knob State Park is open daily except Christmas. The park opens at 8 AM year-round; closing hours vary seasonally. 828-297-7261
Theatergoers attending the outdoor drama "Horn in the West" should plan on arriving early and spending some time at the Hickory Ridge Homestead and Living History Museum. The Museum is located on a hilltop adjacent to the Daniel Boone Amphitheater, only a half-mile from the site of a herder’s cabin used by Boone on hunting trips to the area. Several original log buildings have been relocated to the site from various areas in the “High Country,” the oldest being the circa 1775 Tatum Cabin. The Trading Post, Black-smith Shop, and Museum Gift Shop all date to the 1800s. The Coffey Cabin, a one-and-a-half story structure, was built in 1875 for Thomas Carlton Coffey and his bride-to-be Martha Ellen Cook, and the couple raised thirteen children in this home. A Works Progress Administration (WPA) cabin was built in 1939 as a bunkhouse for workers while they were constructing a nearby school. Built using a traditional method of quick log cabin construction, it is an excellent representation of a frontier cabin in the 1700s. Numerous interpreters in period attire provide visitors with information about early settlers and discuss everyday life along the western frontier in the mid-to-late 1700s. Demonstrations include hearthside cooking, weaving, candle making, and blacksmithing. The entire experience helps put theatergoers in the proper mood for the drama they are about to see.
“Quality goods for the living, coffins & caskets for the dead.” That’s how owner W. W. Mast promoted his place of business back in the 1920s. You don’t hear advertising slogans like that anymore. Then again, you don’t often run across mercantile establishments like the Mast General Store in Valle Crucis anymore, either. There are cur-rently nine Mast Stores operating in three states. You’ll find locations in Boone, Waynesville, Hendersonville, and Asheville, NC; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Greenville and Columbia, South Carolina. All offer the same wide variety of quality merchandise, and each provides a different shopping experience than any you’ll find at a national chain. But for the genuine feel of an old-time country store, the original Mast General in Valle Crucis is still the best. A weather-beaten, oval Esso sign and a vintage gas pump still remain out front, but Mast General stopped selling gasoline several years ago. Petrol is about the only thing, however, that visitors won’t find for sale inside this sprawling mercantile establishment.
Mast General sells a wide selection of traditional clothing as well as gear targeted for outdoorsmen. Merchandise for sale includes hats, shoes, and handbags; practical household items for daily use; eclectic gift items for decor; food, snacks, and drinks; hardware; toys and games; mountain crafts; and the list goes on and on. Next door to the original store is a newer building specializing in pottery, jewelry, art, and other miscellany crafted by regional artisans. Merchandise, however, is only a part of the store’s allure. Whether you’re actually shopping for a particular item or not, Mast General is a place to go just for the experience. The late Charles Kuralt is quoted as saying, “All general stores are satisfying to visit, but one of them, the Mast Store, is a destination.”
For the locals, Mast General remains what it has always been, a place to socialize, catch a bite to eat, relax with a soft drink out on the back porch, or to get mail – the post office still operates in the front left corner of the store. For travelers, the store is a wood-framed time machine with slanting, creaking floors, trans-porting them to a different place and period. Cell phones may work here, but they don’t really belong here. What does belong is the pot-bellied stove in the center of the room that warms shoppers on cold winter days; the checkerboard, with bottle caps for pieces, that beckons young and old alike to sit and play a game; and the antique drink machine filled with glass bottles of grape Nehi and orange Crush that still require a “church key” to open them. Wander out back on a Saturday morning or afternoon and you’ll likely to hear some blue grass, country, or gospel music being played by local musicians. Hours for the original Mast Store are 7:00-6:30 Monday-Saturday and 12:00-6:00 Sunday.
Mystery Hill, on US 321 between Blowing Rock and Boone, has been mystifying visitors since 1952. Exactly what makes Mystery Hill work remains an enigma, but what has kept people coming back for more than 60 years is no mystery at all. It’s laugh-out-loud fun! Admittedly, the house is designed to deliberately confuse the senses, but there seems to be some unexplainable, natural phenomenon going on that facilitates the illusions, creating some truly astounding effects. For example, a rubber ball placed on a flat surface will, under its own impulse, seemingly defy gravity by rolling uphill. That same ball, tossed straight up in the air, falls back down at an angle. Water poured into a pipe on the wall also flows uphill! Like a carnival funhouse, slanted floors make it difficult to walk in some areas. The house tends to play havoc with those susceptible to motion sickness. Other tricks of the eye are on display in the Hall of Mystery.
Admission to Mystery Hill also includes a visit to the adjacent Appalachian Culture Museum and the Native American Artifacts Museum. Displayed in the Doughtery House, built in 1903, are typical household items from the early 20th century, including a 1916 Universal electric stove. If a family in Boone or Blowing Rock bought this stove when it was new, they would have had to have waited seven years before they could use it – electricity wasn’t introduced to Watauga County until 1923! Mystery Hill is open year-round. Hours are 9-8 June-August and 9-5 September-May. Admission charged. 828-264-2792
Tweetsie Railroad is one of the oldest theme parks in the country, having opened in 1957. It had its origins two years earlier, when western film star Gene Autry had an option to buy a locomotive and rail cars from the defunct Shenandoah Central Railroad. His intent was to send them out west for use at his movie studio. Determining that the cost of transporting and repairing them would be too great, however, Autry transferred his option to local entrepreneur Grover Robbins, Jr., who had ideas of his own. After restoring the engine and rail cars in Hickory, Robbins had them trucked to the park he was developing in Blowing Rock.
Taking the name “Tweetsie Railroad” because of the piping sound made by the train’s whistle, the park opened to the public on July 4, 1957. In the years since, many rides have been added, but the star attractions continue to be the park’s two restored steam locomotives: the original Engine # 12, built in 1917, and Engine # 190 – also known as the Yukon Queen – built in 1943 and used by the US Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska. Tweetsie’s main street carries a “Wild West” theme, and it’s guaranteed that the 30-minute train trip around the park will be disrupted by sidewinders, shoot-outs, and shenanigans.
Other rides at Tweetsie are more generic and are definitely geared toward the younger kids. The Country Fair section includes a carousel, Ferris wheel, tilt-a-whirl and other carnival-type rides, and park visitors can take a chair lift to the top of Miner’s Mountain for additional rides and the Deer Park. Live shows usually involve magic acts, country clogging exhibitions, and the like. Diamond Lil’s “Can-Can” Review at the Tweetsie Palace Saloon is definitely “G” rated! The “Sunset Show” at the Palace Saloon finishes off the day and features all the park’s costumed entertainers together on one stage.
Tweetsie Railroad’s begins its season the first weekend in May. During May, September, and October, the park is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the park is open daily. Park hours are 9-6. Admission charged. 800-526-5740
All photos of the theme park are courtesy of Tweetsie Railroad.
Watauga County is bordered by AVERY, CALDWELL, WILKES, and ASHE counties.
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