Day Tripper: Explore McDowell County, Then and Now
By Gina Malone
A trip along McDowell County’s byways yields time travel for history buffs, high adventure for outdoors enthusiasts and pure delight for art and music lovers. Old Fort and Marion, within 40 minutes of Asheville, offer recreation to fill your day into the evening hours.
McDowell, says Carol Price, director of tourism, has “small town charm, mountains, trails, waterfalls and a great climate”—not to mention easy access to the Blue Ridge Parkway and acres of US Forest Service land.
In winter, she adds, the ten-degree temperature difference of surrounding mountains “creates stunning ridge-top scenery. I can be on Main Street in Marion and enjoy views of snow-covered mountains without the inconvenience of snowy roads.”
The area that became McDowell County was once the westernmost boundary of colonial settlement, with forts constructed for protection from neighboring Cherokee. Davidson’s Fort Historic Park is a reconstruction of a 1776 fort and features year-round history demonstrations and events.
Downtown’s Mountain Gateway Museum lies along the serene Mill Creek. A self-guided tour includes pioneer life exhibits and historic cabins. An amphitheater and picnic tables make a relaxing gathering spot.
A page from Asheville’s literary history graces the Old Fort Cemetery. Legend has it the angel marking the grave of Hattie McCanless hails from the monument shop of W.O. Wolfe, father of novelist Thomas Wolfe. W.O. reportedly lost this angel—not believed to be the one described in Look Homeward, Angel—in a poker game with Asheville photographer S.A. McCanless, who placed it at his wife’s grave.
The Wolfe Angel and six other attractions comprise the “Seven Wonders Trail.” Downtown’s striking murals depicting each site were collaborations between schoolchildren and artists of the Arrowhead Artists and Artisans League. “The Arrowhead Gallery and Studios,” says president Helen Sullivan, “is one of the largest galleries by size in Western North Carolina,” featuring more than 40 juried artists, weekly classes and monthly workshops.
Another wonder not to miss is the impressive Andrews Geyser. This 80-foot man-made spout once adorned the lawn of the Round Knob Hotel. After the hotel burned in 1903, it was moved across the tracks to its present location and dedicated to railroad engineer Alexander Boyd Andrews, who completed the WNC Railroad into Asheville. Picnic facilities are available in this public park. Be sure to stand in the geyser’s mist—weather permitting—to see rainbow effects when sunrays hit the water droplets.
Nestled at the foot of Mount Ida, Marion’s downtown boasts restaurants, shops and galleries—including the McDowell Arts Council Gallery with its bountiful gift shop.
“Where Main Street meets the mountains” describes Marion, and when you’re done browsing, shopping and eating, a wealth of outdoor activities await. The Joseph McDowell Historic Catawba Greenway has three miles of paved trail for biking and hiking that winds along the Catawba River. Tom’s Creek Falls, Lake James and Linville Caverns are nearby.
“McDowell County was formed within our walls,” says Amanda Finn, executive director of the Historic Carson House. “We served as the first jail, polling site and courthouse.” Inside are “items gifted by Andrew Jackson, stories of frontier duels witnessed by Davy Crockett and quilts made by slaves, each stitch telling a piece of their story.”
History and Heritage
There are many stories here. McDowell experienced a gold rush before California did. Civil War skirmishes left graves along Point Lookout Trail in Old Fort, while the hand-chiseled Arrowhead Monument commemorates peace between pioneers and Native Americans. Marion’s depot remains the oldest surviving station on the Western Rail Line.
The McDowell County Quilt Trail includes more than 200 quilt blocks—each with a unique story— on regional barns and buildings. Viewing excursions can be divided into shorter drives such as the Rural Heritage Trail.
Music lovers will relish the regular jam sessions and pickin’ parties abounding in the area. Venues include Marion Depot, Woody’s Original Mountain Music and Mountain Gateway Museum’s porch.
Upcoming McDowell Events
Blue Ridge Artisan Show and Sale McDowell Arts Council Gallery and Gift Shop, Marion 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday mcdowellarts.org
Mountain Music, Marion Depot 7 p.m., blueridgetravelers.com
Free art class Arrowhead Art Gallery and Studios, Old Fort 2–4 p.m., arrowheadart.org
Marion, 30th Annual Appalachian Potters Market McDowell High School Gymnasium 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., mcdowellarts.org
Historic Carson House Candlelight Tours, Marion 6–8 p.m., historiccarsonhouse.com
For more information, visit blueridgetravelers.com or call 888.233.6111.