Story by Gina Malone | Photos by Joye Ardyn Durham
Morganton and its surrounding Burke County are steeped in history dating back 450 years, but the area also offers a wealth of modern appeal for daytrippers, including shops, restaurants and galleries.
An hour’s drive from Asheville, Burke County extends north to Linville Gorge and the Blue Ridge Parkway and includes Hawksbill Mountain. With so much to see and do, your first stop might be the Visitors Center in Morganton where staff members can help you decide whether you want a day of museums, galleries, wineries or outdoor exploration.
“Burke County is one of western North Carolina’s hidden gems,” says Scott Carpenter, the county’s community development director. “We are blessed to have so many natural areas and wonders to build upon.” Plans in the works include the Fonta Flora State Trail, a 90-mile long trail between Morganton and Asheville that will connect the foothills to the mountains; an eco-tourism region called Fonta Flora Ecoregion encompassing parts of Pisgah National Forest, the Catawba River system and Table Rock; and a 330-acre county park at Lake James.
Spanish soldiers, led by Captain Juan Pardo, were seeking a route to Mexico when they arrived in the Catawba River Valley in 1567. They constructed Fort San Juan, considered the first European settlement in North Carolina, near the Cherokee village of Joara. Clashes between Native Americans and the Spanish explorers led to the fort’s destruction in 1568. Today, the site is being excavated by an archaeological team from Warren Wilson College.
History buffs can find displays about this and other fascinating events at the History Museum of Burke County. The Railroad Depot Museum, housed in the restored1916 depot, offers a look at 19th and 20th century railroad memorabilia. And for lovers of political history, the Old Courthouse Museum and Western Piedmont Community College offer exhibits on Senator Sam J. Ervin, the Morganton native who led the Watergate Hearings. Among the memorabilia is a gavel presented to Ervin by the Cherokee and used during the hearings.
Art galleries in Morganton include the Burke County Arts Council’s Jailhouse Gallery and West Union ArtStudios. “The Burke Arts Council is deeply involved in the vibrant arts community throughout the county and particularly downtown Morganton,” says executive director Deborah Jones.
Five potters work in downtown’s West Union Art Studios, sharing their space with artists of the Signature Day Program for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “We each have our pottery studios here open to the public with our gallery space in front of the store,” says owner Melissa Dunn. “It is a joy to be part of the art scene here in Morganton. It is an inspiring place, nestled against the mountains and surrounded by nature.”
While browsing for beautiful art, don’t miss world-famous artist Ben Long’s fresco, Sacred Dance & the Muses, on the ceiling of the City of Morganton Municipal Auditorium (CoMMA). Completed in 2004, this enchanting work is one of nine frescoes in the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area that comprise the Benjamin F. Long IV Fresco Trail. Comfortable chairs beneath CoMMA’s fresco allow for relaxed observation and enjoyment.
The lobby contains an exhibit of Piedmont blues guitarist Etta Baker’s memorabilia. A Morganton native, Baker was born in 1913 and died in 2006. A recently unveiled sculpture of this influential musician may be found outside the auditorium.
“Having CoMMA in our community ignites a passion, creativity and appreciation for the fine arts,” says executive director, Dr. W. Jim Smith. “From fresco painting to Broadway musicals, CoMMA offers an inspiring plethora of events to a diverse and growing community.”
When it’s time to eat, restaurant options are many including Root & Vine, Treat Restaurant and Gift Shop and Mimosa Hills Golf & Country Club which includes a 1929 original Donald Ross-designed golf course. Treat offers a menu that changes with the seasons, as does its décor and merchandise.
Catawba Meadows Park’s 230 acres offer paved walking trails along the Catawba River and, for young and restless day-trippers, the Beanstalk Zip Lines, two adventure playgrounds with ropes courses, sky hammocks, a climbing tower and, of course, zip lines. The park is also the setting for the 14th annual Red, White and Bluegrass Festival Saturday, July 1, through Monday, July 3.
To learn more about planning a day trip to Burke County, visit burkecountychamber.org or stop by the Visitors Center at 100 Meeting Street in downtown Morganton. Information about the festival may be found at redwhiteandbluegrassfestival.com.