Story by Gina Malone | Photos by Joye Ardyn Durham
The small towns of Burnsville and Spruce Pine, in Yancey and Mitchell counties, respectively, offer easy drives from Asheville and reward day trippers with plenty of small-town charm with a few big surprises— biggest among them Mt. Mitchell.
At 6,684 feet, Mt. Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. Burnsville lies along the Mt. Mitchell Scenic Byway that begins at the top of the mountain and winds through the lovely Toe River Valley.
Burnsville was established as the county seat in 1834. A statue to Otway Burns stands in the picturesque town square just off Main Street. The Yancey History Association operates the Rush Wray Museum out of the historic John Wesley McElroy House, built in the 1840s. Other historic buildings on the grounds include the 1850s Proffitt-Cousins Cabin and an 1850s smokehouse. A 1930s gas station at the bottom of the hill from the McElroy House serves as the Yancey County-Burnsville Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center.
Along with the old, there’s a bit of new in town with breweries gaining presence here as elsewhere in WNC. John Silver, who calls Burnsville “the perfect, small Norman Rockwellian town,” opened Homeplace Beer Co. right on Main Street in June. “We specialize in mostly seasonal beers,” he says, “with lots of local ingredients grown in Yancey County or nearby.”
Blind Squirrel Brewery has had a presence in Plumtree, 12 miles north of Spruce Pine, since 2012. In June of 2016, its owners opened the Burnsville Outpost. “Burnsville has done an excellent job,” says Will Young, who, along with wife Edie owns the brewery, “to make sure there is something exciting going on in town pretty much every weekend. In addition to that, it is a gateway to a plethora of outdoor activities.”
Other not-to-be-missed spots in Burnsville include the Toe River Arts Council Gallery, Cool Catz Candy & Cream and several unique gift shops and eateries. The Quilt Block Sundial on the Yancey Common Times Journal building is the largest vertical sundial in the state. The historic Parkway Playhouse, open seasonally, is another of Burnsville’s popular destinations.
Just 14 miles east of Burnsville lies Spruce Pine, “a great small town preserving what small towns are supposed to be,” says Patti Jensen, executive director of the Mitchell County Chamber of Commerce/ Development Foundation. “There are a great variety of shops and restaurants downtown and a unique layout of the town that includes an upper street, a lower street, the railroad and the river with a walking bridge to the park.”
Among the eateries is Fox and the Fig, owned by Grace Buchanan and her husband Aaron. “We initially opened with the mission of serving excellent coffee and tea,” she says, “but we have developed quite a variety of baked items as well.” Brunch is available on Saturdays and they often feature live music. “We work with several local farmers to keep seasonal fresh produce and are really proud of the high quality of the ‘hand brewed and homemade’ spread we serve. After living in Asheville and getting to experience the incredible variety there, we are able to say with confidence that visiting our shop is definitely worth the trip.”
There are many browsing opportunities in Spruce Pine, including in the Toe River Arts Council Spruce Pine Gallery and The Market on Oak. The latter, says Jensen, “is a nonprofit project operated by the Mitchell County Development Foundation to support local artisans, authors, musicians and farmers.” Hundreds of handmade products, regional books and local foods made by more than 125 locals fill the shop. “It’s hard to say what the most popular items are,” Jensen says, “but a quick overview would be our local pottery, handcrafted ornaments and our handmade spa products, including soaps and candles.”
While in the higher elevations and since ‘tis the season, consider ending your day trip by stopping at one of the Christmas tree farms in Yancey and Mitchell counties. To find locations, visit ncchristmastrees.com.
To plan your own excursion to Burnsville, visit exploreburnsville.com and yanceychamber.com. The Burnsville and Yancey County Visitor Center is located at 106 West Main Street. To learn more about Spruce Pine, visit downtownsprucepine.com or mitchellcountychamber.org. The Mitchell County Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center is located at the National Park Service’s Museum of North Carolina Minerals at the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Spruce Pine. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The Spruce Pine Main Street Visitor Center is located at 165 Locust Street in downtown Spruce Pine.