As the birthplace of the Round Peak sound prized by aspiring artists from around the world, Yadkin Valley has been on the travel radar of old-time music lovers for quite some time. Factor in a tradition of stringed instrument production and a local luthier with skills so sought after he once put Eric Clapton himself on a three-year waiting list for a guitar, and it’s safe to say the music heritage of this place runs deep.
Then of course, there’s the moonshine. The ridge-running roots of the area’s distilling heritage are alive and kicking in the form of modern-day distilleries, specialty food items and more. Paddling opportunities, hiking and biking trails, a wine scene that’s starting to find its way and a serious farm-to-fork food scene add extensively to the destination’s vacation value.
Perhaps the most precious place to begin your exploration of this region is the town of Mount Airy. Childhood home of Andy Griffith and inspiration for the classic fictional television town Mayberry, this place is the quintessential example of authentic Americana and chock full of charm. Spending an appropriate amount of time on Main Street is a must. Historic buildings, wagon rides, mountain music piped into the streets and more are sure to make you feel immersed in the experience.
If you happen to be there on a Saturday, head over to the historic Earle Theater. Home to the Old-Time Music Heritage Hall, the theater also hosts live radio broadcasts of traditional area tunes every Saturday. Open to the public for $8 per person, the entry ticket also grants access to the Andy Griffith Museum. Another classic Mount Airy experience comes in the form of squad car tours. For $40 a carload of five folks or less, visitors get a guided drive past area landmarks in refurbished vintage automobiles in the same model of squad cars used in the original show. Tourmayberry.com has contact information to book reservations. Also of note is the town’s regional history museum, which offers an interesting afternoon distraction at $6 per ticket.
A couple of casual lunch options exist on Main Street. Walker’s Soda Fountain has vintage furniture and offers hand-mixed soda flavors such as watermelon and cherry vanilla in the $2 range, along with basic burgers and fries. Mam’s Eatery is another choice, offering homespun food to eat in or to go. This same part of town offers a noteworthy dinner splurge as well. Old North State Winery’s chef’s table experience is worth the throw down if you’re in the mood for an upscale meal. A weekly rotating special menu served with higher-end outside wines from their selection, each creative course features a guided pairing with their in-house sommelier.
When it comes to sweet treats however, there’s only one thing to do. Go see Miss Angel. Owner of Heavenly Pies on Main Street and the farm where all the fruit for said goodies is grown, this sparkly little energy tornado whips up pies, baked goods and other yummies you can order served with a side of moonshine ice cream created at her creamery next door. She’s also a recommended stop on Surry County’s sonker trail. A dessert so unique to this area there’s an entire driving trail devoted to showcasing places that offer it, sonker is a fun way to experience the actual flavor of the valley while visiting the various towns within it.
While business-style chain hotels are readily available throughout the valley, people with the time to plan ahead may want to explore a particularly unique accommodation option while in the town of Mount Airy. Andy Griffith’s actual childhood home can be booked on a nightly basis, providing a memorable Mayberry experience for fans of the show. Decorated with antiques and memorabilia related to Mr. Griffith, reservations can be made through the Mount Airy Hampton Inn. Amenities include maid service and use of facilities at the main hotel, as well as their daily continental breakfast.
Regarding recommended day trips from Mount Airy proper, there a couple worth your time. JOLO winery in the town of Pilot Mountain offers some of the best wine in the area, along with live music on Sundays through mid-November. With their view of the mountain and outside seating area, it’s a great place to enjoy a high-end pour and groove out to local tunes. They occasionally do vertical tastings with gourmet food pairings that are also worth the splurge if your travel timing is right. Dobson is a scenic day drive and home to Rockford General Store, an authentic vintage market with homemade canned goods, retro candy and a fun vibe. They are also on the sonker trail, and offer indoor and outdoor seating. Open Wednesday through Sunday, it makes a great preliminary stop to an early dinner at Harvest Grill restaurant located at Shelton Vineyards, which is also in Dobson. Their glassed-in dining room with fireplace overlooks the vines and offers delectable higher-end fare with plenty of atmosphere. Menu items rotate seasonally.
When you are ready to start exploring the other end of the valley, switching your base camp to the Wilkesboro area makes a heck of a lot of sense. Home to MerleFest, the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame and the W. Kerr Scott Reservoir popular with outdoor recreation enthusiasts, this midsized town with recently refurbished community amenities is strategically positioned for a thorough investigation of this portion of the area. Also, while the distilling traditions of Yadkin Valley are prevalent in the other towns you’ll visit, this is where the white lightning heritage really starts getting serious.
Call Family Distillers puts seven generations of experience into their moonshine, with facility tasting tours including a peek at some of the original souped-up shine-running cars from back in the day. This family’s heritage includes not only the famously uncatchable Willie Clay Call, but also the Reverend Dan Call, who taught the trade to Mr. Jack Daniels himself. Hard spirits fans will also want to stop at Copper Barrel. Located in an old furniture plant, their master moonshine distiller is a plain-speaking, overall-wearing bit of living history by the name of Buck Nance. Not only is he a hoot and a half to chat with, his lifelong experience in the industry produces some seriously sensational hooch.
Those ready for a bit of driving adventure will want to make their way to Moravian Falls to search out the Holman Distillery. Departing from the local moonshine scene in favor of a freezing method known as jacking, which dates back to the colonial days, this rural facility is a nifty day trip for travelers who like exploring the back roads.
Wine scene more your speed? Make your way to Raffaldini Vineyards. A spectacular view, Italian-style villa and picturesque walking trails all serve as the backdrop for sipping some serious wines. As a fan of big reds, my favorite is the 2016 Il Falco, but their 2015 Grande Riserva is nice as well. They also have outdoor seating and picnic supplies available if you want to come with friends and enjoy a pour while taking in the countryside. Newcomer Piccione Vineyards is located just down the hill, and a pleasant additional stop if you happen to be in the area.
In addition to the basic bargain breakfasts favored by locals at a diner called The 50s and $3 handcrafted ice cream deals at Brushy Mountain Smokehouse and Creamery, a couple dining options of note are available to you here. North Wilkesboro’s Elsewhere on 10th offers creative farm-to-fork fare to suit a variety of palettes, including their over-the-top veggie burger and giant fish sandwich. Their potato salad is also worth the calories, if you are so inclined. Dooley’s has a fun community bar atmosphere and offers occasional live music along with burgers they grind in-house, an extensive regional beer list and killer homemade fries.
If you happen to be swinging by Dooley’s during the day, make time for a few of the other downtown spots, including an old-fashioned candy store called Sweet Smiles, the Wilkes Heritage Museum and Waggles pet boutique located near the outdoor splash pad and community concert area. Perhaps the most unique downtown shopping option is the Blue Ridge Artisan Center. Located in an elegant 1915 building, it features juried artworks available for purchase and regular $5 traditional dance events allowing visitors a crack at affordable hootenanny fun in a high-end atmosphere. A gourmet coffee shop called the Artisan Cafe is on the opposite side of the building. Priced to please with $3 lattes and $2 lemonades, it showcases original architectural elements in a modern way.
Got an extra bit of time on your way in or out of Wilkesboro? The little town of Elkin is deserving of an afternoon or overnight. With plenty of hiking trails, an interesting refurbished live-performance venue, a craft beer scene and historic downtown that’s seen some recent upgrades, it’s a pleasant place to spend a little time. Southern on Main is a fun place to grab great grub with an artsy flair. Also on the sonker trail, it offers everything from a fried green tomato BLT to elevated shrimp and grits. Personally, I love their $5 black-eyed pea cakes and $4 comfort soups. The November Room is also a neat stop, and sells local art along with great coffee and baked goods.
Easily accessible via Interstates 77 and 44, Yadkin Valley’s unique blend of moonshine, music and Mother Nature offers a truly authentic travel experience. Few places in the United States have preserved the classic American tradition as faithfully as this one. If you’re looking for a road trip destination with homespun fun, fab food and a heritage still evident in its day-to-day experiences, this one is worthy of putting on your short list. Whether you are looking for a place to spend a full two-week vacation or a favored spot to head for long weekends, you’ll find plenty here to keep you entertained.
Lifestyle and travel expert Myscha Theriault blends thrift and luxury to live well for less around the world. You can follow her adventures on Instagram via @MyschaTheriault.