Wilkes County covers a vast area of land that ranges from the Blue Ridge escarpment in the west to rolling farmland and vineyards in the east. It offers a variety of outdoor activities to go along with a rich heritage including the origins of NASCAR, the Tom Dooley legend and ballad, and the country’s biggest Americana music festival, MerleFest. The Northwest North Carolina Visitor Center (221 East Highway 421, North Wilkesboro, NC 28659) showcases all the region has to offer. Its design was even inspired by a moonshine still!
Traveling west on Highway 421, head to downtown Wilkesboro to spend some time at the Blue Ridge Artisan Center (201 W. Main St). The center is located in the 1915 Historic Federal Courthouse and Post Office on West Main Street in Wilkesboro. The main gallery of this Federal style building is an Artisan Market with 3,000 square feet of retail space that features the work of artists and artisans from eight counties in Northwest North Carolina. Every medium is on display: pottery, wood, metal, fibers, glass, photography, watercolor, oils, mixed media and more.
While in Wilkesboro, you don’t want to miss the Wilkes County Heritage Museum and the Old Wilkes Jail. The old jail’s unique history and roster of famous inmates makes it one of the best-known historical structures in the area. Two former prisoners in this jail inspired popular folk songs. The song “Otto Wood” tells the story of the bandit of the same name known for his ability to escape, and the song “Tom Dooley” was inspired by Tom Dula, who was held in the jail before his eventual hanging in Statesville.
Just a few blocks away you can find two truly unique fresco paintings by Ben Long at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (200 W. Cowles St.). Long is one of the few artists today to be recognized as a master of the art of fresco-painting on wet plaster, the process used by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Because the mixed pigments are absorbed by the plaster, the paintings actually become part of the wall. The frescoes in the Commons area of the church are life-size depictions of St. Paul’s Conversion and the writing of his epistles.
Take Highway 268 and stop by Call Family Distillers (1611 Industrial Drive, Wilkesboro) offering moonshine samples and a glimpse at how their product is made. Continue out 268 and see the W. Kerr Scott Reservoir. The lake, made in 1963, offers boating, fishing, camping, and numerous recreation areas. Also check out the Mountain View Overlook (699 Schoolway Ln, Boomer 28606) for long-range views of the reservoir and surrounding areas.
Just a few miles from the reservoir find Brey Quality Crafts (1830 Glenn Carlton Rd., Boomer, NC 28606). Betsy Brey’s work is of and from her home. Each of her pieces is crafted from materials 100% sourced from her land where she harvests yellow poplar bark as well as other woods, grasses, and natural items. Given nature’s variety and Betsy’s imagination, there’s no telling what kind of creations visitors might find.
Drive to Millers Creek and follow the bottom land along the Reddies River as you make your way to the studio of Susan Roath (720 Bill Parsons Rd. Millers Creek 28651). Susan spent her career drafting plans for an architect and serving as a general contractor, and many of those skills make their way into her vibrant and detailed stained-glass work. Each piece she makes is uniquely inspired by the materials she selects.
In the northernmost part of the county you’ll find Sunset Fiberworks (3249 Swaringer Rd., Traphill 28685). Upon arrival, it’s impossible to ignore the stunning view overlooking the entire Yadkin Valley. Once the view has been properly appreciated, visitors can find the decades of weaving expertise Mary Freas has to offer. In her “Loom House” Mary weaves creations of all types on looms of all denominations, but her real passion is teaching and sharing the art as it was passed on to her. Among her collection of looms, visitors can see a loom that accompanied Lucy Morgan (founder of Penland School of Craft) to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.
Take a brief pause along the journey and spend some time at Roaring River Vineyards which offers the pastoral scenery of the mountain and the Roaring Fork River. Visitors can enjoy the tasting room serving wine or beer, a restaurant serving small plates and meals, and outdoor seating along the river.
A beautiful ride back to North Wilkesboro leads to Taupe Gallery (305 10th St). The gallery was named after Jim Lyall’s favorite color for interior design, but the items inside the gallery bear little resemblance to that basic hue. Color explodes off the walls and displays as hand-crafted art from Western North Carolina takes center stage. Jim and his partner, Steve Key, curate the work in their gallery by finding western North Carolina artists and developing relationships with them. Find decorative, functional, whimsical, and vibrant all in one place.
Take a short stroll down the street to Wilkes County Hardware (324 10th St.). This family-owned hardware store still operates much as it did when it first opened in the 1940s. The building was first a chicken processing plant, and when it transitioned to a hardware store some of its main clients were moonshiners. Now it serves as a hardware store and a community gathering place, but it also showcases handmade crafts and foods, much of which come straight from Wilkes County. Stop in for a dose of history and a breadth of local craft products.
Round out the Wilkes County loop in North Wilkesboro at Wilkes Art Gallery (913 C Street). Here visitors can enjoy monthly exhibits featuring at least three media in a stately brick building that once served as the post office. Each year these exhibitions feature 100 artists from Western North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and South Carolina. Four classrooms support daily classes, monthly workshops, and summer art camps.
Events Not to Miss
Music and Events
- Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame (located at the Wilkes County Heritage Museum)
- Carolina in the Fall Music & Food Festival
- Apple Festival
- WCC Garden of the Senses
- Environmental Education Center at W. Kerr Scott Dam
- Rendezvous Mountain Educational State Forest