As a child, there was one place more than all the rest that I felt my true self. One place where my wild and free spirit could wander free, roaming through wildflower fields picking berries, stepping barefoot in cool mountain creeks, and climbing moss-covered mountainsides. One place that felt like coming home.
That place was Valle Crucis, North Carolina.
My family moved around a few times when I was young, but we always had one constant; our mountain house in Valle Crucis. It wasn’t anything fancy. There was no television or phone, and it was long before the days of the internet. The house was heated by a wood stove and cooled by the breath of air coming off the mountain. The simplicity of that place set the stage for some of my happiest memories.
And now, I get to share that simple joy with my own kids every time we visit Grandpa. To watch them explore the places that make my heart sing is nothing short of magic. These were some of our favorite explorations from our most recent trip. If you choose to visit the tiny town of Valle Crucis, you won’t regret it.
The small town of Valle Crucis boasts one of the most beautiful parks around. Spread across the valley, it holds the typical swings and playgrounds, but also sports fields, a biking/running trail, a bio-diverse pond, river play area, carved wooden statues, and a village of playhouses (my kids’ personal favorite). All of this without feeling crowded or developed. Encircled by the Blue Ridge Mountains, the park has done a beautiful job maintaining it’s natural flow and preserving the existing environment while providing ample recreation opportunities. The park relies primarily on donations, and the community support to keep this incredible place thriving speaks to the heart of the Valle itself. There are a variety of events and programs throughout the year, but our personal favorite is Music in the Valle. If you find yourself in the region on a summer Friday night, you won’t want to miss this chance to dance and play to great music, spread out with a picnic, and make a few friends.
After running around at the park or hiking in the mountains, the Watauga River that weaves through Valle Crucis is the perfect place to cool off. Crystal clear water runs over multi-colored pebbles, providing a fantastic hangout for trout, salamanders, and happy children. There are plenty of companies that coordinate longer tubing excursions in the area, but for my little ones, a couple of cheap tubes from Target did the trick. Putting in at the beach area of the Valle Crucis Park, we’d float a couple hundred feet before wading out, walking over rocks on the far side of the shore, climbing back in the water and doing it all over again. Or, my kids had just as much fun ditching the tubes and playing in the current or splashing along the shoreline. Hours spent meandering around the river are the kind of simple fun that happy memories are made of.
The Mast General Store has become a staple throughout the southeast, carrying outdoor gear and traditional wares in it’s nine locations. But the original Mast Store, founded in 1883, is located in the heart of Valle Crucis and still brings many visitors to the area today. Walk across the uneven wood floors of the beautiful historic building, catching a glimpse of the past in the belly of the wood stove of the ornate detailing on the post office boxes. As a kid, I remember visiting the Mast Store and getting to pick out a soda in a glass bottle – such a treat! Today, I still can’t resist a cold bottle of Cheerwine. And my kids can’t help wandering in every nook and cranny of the rambling old store, excitedly admiring colorful t-shirts and old-timey toys and local baked goods and provisions.
Conveniently located just up the the dirt drive from the park, The Candy Barrel offers a place to refuel with some old-fashioned treats. Connected to the Mast Store Annex (a store housing more clothes and gear from Mast), the candy barrel is filled with old wooden barrels lined with red and white checkered cloth and bursting with every type of candy any child, young or old, could dream of. There are old favorites from childhoods past: Charleston Chews and wax bottles and Necco wafers and rock candy, nestled alongside more modern staples. When I visited Valle Crucis as a child, it was always a special treat after days out exploring to fill a basket with my favorite candies, have them weighed at the register and then slid into a crisp white paper bag with the signature red marking. Coming full circle, this was my kids’ first trip where they got to pick their own treats at this magical store. After weeding through the many options, my girls eagerly grasped they Candy Barrel bags with the evidence of a day spent digging in the creek.
The creeks that weave through Valle Crucis are woven into my soul. With their wandering nature, gentle rhythm, welcoming mossy rocks, and the way they daringly cascade into gorgeous waterfalls, they seem to mimic my nature (or I theirs). Watching my kids wander down the same trails I enjoyed, fearlessly climbing mossy mountainsides, their eyes lighting up when we stumbled upon a waterfall hidden deep in the forest was my favorite part of this trip. While I can’t reveal my very favorite place to hike in Valle Crucis, since it’s on private land, I can say that the area has some hidden gems to hike and some beautiful waterfalls. One spot we love is Crab Orchard Falls. A short but sweet hike, you set off from the Valle Crucis Conference Center (ample parking) and climb the manageable 1.4 miles to view the falls. Personally, I find Valle Crucis hiking to be less crowded and more relaxed fun than some of the populated spots in Boone, Blowing Rock, or Banner Elk.
Honorable Mention: I could probably fill an entire post with just the places we eat ice cream along our trips, but the sweet shack of Dutch Creek Ice Cream deserves some attention. Located right along a meandering creek, between the park and the Mast Annex (Yes, right next to the Candy Barrel. We do love our sweets!), it’s just a small wooden shack that serves a delicious assortment of flavors with ample scoops. Sit at a shaded picnic table or climb along the rocks and creek bank. The cool creek is the perfect spot to rinse off stick fingers afterward.