MANY VISITORS TO THE OLD NORTH STATE ARE SURPRISED BY THE SENSATION OF STEPPING INTO HISTORY THAT ENVELOPS THEM UPON ARRIVAL. YET IT SHOULD BE NO SURPRISE; WHILE ITS NEIGHBORS TO THE NORTH AND SOUTH HAVE BETTER-KNOWN HISTORIES, NORTH CAROLINA, HOME TO THE FIRST ENGLISH SETTLEMENT IN NORTH AMERICA, HAS A HISTORY AS RICH AND VARIED AS ITS GEOGRAPHY.
That geography is some of the most interesting in America. In the western part of the state are the highest mountains in the eastern U.S., divided into three chains -- the Appalachian, Blue Ridge and Great Smokey mountains -- and some of the best hiking in the country, including more than 200 miles of the Appalachian Trail. In the central region, or Heartland, the low, rolling hills of the Piedmont offer wonderful fishing, boating and golfing opportunities. From Cape Hatteras in the north to Wilmington in the south, North Carolina's white, sandy beaches are some of the finest on the Atlantic coast. They are kissed by the Gulf Stream at its closest approach to land and are excellent for ocean fishing. Reaching any of these regions presents no difficulty -- the state has 78,000 miles of paved road, more than any other in the country.
Just as unique as the state's geography are its inhabitants. North Carolinians revel in festivals and events celebrating their traditions and hospitality. Spivey's Corner holds the annual National Hollerin' Contest, while Morehead City has the Bald Is Beautiful convention every year. Delicious local foods are the focus of the Mount Olive Pickle Festival, Lexington's Barbecue Festival and the Sneads Ferry Annual Shrimp Festival.
TRAILING NORTH CAROLINA'S MOUNTAIN HERITAGE
The rugged mountain regions of the western part of the state are steeped not only in beauty, but in history as well. Home to more than 120 different species of trees, including the oldest stand of virgin timber in the eastern U.S. (in Joyce Kilmer National Forest, where some of the trees are more than 2,000 years old), the mountains also contain beautiful gorges and waterfalls, including the 411-foot, two-tiered Whitewater Falls. It was here in 1799 that gold was first discovered in the U.S. In fact, until the Sutter's Mill gold began to come east in 1848, North Carolina was the nation's leader in gold production. Recent discovery of a rich vein of emeralds in Alexander County is more proof of the state's mineral wealth.
North Carolina's 760 hiking trails total nearly 2,400 miles of wilderness exploration, with camping permitted along all of the trails. In Pisgah National Forest, the Art Loeb trail, a strenuous 30-mile hike equipped with shelters and other conveniences, includes both the impressive Catawba Falls (at the headwaters of the Catawba River) and the 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain in the eastern U.S. It is ideal for anyone seeking an extended hiking experience.
North Carolina's first inhabitants, the Cherokee, remain in the mountain region on the Cherokee Reservation. The Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, a co-op founded in 1946 by tribal craftsmen, is a respected source of quality Native American crafts, offering works from 300 artists. The reservation itself offers a chance to experience firsthand the culture, traditions and history of the Cherokee, including a walk along the Trail of Tears and the outdoor drama Unto These Hills (performed from June to August), which is about their tragic history.
HOSPITALITY IN THE HEARTLAND
The gently rolling hills of the Piedmont region form the central part of the state. Charlotte, the largest city in North Carolina -- and though hundreds of miles from the shore, the location of the Confederate Naval Yards during the Civil War -- is situated at the southern end of the Piedmont, with the high-tech industries of the Research Triangle Park in the north. Sharing the resources and talents of the universities that form the three points of the triangle -- Duke University in Durham, North Carolina State University at Raleigh and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- the Triangle is an internationally renowned research and development center. …