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Discover the Great Outdoors in Wilkes County

June 15, 2022 at 11:09 AM

Discover the Great Outdoors in Wilkes County

“We’re close to three major metropolitan areas. You don’t have to drive all the way into the High Country to enjoy the great outdoors in a mountainous setting.” – Chris Johnson, Foothills Outdoor Adventures

It’s 6 p.m. on a Wednesday when Jim Horton hits the Warrior Creek Trail, an exhilarating mountain bike ride just outside Wilkesboro, North Carolina. “It’s our crown jewel,” Horton says. “It feels like a roller coaster! It’s well thought out, with each section flowing into another.” Considered one of the best mountain biking trails in the U.S., it’s just one of many outdoor activities in Wilkes County, a rural Blue Ridge Mountain community.

Just ask Micah Dunlevy, a runner and cyclist. He has lived here for 22 years and still not run out of adventures. “If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, Wilkes County has some tremendous stuff to do.”

Wilkes is 90 minutes east of the High Country tourist towns and 90 minutes northwest of Charlotte. It’s still relatively under the radar, making it ideal for anyone seeking to escape crowds.

Achieve a State of MTB Bliss

Wilkes’ reputation as a mountain biking destination is by design. Jim Horton spearheaded the creation of nearly 40 miles of trails.  “Wilkes now has a little over 60 miles of trails. Each has a different feel. Some have bermed and banked turns and a higher level of technical difficulty.”


Warrior Creek, for example, connects to the spoke-shaped Headwaters Hub Trail, which Horton calls one of the “prettiest trails in our area.” Headwaters has several sections of varying lengths, including the “Drop, Hop, and Roll” flow trail. “It’s completely downhill with some big bermed turns and several jumps,” Horton says.


Back in 2001, when Horton first envisioned the county as a mountain biking destination, there was little momentum. That has changed, due to his efforts, a town manager who’s also a cyclist, and two organizations that use, maintain, and promote the trails. “Trails put us on the map. There’s a surprising quality and quantity here within a small area. People are moving here just to be close to the trails,” Horton says.


Not one to rest on his laurels, he’s particularly excited about Rendezvous Mountain, a trail under development. “It’s a bigger mountain with higher terrain; a great set-up for a two-to-three-mile downhill run. As the trail system expands, it could potentially have several more miles of very long downhill runs people can shuttle to.”


Biking in the Blue Ridge is particularly scenic around W. Kerr Scott Reservoir outside Wilkesboro. The lake boasts more than 40 miles of single track built by mountain bikers, with more under  construction.


Not quite up to jetting around twists and turns? Horton recommends Cub Creek Park, where wooded trails cross a cantilever bridge. “It’s a family-friendly in-town trail. A lot of people use it on their lunch hour or after work,” Horton says. And don’t miss Yadkin River Greenway, a 7.5-mile multi-use trail that’s mostly flat, and safe and scenic for all riders. You’ll even find bike repair and tire air stations along the way.


While Wilkes is famous for mountain biking, road cyclists enjoy 15 different routes with directional signage along the Wilkes County Bike Route.



Brushy Mountain Cyclists Club

Northwest North Carolina Mountain Bike Alliance

Trail Forks app: Download this app and Horton promises “You’ll never be lost even if you don’t have a (cell phone) signal.”

Cook’s Outfitters: Visit this downtown Wilkesboro shop for bike rentals, repairs, equipment, and trail maps.

Anchor Coffee Company: This cyclist-owned coffee shop is a great place to meet and greet other riders.


Lace up Your Boots and Hit the Hiking Trails

Where in Wilkes will you find yourself hiking? Admiring a 60-foot cascade known as Carter Falls? More than 4,000 feet above sea level at Tompkins Knob? On a trail hugging the shoreline of a serene lake?


Wherever you roam, you’ll find a hiker’s haven. “Wilkes County has a diversity of hiking trails a lot of places lack,” says Bob Hilliard, trail development manager for the Elkin Valley Trails Association. Hilliard has through-hiked the Appalachian Trail and followed Spain’s Camino de Santiago. “Wilkes is as diverse as the Camino, as far as seeing different things along the trails,” Hilliard says.


Whether you’re a casual hiker who prefers a flat, in-town path or a distance hiker seeking solitude and rugged terrain, you’ll find it here. If your outing needs a destination, “We have trails leading to seven waterfalls over 30 feet high,” Hilliard says. The forest bathing trail leaving from Grassy Creek Vineyard is good for solo hikers. In a social mood? Hike from one vineyard to another on the eastern side of the county. There’s even something for history buffs. The Trails Association leads group hikes every autumn to old moonshine stills. “We’ve found at least 160 stills in the woods,” Hilliard says.


There are miles of trails to explore, and more being developed on the 297-acre Lassiter and Thurmond Chatham property. Many are multi-use, with mountain bikers and equestrians sharing the trail. The Overmountain Victory State Trail and Mountains-to-Sea State Trail also run through Wilkes.


At the center of the county, W. Kerr Scott Reservoir has about 40 miles of trails. Six miles follow the Overmountain Victory State Trail, with the trailhead starting at Bandits Roost Campground.

Looking for an easy stroll? Explore the Yadkin River Greenway. It connects historic Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro as it traces the river’s path. Close by, Cub Creek Park’s 1.6-mile loop welcomes walkers of all abilities. The Elkin and Alleghany Rail Trail is another option. Built over a historic railbed, the paved “E and A” is eight feet wide, a feature that makes it a “social trail”. On any given day, you may encounter hikers, joggers, parents pushing strollers, and dog walkers.

Calling All Climbers

Aspire to new heights? The county is an excellent base camp for rock climbers. “Wilkes is within 30 minutes to two hours to 40 to 50 bouldering areas. We’re surrounded by a tremendous variety of rock, including limestone, quartzite, and granite. Each has its own style of climbing,” says Jim Horton, an outdoor enthusiast. The granite he’s referring to is a 600-foot cliff face at Stone Mountain State Park, which Horton says has “an incredible boulder field” for those who aren’t up to scaling the cliff but want to enjoy bouldering closer to earth.

Saddle up for Adventure

For Abbie Hanchey, there’s no better way to experience the mountains than on horseback. Her 4,000-acre Leatherwood Mountain Resort celebrates the equestrian lifestyle with 75 miles of bridal and hiking trails. “When you’re here, you often feel like the only person on earth,” Hanchey says.


Hanchey and her partner Trevor Whitson built their lives around Leatherwood, and what a nice life it is. About 40 vacation rental homes are tucked among forests, rushing streams, and mountain vistas. Equestrians can board their steed at the spacious stables or reserve a horse from the Equestrian Center for a guided ride. Would-be riders can sign up for lessons, and no one is too little to ride. The resort’s trained horse handlers offer one-on-one lead-line rides for kids (and nervous adults.) You don’t have to stay at the resort to book a ride. “We’re open to the public for year-round horseback riding,” Hanchey says.


Whether you’re want to ride, relax, or both, vacationing here is easier than in some busy High Country towns. “It’s a wonderful place to bring your family and unplug for the weekend. Driving Highway 421, you crest a hill and Wilkes County is laid out before you. You see Grandfather Mountain flanked by the Brushy Mountains. It’s sheer beauty,” Hanchey says.


A Paddler’s Paradise

As you dip and pull your paddle through the Yadkin River’s celadon green currents, songbirds warble from the treetops. Navigating around a bend, you spot a deer peering cautiously from the riverbank before it bounds back into the woods. Just as suddenly, a kingfisher plunges into the river and emerges with a wriggling fish clenched in its bill.


It’s a brief, but memorable moment, one of many you’ll experience in this paddler’s paradise. “The Yadkin River runs through towns, but you don’t know that when you’re on the river. People are surprised at how pretty it is and the amount of wildlife here,” says Chris Johnson, who runs Foothills Outdoors Adventures.

With two navigable rivers and a 1,475-acre lake, there’s plenty of water for kayaks, canoes, and standup paddleboards. There are six small craft launches along the Yadkin, one on the Roaring River, and two on W. Kerr Scott Reservoir.

Up the creek without a paddle? Rent everything you need from Johnson or Roaring River Canoe Rentals. If you dream of floating gently down the stream, the Foothills folks are “the exclusive source for river tubs” – not tubes. Envision a floating inflatable tub that seats eight and you get the idea.

On the eastern side of the county near Elkin, the Yadkin River State Blueway Trail is a family-friendly adventure. Stretching 125 miles along the Yadkin River basin, it’s a prime spot for paddling, swimming, fishing, and camping.

Centrally located W. Kerr Scott Reservoir (or the lake, as locals call it) offers peaceful paddling. “There’s little chance of getting swamped by speedboats. The lake is not big enough for those boats to gather great speed and it’s not crowded,” says local fishing guide Patrick Brondos. Best of all, you’ll never need to portage your boat over rocks or trees. “The Army Corps of Engineers manages the lake’s water level,” Johnson says.

It's all easily accessible, too. “We’re close to three major metropolitan areas of North Carolina. You don’t have to drive all the way up into the High Country to enjoy the great outdoors in a mountainous setting,” Johnson says.


Cycle and Paddle (

The Lure of the Lake: Fishing and Boating

Patrick Brondos grew up in sunny California near the Pacific Ocean, but Wilkes County has all the water he needs. “I love Wilkes. I wanted to move to the South for bass fishing. You can fish 365 days a year here – we catch some of the biggest fish in winter,” says Brondos, who built a fishing and tour guide service in his adopted home. “People are surprised at the number of species in the lake – everything from hybrid striped bass to crappie, carp, bluegill, and small mouth bass.”

He's referring to W. Kerr Scott Reservoir. At 1,475 acres, there’s ample space to claim a fishing hole. “There are plenty of coves to anchor off in where you’re not in someone’s backyard. When I get people out there, they say, ‘I had no idea how pretty this is,’” Brondos says.

The beauty of fishing with Brondos is not only his knowledge (he lives at the lake), but the ease of the experience. He supplies everything you need except a fishing license. “People can roll into town without gear and still have a great fishing trip,” Brondos says. He offers two-, four-, and six-hour trips. “Four hours is the sweet spot. It’s the perfect amount of time.” Many people book tours with Brondos just to learn how to use sonar fishfinders and other electronic gear.

Even if you don’t bag a prize bass, there’s something about being on the lake that soothes the soul. Autumn is especially scenic. “There’s spectacular fall color with the maples, oaks, and hickories,” Brondos says.

In summer, those same trees envelop the lake in a shimmering emerald circle. “The lake has a green tinge from the reflection of so many trees,” says Chris Johnson. “Dip a mason jar in and it comes up clean and clear.” Johnson rents kayaks, canoes, and standup paddleboards through Foothills Outdoor Adventures.

The lake is ideal for boaters seeking peace, not parties. “It’s big enough for waterskiing and wakeboarding, but not so big that you encounter racing speedboats,” Brondos says. He also offers lake tours for those who aren’t out to fish.

With all the buzz around bass fishing and tournaments, fly fishing is not forgotten. There are more than 17 miles of designated trout waters in Stone Mountain State Park. A short walk from downtown Wilkesboro, Cub Creek Stream is a designated and stocked trout fishing waterway. It’s easy to test your luck, even if you don’t have gear. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) offers a three-day fishing license and a free loaner rod and reel through their Tackle Loaner Program.

Hunting in the Hills

Hunting has been a way of life here since Native Americans called these hills home. “There’s bountiful game, including squirrel, rabbit, deer, and turkey,” says Chris Dancy, who has hunted locally for nearly 40 years. It’s the plentiful game, especially deer, that makes this area special among North Carolina destinations. Thanks to good game management, it’s not unusual for sportsmen and women to take home a trophy deer.

Because access to private land is restricted, Dancy says North Carolina’s public game lands are your best bet. “I’d start with Thurmond-Chatham Game Land, a large block in the northern end of the county. There are camping opportunities there, too, if you want to make a weekend of it.” Thurmond-Chatham spans 6,520 acres and two counties. The 520-acre Kerr Scott Game Land is another popular option. Hunting is also allowed in Wildlife Management Areas co-managed by the Army Corps of Engineers and North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC). Rifle, muzzle load, and bow hunting are allowed with a license.


The NCWRC website features information about hunting licenses, seasons, public hunting areas, game land maps, and other resources.

Duncan Gun Shop offers an indoor shooting range, locally made game calls, and a large selection of firearms and ammunition.

Birding in the Blue Ridge

If you prefer to shoot with a camera, visit our nine sites on the North Carolina Birding Trail. Each is as environmentally diversified as a birder could wish. Amateurs and experts can pursue the hobby next to rivers, lakes, deep in hardwood forests or from the lofty heights of a mountain overlook.

At Stone Mountain State Park, you might be lucky enough to spot a scarlet tanager or ruffed grouse. Come springtime, the underbrush along Thurmond Chatham Game Land trails may shelter an indigo bunting or Swainson’s thrush. W. Kerr Scott Reservoir attracts waterfowl you don’t expect in the Appalachian Mountains. Sandpipers and gulls find food and shelter along the shoreline. And nothing matches the thrill of seeing thousands of raptors migrate over Mahogany Rock, mid-August through November.


To learn more about local birding hotspots, field trips, and other bird-related resources, check out the High Country Audubon chapter.


A Swing and a Toss

Wilkes County doesn’t disappoint, whether you like traditional or newer forms of golf. “Rolling Pines is one of the top disc golf courses in North Carolina,” says Jim Horton, an outdoor enthusiast. He’s referring to Rolling Pines Disc Golf Course (, ranked second in North Carolina and 24th in the world by UDisc, a popular app. A late comer to the golfing scene, disc golf is played on a course, but the similarity ends there. Players toss a thin plastic disc aiming to sink it into a wire basket. It requires strength, coordination, and a good throwing arm. At Rolling Pines, players compete among 70-plus acres of woods and mountain views, aiming for targets named for local landmarks. The free public course is adjacent to a campground and open year-round except during major events such as Merle Fest in April.

Prefer putting? Experienced golfers enjoy the affordable serenity of Stone Mountain Golf Club, an 18-hole course near Traphill. Just outside North Wilkesboro, Rock Creek Country Club features 18-holes of public golf, with a course rating of 70 and a slope rating of 117.

Pick up the Pace with Pickleball

Wilkes County has embraced a sport that’s gathering momentum, especially among older adults. In late 2021, the city of Wilkesboro opened six new courts dedicated to pickleball, one of the fastest growing sports in America. Located in ever-popular Cub Creek Park, the courts hum with activity throughout the year. People of all abilities are welcome. Local pickleball player David Wiles teaches a free clinic on Wednesday mornings from 8-10 a.m. (weather permitting). For more information, contact [email protected]. Northern Hills Tennis and Pickleball Club in North Wilkesboro also offers classes, welcoming people from “age 5 to 80” to join the fun.


The View from Above: Paragliding and Star Gazing

Imagine floating above the mountains on a summer evening. The sun slips below the horizon, revealing an incredible bird’s eye view of the ancient Appalachians. You’re not dreaming, you’re paragliding. “People expect to feel thrilled sailing through the air; they’re not expecting the peacefulness. Paragliding is a wonderful way to view the Blue Ridge Mountains,” says Merin Sazinas. The passionate paraglider owns Sky Retreat with her husband Dimitrijus or “Dimi”. “We bought the 30-acre property because it was so well-suited for paragliding,” she says. “We then developed Sky Retreat to bring families together to create special memories.”

Paragliding differs from hang gliding in ways that warm a beginner’s heart. “It’s a larger, but more compact structure that’s easier to fly and maneuver under different conditions,” Sazinas says.

Wilkes County is on the forefront of this new sport. “Paragliding is very popular on the West Coast where I’m from, and in Europe where Dimi is from, but still gaining in popularity on the East Coast. Wilkes is one of the few places in North Carolina where you can paraglide,” Sazinas says.

Sky Retreat offers tandem paragliding flights that pair you with trained, certified pilots who have flown around the world. With expert instructors, a spacious launch, and a beginner-friendly landing zone, it’s the perfect place to reinvent your next vacation. Experienced paragliders can book solo flights. Lessons are also available.

Wilkes’ mild climate makes the sport enjoyable nearly year-round, though late March to December offer the best conditions.

To schedule a flight, call Blue Ridge Paragliding at 704-907-6963.

With its self-contained tiny home vacation rentals, Sky Retreat is a launching point for outdoor recreation. It’s one mile off the Blue Ridge Parkway, 30 minutes from ski slopes, and 10 minutes to river tubing and paddling. When you work up an appetite playing outside, whip up a meal in your cabin kitchen or explore the fine dining options in nearby Boone or Blowing Rock.

It’s also a great spot to kick back and relax. “People really recharge here. We have a long- range panoramic view of the mountains during the day and the Milky Way at night,” Sazinas says. As you relax on the spacious grounds, watch for “butterflies in the sky” paragliding overhead. Take the kids to the petting zoo and roast s’mores around a fire pit. Ready for a romantic getaway? Book ballroom lessons taught by Merin and Dimi Sazinas and dance under the stars.

While there, visit the Dark Sky Observatory just down the road. It’s a rare opportunity to view celestial sites free from city lights. “The observatory is located in a fairly dark part of North Carolina, far from large cities,” says Daniel Caton, Ph.D. Dr. Caton is a professor and director of observatories for Appalachian State University. The public can join Dr. Caton and other astronomers at the observatory for monthly in-person or online viewing events. Event information and general information is available at their Public Access page.

A Gnarly Ride: Rev Up for Motor Sports

Adrenaline runs high every weekend as ATVs and dirt bikes navigate 100-plus miles of trails at Brushy Mountain Motor Sports Park. Known as a “hard enduro heaven”, the 1,700-acre Park has a cult following with weekend riders and professionals who travel here from around the world. Many consider it the East Coast’s best ride. Intermediate to expert riders can push their skills to the limit here, and supervised, accompanied children are welcome, but read the Park’s rules before bringing the kids.

At 2,500 feet above sea level, the Park’s heavily wooded, mountainous trails climb and descend throughout the property. More than half are single track. Riders take note: Dirt bikes can navigate around the ruts and rocks on the shorter 25.5-mile trail. Depending on conditions, this trail might be too difficult for Side by Side and 4 x 4 quads.

The family-owned operation lets riders to make the most of their time here with park passes for one, two, or three days, as well as showers and primitive camping.

Family-friendly Outings

Of all the destinations in North Carolina, Wilkes is one of the most family friendly. Our warm, wholesome atmosphere puts parents and kids at ease. As river outfitter Chris Johnson says, “People are here to enjoy the scenery. They’re not here to party.”

Anna Garner moved here a few years ago with her family. She’s excited to be part of the community. “The county has invested a lot of money into children’s activities. They’re putting in lots of things for young families,” Garner says.

The vibe and variety of activities make Wilkes an obvious choice for your next family vacation. Start by pushing a stroller or riding bikes along scenic Yadkin River Greenway. It’s easy. Just rent bikes from Cook’s Outfitters in downtown Wilkesboro and pedal a couple minutes to the Greenway. Afterwards, grab lunch at one of several cafés. Teens appreciate our free Wi-Fi zone in the Community Commons Park, and come summer, little ones love the splash pad in front of Wilkes Heritage Museum. May through August, check out the Movies on Main events downtown. They are free and appropriate for all ages.

Wilkesboro’s Cub Creek Park will soon feature a state-of-the-art inclusive playground. A feast for the senses, the playground is designed for all ages and abilities, with climbing equipment, swings, a trampoline, music therapy, a sensory garden, and kinetic sculptures.

North Wilkesboro’s Smoot Park was also created for families. Kids enjoy the pool, playground, and four adventure activities. Nearby, the North Wilkesboro Skateboard Park “street skate” features include railings, grinds, ramps, and a picnic table and bench for parents.

Depending on the age of your kids, consider planning a future outing to North Wilkesboro Speedway. The community’s “We want you back” rallying cry is driving the push to reopen the historic racetrack. Check the website for opening day updates.

If your kids still believe in magic and “talking trees”, take them to Rendezvous Mountain Educational State Forest. Seven trees along a forest trail tell tales of ecology and local history through recorded messages. It’s a fun trek for all ages. The trail is only 0.6 miles long and has benches for tired toddlers. Be sure to pack a picnic. After exploring this living classroom, you can grill out at the picnic area.

Don’t stop there. You’ll find more fun, teachable moments at W. Kerr Scott Reservoir Environmental Education Center. Located at the Visitor Assistance Center, the ADA-accessible facility lets kids touch, feel, hear, and see local wildlife and habitat. “It’s a totally immersive experience,” says Operations Project Manager Thomas Nicholson. “Kids can crawl through a beaver hut, explore soil diversity, and learn about pollinators and other wildlife.” The Center is open weekends or by appointment during weekdays.

Speaking of accessible adventures, don’t miss the Doc Watson Garden of the Senses on the campus of Wilkes Community College. It’s free and open to the public, sunrise to sunset. A far cry from a “look, don’t touch” museum, the garden is a tactile experience created for people of any visual ability. Many plants are identified by Braille signs and have distinct textures and fragrances. Kids appreciate the serpentine brick wall with its “Nature’s Alphabet” and “Tree of Memories” sculptures. The alphabet sculptures begin with “A” for armadillo, all the way through “Z” for zebra.

If your children are too young to manage a kayak or canoe excursion, rent a family-size “tub” from Foothills Outdoor Adventures and float along the Yadkin River. It’s exciting but safe for any age, says outfitter Chris Johnson. “My oldest participant was a 92-year-old grandmother. Her grandkids really wanted her to go. She was afraid because she never learned to swim. I told her, ‘Do one thing and you’ll be safe. Stand up if you get dumped out. The river is only four feet deep.’” There’s no white water on the Yadkin, so it’s a gentle introduction to river recreation.

From sailing through the sky to rolling down rivers, mountain biking rugged trails, or strolling city parks, our outdoor activities are limited only by your imagination. Find your fun in Wilkes County and you’ll soon discover you just can’t fit everything in on one vacation.

By Nancy Moreland