The 15 Best Things to Do in Burnsville NC

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Located about 35 miles northeast of Asheville and 40 miles southwest of Banner Elk, the town of Burnsville NC has long lived in the shadow of its more famous neighbors. 
 
In fact, when we told a friend who lives near Boone that we were headed to Burnsville for a 4-day visit, his first reaction was, “Why?”
 
It’s a fair question: Burnsville’s reputation as a hotbed of tourism is still in the burgeoning “hidden gem” stage.
 
But as we explore the Blue Ridge Mountains in search of our future home, we’re also rediscovering small town America. It has given us a much greater appreciation for the natural beauty that mountain towns like Burnsville have to offer. 
 
The tiny town (pop. 1900+) is surrounded by the Black Mountains, which is home to the largest peaks east of the Mississippi. They include the 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, the 6,647-foot Mount Craig, and the 6,327-foot Celo Knob. 
 
There’s also the fertile Toe River Valley, wondrous waterfalls such as Crabtree Falls and Roaring Fork Falls, and the Appalachian Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest.
 
So naturally there are numerous campgrounds, native trout streams, hiking trails, and even a black bear sanctuary to explore. 
 
But there are plenty of other Burnsville attractions, even if outdoor recreation isn’t your thing. From the myriad shops and restaurants in Downtown Burnsville to the Toe River Arts scene, stargazing at the Mayland Earth to Sky Park, and driving numerous Quilt Trails, this small town has an awful lot to offer visitors. 
 
Read on for our guide to the best things to do in Burnsville NC, and find out why we think this once-sleepy mountain town deserves to be on your Western North Carolina radar!
 
 
Burnsville NC Town Hall Street View
Burnsville NC Town Hall

Things to Do in Burnsville NC Guide

  1. Explore Downtown Burnsville
  2. Dine at Burnsville Restaurants 
  3. Visit Mt Mitchell State Park
  4. Walk in the Woods With Snakeroot Ecotours
  5. Hike to Crabtree Falls 
  6. Climb the Blue Ridge Pinnacle Trail 
  7. Get Cultured with the Toe River Arts Council
  8. Hike to Roaring Fork Falls
  9. See Stars at the Mayland Earth to Sky Park
  10. Drive the Burnsville Quilt Trails
  11. Family Fun at Emerald Village 
  12. Spend a Day in Little Switzerland 
  13. Have a Picnic at Setrock Creek Falls
  14. Visit the Penland School of Craft
  15. Get Away From It All at Yummy Mud Puddle

 

Otway Burns Statue in Downtown Burnsville
Otway Burns Statue in Downtown Burnsville

1. Explore Downtown Burnsville

To get a good feel for the town of Burnsville NC, head to the two-acre Town Square in Downtown Burnsville.

There you’ll find a statue of Otway Burns, the swashbuckling privateer (who became one of North Carolina‘s first naval heroes in the War of 1812) for whom the town was named. He later became a politician, serving seven terms in the NC house and four in the senate.

The square is home to the Yancey County Farmers’ Market and an array of Burnsville festivals (including the Mount Mitchell Crafts Fair in August and the Old Time Fall Festival in September).  

The four Main Streets (N, S, E, and W) surrounding the square are the heart of the Downtown Burnsville business district. There you’ll find loads of quaint shops, the Burnsville Visitor Center, the Yancey History Association Museum, and many of the best Burnsville restaurants

It’s easy to walk this entire area, which is relatively quiet on weekdays but bustling with activity on the weekends. Saturdays are especially hopping when the weather is nice, with live music and lots of outdoor dining options. 

READ MORE: The 25 Best Things to Do in Asheville NC

Homeplace Beer Company Exterior
Homeplace Beer Company Exterior

2. Dine at Burnsville Restaurants 

The Burnsville restaurant scene seems to be small, but growing as the town sees an influx of newcomers. And while it’s mostly American fare, there’s a good bit of diversity in terms of the general vibe. 
 
Established in 1987, the Garden Deli attracts an older crowd, with a menu that focuses on NY-style deli sandwiches and entrees such as steak, ribs, and fried shrimp. The same owners also run the Snap Dragon, a great gastropub (named after one of Otway Burns’ ships) with an excellent, intimate patio space. 
 
Located just around the corner, Appalachian Java is Burnsville’s best coffee shop/bakery. This place was packed even on a weekday morning, but our takeout sandwiches were delicious despite a lengthy wait. 
 
Our favorite restaurants in Burnsville were Pig & Grits and the Homeplace Beer Co.
 
Pig & Grits offers gourmet BBQ and Southern fare. Their smoked meats were fall-off-the-bone tender and intensely flavorful (try the Cherry Bourbon BBQ sauce!), while sides such as BBQ Street Corn, Pigtails (aka House Chips), and Banana Pudding knocked our socks off. 
 
Homeplace started as a brewery, but expanded to a massive new location in 2020 and added an awesome menu by Hog Hollow Wood-Fired Pizza. Their pizza, pretzels, and wings were exceptional, as was the family-friendly vibe, which included live music, Cornhole, a fire pit, picnic tables, and an open park-like setting. 
 
 
View from the Summit of Mount Mitchell NC
View from the Summit of Mount Mitchell

3. Visit Mount Mitchell State Park

Burnsville promotes itself as the “Home of Mount Mitchell,” and it’s easy to see why the 6,684-foot peak (the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi) gets top billing here. 

One of our favorite Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks (MM 355), Mount Mitchell State Park features seven trails spanning some 20+ miles.

The Mount Mitchell hiking trails range in difficulty from short, easy-to-moderate treks like the 0.75-mile Balsam Nature Trail Loop and the 4-mile round-trip Commissary Trail to the strenuous Deep Gap Trail (8.6 miles round-trip) and the Old Mitchell Trail (4.4 miles round-trip). 

But the most popular Mt Mitchell hikes by far are the easy 0.3-mile round-trip Summit Trail and the difficult Mount Mitchell Trail. The latter climbs 6 miles (one way!) from the Black Mountain Campground to the summit, taking hikers through a gorgeous stretch of the Pisgah National Forest.

After soaking in the spectacular views from the summit, make time to visit the picturesque picnic grounds near the summit parking lot. There are two picnic shelters with fireplaces, as well as 40 tables, stone grills, and drinking water.

READ MORE: The Top 15 NC State Parks in the North Carolina Mountains

4. Walk in the Woods With Snakeroot Ecotours

We honestly had no idea what to expect from our “Spring Ephemerals” walk with Snakeroot Ecotours.

That’s because founder Tal Galton, a naturalist who follows the Leave No Trace principles, wants to protect the 1100-acre Toe River Valley land trust on which he guides visitors from the ravages of mass tourism

It was easy to understand why. During our 2-hour walk on the outskirts of the Pisgah National Forest, we saw an array of spectacular flora and fauna that included an array of gorgeous North Carolina wildflowers.

From tiny Bluets and Putty Root Orchids to Yellow and Pink Lady Slippers, Rhododendron, Showy Orchids, and a dazzling field full of Flame Azaleas, the guided hike offered an excellent introduction to local flowers. 

And from Bear Corn and Reishi Mushrooms to Lungless Salamanders and an array of birds, it was easy to see why Galton loves helping guests see the details of the temperate forest through his eyes.

READ MORE: Visiting the Cradle of Forestry in Pisgah National Forest

How to Get to Crabtree Falls - Sisters at Crabtree Falls
Crabtree Falls, photo by Emma Gallagher

5. Hike to Crabtree Falls 

Located near Emerald Village Gem Mines, about two-thirds of the way to Little Switzerland, Crabtree Falls easily tops our list of the most spectacular waterfalls near Burnsville. 

There are two options for getting to Crabtree Falls: The two-mile out-and-back trail is the easiest, with a downhill trek through a lovely thicket of Rhododendron to the base of the beautiful falls, then a more strenuous return trip uphill. 

But there’s also a slightly longer loop trail that, though slightly more difficult to ascend on the way back, includes some stunning forest scenery after crossing over Crabtree Creek. 

Either way you go, you’ll want to make sure to leave some time for soaking in the stunning sight of the 70-foot waterfall tumbling over the rock face into a boulder-strewn pool below.

We recommend taking a picnic lunch, sprawling out on some of the larger rocks, and making a long, leisurely afternoon of it!

READ MORE: The 15 Best Blue Ridge Parkway Waterfalls in North Carolina

View from the summit of the Blue Ridge Pinnacle Trail
View from the summit of the Blue Ridge Pinnacle Trail

6. Climb the Blue Ridge Pinnacle Trail 

Located just north of Mount Mitchell State Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Blue Ridge Pinnacle Trail is one of the best (and least crowded) options for hiking near Burnsville NC. 

The trailhead isn’t marked, so thankfully we had Jake Blood of the NC High Peaks Trail Association to guide us there. Look for a small white gate with a “DO NOT BLOCK GATE” sign, and park right alongside the BRP. 

Our hike was exciting from the start. About to relieve myself against a tree just a few steps away from the trail, I was chased by a Wild Turkey, whose tiny chick I hadn’t seen in the grass a mere five feet to my left. 

From there, it was a steep hike up the rocky, root-filled trail, with verdant green forest and wildflowers (especially Red and White Trillium) all along the way.

Though it’s only 1.5 miles total, the hike is as literally breathtaking as it is metaphorically once you scramble over the rocks at the summit to see the spectacular landscape depicted above. It’s well worth the trek! 

READ MORE: The 15 Best Blue Ridge Parkway Hikes for NC Day Trips

7. Get Cultured with the Toe River Arts Council

Though it’s considerably smaller than the massive Asheville River Arts District, Burnsville and nearby Spruce Pine are home to a thriving art scene, which is collectively known as the Toe River Arts Council.

Launched in 1976, Toe River Arts is part of a fascinating history. Longtime local artists such as Rob Levin (glass sculpture), Claudia Dunaway (pottery and woodblock printmaking), and John Richards (mixed media) point to the historic Penland School of Craft in Spruce Pine as a conduit for the area’s creative art scene. 

In the ’60s and ’70s, Penland Director Bill Brown brought in icons like Harvey Littleton (who taught famous artists such as Dale Chihuly) and Bill Boysen to teach classes there.

They– along with Penland’s core fellowship, resident artist, and work-study scholarship programs– attracted an array of exciting artists from around the world to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Many of them (including Dunaway, Levin, and Richards) never left. 

For a taste of what the local art scene has to offer today, visit the gallery on W Main St in Burnsville or make plans to attend the annual Toe River Arts Fall Studio Tour, which takes place on November 12-14 in 2021. 

READ MORE: The Appalachian Culture & History of the Blue Ridge Mountains

Mary Gabbett at Roaring Fork Falls
Mary posing post-picnic at Roaring Fork Falls

8. Hike to Roaring Fork Falls

Though not quite as awe-inspiring as Crabtree Falls, Roaring Fork Falls ranks among the best Burnsville waterfalls thanks to its picturesque setting and the remarkably easy hike required to reach it. 

Located just two miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Pisgah National Forest (next to the Mount Mitchell Golf Club Resort), the Roaring Creek Falls trail starts at the gated entrance to the Busick Work Center.

It’s a gorgeous half-mile hike along a fairly flat forest service road through the Toe River Valley, with loads of Rhododendron, Wild Blackberries, and other wildflowers all along the way. 

The falls themselves are enchanting, with 50-foot high, 100-foot long cascades that drop into a shallow pool surrounded by big boulders that are perfect for enjoying an afternoon picnic. 

And while the area can get a bit busy on warm weather weekends, our Friday afternoon visit in late May found us having the entire place to ourselves!

READ MORE: The 27 Best Waterfalls Near Asheville NC

Moon seen through Telescope at the Bare Dark Sky Observatory
Moon seen through Bare Dark Sky Observatory Telescope

9. See Stars at the Mayland Earth to Sky Park

If you’re into stargazing, one of our favorite things to do in Burnsville NC is to visit the Mayland Earth to Sky Park, which is home to the Bare Dark Sky Observatory. 

Owned and operated by Mayland Community College in Spruce Pine, the Observatory provides hands-on learning opportunities for astronomy students while offering visitors an incredible experience under the nighttime sky.

Located at an elevation of 2,736 feet, with 360-degree mountaintop views, the Observatory’s custom-built Newtonian telescope boasts a 34″ diameter mirror (making it the largest telescope in the Southeast dedicated to public use). They also have a smaller Meade planetary telescope with a 14″ mirror.

They offer private and public viewing events, with the latter limited to just 18 visitors each night. With assistance from two managers, guests get a chance to see exceptionally vivid closeup views of the moon, planets, and stars while learning a little about astronomy along the way. 

Our only criticism is that, on the night we visited, the staff bemoaned the limited visibility due to the incredibly bright moon. But for us, the chance to zoom in on individual craters of the moon was anything but disappointing!

READ MORE: Fall in North Carolina (The Best Places to See Fall Colors)

Arbuckle Quilt Trail in Burnsville NC
The Arbuckle Quilt Trail in Burnsville

10. Drive the Burnsville Quilt Block Trails

Yancey County, NC is home to 9 self-guided Quilt Block Trails, each of which offers a great excuse to get out and explore the scenic byways of the Blue Ridge region’s vast countryside. 

Each of these large wooden squares was designed and painted by volunteers, modeled after the colorful squares that adorn many traditional Appalachian mountain-style quilts. 

Adorning everything from barns and businesses to schools and churches, each of the 150 Quilt blocks you’ll see in the Burnsville area (one of the largest concentrations in the US) is designed to tell a story. 

From the Burnsville East and West Trails to the Arbuckle Trail (going towards Banner Elk) and the Mt. Mitchell Scenic Byway Trail, all of the Quilt Block Trails in Burnsville lead us to exceptionally scenic views and interesting people eager to share their own personal stories. 

Visit the Explore Burnsville website for descriptions of each trail, as well as links to the respective trail maps. 

READ MORE: The 15 Best Western North Carolina Mountains for Hiking

Emerald Village in Little Switzerland NC
Emerald Village in Little Switzerland NC

11. Family Fun at Emerald Village 

This family-friendly attraction near Little Switzerland offers a great introduction to the area’s rich mining history. Mica has been mined here by Native Americans for nearly 2,000 years.

Emerald Village is home to 12 mines that have produced nearly 55 types of minerals. You can still pan for aquamarine, emerald, garnet, smoky quartz, gold, and more there today.

Attractions on the property include the NC Mining Museum, historic Bon Ami Mine Tours (which were temporarily closed due to COVID in 2020), and the decidedly quirky Discovery Mill. 

This unique, labyrinth-like building features 8 connected levels of shops and exhibits, with an unusual array of themes and historical collections.

You’ll see everything from black light minerals and antique farming tools to a huge model railroad and an extensive collection of impressive gemstones.

READ MORE: Exploring Emerald Village: North Carolina Gem Mines in Little Switzerland

Shopping in Little Switzerland NC
The heart of Little Switzerland NC

12. Spend a Day in Little Switzerland 

Most people don’t realize how impressively non-commercialized the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway is, with virtually no hotels, restaurants, or gas stations along the way. 

That’s what makes Little Switzerland NC (which is located at BRP milepost 334) so surprising. 

Founded by Heriot Clarkson in the early 1900s after his Switzerland Inn was built, the tiny resort town is the only commercial access point you’ll find along the entire length of the Parkway.

Little Switzerland is only open 6 months of the year, from mid-April to mid-November. But its charming Alpine influences, breathtaking views, and access to the Parkway made it one of our favorite NC mountain towns.

In terms of things to do in Little Switzerland, you can check out Tom’s Creek Falls and Crabtree Falls, drive the scenic Diamondback route, browse the charming shops and restaurants, and visit Emerald Village and the historic apple Orchard at Altapass.

READ MORE: The Best Blue Ridge Parkway Hotels & Cabin Rentals in NC

Lady at Setrock Creek Falls near Burnsville NC
Setrock Creek Falls

13. Have a Picnic at Setrock Creek Falls

Though it may not be quite as impressive as Crabtree Falls or Roaring Fork Falls, this waterfall located at the base of Mount Mitchell in the Pisgah National Forest is truly a hidden gem.

The beautiful 1/2-mile trail begins at the Black Mountain Campground off the Mt. Mitchell Scenic Byway. After parking, walk across the bridge to the campground and take the first road on the left (towards the group camping area). 

The first trail on the right is the strenuous 5.6-mile trail to the summit of Mt. Mitchell, but the second trail (which is clearly marked as “Setrock Falls”) leads you on a gentle walk through a lovely stretch of forest.

There’s very little elevation gain to speak of, but there are lots of colorful wildflowers in spring and summer. There are also rocks around the base of the tranquil 55-foot waterfall, which make it a great place for an afternoon picnic. 

Note that this waterfall becomes little more than trickle during lengthy dry spells, so it’s best to visit after recent rains if you want see it at its best. 

READ MORE: The 20 Best Pisgah National Forest Hiking Trails in North Carolina 

Penland School of Craft in Spruce Pine NC
The Penland School of Craft Campus

14. Visit the Penland School of Craft

With origins dating back nearly 100 years, the Penland School of Craft in Spruce Pine has had an immeasurable influence on the arts and cultural identity of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge region. 

Founded by weaver Lucy Morgan in 1923 to teach local women a craft so they could earn additional income, the center became known as the Penland School of Handicrafts after a visit by weaving expert Edward F. Worst in 1929. 

After “Miss Lucy” retired in 1962, sculptor and design teacher Bill Brown became the school’s second director. He brought a new energy and connections in the emerging studio crafts movement, adding new media (such as iron and glass), expanding their work-study scholarship program, and starting their core fellowship and resident artist programs. 

The latter two programs attracted a number of significant artists and craftspeople to the school, and their increasingly high profile brought in iconic instructors such as Harvey Littleton (who established the first glass program in the U.S. and taught the legendary Dale Chihuly). 

Today, guests can explore the school’s 400-acre campus (which is on the National Register of Historic Places) and check out its exceptional galleries. You can also attend their annual Community Day in March, when Penland’s studios are open and visitors can work on a small project with the help of resident artists.

READ MORE: Exploring Galleries & Restaurants in the Asheville River Arts District

View from Yummy Mud Puddle Cabin Rental in Burnsville NC
Morning View from the Yummy Mud Puddle Cabin

15. Get Away From It All at Yummy Mud Puddle 

Though it’s located just 1.5 miles from Downtown Burnsville, the Yummy Mud Puddle cabin rental feels like a private mountaintop nature retreat. 

Set in the middle of the forest, the 3BR, 2BA vacation rental features an expansive back deck overlooking a gorgeous pond, with dramatic mountain scenery looming large in the background. 

Owned by artists Claudia Dunaway and John Richards (whose home, gallery, and studios are also on the 10-acre property), the house is filled with colorful art, including hand-made dishes, tiles, lamps, and more. 

Our favorite thing about the property was the abundant animals all around it. From the wild turkeys and deer who fed near the pond every morning to the massive koi and carp who lived in the pond, we felt immersed in the tranquility of nature the entire time we stayed there. 

In fact, hanging out on the Yummy Mud Puddle deck and watching wildlife while drinking our morning coffee ranked high among our favorite things to do in Burnsville!  –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted

 

Leave No Trace logo

We encourage anyone who loves the Blue Ridge region to learn about the Leave No Trace principles of responsible environmental stewardship. 

Stay on marked trails, take only pictures, pack out your trash, and be considerate of others who share the trails and parks you explore. 

Remember that waterfalls and rocky summits can be dangerous. Never try to climb waterfalls or get close to a ledge to get a selfie.

When you're exploring the wilderness, it's better to be safe than to be a statistic!

The BRMTG was created by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett, the award-winning team behind the world-renowned responsible travel website Green Global Travel. Bret grew up camping and hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia and North Carolina with his parents, and the couple both spent childhood summers on the water with their grandparents. After becoming empty nesters, they yearned for a pristine place where they could escape the hustle and bustle of the city, commune with nature and family, and embrace a sustainable lifestyle that leaves time to appreciate the simpler things in life. Join them and their team as they explore the region, offering expert insights on Blue Ridge travel as they search for the perfect mountain home.