When my wife and I explore the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s typically with two main goals in mind.
The first objective is to create in-depth guides on the best things to see and do there. The second is to use that information to decide whether or not we want to move there, now that we’re empty nesters.
Research suggests my family descends from that of Colonel Robert Love, the founder of Waynesville, who fought alongside George Washington in the Revolutionary War, became a North Carolina Senator, and helped to establish the final state boundary line between North Carolina and Tennessee in 1821.
So as we explored Waynesville, I was also connecting with local historians to learn more about Robert Love, the history of Haywood County, and the role my ancestors played in its growth.
Along the way, we also fell in love with the beauty of Waynesville, which is surrounded by some of the tallest mountains east of the Mississippi. So much so that we are considering buying a home there next year!
Read on for our guide to the best things to do in Waynesville NC and Haywood County, including all the area’s best museums, outdoor attractions, restaurants, and shops.
Best Things to Do in Waynesville NC Guide
- Check Out the Waynesville Street Dance
- Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
- Explore Downtown Waynesville
- Explore the Shining Rock Wilderness Area
- Folkmoot Friendship Center & Festival
- Haywood Arts Regional Theater (a.k.a. HART)
- Lake Junaluska
- Museum of North Carolina Handicrafts/Shelton House
- Sample Waynesville Restaurants
- See Sunburst Falls
- Stay at Lake Logan
- Walk Waynesville Greenway Park
- Waynesville Public Art Trail
- Visit Waynesville Christmas Tree Farms
- Visit the Museum of Haywood County History
1. Cut a Rug at the Waynesville Street Dance
Haywood County’s Sam Love Queen (a distant relative of mine) is widely credited with popularizing square dancing in the US when his Soco Gap Dancers performed for the Queen and King of England at FDR’s White House in 1939.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that the Downtown Waynesville Association hosts a series of Friday Night Summer Street Dances, which run from 6 to 9PM on June 24, July 8, July 22, and August 5.
It’s essentially a good ol’ fashioned Blue Ridge Mountains hoedown, with cornmeal spread in a circle on Main Street, right in front of the Haywood County Courthouse.
There’s lively bluegrass and old-time country music, everyone is invited to join the circle, and locals are sure to help newbies learn a few dance steps. Attendance is free of charge.
2. Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
Our favorite Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks in the area include the Cowee Mountains Overlook (Milepost 430.7), Standing Rock Overlook (MP 441.4), and the Woolyback Overlook (MP 452.3).
Popular Blue Ridge Parkway hikes nearby include the 1.47-mile Richland Balsam Trail (MP 431), the 0.6-mile Waterrock Knob Trail (MP 451.2), and access to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from Soco Gap (MP 455.7 ).
Haywood County doesn’t boast as many Blue Ridge Parkway waterfalls as you’ll find in the area around Asheville. But you could easily visit Mingo Falls (5 miles), Soco Falls in Maggie Valley (2 miles from the Parkway), and Woodfin Cacades (MP 446.0) in one day.
3. Explore Downtown Waynesville
I may somewhat biased, but for my money Waynesville NC has one of the most charming downtown areas of any of the 30+ Blue Ridge Mountain Towns we’ve visited.
Most of the action is centrally located along a 6-block stretch of Main Street as you head south from the Haywood County Courthouse. But even the side streets here boast hidden treasures.
Along the way you’ll find a ton of great restaurants, amazing street art, and some seriously cool shops that we can’t wait to revisit when we return later this year.
The Haywood County Arts Council‘s tiny shop is also a must-visit, featuring an excellent array of artwork from dozens of local artists working in a variety of mediums.
4. Explore the Shining Rock Wilderness Area
Located just south of Waynesville, the Shining Rock Wilderness is the largest wilderness area in the state of North Carolina, encompassing over 18,000 acres at elevations ranging from 3,300 to over 6,000 feet.
Part of the massive Pisgah National Forest, this pristine wilderness area is perfectly picturesque.
And in our experience, it’s also a wonderful area for those who want to enjoy the beauty of nature without being to shoulder to shoulder with other people.
5. Folkmoot Friendship Center & Festival
While waiting for a meeting at Folkmoot USA with Interim Manager Mike McLean and new Director Evan Hatch, I discovered that I’m related to Haywood County icon Sam Love Queen (a.k.a. the Square Dance King).
Queen (who co-founded the Soco Gap Dancers with his wife) is widely credited with popularizing Appalachian dance on an international level in the late 1920s. In 2016, Folkmoot dedicated its Queen Auditorium in his honor.
The 265-capacity concert hall is a great place to catch live bluegrass concerts and learn more about Appalachian cultural traditions. The community center also offers an array of classes on traditional music, dance, and art.
Established in 1984, the Folkmoot Festival is one of North Carolina’s most popular festivals. But since COVID hit they’ve switched to a local focus, including acts from Appalachia and Cherokee Indians from the Qualla Boundary.
This year’s Folkmoot Summerfest will be a 4-day event, scheduled to take place at the Friendship Center and other Waynesville locations on July 28-31.
6. Haywood Arts Regional Theater (a.k.a. HART)
One of the more common criticisms of small mountain towns is their general lack of cultural sophistication. But with its excellent assortment of museums, music festivals, and arts organizations, Waynesville is a noteworthy exception.
The Haywood Arts Regional Theatre (HART) is one of the most active community theatres in the Southeast, presenting an impressive array of musicals, plays, camps, and classes throughout the year.
Funded primarily through community support, HART is based in the multi-million dollar Performing Arts Center at the Shelton House, a stunning facility that puts a mountain lodge twist on the traditional Summer Stock playhouse.
The company has won numerous awards at the N.C. Theatre Festival AACT/Fest and National AACT/Fest Theatre Festival, as well as being named the North Carolina Community Theatre of the Year.
Upcoming 2022 productions include The Music Man (weekends July 8-31), The Book of Will (weekends August 5-28), Little Women: The Musical (weekends Sept 2-25), and Assassins (weekends Sept 30–Oct 23).
7. Lake Junaluska
Born around 1775, just north of what is now the town of Clayton GA, Junaluska was a Cherokee leader who saved Andrew Jackson’s life in the War of 1812. After later being removed on the Trail of Tears, he regretted doing so.
The lake named in his honor is located 3 miles north of Waynesville, and has been owned by the United Methodist Church as part of a retreat and conference center since 1916.
A popular place for conferences, group retreats, and family vacations, the expansive property includes two hotels, dozens of vacation rentals (which can accommodate anywhere from 2 to 24 people), and the Lake Junaluska Campground (which offers tent and RV sites with hook-ups).
Guests can enjoy amenities such as the lakeside walking trail, tennis and pickle ball courts, an award-winning playground, mini golf, an outdoor pool, and kayaking or paddleboarding (rentals available seasonally).
There’s also a Lake Junaluska Fitness Center, garden, events at the Stuart Auditorium, meeting spaces, and several restaurants on the property.
8. Museum of North Carolina Handicrafts /Shelton House
The Charlestonian-style Shelton House was built in 1875 for Stephen Shelton (a teacher and High Sheriff of Haywood County) and his family.
The house (which includes a century-old barn and carriage house) was the first in the county to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, designated as a Blue Ridge Heritage site, and included on Blue Ridge Craft Trails.
Guided tours of the Shelton House are a great way to learn more about the area’s history. A lot of the woodwork and furniture was created from black walnut trees harvested on-site, and there are countless Shelton family antiques.
The house is also home to the Museum of North Carolina Handicrafts, which was founded in 1977 and features excellent examples of Appalachian arts and crafts by some of the state’s most accomplished artisans.
Additionally, the 8-acre property features the HART Theatre, Haywood’s Historic Farmers Market, and a private event space.
The Museum is open Thu-Sat from April through October, with tours starting on the hour from 10AM to 2PM.
9. Sample Waynesville Restaurants
There’s an excellent array of Waynesville restaurants on/near Main Street, including fine dining at The Chef’s Table, traditional Cuban at The Cuban Guy, tasty breakfast at Orchard Coffee, and Asian fusion at Suwana Asian Cuisine.
But there are also a lot of fantastic restaurants in Waynesville’s outlying areas.
It’s also worth making the short drive to the Blue Rooster Southern Grill, just a few miles away in Clyde NC. Specializing in “farm-to-fork” freshness, they offer exquisite fried chicken and sensational side dishes.
10. See Sunburst Falls
One of our favorite waterfalls near Asheville NC, Sunburst Falls is in the Shining Rock Wilderness, about 18 miles south of Waynesville.
It’s arguably the most unique of the waterfalls located on the West Fork Pigeon River, which was dammed nearly a century ago to create Lake Logan.
What makes it unusual is the fact that Sunburst Falls flows underneath the Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway (a.k.a. Hwy 215). It’s framed by a photogenic stone arch bridge that was built in the 1930s.
After tumbling gracefully over the rocks, it spills into a large pool that is widely regarded as one of the best NC swimming holes, with boulders at the bottom that are perfect for sunbathing or picnics.
If you want to make a day of it, there are several other waterfalls nearby that make driving Hwy 215 a great day trip.
11. Stay at Lake Logan
Located 10 miles southeast of Downtown Waynesville, Lake Logan was built in the 1930s, after the Champion Lumber Mill had clear cut all timber on the surrounding mountains.
The lake became the center of Champion’s Executive Retreat, which included 6 traditional log cabins that had been removed from what became Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In the late ’90s, the property was divested to the Episcopal Diocese of Western NC to use as a conference center.
Tucked back in the forest, these rental cabins include two single beds, a stone hearth fireplace in the living area, a mini-kitchen (stove, sink, small fridge, coffee maker & microwave), and a bathroom.
But our favorite feature by far was the blissful view of the lake and mountains from the wrap-around porch, which includes rocking chairs and benches. There are some great hiking trails on the property, but no phones or wi-fi.
The sight of the lake’s many North Carolina birds– geese, ducks, kingfishers, and even a nesting pair of bald eagles– was all the entertainment we needed.
In fact, the digital detox made this place pure paradise!
12. Stroll the Waynesville Greenway
Stretching 4.8 miles, from the Waynesville Recreation Park to Lake Junaluska, the Waynesville Greenway is a scenic path for hiking and biking that meanders alongside Richland Creek.
Much of the dog-friendly hiking trail is shaded by trees, with the soothing sounds of the creek and very little elevation gain to speak of along the way.
There are restrooms located along the paved path, as well as a lovely little picnic area at the beginning in Waynesville Recreation Park.
13. Waynesville Public Art Trail
Downtown Waynesville is full of fantastic street art on its Public Art Trail, but none more iconic than the “Old Time Music” sculpture located at 77 N. Main Street.
Created by Stefan Bonitz from repurposed scrap steel in 2008, the enormous statues of two musicians picking a banjo and strumming a washtub bass pay tribute to the cultural heritage of Appalachian music.
Locally known as The Music Men, they weigh between 1,800 and 2,000 pounds each. The piece has been cataloged by the Smithsonian for its symbolic folk art traits.
Other noteworthy pieces along the self-guided walking trail include the Gateway to the Smokies Arch, Wildflowers of the Smokies, and the 1776 Militia Rifleman (which honors settlers who fought in the Revolutionary War).
14. Visit Waynesville Christmas Tree Farms
Which makes sense, because that area grows the vast majority of the Fraser Fir trees used by families who celebrate Christmas in the entire Eastern U.S.
But Waynesville sits at an average elevation of 2,752 feet, and it’s surrounded by some of the tallest North Carolina mountains (including the 6,621-foot Mt. Guyot and the 6,214-foot Black Balsam Knob).
So the Haywood County climate is perfect for growing Christmas trees, and Waynesville is home to 3 popular Christmas tree farms.
READ MORE: The Best Boone NC Christmas Tree Farms
15. Visit the Museum of Haywood County History
The Museum of Haywood County History is located inside the historic Shook-Smathers House. The home was built in the early 1800s by Jacob Shook, who fought alongside Waynesville founder Robert Love in the American Revolution.
It was later sold to Levi Smathers, whose descendants lived in and expanded the house considerably (including adding a Victorian-style wrap-around porch) over the course of 130+ years.
Dr. Joseph S. Hall, a descendant of Jacob Shook, purchased the house in 2003, by which time it needed extensive restoration and preservation.
After the work was completed, Hall deeded the property to the Haywood County Historical & Genealogical Society in December 2011.
The museum features exhibits filled with artifacts and photographs of the history of Waynesville and Haywood County, from life in the early 1800s and the region’s industrial heritage to local mountain communities and more.
Museum tours are available on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays (or by prior appointment), with a $7 admission fee. Call 828-564-1044 and leave a voice message to request a tour, ideally at least 3-4 days in advance. –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted