Welcome Best Road Trips section. Below you will find a sample of the best outdoor adventure in McDowell County, NC including hiking, biking, family friendly, fly fishing, and river adventures.
Nestled amongst the towering mountains and rugged scenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is the quaint town of Marion, the county seat and outdoor hub of McDowell County. At an elevation of 1400 feet, Marion sees mild weather year round and the close proximity to I-40 provides easy access to adventure. To the north, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest’s 510,119 acres of wilderness provide endless opportunities for adventure. With 6,510 acres and 150 miles of shoreline, the Lake James State Park offer fisherman, water sports enthusiasts and hikers an expansive playground. With a plethora of exciting outdoor adventures all within an hour’s drive from Main Street, Marion is quickly turning into one of the top weekend destinations in Western North Carolina.
Catawba Falls (N 35.36, W -82.14): The headwaters of the Catawba River is the site of 340-foot-tall Catawba Falls, one of the most picturesque cascades in the area. The towering waterfall includes a steep, 70-foot cataract at the upper section before flowing downstream toward Lake James. Located just outside of Old Fort, this is one of the top destinations in McDowell County. Be ready to cross wide streams during rainy seasons as you ascend the more moderate portion of the hike to the lower falls. The 3 mile hike to the upper falls is strenuous but worth the effort.
Directions from Marion: Take I-40 W to Exit 73/Old Fort, follow signs to Catawba River Rd.and go 3 miles to road’s end. Park on gravel shoulders on left. Trail begins across bridge and to the right. Access is open from dawn till dusk.
Catawba River, Dam Release Section (N 35.46N, W -81.52): Below Linville Dam on Lake James, the Catawba River flows through scenic woodlands, around islands, and over a series of small and exciting rapids until it reaches the nearby town of Morganton. The river features a number of class II rapids that provide a good challenge for beginning canoeists and kayakers, beautiful scenery, and clean, cold and clear water that provides a perfect respite from the heat of summer. This section of river can only be run when the dam is releasing water to generate electricity. The dam makes regularly scheduled releases throughout the year and info on scheduled releases is available by calling 800- 829-5253. Nearby sections of the river from Black Bear Access on Lake James down to Lookout Shoals Access-some 82 miles-have been designated a North Carolina State Water Trail. Maps are available from area chambers of commerce.
Directions from Marion: Take US 70 E for 7.3 miles. Turn left at Bridgewater Rd. Follow for 1.3 miles to North Powerhouse Rd. The access area for the put in is below the Linville Dam. Take out: from the put in head northeast on North Powerhouse Rd. for 2.7 miles. Turn right at State Hwy 126 and continue for 3.3 miles. Turn right at
Watermill Glen Alpine Rd., cross the bridge and look for gravel pull out and boat access on the left immediately after the bridge.
North Fork Catawba River (N 35.37N, W -82.13): The North Fork of the Catawba River offers extraordinary fishing opportunities as it plunges and falls into boulder-filled pools alongside US Hwy 221. This section of river offers 11 miles of hatchery supported stocked waters with easy access. The high elevation of the N. Fork’s headwaters on Humpback Mountain ensure that the small, shallow stream remains cool enough to support a thriving trout population throughout the summer. Armstrong Creek, another nearby option, enters the N. Fork near Woodlawn, increasing the size and flow of the river considerably as it heads south toward Lake James. Outside the N.C. Mountain
Heritage Trout Town of Old Fort, there are four sections of public trout waters-Newberry Creek, Curtis Creek, Mill Creek and the western section of the Catawba River.
Directions from Marion: Take Hwy 221 N 17 miles towards Linville. Beyond Linville Caverns, numerous roadside pull-offs are available that allow moderate to easy access to the river. Some of the access points can be difficult, so use caution when traveling both to and from the river. To access Curtis and Newberry Creeks, from Marion take Hwy 70 W for 10 miles to right turn onto Curtis Creek Rd. to access Mill Creek, continue on Hwy 70 W to Catawba Ave., turn left cross RR tracks then left onto Water St. Mill Creek access borders the Mountain Gateway Museum.
Point Lookout Trail (N 35.37, W -82.16): For cyclists who love to ride on mountain roads, but hate the traffic and angry drivers, then this route is for you. Once the primary route through the mountains of North Carolina, this section of Old US 70 was closed to traffic once I-40 was completed. These days, the old road is gated and passes through National Forest lands with excellent views. Renamed Point Lookout Trail because of its history and panoramic views of the Royal Gorge, this is a very popular destination for cyclists and hikers. The 3.62 miles of paved asphalt connects the small towns of Ridgrecrest and Old Fort where trains continue to travel through visible tunnels. For mountain bikers, turn right onto the gravel portion of Mill Creek Road riding downhill before merging onto the paved portion of Mill Creek Road. This section takes you through three railroad tunnels and past Andrews Geyser Park, which makes an excellent return route to Old Fort.
Directions from Marion: Take US 70 W to Old Fort. Park in Old Fort and take US 70 W to right onto Old US 70. Follow to the end of Old US 70, just beyond the intersection at Mill Creek Road. Continue past the gate along Point Lookout Trail.
Lake James State Park (N 35.45, W -81.53): Tucked beneath the towering summit of Shortoff Mountain and the Linville Gorge, Lake James State Park offers visitors a number of outdoor adventure opportunities. With more that 150 miles of shoreline, the 6,510 acre lake is great for exploring by canoe and kayak. The state park offers two sections now, the Catawba park with 565 wooded acres for picnicking, hiking and camping with nearby boat launch sites at the Black Bear, Linville, and Hidden Cove Access Areas. The new Paddy’s Creek park spans over 3,000 acres including canoe rentals and a large public swimming/beach area.
Directions from Marion: Take Main St. to US 70 E for 3.2 miles. Turn left at Rte. 126 driving 2.3 miles to the Catawba entrance on the left. Continue driving Rte. 126 to Paddy’s Creek entrance on
right Park info: 828-652-5047.
Kitsuma (N 35.37, W -82.16): Kitsuma in the Pisgah National Forest is one of the more “famous” mountain bike trails in area. So famous in fact Litespeed named one of their bikes after this trail. The suggested ride is a 10 mile loop with close to 2,200 feet of elevation change. The ride starts with a serious lungbuster of a climb that challenges you with 14 switchbacks. Don’t let the first painful 15 minutes get in your head-the next 5 miles consist of epic and sometimes steep rolling singletrack that ends with a fast and furious downhill in to the Old Fort picnic area. From the picnic area hang a left on to the paved road. After a half mile, this turns into the 3.62 mile Point Lookout Trail mentioned above. This gated road and is completely closed to cars and a nice 30 minute climb out of the valley with about 1,000 feet of elevation gain. This is an advanced ride and very treacherous when wet.
Directions from Marion: Take I-40 W 6.5 miles to exit 66/ Ridgecrest. Turn right off the exit, cross bridge, then turn right at stop sign on to Old US 70. Head about 1 mile to stop sign. Go straight through stop sign and parking for trailhead is about 1/4 mile on your left.
Linville Falls (N 35.66, W -81.55): The Linville Gorge is renowned for being one of the most rugged and scenic wilderness areas in North Carolina. The area offers a number of excellent hiking opportunities that range from moderately difficult to extremely difficult. For day hikers, one of the best hikes is a short jaunt down to Linville Falls. The multi-tiered, 90 foot waterfall includes numerous marked side trails for a variety of vantage points. Additional hiking and sightseeing opportunities abound, but beware of the rugged nature of the region and the steep and technical terrain. Nearby Dugger’s Falls is another popular waterfall destination.
Directions from Marion: Take Hwy 221 N toward Linville for 21 miles. At the crest of the mountain, go straight past Hwy 183 to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Head north on Parkway and continue for 1.1 milesto right onto Linville Falls Rd. Head 1.4 miles to the Linville Falls Visitor Center.
Overmountain Victory Historical Trail (N 35.52, W -85.01): The 330 mile OVHT follows the route that the Overmountain Men, a small group of Revolutionary War soldiers, took from Abingdon, Virginia, through
the steep Great Smoky Mountains to the site of the Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina. Retrace the steps of these Revolutionary War heroes by hiking along a portion of their route beginning at the NC Mineral Museum located at Gillespie Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway. With about 40 miles of the trail in McDowell County, we like the 2.7 mile hike ending at the Orchard at Altapass. A great place to stop off on a summer weekend for some freshly picked apples, bluegrass music, and storytelling.
Directions from Marion: Take Hwy 221 N to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Head south to the Museum of NC Minerals, MP 331. Head north on trail that begins across NC 226 from the parking lot.