Columbus, North Carolina is a quintessential small southern town just over the South Carolina border in the southwestern area of the state. It has a population of a bit over 1,300 people and is everything a small southern town should be. Including the fact that there’s not a lot to do there. So, why do I say that you’ll love this town? Because of where it is and where you can get to from Columbus, NC. It is the perfect place to stay for an epic western Carolina vacation!
*Please note that we visited Columbus, NC and the western Carolinas in the summer of 2019. As I’m writing this in September of 2020, we are still in the midst of the Coronavirus. So, please visit the websites that we’ve linked throughout this article for up to date information about each location and venue.
Columbus is a great place to stay for visiting the mountains and other areas around it. When you come back from your days’ activity you get to enjoy a quiet, cool, little southern town. We stayed in Columbus, NC for 5 weeks in the summer of 2019 and loved every minute of it. Shirley's cousin, Judy lives in Columbus and rented her house out to us for 5 weeks in July and August of 2019. As you will see we took full advantage of being in the gorgeous Carolinas.
Things to Do in Columbus, NC
I said there "wasn’t much" to do there, not that there wasn’t anything to do there...
They have some restaurants in the downtown area. We had a nice meal at The Rural Seed located on E Mills St that runs through downtown Columbus in the northeast part of town. Their menu is more eclectic than you’ll find in other restaurants in Columbus and you can find some healthy choices.
The Farmer's Market
Columbus, NC hosts a Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings. When we were there it was held downtown off W Mills St. Because of COVID-19 they have gotten creative and moved it to the Polk County High School parking lot and made it a drive-thru Farmer’s Market.
Speaking of the high school Shirley and I used their track and football field to run and work out on several occasions. We met the Athletic Director, who was very gracious and encouraged us to use the facilities anytime.
For fresh produce, other than the weekly Farmer's Market, there are many roadside stands in the general area. We visited most of them but found that Benson’s Produce in Columbus, NC on the road to Tryon typically had the best selection, best service, and was, well closest to us.
The Openroad Coffee Roastery and Café was our favorite stop before leaving for our daily adventure. You might think you have walked into a big city coffee shop because of the choices of coffee and food. But then if you take your latte outside and sit on their patio you'll remember that you're in a very small southern town.
Then we found "the" place for ice cream in the area. The Ice Cream Barn in Columbus, NC has great tasting ice cream and the portions are huge!
There's So Much to Do Near Columbus!
So, Columbus is a nice little town to experience. But as mentioned, the best part about staying in Columbus is where you can get to from there. Columbus makes a great home base for experiencing the western Carolinas. Greenville, SC is 45 minutes south. Spartanburg, SC is 30 minutes southeast. Asheville, NC is 45 minutes northwest up the mountains. Draw a circle around Columbus, NC and you’ll be able to have a month’s worth of fun and adventure as we did.
Here are many of the places we visited while staying in Columbus, NC
I list Asheville first only because people want to hear about Asheville and it begins with an 'A'. To be candid, Asheville is not our favorite place that we visited. This was our second time to Asheville and our opinion remains the same. Maybe our expectations were too high or maybe it's because we aren’t in our early twenties anymore. Asheville is a small city in the mountains that has outgrown its mountain atmosphere. It might be a great place to go to college. But for us, there’s too much traffic and hassle. I’d say go check it out for yourself because other people just love Asheville. But don’t expect a small, quaint mountain town because it’s anything but that anymore.
The Biltmore Estate – Asheville, NC
This is one of Asheville’s best things to do, no doubt. The main Biltmore house has 250 rooms! Can you imagine? The gardens around the 8,000-acre property are over a century old. There’s an award-winning winery on the property which, of course, we visited. If you want to stay on the property check out the Inn on Biltmore Estate. There’s dining, shopping, and more.
Craft Breweries in the Asheville Area
If you're into IPA's and craft brews, Asheville is operation central. Asheville and the surrounding area are home to more than a dozen breweries. Although we didn't take any brewery tours, we did get turned on to White Zombie Ale at the Point Lookout Vineyards. I know right? We weren't in the mood for wine that day so they broke out the White Zombie for us. I drank White Zombie brewed by Catawba Brewing the entire trip. But alas, it's not available within 100 miles of where we live in Florida.
Tryon, NC - The Friendliest Town in the South
We fell in love with Tryon, NC. Tyron borders Columbus, NC to the southwest and is just a 10-minute drive and less than 5 miles. The area surrounding Tryon is stunning with so much to do if you love nature. But the town of Tryon itself is just as compelling.
Tryon is far more than restaurants and cool little shops. It is not your typical southern town. There is a sophistication and style here we didn’t see anywhere else. The people are fantastic. Tyron has a vibe that we really liked. It’s southern but it’s a progressive southern. It’s inclusive. If you visit Tryon, you’ll know what I mean. This is where we experienced the Sip N’ Stroll and Mac Arnold in Roger’s Park (see below). When we tell people about our stay in the western Carolinas we always tell them about Tryon.
Here are some really good restaurants in downtown Tryon!
Harper’s Eatery and Pub
This was my personal favorite. Harper's has a great menu and drink/beer selection in a historical atmosphere. The service was spectacular. Check out Harper’s which is just off the main street on Oak St.
This restaurant has a great setup. You can eat indoors if you like. Or, you can eat outdoors on the patio which is right in front of the restaurant on N. Trade St. They have live music on the patio at night and an outdoor bar. Perfect! The only downside to the live music as I remember is that is was too loud for enjoying a nice dinner. But overall we recommend checking out Huckleberry's.
Side Street Pizza and Pasta
The name says it all. Get the pizza. Lot’s of variety in toppings and pizza styles. It is what it is. Loosen your belt buckle when eating at Side Street Pizza.
The Sound of Music
The Hills (and plains) are alive with the sound of music in the western Carolinas. When planning what we were going to do while staying the 5 weeks in North Carolina, music was a big part of it. The types of music and types of venues to experience that music is many here. Even if music isn’t as big of a part of your life, I encourage you to experience at least some of the music here.
During normal times the Biltmore hosts concerts in a venue next to the main home on the South Terrace. It’s truly an exceptional place to see a concert. Behind the audience is the main home which enhances both the atmosphere and the sound coming from the stage. Behind the stage and to the right of the audience are spectacular views that include an amazing sunset. We saw 2 shows there during this trip. The Beach Boys, and Marshall Tucker and The Charlie Daniels Band. We were so fortunate to see Charlie Daniels as he has since passed away. But that night he played as he did 40 years ago. Charlie and the band were amazing. Visit the Biltmore website for updates.
I don’t spend a lot of time listening to bluegrass at home. But experiencing live bluegrass music is a whole other thing. We went to the Red, White, and Bluegrass Festival in Morganton over the 4th of July. The entertainment was great, and we met some really fantastic people there as well. One couple and their friend were from Germany. They actually have listened to bluegrass music for years. Yes, bluegrass music is a "thing" in parts of Europe!
The event was canceled for 2020 and there is speculation on whether this event will be held in the future. But don’t let that stop you from experiencing bluegrass in the Carolinas. Visit BlueGrassCircle for information about bluegrass music in North Carolina.
North Carolina might not be on your list of top places to experience the Blues. But we had one of the most fun nights of our lives doing just that in downtown Tryon, NC. We started out the night in Tryon strolling though town and sipping wine. It was an event called the Sip n' Stroll. You gotta love it! Then we walked to Rogers Park on the edge of the downtown area where we had set up our chairs earlier. We grabbed our cooler out of the car and got ready for the show.
Summer Tracks is a series of free concerts in the summer held in this great little venue, Rogers Park, that holds about 300 people. That night we saw Mac Arnold & Plate Full O' Blues. Mac Arnold is in his late 70s but he sings and plays like he is way younger. He has played with James Brown, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, the Temptations, and many more. And, we were seeing him up close and personal…outdoors…for free! He and his band rocked the house. Of course, the Summer Tracks lineup was shut down for 2020 but visit Summer Tracks for updated information.
As it turns out western Carolina is a great place to grow grapes and the perfect location for some beautiful wineries. We’re not huge wine drinkers but we visited 3 different wineries during our stay in Columbus, NC.
OverMountain Vineyards – Tryon, NC
During our Sip n Stroll through Tryon on the night of the Mac Arnold concert we met Sofia Lilly. Sofia and her father are the winemakers at the family-owned OverMountain Vineyards. We enjoyed the wine Sofia poured for us that night, but it was her personality and enthusiasm that made us want to visit the vineyard. The tasting at OverMountain Vineyard is excellent. You can buy food from a gourmet food truck that rolls right up onto the property. The setting is spectacular. If you only have the time or desire to visit one winery while in the Columbus, NC area, we highly recommend OverMountain Vineyards.
The Biltmore Winery – Asheville, NC
The aforementioned Biltmore Estate has a winery right on the property. It’s very popular so expect to wait a bit before taking your turn for a tasting at the wine bar. The service is really good though and we had a fun time here. Plus you also get to walk the grounds before and after and explore the entire estate. Visit the Biltmore website for more information on the tasting room and times.
Point Lookout Vineyards – Hendersonville, NC
Perhaps the winery with the most amazing views is Point Lookout Vineyards in Hendersonville. The views are featured on their website home page. The reason we visited here was to see our cousin Jamie Leigh play her cello in a duet. The venue for tasting wine and listening to music is high atop a mountain. This is a great way to spend an afternoon.
If you’re not a hiker when you’re at home, you’ll want to become one here in the western Carolinas. When at home in Florida, we walk down to the beach for exercise but don’t go on trips just to hike. But all around Columbus, NC there are some really great places to view nature by hiking. We are novice hikers so the hikes we list below take no more than a couple of hours. But if you want day hikes or even multi-day hikes, the Carolinas will accommodate you.
Bradley Nature Preserve at Alexander Ford – Rutherfordton, NC
This is a sort of a ‘Hiking 101’ hike. It’s about one mile in and one mile back on a mostly flat and wide trail. Perfect for a short morning hike. However, it’s very fun for a few reasons. First, you are walking the same steps that the Overmountain Men, a militia during the Revolutionary War, marched to defeat the British in a pivotal battle. Next, you start out at Gray’s Chapel and venture into a thick and extremely quiet forest that ends at the Green River. Lastly, there is nature all around you. We saw bear tracks right on the hiking trail which prompted us to buy mase and walking sticks for future hikes. For a map and further info visit Bradley Nature Preserve.
Foothills Equestrian Nature Center – Tryon, NC
This is a perfect hike for the casual hiker. Picturesque and well-marked, you don’t need any special level of athletic ability to enjoy nature at Foothills Equestrian Nature Center (FENCE). There are 9 short trails of less than a mile. You can hike all of them for a total of six miles to get in some good exercise while viewing flower fields and crossing a long boardwalk over a beautiful lake.
Little Bradley Falls – Saluda, NC
The hike to Little Bradley Falls takes a bit more effort and navigation ability. We started our hike up a steep hill, then climbed over some sizable logs and rocky crevices. Then we had to step on rocks to cross a fairly wide stream. OK, that was fun but now we were not sure where to go from there. The trail is marked but we were still a bit confused as to what the markings meant. After venturing one way and turning back, thankfully we met up with a young couple who knew exactly how to get to the Falls. Once at Little Bradley Falls, it all becomes worth the effort. This was a really fun hike but does require some strength to go up and down some hills and balance to cross the river and climb over obstacles.
Pearson’s Falls – Saluda. NC
This is a nice short hike that can be enjoyed by everyone and the payoff is Pearson’s Falls. This is the most manicured and well-marked hike we did. The trees are identified for you and there are benches along the way to stop and enjoy nature. Pearson’s Falls is located between the two cool, little towns of Tryon and Saluda. So, take your pick for lunch or dinner afterward
Norman Wilder Forest – Tryon, NC
This was a really fun hike. Like Little Bradley Falls, it takes the ability to go up and down some hills but there is less climbing over obstacles and balancing ability needed. It’s still a good workout getting down to a drip falls and back up the trail again. Norman Wilder Forest is a nice hike before you head into nearby Tryon for lunch.
Now you’re getting into our wheelhouse. We are semi-avid bikers that enjoy long rides on paved or hardpacked trails. That means we are not mountain bikers. However, if you are looking for mountain biking in the western Carolinas there is an abundance of areas that will offer you some fantastic mountain biking trails.
Brevard Bike Path – Brevard, NC
The Brevard Bike Path is about 5 miles long. It starts out running along Rte 64 turning east through some city parks. It then leads you back across Hwy 64 and the rest of the trail follows the Davidson River and into the Pisgah National Forest. This was the most scenic part of the trail for sure. We parked in the Lowe’s parking lot on the north side of town. The trail runs along Ecusta Rd right in front of Lowe’s. The ride along the river and through some of the parks was really nice. But we had to ride too much along Rte 64. We had fun but it might be our least favorite ride that we took on our trip.
French Broad River – Asheville, NC
We biked the paved trail around the French Broad River in Asheville on a previous trip to the area. It’s an OK ride, to be honest. Riding the river is nice. And there is an artisan area you can stop off at. But there’s not much else to see. If you’re going to visit Asheville, you’ll want to bring your bikes to do this ride. However, you’ll find that Asheville itself is not bike-friendly. Meaning you won’t probably be comfortable riding your bikes on the streets. There is too much traffic. So, after this ride, stow your bikes and go into town to discover the breweries and restaurants.
Lake Conestee Nature Preserve – Greenville, SC
Lake Conestee Natures Preserve is a 406-acre wildlife sanctuary with 6 miles of paved trails and another 6 miles of hard-packed trails (hikers only). It’s great for hikers and bikers but of course, we rode. It’s a beautiful preserve in a beautiful city. Trails run along the lakes in the park and over the 2 rivers leading into the park. It's well worth the drive from Columbus, NC.
Oklawaha Greenway – Hendersonville, NC
The Oklawaha Greenway starts in Jackson Park then cuts through Patton Park and ends at Berkeley Mills Park. It’s a total of only about 3 miles but it seems longer only because it’s really picturesque and you experience different scenery from marshes to forests. The Oklawhah Greenway is in a suburban setting but it’s a nice short ride into nature.
Swamp Rabbit Trail – Travelers Rest to Greenville, SC
This, by far, was our favorite ride while in the Carolinas. And, perhaps our favorite ride ever. It rivals our own Pinellas Trail here on the Gulf Coast of Florida for distance at 22 miles but surpasses it for beauty. We did this ride twice during our stay. It is a paved, wide trail that runs from Travelers Rest, SC on the north into downtown Greenville on the south. It runs along the Reedy River most of the way. You’ll love this ride no matter your level of biking. We brought a friend who is a novice rider and she enjoyed herself immensely. For a map and more info visit Swamp Rabbit Trail.
A special note here is about a restaurant we found in Travelers Rest where we had lunch after both our rides. Check out the Hair and Field Restaurant in Travelers Rest.
Thermal Belt Rail Trail – Gilkey to Forest City, NC
This was a great ride and fun day. The Thermal Belt Rail Trail is 13.5 miles long and 12 feet wide. It’s paved all the way from Gilkey to Forest City. We parked at Bechtler Mint Site Historic Park. This ride will give you a glimpse into the old south as it takes you through Rutherford along Hwy 74 aka Railroad Ave into Spindale. The trail is new and extremely well-taken care of. There’s a lot of nature to see along the way. We enjoyed this ride immensely.
Green River Adventures
Shirley likes to kayak except when rapids of any kind are present. So, I asked her cousin Judy to go along with me to do some kayaking on the Green River. We used Green River Adventures in Saluda and went with a group on a kayak tour. If you’re going to spend time in the western Carolinas, I highly recommend you find a local company that does kayaking tours and get out there. It’s very safe and so much fun!
Must Events and Places to Visit
Chimney Rock - Chimney Rock, NC
Another day trip you must do is to hike up to Chimney Rock or ride the bus up as the hike is no joke. Once you get up to the base of the rock there are hundreds of stairs leading up to the top. But there is an elevator as well. The views along the way are spectacular but the best view, of course, is from the top of Chimney Rock. It’s one of those things you just have to experience if you’re in the area.
Coon Dog Day - Saluda, NC
OK, what? Coon Dog Day! How can you not go to Coon Dog Day on the streets in Saluda when you’re in the area. This was so much fun. Everyone brought all sorts of dogs. But, of course, dozens of people brought their coon dogs. There were all the events and contests you might imagine along with a band and food vendors. They have a parade that we missed because parking was a little tough. Just get there early. It rained on us, but we didn’t care. We had a blast including eating a home-cooked chicken dinner at the Methodist church right in town.
Grandfather Mountain Highland Games
This is one of the largest and oldest gatherings of Scottish clans in the United States. It was quite a long drive (about 2 hours from Columbus, NC) and it is so well attended that the little town of Linville down from the mountain just doesn’t have the parking facilities. We had to drive miles to a park, wait in line for an hour, and then be bussed back up the mountain to the games. Having said all of that, it was a fun day trip!
People come from all over the country in their camper trailers and RV’s. They set up camp for about a week to celebrate the Scottish tradition, participate in, and attend the games. The games are a bit like a Scottish Olympics although the events aren’t what we’re used to seeing. They even have a goat-herding competition.
Walking around the outside of the track area and visiting the different clan booths was very interesting and fun. And, every so often a bagpipe band will march right through. They also had a band set up on a stage in a more secluded area called Seven Nations. They are a hybrid of pop, rock and roll, and Celtic music. And, they put on a great show.
We were only there for one afternoon. And, it was a hassle to get there. But if you plan it better than we did you’ll have a great day. Here’s a warning though. There is no alcohol sold anywhere at the Games. So bring your own.
Visit the website for more information about the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games.
Nelon Knoll Farms – Rutherfordton, NC
If you look at Google and Google Maps in this area, you will discover some little-known places to take a nice drive through the beautiful countryside of western Carolina. We love animals of all sorts so when we noticed a bison farm on the map, we had to go see it. Note that this isn’t a farm open to the public. But as you drive by the farm you can stop your car on the side of the road and get up close and personal with a bison or two and view the entire herd. We got really close to a momma and her baby. I had seen buffalo in Colorado before, but I had no idea bison were this far east. I did a little reading on the topic and learned that back before settlers came in from Europe and elsewhere, bison roamed the eastern part of our country as well. To learn more visit info about Nelon Knoll Farms.
Tryon Equestrian Center
If you’re into horses or not you need to see this place. This is a world-class equestrian center and venue for international horse shows. It brings in people, riders, and horses from all over the world. There’s some sort of event going on almost every night. We love horses but aren’t “horse people”. We don’t own them or ride them often. But watching them jump is really amazing and fun. There are restaurants and shops all over the grounds. This is a great night out if you’re in the area. For current events and times visit Tryon Equestrian Center.
Columbus, NC - The Perfect Place to Stay
As you can see, even though Columbus, NC isn't going to keep you stimulated for very long, it is the perfect place to stay for accessing so much of what the western Carolina's have to offer.