20+ Amazing Things to Do in Marion (and McDowell County)

Last Updated on May 19, 2022

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Marion, North Carolina is one of those special mountain towns that always jumps out at us, no matter which direction we’re traveling. Thanks to a friendly atmosphere and beautiful outdoor surroundings, we’ve found things to do in Marion that everyone should enjoy.

Whether you like local shops, eclectic restaurants, and as we mentioned, gorgeous scenery, this McDowell County town has it for you.

All of the above will quickly become clear as you stroll Main St, which certainly meets the Blue Ridge Mountains as promised by the town’s motto.

Marion is full of fun activities, delicious places to eat, and stunning views. Our guide will help you explore this wonderful spot in our mountains, its most popular attractions, and more.

Here’s what you’ll find below:

  • Location Info and the History of Marion
  • Where to Stay (Camping and Cabin Options)
  • Annual Events
  • Year-Round Things to Do in Marion
  • Things to Do in Marion’s Surroundings (McDowell County and Beyond)

You can skip ahead to our favorite things to do in Marion during specific times or throughout the year. Or, you can keep on reading about how to find Marion and how it became one of our favorite small towns!

Read More: Western North Carolina (and 100+ Wonderful Places to Visit)

Where is Marion?

Map of North Carolina highlighting McDowell County
Image Credit: David Benbennick, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Before we share our favorite things to do in Marion, we thought you should know a little more about this town.

  • Marion is the McDowell County seat and has a population of about 7,800.
  • The town is about 40 minutes east of Asheville and is a popular day trip from our largest city in Western NC.
  • The town sits in the center of McDowell County and is surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, Pisgah National Forest.
  • Along with Tom’s Creek Falls (which this guide covers in more detail), a plethora of waterfalls and hikes await in Marion’s surroundings.

Read More: The NC Tripping North Carolina Travel Map

The History of Marion (Quick Facts)

  • Evidence shows that Mica was mined heavily in the Marion area and that metal was used as currency about 2,000 years ago.
  • The silicate material is easy to pull apart and is used in everything from furnace windows to plastics.
  • You can still see mica when exploring the outdoors around Marion, and its abundance and historical importance are behind the nickname “Mica Town.”
  • A few decades before Marion came into existence, McDowell County was a major gold producer and part of North Carolina’s Gold Rush from 1800-1827.
  • In 1844, the first McDowell County commissioners planned the town that would become Marion.
  • Planning took place at the Carson House, which then served as the McDowell County Courthouse.
  • Tensions arose because some citizens wanted the town to remain near the Carson House. However, Sam Carson didn’t want the town near his plantation and he even donated land to help settle the score.
  • Ultimately, commissioners decided on moving the town to its current location, a more central position in McDowell County.
  • The name “Marion” was sanctioned in 1845 by the North Carolina State Legislature. Marion honored the Revolutionary War Hero Francis Marion, also known as “Swamp Fox.”
  • Marion experienced growth in the 19th century, thanks to favorable terrain and its one-time position at the western terminus of a prominent stagecoach road and North Carolina’s railroad line.
  • Many of the structures in Marion were built with local timber, and this fact was exposed on November 25, 1894. That’s when a fire swept through town and destroyed many of the buildings in its path, including the original county courthouse.
  • That distastrous fire couldn’t stop the engine that was Marion. By 1908, Marion was the junction for two railroads that traveled north to south and east to west.
  • Textiles were the prominent industry in Marion, with three major mills providing jobs and infrastructure for citizens. They included Marion Mil, Clinchfield Mill, and Cross Mill.
  • Over the years, Marion has produced some prominent names in North Carolina. A few of them include Richard Erwin (first African-American to be elected to statewide office), Gus Greenlee (businessman and founder of the Negro National League), and former UNC Tar Heel Men’s Basketball coach Roy Williams.

Read More: Interesting Facts About North Carolina

What is Marion Known for Today?

Things to Do in Marion NC

The mills no longer operate in Marion but a strong group of citizens remains to keep this town moving. Shops, restaurants, and abundant outdoor adventures help Marion live up to its motto of “Where Main Street meets the mountains.”

Prominent Highways (US-70 and US-221) and I-40 run through and around Marion, making it easy to access from all directions.

Read More: The Best North Carolina Road Trips

Where to Stay in Marion

Things to do in Marion NC Gold River Camp

Finding the perfect place to stay will also lead you to one of the most fun things to do in Marion—gold panning.

We first recommend Gold River Camp and Cabins, which was once a gold and gem mine that’s since been converted into a riverfront accommodation. There are multiple cabins of all shapes and sizes and some tent campsites available, too.

Gold River Camp and Cabins is about ten minutes south of Marion, just around the corner from some other historic gem mines. While visiting, enjoy the fire pits, hang out in the communal game area, and go gold panning!

We’re not done with gold panning or camping options, but highly recommend this wonderful place.

Read more: Unique Airbnbs in North Carolina

More Gold and Gem Mining Accommodations

Things to Do in Marion NC Thermal City Gem Mine Gold Panning Camp

Speaking of those other historic gem mines, here are a few more camping/panning options.

The Lucky Strike Gold and Gem Mine and Vein Mountain are open throughout the year, though you should check their sites (and Vein Mountain’s Facebook Group) for specific dates and info.

Thermal City Gold Mine is another option, just down the road from each of these. They’re typically open from March 15 to October 31 and have a variety of sites, including camping cabins.

Annual Events in Marion

These annual events are among the most popular things to do in Marion, so be sure to add them to your calendar!

WNC Bigfoot Festival

Things to do in Marion NC big foot

Marion’s annual WNC Bigfoot Festival is all about the legendary creature that is said to wander Northeast US and Marion’s surroundings. This fun festival spans about five blocks in downtown Marion.

With Bigfoot-themed food and souvenirs and an indoor expo area, the festival is one of Marion’s coolest things to do. You may come as a skeptic, but the festival guarantees that you’ll leave as a Bigfoot believer!

The next WNC Bigfoot Festival kicks off in May 2022, and hopefully we’ll see you there!

Read More: Spring in North Carolina

Farmer’s Market

Every Saturday from May through September, the Marion Farmer’s Market sells locally grown produce, baked goods, crafts, and much more! If you’re in town during the warm months, come out to support local businesses and pick up some delicious produce!

Read More: 40+ North Carolina Gifts from Amazing Local Businesses

Christmas Parade

The first event of Marion’s holiday season is the annual Christmas Parade, which usually takes place in late November. The parade makes its way through downtown and features fun, colorful floats.

Read more: Exciting Christmas Lights in North Carolina

The Marion Train Depot (Year-Round)

If you live in the area or want to host a party or event, do it at the Historic Marion Train Depot. The space can accommodate up to 131 with tables and chairs, too!

Year-Round Things to Do in Marion (Downtown)

Things to do in Marion NC Coffee Shop

While it may be a small mountain town, this town is full of vibrant shops and stores. Here are seven essential things to do in Marion’s downtown.

  • To properly start a morning of exploring and adventure, we recommend Ingenious Coffee Roasters. A locally-owned coffee shop in downtown Marion, Ingenious has an expansive menu of flavors like snickerdoodle, winter solstice, and holiday spice. We especially love their Nitro cold brew, which packs that extra punch!
  • Flavors on Main is a cool general store specializing in fresh olive oils, balsamic vinegar, spices, teas, and more! They also have a tasting room for food connoisseurs looking to try (and buy) some local products.
  • For an evening activity, check out the Spillway Bridge and Co., Marion’s best music venue and bar. There are always crowds and something to see here!
Things to do in Marion NC downtown shops
  • Catch a show at the Foothills Community Theater, which was founded in 1972 and is McDowell County’s only community theater. The theater offers live productions throughout the year and you can find more up-to-date info about them here.
  • Art lovers will also enjoy an afternoon at the McDowell Arts Council, an art gallery that encourages the learning and practicing of all art forms. The gallery has expanded to include both in-person and virtual art galleries. Visitors and locals can usually participate in art classes as well as theater performances and events.
  • Marion’s rich art scene continues with the Founders’ Art Walk, a set of six murals covering three blocks downtown. The murals were inspired by the planning for Marion’s 175th-anniversary celebration, and they come together to depict life in the town.

Even More Places to Eat in Marion

You could spend an entire weekend working your way through Marion’s food scene. Here are some tasty places to eat, starting with a place that covers all meals.

Things to do in Marion NC Bantam Chef
  • Bantam Chef is a great diner to stop by at any time of the day. We especially recommend their biscuits as the perfect way to kick off your day.
Things to do in Marion NC burrito bros
  • Craving delicious burritos and tacos? The Burrito Bros at the corner of Main Street and Court Street has you covered! They’re closed on Sundays and Mondays, but if you’re in the area during the rest of the week, stop by for lunch.
  • Owned and operated by Bruce and Barbara Brown, Bruce’s Fabulous Foods is one of the best places to eat in the area. They serve sandwiches, quesadillas, wraps, salads, and, most importantly, cheesecake! Bruce is a professional chef whose cheesecakes are very well-known. Choose from their selection of caramel, chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon, fruit-flavored, or nut-flavored cheesecakes.

Marion’s Craft Breweries

Things to do in Marion NC mica town

You’ll also find some great craft breweries to visit in Marion.

  • Refinery 13 Taproom was the first taproom in Marion and serves house-made craft beer, sangria, and wine. They also have a small food selection to complement your tasting.
  • Mica Town Brewing has locations in both downtown Marion and in Nebo, near Lake James. If you can’t visit while their open, keep an eye out for tasty Mica Town beer in restaurants throughout McDowell and surrounding counties.
  • For a unique tasting experience, check out the aesthetic Keeper’s Cut Meadery! Keeper’s Cut specializes in all things mead, from production to tasting. Pair your drink with a charcuterie board and small snacks.

Beyond Downtown (Outdoor Things to Do in Marion)

We’ve shared our favorite things to do in Marion’s downtown. Now, it’s time to get outside and explore those mountains that meet Main Street.

Mount Ida Wilderness Area

Things to do in Marion NC Mount Ida

The Mount Ida Wilderness Area is a tract of 36 acres surrounding Mount Ida, just six minutes from downtown Marion. Hike the somewhat moderate, half-mile trail to the peak for panoramic views of Marion and the surrounding mountains.

We recommend packing a lunch to enjoy a picnic at the top!

Tom’s Creek Falls

Things to do in Marion NC Toms Creek Falls

Tom’s Creek Falls is the perfect family activity for a sunny afternoon. The trailhead for this 80-foot, multi-tiered waterfall is just seven miles from Marion, and the trail itself is an easy half-mile hike.

We recommend packing water shoes as the pools are relatively still and quiet.

Read More: 20+ Kid-Friendly Waterfalls In NC (Easy Hikes And Swimming Holes!)

Joseph McDowell Historical Catawba Greenway

Things to do in Marion NC Greenway

The Joseph McDowell Historical Catawba Greenway in Marion is a relatively flat trail that follows the scenic Catawba River. This greenway is typically busy, with people walking, running, riding bikes, and simply enjoying nature.

Bring your furry friends too, for an outing with the whole family–but keep them leashed!

From start to finish, the trail is about 3.5 miles round trip. Plan a couple of hours for your adventure.

Historic Carson House

Nestled on the outskirts of Marion (due to historic planning), the Historic Carson House represents the life and experiences of people in the area.

The house is filled with antique items dating back 200 years. It also sits on acres of land and gardens that are perfect for an outdoor stroll.

A visit to the Carson House is like stepping back in time. The home was built in the late 1700s for Colonel John Carson and was passed through his family for more than 100 years.

It was plundered during the Civil War and belonged to numerous owners after that. In the 1960s, the house was reclaimed and reopened as a historic site and museum.

Things to Do in Marion’s Surroundings

Things to do in Marion NC downtown

Marion is about an hour away from quite a few fun spots in Western North Carolina.

Asheville is a forty-minute drive to the west while Morganton is just thirty minutes away to the east.

An hour to the north is the mountain towns of Boone and Blowing Rock, and to the south is Chimney Rock and Lake Lure.

No matter which direction you go, there are plenty of opportunities. However, we think you shouldn’t leave McDowell County just yet.

Read More: The Lake Lure Flowering Bridge

Old Fort

Things to do in Marion NC Old Fort

West of Marion, Old Fort is a small mountain town best known for its gold history and one of our favorite waterfalls.

The town typically hosts its annual Gold Festival in June, featuring live music, food, and more!

Old Fort is also popular for the 100-foot Catawba Falls. The hike to the falls is about three miles round trip, but the stunning views at the base and up the falls are definitely worth a lengthy stop!

Another interesting place to go in Old Fort is the Mountain Getaway Museum, a museum dedicated to the preservation and education of Appalachian history and culture. They have a large collection of historic artifacts and informative exhibits.

Lake James

Lake James State Park near Marion NC

There are quite a few ways to enjoy, whether you’re visiting one of its State Park access points, staying on the water, or riding your bike.

We love all of the above and think you will, too.

Speaking of the Lake James State Park side, there are places to ride your bike, but also hike. The Holly Discovery Trail (0.75 miles) and Lake Channel Overlook Trail (1.5 miles) are two great paths to explore with the family.

An accessible fishing pier will give you a chance for a catch of the day from the Catawba River Area. Mountain biking trails range from 1.4 miles to 6 miles on the state park side of Lake James, too.

For even more of a challenge, check out the Fonta Flora State Trail. It snakes 19 miles and loops around Lake James.

When completed, this trail will connect Morganton and Asheville.

Read More: All North Carolina State Parks Sites (and Things to Do in Each One)

Linville Falls

Things to do in Marion NC Linville Falls

Linville Falls is the name of both a town and one of the most popular waterfalls in the state.

The Linville Falls hike will lead you to a remarkable 90-foot waterfall that drops straight into the Linville Gorge, also known as the “Grand Canyon of the Southern Appalachians.” This waterfall is visible from multiple points along the road and in the gorge.

It’s accessible via a number of trails, but the easiest is a 1.6-mile roundtrip hike.

After an afternoon of hiking to the waterfall and enjoying the views, grab some dinner at Famous Louise’s in the town of Linville Falls.

Top the day off with a glass (or bottle) at Linville Falls Winery. Please drink responsibly.

Read More: The Best North Carolina Wineries

Linville Caverns

Things to do in Marion NC Linville Caverns

Linville Caverns are currently NC’s only caverns available to tour and remain one of our oldest (and most popular) attractions. The caverns opened for public tours in 1937 and offer 30 tours per day on a first-come, first-serve basis.

We personally think a visit to Linville Caverns belongs on everyone’s bucket list, including yours!

Read More: Day Trips from Boone

Blue Ridge Parkway Stops Nearby

Things to do in Marion NCGrassy Creek Falls
Grassy Creek Falls.

Some of the coolest Blue Ridge Parkway stops are just a short drive away. On this wonderful road, you’ll find scenic things to do in Marion’s surroundings, including hikes, waterfalls, and more!

  • Little Switzerland, on MP 334, is a small village about 25 minutes from Marion. Grab a meal in this cozy town and enjoy the expansive mountain views. Little Switzerland is also a great base for hiking to Grassy Creek Falls.
Things to do in Marion NC Crabtree Falls NC
Crabtree Falls.
  • Crabtree Falls, on MP 339, is a 70-foot waterfall in Burnsville, about a half-hour drive from Marion. Follow a 2.5-mile loop to reach the gorgeous falls.
  • If you’re looking to learn even more about the area’s mining history after panning in Marion, the Museum of North Carolina Minerals (MP 331). This museum offers a very comprehensive overview of the mineral heritage in the area.

Read More: 10 of the Best Black Mountains Hikes near Burnsville

More Things to Do in Marion (and McDowell County)

2 thoughts on “20+ Amazing Things to Do in Marion (and McDowell County)”

  1. Excellent article. I’ve lived here over 50 years and seen the town and area evolve into the gem it is today. Good leadership and great people made it happen.

    Reply

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