Last Updated on May 4, 2021
Last Updated on May 4, 2021
Burke County is the largest mountain county and full of so much natural beauty, awesome hikes, and more ways to enjoy the outdoors. In fact, we first came here to explore Linville Gorge but over time, have been introduced to quite a few things to do in Morganton, the county seat, and its surroundings.
The mix of fun within the mountain town‘s limits and beyond them is a huge part of why we love this area and keep coming back for more. As you’ll see while reading this guide, there’s no way to do all of this in one weekend.
That’s just why you should plan multiple trips to Burke County. And while you prepare, we think this guide will make a nice sidekick.
If you need to find something specific in this post, we’ve organized it into the following sections:
- Burke County Location Info
- Seasonal Events in Burke County
- Things to do in Morganton Every Weekend
- Surrounding Burke County Towns
- Outdoor Fun (South Mountains, Linville Gorge)
If you’re more of a visual planner or quickly need to find one of the places we’ve mentioned, our map includes all of these things to do in Morganton and Burke County.
This post is part of our series on awesome places to visit in Western North Carolina. Morganton and Burke County also prominently feature in our NC Bucket List Book and guides to day trips from Charlotte and also, from Greensboro!
Where is Burke County?
Burke County is in a nice spot in Western North Carolina. It sits about an hour from many places, and is included in our guides covering day trips from Asheville and Charlotte. The closest city to Morganton and Burke County is Hickory, and some of the latter even sits within the county lines.
Now that you see how easy it is to reach, let’s take a look at what there is to do in the area.
Seasonal Events in Burke County
During any normal year, there would be a whole slew of seasonal events that would further entice you. We’re going to include them here because we know you’ll want to mark them down for the next time they’re held.
Bimonthly Third Thursday Art Crawls: If you want to come for a longer weekend, Morganton hosts an Art Crawl on the third Thursday of every other month. These downtown crawls are themed according to the season. For example, July is beach-themed, with sand brought in and locals will paint fish to display.
FAB Crawls: For most holidays, Morganton hosts a FAB Crawl (Food, Art and Beverage), inviting locals and visitors to come downtown and enjoy the day in style. Local breweries stay open later and we run the trolley as a shuttle.
Holiday FAB Crawls include the 4th of July, Halloween, Christmas, and St Patrick’s Day.
Farmers Markets: From May through the end of October, you can buy local at the Saturday Morganton Farmers Market, held at 300 Beach St.
Spring and Summer
May through July: Every Friday night in Morganton, their Thank God It’s Friday (TGIF) Concerts take over the Courthouse Square in Morganton. Music, food, and more fun combine to make this a community staple for two-plus decades.
August: The annual Waldensian Festival is a mirror celebration of the “Glorious Return.” To people in Valdese and other Waldensian communities throughout the world, this is a commemoration of the Waldenses arrival in their native Cottian Alps of Italy.
Fall and Winter
In previous years, organizers have held a Sunrise Run on the Catawba River Greenway, along with a Student Fitness Challenge and Morganton Monster Crossfit Competition.
Another exciting September event in Morganton is the Commemorative Crossing of the Catawba River. It’s a Revolutionary Reenactment of the Overmountain Men crossing the Catawba River and it typically takes place at Judge’s Riverside Restaurant. A festival takes place afterward at the McDowell House, which hosted the men for a night in 1780.
October: At Paddy’s Creek inside Lake James State Park, the Dragon Boat Festival raises money for breast cancer patients and mammograms. Local women organize teams to race dragon boats
December: For Christmas, Morganton’s FAB Crawl also happens to take place along with the city’s Annual Tree Lighting Christmas Celebration. This event accompanies a craft festival, as well as the annual Christmas parade.
We look forward to adding more seasonal events as they continue to pop up on our radar. You can help by contacting us.
Things to Do in Morganton ALL Year
Of course, there are tons of fun things to do in Morganton and Burke County all year and every weekend. Weather and other unpreventable events may occur, so we do recommend contacting local businesses (we’ll provide links) before you visit.
Stay Central and Cozy (Fairfield)
Before you start exploring, find a place to stay first.
It’s a newer property and the suites remind me of higher-end Marriott properties in much larger cities. The free breakfast and Wi-Fi are just a couple of reasons we loved this hotel. They also have a pool for cooling off after hot days out in the area and also, some pretty comfy rooms.
Explore Downtown Morganton
If you drive into downtown Morganton from I-40 (exit 103), the North Carolina School for the Deaf‘s beautiful campus is a nice setup of what’s to come.
Driving through the hilly downtown is fun for the ups and downs but also views of Table Rock and surrounding mountains. Of course, there’s plenty to do downtown, beyond staring at the mountains and cool buildings around.
You’ll find a nice variety of shops to peruse, including art galleries, boutique shops, and more. Many are closed on Sundays but most stay open throughout the rest of the weekend.
One of our favorites is Adventure Bound Books, where you’ll find new and used books from Indie, new releases, and bestsellers. It’s one of our favorite bookstores in North Carolina and we hope you’ll enjoy it, too!
Morganton General Store is open 7 days a week and has just about everything you’d need. They also have food upstairs at Swede’s Cafe, which we’ll mention shortly when talking restaurants in Morganton.
We also loved the murals downtown, which are sometimes obvious and otherwise hidden in alleyways. You can make it a fun game to find as many as possible.
Where to Eat in Morganton
Burke County is full of delicious options and we’ll get those we love in the surrounding towns shortly. For now, here are a few of our favorite restaurants in Morganton proper.
Blue 42’s Burger Bar
One of my favorite things about Blue 42’s is the menu, as it’s mostly sports-themed. You’ll even notice that they source names and nicknames from colleges in North Carolina. The Yolksef and Carolina Blue burgers are a couple of fun examples.
I personally appreciate clever marketing but also love the really tasty (and affordable) food coming out of this place. It’s cozy inside so grab a beer (or non-alcoholic drink), kick back, and enjoy while you wait for your meal to arrive.
Root and Vine
With a massive interior and huge outdoor seating area, Root and Vine is perfect for folks seeking some space to enjoy a nice meal. It’s also a lovely spot for date night or an elevated pizza, and also to grab lunch in the middle of your day out in Morganton.
If you’re browsing around Morganton General Store, you might notice some delicious smells coming from upstairs. That’s because Swede’s Cafe is up there, serving a tasty breakfast, lunch, or dinner, depending on the time.
Morganton Breweries and Taprooms (plus, a Winery)
There are three breweries in Morganton, with one big name and a couple more that certainly deserve your patronage.
I wanted to visit Catawba Brewing’s Morganton location for a long time. Their Asheville taproom is nice but the owners are from Burke County. Also, this is their production facility, where Catawba Brewing’s nine flagship beers are produced and shipped throughout the state.
Catawba was one of the original breweries in North Carolina that we highlighted. Who else do you think makes our list?
Fonta Flora Brewery
Fonta Flora Brewery sits on the northern end of Green St in downtown, inside a refurbished flatiron building. Step inside and you’ll see there’s more to it than a pretty exterior.
Their beers pay homage to the area, with Lake James Life (lager), Nebo Pilsner, and Double Hop Beard (double IPA) headlining list of tasty varieties.
Sidetracked is the last of Morganton’s three breweries that we’ll mention but if you approach the town from I-40, you’ll likely pass it first. Located next to the 1916 Morganton Railroad Depot and Museum, their beers are named with trains in mind.
Sidetrack’s Bessemer Process (Pale Ale) and Thomas the Dank Engine (Hazy IPA) are two very nice examples.
Brown Mountain Bottleworks
I want to first give props to Brown Mountain Bottleworks for making a nice cold brew coffee. However, their claim to fame is a nice selection of regional (and beyond) beers on tap.
They also offer an extensive wine list, including reds, whites, sparkling, and Rose. And also, you can order various munchies (hummus, jerky, etc.) because it’s impossible to indulge without a snack or two.
Silver Fork Winery
Technically still in Morganton, Silver Fork Winery (5000 Patton Rd) is about 20 minutes away from downtown. Once you arrive, you’ll realize that every minute was worth the view that awaits.
You can tour the vineyard and winery, enjoy a tasting, and buy a glass (or bottle) to join your seat or picnic outside. It’s possibly one of the most gorgeously set wineries in North Carolina and we will definitely be back for more.
More Burke County Wine
You can also sip wine in Morganton and Burke County at these three places:
Get Outside in Morganton
Before venturing out to towns nearby and the awesome public spaces in Burke County, here are some fun ways to get outside in Morganton.
There are some pretty rugged spots to enjoy in Burke County but Morganton’s Greenway System is there for folks seeking flatter paths. This includes the 3.8-mile Catawba River Greenway, with five access points.
A shorter 0.6 mile Freedom Trail Greenway is accessible via Freedom Park off Independence Blvd and feeds into the Catawba River Greenway.
Fonta Flora State Trail
If you’re seeking something longer and more diverse terrain, the Fonta Flora State Trail will eventually connect Morganton and Asheville. You can currently hike or bike about 15 miles of the planned 100 miles of this trail.
Finished parts of the trail sit outside downtown Morganton and around parts of Lake James, which we’ll mention below.
Surrounding Burke County Towns to Visit
These small towns outside Morganton are just a few that form the heart of Burke County. Honorable mentions include Rutherford College, Rhodhiss, and Glen Alpine that we’ll hopefully get to explore more in the very near future!
Connelly Springs is new if you consider their re-incorporation in 1989. However, the town was long-known for its mineral springs used for healing various diseases.
South Mountain Distilling Company
Today, the water of this town is used by South Mountain Distilling Company, one of our favorite spirit-makers. I recommend a visit for a tour and a tasting, so you can see the legacy of David Friedenberg (aka The Doctor of Moonshine) at work.
JD’s Smokehouse is just down the road and while it doesn’t fall under traditional Eastern- or Western-style, this place puts out some of the tastiest barbecue we’ve enjoyed in North Carolina. Choose any of their wood-smoked meats and you’ll come away wishing this place was closer to home.
Either bring three friends or family members so you can get a sampling of them all. Personally, I’d go with brisket if my life depended on choosing.
Valdese is an interesting town that we mentioned above in the seasonal events section. The downtown is packed with shops and restaurants galore, but being Burke County, there is outdoor fun to explore, too!
Old World Baking Company
But before you search for nature-based fun in Valdese, stop by Old World Baking Company (149 Main St) in the morning for coffee and pastries or a yummy sandwich with some soup for lunch. Lines form quickly but the folks working here seem ready for any rush that comes along.
There are five parks overseen by the Valdese Recreation Department. If you had a chance to visit one, though, we think McGalliard Falls should be it. That’s because of the 40-foot namesake waterfall that awaits after a short walk from the parking lot.
The falls join a recreated grist mill to make excellent scenery after your walk and especially, during a picnic.
Henry River Mill Village
Admission is $15 and a tour is included, which will teach you about the village’s history and North Carolina’s long relationship with textiles. And based on my experience, it’s totally okay to whisper “may the odds be ever in your favor” more than a few times as you walk around.
Note: the full tour is only happening for a few more months before some major changes happen to the property, so you’d better get there ASAP to tour the Everdeen home as it was during filming.
Outdoor Fun (The Parkway, Parks, and Linville Gorge)
It’s really unfair (did I say that out loud?) how many public spaces there are for us to explore in Burke County. They’re either National Parks Service units, maintained by the US Forest Service, or the State of North Carolina.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway only runs through the northern edges of Burke County. However, you can hop on it and head to some of the iconic road’s nicest views.
For example, you can head south to Chestoa View Overlook (MP 320) and the Crabtree Falls trailhead (MP 339). Or you can head north toward Grandfather Mountain (MP 306), Beacon Heights (305), and the epic Linn Cove Viaduct (MP 304).
South Mountains State Park
South Mountains State Park host some wonderful scenery that earns it some street cred among the popular parks in Western North Carolina. There are trails perfect for hiking but also for horses and for mountain bikes.
There’s also the 80-foot High Shoals Falls, reachable after a mile hike that starts steady but goes nearly straight up near the end. You’ll also enjoy the streams to stroll by, and abundant picnic spots inside this park.
Lake James State Park
Lake James State Park is popular for boating and fishing, with much of its 150 miles of shoreline unoccupied by rentals.
You can also hike or mountain bike around Lake James, as we did while on the Fonta Flora Trail from the Linville Boat Access. There’s a nice covered bridge about a half-mile from there and you can continue on for about 5 miles to another trailhead that’s also off NC-126.
Three camping areas sit inside the state park, too, for folks who want to come and have a longer, more enjoyable visit.
Linville Gorge Wilderness Area
Commonly referred to as “the Gorge,” Linville Gorge Wilderness Area is managed by the US Forest Service as part of Pisgah National Forest. Its difficult-to-navigate terrain and protection from industrial logging has helped the area’s old-growth forests remain in tact.
Here are a few areas inside the Gorge that we know you’ll want to visit. Each takes between 45 minutes and one hour to reach from Morganton.
The Hawksbill Mountain trail is the first of two we’ll mention on State Rd 1265, also known as Table Rock Rd. After 3.5 miles of driving on that road, you’ll be treated to a short 1.5-mile hike to and from your car.
In between that, you’ll climb about 700 feet in elevation. However, at the top, you might forget about all that with the views of Linville Gorge that await.
Of all the spots we mention in the Gorge, Linville Falls is the easiest to reach by car. You can make things more difficult if you decide to hike down via the 1.4-mile Plunge Basin Trail. If the water is too high, you might not be able to access parts of this trail.
On the easier side, you can enjoy views of the falls via the Erwin’s View Trail (1.6 miles round trip). If you’ve admired the falls from Erwin’s View and Chimney View, I’d love to know which is your favorite.
Table Rock Mountain
You can group Table Rock together with Hawksbill since they’re on the same road. It’s another five miles to reach the Table Rock Mountain and the road has quite a few bumps along the way.
The hike is sometimes steep and 2.2 miles round-trip. You’ll be treated to views of the Gorge from the top. Table Rock is also popular for rock climbing.
Note: Some sections of this road close from January to March.
Wiseman’s View is the easiest Linville Gorge hike that we’ll mention. It’s really more of a short walk (0.2 miles) and the path is wheelchair-accessible. To reach the trailhead, you’ll drive up the curvy, sometimes treacherous Kistler Memorial Highway (SR 1238 or old NC-105).
The upper viewing area (accessible) and east-facing platform (steps) provide some of the most beautiful views you’ll find of North Carolina’s mountains.
We included all of these wonderful Linville Gorge spots in our guide to hiking trails near Boone, Blowing Rock, and Banner Elk.
Bonus Linville Gorge Meal: Famous Louise’s
You can group Linville Falls and Wiseman’s View together. Before and/or after driving to those two hikes, I recommend a meal at Famous Louise’s Rock House.
Its down-home cookin’ is great for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and situated on three county lines (including Burke). There are even signs inside to indicate which one you’ll be seated in.
Ready for a fun weekend (or more) in Morganton and Burke County?
Consider this guide a challenge but as we mentioned, don’t expect to pull it off in one weekend. Consider this list of things to do in Morganton and Burke County a collection of memories that you’re going to create over many visits.
Have you ever visited this awesome part of North Carolina? If so, we’d love to know your favorite things to do. And for newcomers, we want to know what you’re going to be doing first upon arrival.