Last Updated on April 6, 2021
Last Updated on April 6, 2021
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Wilkes County was once known as the Moonshine Capital of the World, but there is so much more than good “licker” here. There are so many amazing things to do in Wilkesboro (county seat), the neighboring mountain town of North Wilkesboro, and elsewhere in the county.
You can start by getting in touch with nature at Stone Mountain State Park, hitting the world-renowned mountain bike trails, sipping some moonshine, and even more.
Give yourself at least a weekend, though, because there’s plenty to dig into.
Here’s what you can expect from this guide:
- Culture and Heritage in Wilkes County
- The History of Moonshine and NASCAR in Wilkesboro
- Music History in Wilkesboro
- More Wilkes County Arts
- Where to Drink in Wilkesboro
- Restaurants in Wilkesboro and Wilkes County
- Outdoor Things to Do in Wilkesboro
- Annual Events in Wilkesboro
- North Wilkesboro Events
- More Things to Do in Wilkesboro and Nearby (Related Posts)
This post is part of our series on all the awesome places to visit in Western North Carolina.
Things to Do in Wilkesboro, North Wilkesboro, and Wilkes County
Special thanks to Visit Wilkes for hosting us during our stay. All opinions within this article are our own.
Culture and Heritage in Wilkes County
Wilkes Heritage Museum
One of the first things you should do in Wilkesboro is to check out the Wilkes Heritage Museum. Opening as a non-profit in 1968, the exhibits detail the history of Wilkes County, aka the “Moonshine Capital of the World.”
Take an in-depth tour of how NASCAR started by moonshining and evading the law. Perhaps you’ll be interested in learning about the Siamese twins who lived in Wilkes County and fathered 21 children.
The Wilkes Heritage Museum is also home to the Olde Wilkes Jail, which held Union prisoners including the famous escape artist, Otto Wood, during the Civil War.
The History of Moonshine and NASCAR in Wilkesboro
The Moonshine Capital of the world isn’t a designation given out lightly. The illegal, untaxed whiskey that was distilled by the “light of the moon” reached its most infamous period in history during Prohibition.
Wilkes County moonshiners, in particular, are credited with the steamer still, a technology used in the railroad industry that produces a superior taste. Previously, moonshine was made by putting a heat source directly under the still, resulting in constant stirring and burning.
The only problem was that steam often led to injuries or even death if the boilers exploded.
The profit for moonshining was so significant, estimates say, that moonshiners could lose a third of their cars and still turn a profit. Speaking of cars, the race was on–automobiles were modified and history was made.
Bootleggers had to modify their vehicles during Prohibition to not only escape law enforcement but also to create more space to smuggle cases of liquor. Box-like traps underneath the seats, flashback seats, and even false fuel tanks helped them evade the law.
Wilkesboro is also where NASCAR was born. NASCAR made its first run on the dirt track of North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1947. The garages and backroads between North Wilkesboro and Charlotte paved the way for both liquor and auto racing.
Speaking of liquor, keep reading and you’ll learn about where to drink in Wilkesboro and elsewhere in the area!
Music History in Wilkesboro
Moonshine and Auto Racing aren’t the only major players in the area. Music has been bringing talented artists to Wilkesboro every year for more than a quarter of a century, with Merlefest heading a packed lineup of the arts in Wilkes County.
Starting as a fundraiser for Wilkes Community College (WCC), MerleFest quickly grew to one of the nation’s most iconic music festivals. Every April, the campus of WCC floods with music lovers from all over the world to see iconic performers.
In the past, musical guests have included Dolly Parton, Elvis Costello, Earl Scruggs, and regular appearances from our favorite North Carolina musicians, The Avett Brothers.
Doc Watson Garden of the Senses
The first MerleFest was put on as a way to raise money for the WCC’s Horticulture Department. B Townes, a professor at WCC, connected with Bluegrass legend Doc Watson and asked him to play.
He agreed to do so under the agreement that they would memorialize Watson’s son, Merle, who died in 1985 tragically, with a garden. The garden today is filled with beautiful plants and even a wall with Braille plaques.
Doc is highly regarded throughout much of Western North Carolina, especially in Boone.
Side Story: Tom Dooley’s Grave
Hang down your head Tom Dooley, hang down your head and cry.
Tom Dooley’s grave is not a publicly accessible tourist attraction and not counted among the rest of our favorite things to do in Wilkesboro. However, it’s still important to note since the story has shaped the area’s business scene.
The Tom Dooley song depicts the story of the 1866 murder of Laura Foster. Stabbed to death, Tom Dooley, whose name was actually Tom Dula, was then hung in Statesville but his gravestone can be found in Wilkes County.
There is still some controversy over what really happened, but if you go to the Wilkes Heritage Museum, they’ll give you the real scoop! The song was made popular by The Kingston Trio in 1958 but also recorded by Bing Crosby, Doc Watson, and even the Grateful Dead.
More Wilkes County Arts
Beyond music, there’s a wonderful arts scene to discuss when thinking up things to do in Wilkesboro, North Wilkesboro, and beyond!
Wilkes Arts Gallery
Displaying works by local artists since 1962, the Wilkes Arts Gallery in North Wilkesboro is where we’ll start. It’s the perfect place to enjoy the community’s creativity on display.
Wander the 3,5000-square feet of exhibition space or sign up for one of their youth or adult workshops. If you’re visiting, they also have an incredible gift shop featuring items from regional artisans for you to take home a souvenir!
Blue Ridge Artisan Center
Located in the original town hall from 1915, the Blue Ridge Artisan Center is an art gallery and café focusing on cultivating a space for patrons to enjoy art. Featuring works and products from artisans from Wilkes County and the surrounding 8 counties, there is an eclectic mix of art and mediums.
Any art lover will immediately fall in love with this historic building as the variety and rich history of all the art pieces is absolutely stunning.
Located on an 18th-century family farm, Whippoorwill Village is a hub of cultural history. There is a museum dedicated to Tom Dooley (including a lock of Laura Foster’s hair), a replica cabin of Daniel Boone’s home, an art gallery, and a one-room schoolhouse that educated North Carolina Poet Laureate Larkin Pearson.
Enjoy walking the grounds or come for Tom Dooley Day and the Daniel Boone Festival!
Where to Drink in Wilkesboro
Call Family Distillers
As the Moonshine Capital of the World, it’s mandatory to visit Call Family Distillers. Known for evading the law and smuggling moonshine in fast cars, Willie Clay Call was considered uncatchable by the ATF.
Today, his family legally distills and they no longer have to run while creating quality moonshine.
As far as moonshiners go, this family runs what might be one of the most important distilleries in North Carolina. They have the largest direct steam injection still custom-built to hold 2,100 gallons, which is said to produce a smoother and more flavorful moonshine than direct heating.
The distillery at Call Family serves as a museum, too. With the original outfitted cars of Willie Clay Call that were never caught by the police to the still he used, the memorabilia inside of that building is outstanding.
You’ll see Clay Call’s son and grandsons still distilling–because moonshine runs deep in their blood. Ask as many questions as you’d like because Laura Call is simply a delight and a wealth of knowledge and stories.
Known as the “Chianti of the Carolinas,” Raffaldini makes dry Italian style wines. The opulence of the tasting room paired with excellent wines makes Raffaldini Vineyards an experience that you will always cherish and remember.
Estate-grown grapes produce award-winning Italian style wines at Piccione Vineyards! Owned by the Sicilian Piccione family, visitors can enjoy sips of Sangiovese, Montepulciano, and their popular Chardonnay.
You can do all this inside a tasting room that offers epic mountain views.
This winery is kid- and dog-friendly and also boasts food trucks. Get a bottle or two, sit back, and enjoy the view!
Looking for a unique drinking experience? Stardust Cellars is an off-the-grid winery that specializes in ancestral craft wine and mead!
Using sustainable and traditional practices, each bottle is foot-stored and basket-pressed to retain the integrity of the fruit and fermentation.
If you haven’t had mead before, this is an excellent place to start. Learn about the uniqueness of each drink listed on the tap list and find your new favorite!
Two Boros is the only brewery in Wilkesboro, but it packs a punch for craft beer lovers! Located in the historic 1880s JT Ferguson Building in downtown Wilkesboro, they serve a range of beer guaranteed to please everyone.
Get a hoppy IPA or creamy stout or try their Good Gold Almighty, a Belgium Strong Golden Ale. Two Boros also has an excellent wood-fired pizza menu for when you get hungry!
Dig Into These Restaurants in Wilkesboro and Wilkes County
While digging into all the things to do in Wilkesboro and Wilkes County, you’ll be surprised to find so many eclectic and delicious dining options, too!
Dooley’s Tavern and Grill
One of the main restaurants in the heart of Wilkesboro is Dooley’s Tavern and Grill. Their vibe is welcoming and relaxing, setting the tone for a place to kick back and enjoy good conversation and quality food.
They make everything in-house and have the largest gluten-free selection in the area! The Cooper Barrel Burger is absolutely delicious and receives a 10/10 from us.
If you’re craving Italian, check out Amalfis, where each dish is carefully and authentically served up by true Italians with a love for service.
Healthy and homemade breakfast and lunch can be found inside of the Blue Ridge Artisan Center’s Cafe and homemade ice cream is the talk of the town at Brushy Mountain Smokehouse.
Locals will tell you (and us, too!) that Glenn’s is an amazing spot for a classic drive-up diner.
There are a number of quality restaurants that we weren’t able to visit but are looking forward to checking out on our next trip to Wilkesboro! Igloo Ice Cream & Sandwich Shop in Millers Creek is one of many on our list next time!
Stay tuned as we work our way through the best food in the area!
Outdoor Things to Do in Wilkesboro
Stone Mountain State Park
Hiking Stone Mountain State Park is one of our absolute favorite things to do in Wilkesboro! Located in Roaring Gap and shared by both Wilkes and Alleghany counties, Stone Mountain State Park is partly known for that exposed granite dome, visible from the Stone Mountain Loop Trail.
The park’s 5,700 acres are just waiting to be explored, with more than 22 miles of trails, waterfalls (including Stone Mountain Falls and Widow’s Creek Falls), remains of old stills, and great spots for trout fishing!
The dome is also visible from the Blue Ridge Parkway at one of our favorite stops (MP 232.5).
Cascades at EB Jeffress Park
Cascade Falls at E.B. Jeffress Park is an awesome one to reach via an easy kid-friendly hike. Take the 0.8-mile loop to an upper overlook of the 250-foot waterfalls and take in the sounds of rushing water!
If you are up for the challenge, you can continue down to the lower overlook for a different view, but this is not as kid-friendly.
Another set of Blue Ridge Parkway stops worth investigating sit between Mileposts 238 and 241. At Doughton Park, you’ll find incredible displays of azaleas and rhododendrons in the spring.
More fun inside the Doughton’s 7,000 acres includes Brinegar Cabin and one of the largest campgrounds on the parkway.
You can also hike than 30 miles of trails, enjoy a picnic, or cast a reel in Basin Cove.
Horseback riding at Leatherwood Mountains
If saddling up and seeing it all from atop a horse is your way to go, then Leatherwood Mountains will top your list of things to do in Wilkesboro. At this beautiful mountain resort, you can ride but also, eat and sleep.
Stay for the week or just come by for some horseback riding.
Their equine center is one of the best in North Carolina and brings people from all over the Southeast to ride their trails and mountains.
W. Kerr Scott Dam
Fish, boat, hike, or camp at W. Kerr Scott Dam! This nearly 1,500-acre lake provides a backdrop for plenty of water recreation.
The park is run by the Army Corps of Engineers and there are an impressive 6 boat launches and 3 campgrounds with over 200 campsites. The 1,000-seat amphitheater often sees theatrical performances by Bleu Moon Productions of Tom Dooley and Junior Johnson plays.
Drop your boat in the water or hit the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail (OVT). If you are seeking recreation rentals at W. Kerr Scott Dam, then Foothills Outdoor Adventures can provide boats at a reasonable cost.
Warrior Creek Mountain Bike Trail
At Kerr Scott, there are also 40 miles of mountain biking trails including the Warrior Creek Mountain Bike Trail.
It took ten years to build the 13-mile trail, which is known as one of the best mountain bike trails throughout North Carolina. Here, you can boot off of rocks, bank difficult turns, and enjoy beautiful mountain scenes along the way!
Other notable characteristics include the “super-stacks” of berms that are the most talked about feature of this trail.
Cub Creek Mountain Bike Trails
If you aren’t up for the rock gardens and challenges of the Warrior Creek trail, then Cub Creek is the perfect outdoor activity for you! The trails at Cub Creek Park are smooth with very little elevation change, a perfect trail for beginners and nature lovers.
Don’t forget to visit the suspension bridge and tunnel of trees, arguably the most memorable portion of the trail!
Yadkin River Greenway
The Yadkin River Greenway stretches 5.2 miles and meanders along the river. You can always bring your own bike but if not, Cook’s Outfitters will set you up with a bike.
Phil even has e-bikes which are always super fun to zoom around on! Stop by, pick up your bike, and then head down to the river and enjoy this scenic ride!
Located at the Moravian Falls Campground, this roadside North Carolina waterfall is absolutely beautiful. To see the falls, you do need to ask permission from the campground, as a cabin for paying guests is locatedd at the base of the falls.
Named after the Moravian community who settled in the area in 1753, the waterfall flows 60 feet across a wide rock face. Pack a lunch and settle down for a beautiful picnic.
Annual Events in Wilkesboro
- Brews Bites and Bands Festival: Second weekend in April.
- 6 Hours at Warrior Creek Bike Race: Usually held the first week of April.
- Brushy Mountain Peach Festival: Last Saturday in July.
- Carolina in the Fall: Third weekend in September.
- Christmas in the Commons: December.
North Wilkesboro Events
- Prohibition: April.
- Moonshine Heritage Day: At Copper Barrel in January.
- Chicken Fest: Memorial Day Weekend.
- Apple Fest: First Saturday in October.
- Wilkes County Fair: Second week of September.
Ready for These Things to Do in Wilkesboro and Wilkes County?
Wilkesboro is where the mountains of Western North Carolina begin, has an exciting history of moonshine and NASCAR.
But, the true pulse of the town is the community of people who love where they live. There are the locals who were born and bred here, but there are also many business owners who fell in love with Wilkesboro and simply never left!
There are so many things to do in Wilkesboro that they couldn’t imagine living their lives anywhere else. From an outside perspective, this indicates an inviting community of people who are truly passionate about what they do and where they live.
A trail isn’t just a trail for them–rather, it’s a trail that has been lovingly dug out and maintained by a local community group. A restaurant isn’t just there to feed people, but to provide a space and quality food for memories.
There’s something special to Wilkes County, and we think you need to experience it for yourself!
If you’re familiar with this area, we’d love to know about your favorite things to do in Wilkesboro, North Wilkesboro, and elsehwere in the county. For those of you haven’t visited yet, tell us the first thing you’re going to when you arrive!