Road Trip to Burnsville: Discover Close Encounters With Creative Characters and Starry Nights

WNC Magazine  Sep/Oct 2017
Writer: Melissa Readon
Photographer: Hannah Brown

One great reason to head to Burnsville is to visit Mount Mitchell, the East’s tallest peak: The Yancey County town sits in its shadow, just north. But there are plenty of other reasons to go, including a robust artist community, a quaint and thriving downtown, and the starriest night skies around. You could make a day trip, but to take it all in, spend several days and plan to go during one of the town’s myriad celebrations, such as the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival (September 7-9).

One attraction not to miss is the new Bare Dark Sky Observatory, which opened in June at Mayland Community College’s Earth to Sky Park. Community nights are held once a week, when the public can sign up and pay $10 for the chance to peer through the largest optical telescope for public use in North Carolina. The 34-inch custom-built Newtonian scope can make visible galaxies that are around 30 million light years away. In 2014, Burnsville became the first International Dark Sky Park in the southeastern United States, a designation that recognizes and protects places with distinguished starry nights. There are currently only 52 such parks worldwide.

For as many stars as there are in the sky, the number of artists in the Burnsville area might come close. The Toe River Arts Council is the nexus for this talented community of creators, so a stop at TRAC’s gallery downtown is a must (there’s a second location in nearby Spruce Pine). You can check out the work of some 100 artists. Or better yet, plan to visit during one of the biannual studio strolls, when you can go straight to the source. The next one is December 1-3.

A quick jaunt away (four miles down NC 80) is One of a Kind Art Gallery in Micaville. Grab a coffee or gelato next door at Maples and then browse the huge collection of exquisitely crafted pottery, jewelry, garden art, and more, all made by area artists. On Thursday evenings from 7-9 p.m., the gallery hosts $5 concerts in the loft above the store. Featuring local musicians, these gatherings are great opportunities to mix and mingle with the community.

You could also cheers with local characters over a pint at one of two new-ish breweries in town: Homeplace offers a varied selection of beers made with locally sourced ingredients, and Blind Squirrel Brewery serves beer, wine, and food that can be enjoyed inside or out on the street-side patio—perfect for people-watching.

Don’t leave town without stopping into Rad Dawgz Hotdog Joint. This hip eatery serves up the chill surfer vibe in spades, with surfboards and colorful tiki-themed paraphernalia tastefully hung about. The counter-service joint offers 57-plus (a nod to Heinz 57) toppings, and recently added tacos to the menu. Upstairs, there’s a game room, retro lounge area, and I-spy tables full of vintage toys and trinkets. Conveniently, you can satisfy dessert cravings next door at the rockabilly-esque Cool Catz Candy & Cream—a sweet finale to a sweet excursion.

Continue reading Road Trip to Burnsville: Discover Close Encounters With Creative Characters and Starry Nights

New Observatory Sheds Light in the Dark

By Sue Wasserman

If Jon Wilmesherr has his druthers, more Western North Carolina residents and visitors will be taking a walk on the dark side. Don’t worry. His plot isn’t sinister, just celestial. The director of Academic Support Services and Learning Resources Center for Mayland Community College (MCC) is eager to show off the recently opened Bare Dark Sky Observatory located at the college’s Earth to Sky Park in Burnsville. The observatory is named for two key donors: Warren and Larissa Bare.

The basics are stellar enough. The observatory sits at an elevation of just over 2,700 feet and offers a 360-degree view. What elevates the experience to “out of this world” status is the site’s certification as a Certified Star Park from the International Dark-Sky Association, meaning it’s about as pitch dark as possible to ensure an optimum star-gazing opportunity. This is the first such certification to be given in the southeastern US—and one of only 15 in the world.

While the dark sky provides a perfect backdrop, the sky’s the limit thanks to a custom-built f/3.6 StarStructure Newtonian telescope with a 34-inch mirror, the largest such telescope in the Southeast dedicated for public use. It has been nicknamed the “Sam” for long-time MCC funder Sam Phillips, whose Samuel L. Phillips Family Foundation provided funding.

“It took us a long time to get the observatory just right,” says MCC president John Boyd. “We’ve already fielded international calls and visits from people who are excited to see what we’ve been able to accomplish.” With the observatory launched, the college is now focused on funding a planetarium that will be constructed in the park. The goal is to integrate education and tourism.

“We look forward to being able to give our students, residents and visitors access to a facility that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the Southeast,” Boyd adds. “I have no doubt this observatory is going to become a great source of pride for the region.”

MCC Foundation executive director Margaret Earley- Thiele sparkles when talking about her most recent star-studded observatory visit. “Not only could we see Jupiter, we could see its four moons and the colors of the gas clouds surrounding it. When we looked at the moon, we could see individual craters. I felt like we were sitting in a space ship looking out. It was pretty spectacular.”

Visits to the observatory are by reservation only. The facility is also available for evening rentals. MCC provides onsite transportation. For more information, visit or call 828-766-1233.

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