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Western North Carolina is the place you get to go to after paying your penance: it’s heaven! Concealed amid the Smokey Mountain Range lay many wondrous treasures to experience. Get your map and hiking boots on, and let’s check out a few spots.

Flat Rock is a bit south of Asheville on I-26 and offers a host of artistic experiences. The Flat Rock Playhouse provides the stage for a variety of presentations. Musicals, comedies and dramas are performed by professional stage actors from late spring to early fall.

Built in the 1950s, the barn-like structure belies its interior technology. A vast auditorium of 458 seats houses a sophisticated, computerized stage system. This place is a “don’t miss” when visiting the area.

A stone’s throw across the street is the Carl Sandburg National Historic Site. The Pulitzer Prize author and his family lived at his 245-acre farm the last 22 years of his life. Free performances are provided during the summer months, from June through August. Here, you can enjoy such presentations as “World of Carl Sandburg,” “Rootabaga Stories,” and “Sandburg’s Lincoln” every week.

From Flat Rock, take NC Route 64 through Hendersonville or I-26 west to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Beauty is no secret here along this winding road. Traveling north toward Asheville, the mountain vistas are mesmerizing.

There are numerous pullovers along the way for sightseeing and photography. Many of the overlooks display maps of adjacent hiking trails. Posted completion times and endurance levels are useful indicators in estimating your return to the parkway.

Once you are heading back north again, be on the lookout for the Asheville/Oteen exit. Do not leave the parkway, but do watch for signs to the WNC Folk Art Center on the left. Inside this museum/mountain craft exhibit you will find an assortment of extremely interesting demonstrations, antiques, and breathtakingly beautiful quilts. A ramp going upstairs allows you to peruse the quilts and admire their many patterns as you ascend. A loom, more quilts, and examples of local fine art encased in glass are on display along with antiques and artifacts from the pioneer days.

Back downstairs, the craft shop allows you the pleasure of admiring the skills of the local artisans. Pottery, jewelry, stained glass, leather goods, brooms, and hand-woven clothing are just a few of the crafts available for sale.

After making your purchases, continue up the Blue Ridge Parkway heading north. The next stop is Craggy Gardens. This is a good spot for a picnic amid the native foliage. The hiking trail leads to an astonishing, panoramic view of the Smokies. On a good day you will see hang gliders flying effortlessly inside the gorge below.

Back in the car, there’s one more amazing stop to make—Mt. Mitchell. This mountain is the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. It rises at 6684 feet above sea level. Your ears will pop as you climb up to the ranger station where you will park your car. Get ready for another short hike and don’t forget your cameras.

As you arrive to the top of the trail, you will notice that there’s very little foliage on the trees. Acid rain, a result of industrial pollution, is the culprit. Still, a wide-angle camera will take some awesome shots for you to take back home. Descending back to the parking lot is much easier, and there is an alternate trail through the wooded area that can be taken. Wouldn’t some fresh watermelon taste great after a long day in the mountains?

As the saying goes, “Leave only footprints,” while in Western North Carolina. The delicate ecosystems cannot take any more pollution, so be sure to get rid of your trash properly. Left out on the ground, the native animals will help themselves at night to your previous fare. They may inadvertently swallow something harmful like aluminum, plastic or chemical-laden junk food.

If you leave only footprints, the rain and winds of time will wash them away. Come back again another day, and you will find new “secrets” to impress your feet upon.