Marion, North Carolina may be small, but with its bustling historic downtown and nearby Pisgah National Forest, there are plenty of things to do. Located about 45 minutes east of Asheville, it’s easy to reach, perfect for a day or weekend trip.
The town was planned in 1844 at what is now the Historic Carson House and sanctioned as the county seat of McDowell County in 1845.
It’s named after Brigadier General Francis Marion, a Revolutionary War Hero also known as the “Swamp Fox”. Marion was one of four men used to create the character Roland Emmerich in the movie, “The Patriot”.
On Nov 25, 1894, a fire started behind the Courthouse and spread down Main Street. With no nearby water supply, bucket brigades were set up, but in the end, most of the street burned to the ground.
Undeterred, the city rebuilt itself larger and stronger. The downtown area is now on the National Register of Historic Places. You’ll find picturesque streets, bright awnings, and a clock making you feel like you’re in a movie. It’s also a friendly town. Get ready for plenty of waves and smiles as you walk down the street.
The town motto is, “where Main Street meets the mountains,” which is appropriate. Marion serves as a gateway from I-40 to the Blue Ridge Mountains and several popular destinations like Linville Falls, Lake James State Park, Linville Caverns, and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
- The Best Things to Do in Marion
- Outdoor Adventures Near Marion
- Where to Eat and Drink Near Marion
- Where to Stay in Marion
- Festivals in Marion
- Wrap-Up: Marion, NC
The Best Things to Do in Marion
When you visit Marion, you’ll find plenty of things to do including mining for gems, shopping along historic Main Street, taking in a little history, and exploring the art scene.
Mine for Gems
Try your hand panning for gold or mining for gems. North Carolina was home to the first gold rush and mining is a popular activity you’ll find all over the mountains.
Lucky Strike Gold and Gem Mine is open year-round. Thermal City Gold Mine is open from March through October. Both businesses have campgrounds, gold panning, and sluicing. Maybe you’ll get lucky!
Shop Historic Downtown Marion
There are plenty of boutiques in downtown Marion. If you need a gift, head to Shucks Pearls which has everything from jewelry to dishtowels. I loved Flavors on Main with its myriad of olive oils and balsamic vinegar.
McDowell Arts Council Association (MACA)
Located on Main Street, the MACA building has a gallery upstairs and studios with a gift shop downstairs. It’s the perfect place to find a one-of-a-kind gift. Keep an eye on their calendar for classes and exhibits.
The Greenlee Theatre is also housed here. Foothills Community Theatre, which is independent of MACA, puts on most of its plays in this theatre.
Founders’ Art Walk
The Founders’ Art Walk consists of six murals throughout downtown. You can easily see all six in fifteen minutes.
The murals are painted on canvas and attached to the exterior of buildings. Initially, I was looking for artwork painted on the side of the building and struggled to find the first one. Once I realized they were smaller than I anticipated, they were easy to locate.
I love the painting of Shortoff Mountain on the wall near Vintage Furniture. I’ve camped up there several times and it was fun to see it depicted on canvas.
Historic Carson House
The Historic Carson House was built in the late 1700s. The white, two-story house is just off Highway 70, near the entrance to the Greenway.
I was surprised at how close it is to the road. Trust your GPS. The driveway isn’t well marked, but you’ll see the sign if you’re looking for it.
You’ll see the house as soon as you turn into the driveway. There is a fee to tour the home, but I was able to wander around the exterior.
Downtown Marion Tailgate Market
This is the new Farmer’s Market. It’s only open Saturdays from 10 am – 2 pm May through October. When it’s not in use, it seems to be a parking area.
Outdoor Adventures Near Marion
What makes Marion one of the best small mountain towns in North Carolina, is its proximity to Pisgah National Forest. There’s a lot to do here and it’s great for any experience level.
Tom’s Creek Falls
This is a very easy-to-reach waterfall in Pisgah National Forest. It’s about 0.75 miles (one-way) of hiking on good trail that’s level. There’s an observation deck near the bottom, but trees make it difficult to see. If you continue a little further, you can scramble down some rocks and view the waterfall from its base.
While you can continue up to the top, this isn’t recommended. It’s more rock scramble than hike, and it can be slippery. I wouldn’t try it unless you’re an experienced hiker and have shoes with good tread.
There’s a small gravel lot and some street parking for about 8 vehicles. It’s a popular area so get there early.
Joseph McDowell Historical Catawba Greenway
I was blown away by the pretty Greenway. The parking lot is huge and has a porta-potty. It appears to be gated so when they say it closes at dusk, you may want to really be back by dusk.
The paved trail starts with a meadow to your right, then winds into trees before you cross a wooden bridge.
There were several people walking and biking the trail when I visited. It’s about 3.5 miles round-trip and mostly level. Perfect for beginners, or anyone just wanting an easy day outdoors.
After your hike, you can stop by the Historic Carson House which is right down the street.
Mount Ida Wilderness Area
One of the things no one tells you about hiking is the mountain roads leading to some trailheads. So let’s talk about it now. The road to the parking lot is about a mile uphill. Half of it is paved and the other half is dirt and gravel. There are two sections that are steep, one on the gravel portion.
The good news is that this isn’t the worst mountain road out there if you’re used to them, and it’s pretty wide.
At the top, there’s plenty of parking and a covered picnic shelter. You can hike 0.5 miles to the top. I read that there were views of downtown Marion from the top, but it was treed in with no views. I continued to the area where there was a power station and there still weren’t any views.
It’s a nice hike, and you may be able to see downtown Marion in the winter, but go for the hike, not the view.
This is a crazy 26-mile loop for experienced mountain bikers. It’s easy to get off trail and it’s highly recommended to use the MTB Project Mobile App.
The area is mainly undeveloped, but it’s considered an epic ride. There are several tough sections, but the last section is 5 miles and 2000 feet of blissful downhill trail.
You may see some hikers on the trail as a section of the Mountains to Sea trail uses Woods Mountain.
Where to Eat and Drink Near Marion
There are so many good restaurants in Marion that it’s hard to try them all. Do you want a craft brew? Ice cream? How about a burrito? Where’s the best breakfast? So. Many. Choices. I admit that this isn’t a complete list. As you walk around, see what looks good to you.
Ingenious Coffee Roasters
I have a latte problem. I’m aware. And I got my daily cup of happiness at Ingenious Coffee Roasters. They only sell one size which makes life easy. Cold drinks are slightly larger to make room for ice.
Sam was the barista when I visited, and she was amazing. She’s friendly, helpful, and makes a mean iced latte.
Bessie’s Diner serves basic food really well. There’s something to be said for a breakfast plate of scrambled eggs, potato hash, toast, and coffee that’s served perfectly.
I didn’t have to ask for my coffee to be topped up once. There was one woman serving and she expertly managed six tables. Everything looked and smelled great.
Located a few miles from downtown in a small building, it’s worth the stop.
Elevate Breakfast Company
I passed Elevate as a couple seating outside were getting their plates. The pancakes were piled high and I still remember the smell of the maple syrup.
Elevate is only open for breakfast and has a couple of tables outside. The food looked and smelled amazing. It’s right on Main Street, near McDowell Local.
The Burrito Bros
Don’t be fooled by the name, the Burrito Bros serves more than burritos. They’ve got tacos, street fries, fajitas, and more.
You can pair your food with a drink from the bar.
Bruce’s Fabulous Foods
You gotta love the simple name. Bruce and Barbar Brown opened the shop to serve good food and showcase Bruce’s cheesecakes. He’s a personal chef known for his cheesecake and now anyone can get a piece.
The menu focuses on wraps, salads, and sandwiches, because, let’s face it, you’re here for the cheesecake.
Spillway Bridge and Co.
Spillway Bridge and Co. considers itself a tap house and music hall. They do have a small menu with a focus on paninis, but they also had skewered shrimp when I visited.
The music features everything from jazz to world music to rock to Celtic. You name it, they’ve booked it.
Mica Town Brewing
Just behind Main Street is a little brick building with a blue sign that says, Mica Town Brewing Company. Just follow the people. Not a beer drinker? That’s okay. While their distillery is located at their Nebo location, you can get wine by the glass, bourbon, and cocktails at the Marion location.
Refinery 13 Taproom
Located in a little group of shops on Main Street with Elevate and McDowell Local, Refinery 13 is a Beer Bar.
They’re only open Wednesday through Saturday so time your visit. They offer a variety of local brews including Hillman and Mica Town Brewing.
You can find the most up-to-date information on their Facebook page.
Keeper’s Cut Meadery
Keeper’s Cut is a few blocks down from Main Street on Henderson Street. The pretty white building has a gorgeous outdoor seating area with red umbrellas.
They’re only open Thursday through Saturday in the afternoons. They have a tasting room inside and enjoy sharing information about mead and answering questions. There’s a small menu of foods to pair with your mead.
McDowell Local offers a menu of locally sourced food but in an approachable way. You’ll find items like poutine and cheesy bread on the menu. And don’t get me started on the burgers and sandwiches. The Swamp Fox is calling my name.
But my favorite part may be the build-your-own. What restaurant actually lets you build your own sandwich or burger? Sheer genius.
Artesana Ice Cream
This is my definition of perfection. I was hot and hungry and there was this colorful ice cream shop. I opted for the cookie dough ice cream assuming it would be vanilla with chunks of cookie dough. Nope. It was smooth, beige ice cream that they somehow made to taste exactly like cookie dough. What?!
I mean every single bite of luscious, smooth, ice cream tasted exactly like cookie dough. It was magic. I will definitely be back.
Where to Stay in Marion
There are plenty of places to stay in and near Marion, regardless of your preference. From primitive camping in Pisgah National Forest to hotels, you’re covered.
There are several campgrounds in the area for RVs and tents. You can use Hipcamp to locate private sites or head to a campground like Mountain Stream RV Park, Mad Mama’s River Run, or Spacious Skies.
Backpackers can head into Pisgah National Forest for free camping but with no amenities.
I gave glamping a go at Gold River Camp and Cabins and stayed in one of their cabins. The Nook was perfect for me. Their shared bathrooms and showers were clean, and everything you need to know is spelled out in the Airbnb listing and via the notifications they send.
Easy check-in and check-out, and several pretty locations to sit and enjoy the evening.
You’ll find a ton of hotels in the area including a Hampton Inn, Comfort Inn, Holiday Inn, and Alpine Inn.
I really like using Airbnb or VRBO when heading to the mountains. There are plenty of tiny homes, cabins, and retreats away from the crowds. Your own little slice of heaven.
Festivals in Marion
If you happen to be in the area during one of the festivals, make sure to stop by.
WNC Bigfoot Festival
I don’t care what your stance is on Bigfoot, you have to admit that a Bigfoot festival is going to be awesome.
Started by the non-profit group Bigfoot 911, the festival celebrates all things Sasquatch. There are educational panels and food inspired by Sasquatch. You can even enjoy the Bigfoot calling contest.
It’s a bit difficult to explain livermush. Basically, it’s made with pig liver, parts of pig heads, cornmeal, and spices. There’s actually a North Carolina law that says it must contain 30% pig liver to be called livermush.
Since it’s uniquely southern, it makes sense we have a festival.
Mountain Glory Festival
The Mountain Glory Festival celebrates the arrival of fall in the mountains. It’s an arts and crafts street festival with live entertainment. The breweries and meadery are usually on hand with their products along with over 150 craft and food vendors.
Wrap-Up: Marion, NC
You can’t go wrong planning a weekend visit to Marion. It’s one of the best small towns in Western North Carolina. From its historic Main Street with great shops and restaurants to great hiking nearby, it’s perfect for couples, families, and solo travelers. And at just a little over three hours from Raleigh, it’s easy to get there.
Bring your appetite and camera, you’ll need both when you visit.