Old Fort, North Carolina is a pretty mountain town in McDowell County 30 minutes east of Asheville. You can visit the historic downtown area and see everything in a day.
Why is this one of North Carolina’s best mountain towns? Because Old Fort is base camp for some of the best trails Pisgah National Forest has to offer.
Old Fort is THE stop for the best mountain bike trails in Pisgah. And it’s home to Catawba Falls, one of the best waterfalls in North Carolina. Did I mention it has its own manmade geyser? Oh, and some great hiking trails.
I’m just saying, it has a lot to offer and it’s a great town to hang out in, grab a beer and bite to eat after a hard day of adventuring, or just take a day off and relax.
Outside of the downtown area, the town runs into both Marion and Black Mountain North Carolina. You can also easily get to the Blue Ridge Parkway. In my eyes, this little mountain town is perfectly situated.
There’s plenty of free parking along the street, which I love. And staff at the Blue Ridge Traveler Visitor Center know their stuff and can point you to great places for your outdoor adventures. You’ll leave armed with inspiration and maps.
- History of Old Fort, North Carolina
- The Best Things to Do in Old Fort
- Places to Hike and Bike Near Old Fort
- Where to Eat and Drink Near Old Fort
- Where to Stay in Old Fort, NC
- Events in Old Fort
- Wrap-Up: Old Fort, NC
History of Old Fort, North Carolina
Old Fort was originally populated by both the Catawba and Cherokee American Indians. In the 1500s, Spanish explorers came to the area, followed by English and Scottish settlers in the 1700s.
The town is named for a fort built by the Davidson Brothers during the Revolutionary War. They called it Davidson’s Fort. After the war, it became a trading site.
Like many small towns in Western North Carolina, Old Fort grew with the arrival of the Western North Carolina Railway in 1869. This brought about the train depot and a hotel.
Initially named Catawba Vale in 1872, the town’s name was changed to Old Fort in 1873 to honor its origins.
The Best Things to Do in Old Fort
Make sure you clear at least half a day to visit downtown Old Fort. It’s a pretty town with cool things to do.
The Arrowhead Monument
For some reason, Google states the monument is “temporarily closed”. This led my inner Yoda to wonder, “Can a monument on a street corner be closed or open? Is it not just there?” Turns out I was right. (I’m fairly certain the Google issue is that the Railroad Museum it sits in front of is temporarily closed).
You can’t miss the monument sitting on the corner of E Main Street and Catawba Avenue in front of the Old Fort Railroad Museum. It’s a 14.5-foot granite arrowhead sitting atop a 15-foot base.
The arrowhead was constructed to symbolize the peace agreement between the Cherokee and Catawba tribes, once bitter enemies.
The Old Fort Railroad Museum
The Railroad Museum doesn’t have set hours. It was the original Old Fort train depot, but the last train stopped in 1975. After some renovations, it was re-opened as a museum and Visitors Center in 2005.
It appears it hasn’t opened regularly since 2018 per reviews. The pretty yellow building with white trim sits between and next to railroad tracks.
There’s a red caboose around the back of the building that’s in good condition. I would say it’s a pretty building and a fun bit of history but don’t count on it being open.
The Mountain Gateway Museum
The Mountain Gateway Museum in downtown Old Fort exceeded my expectations. There are two preserved cabins on the grounds, each with its own history. You can wander through and read their stories.
Inside the museum itself is a self-guided tour that takes you through local history. From a moonshine still (with instructions that may be a little too helpful), to old fire station equipment, to facts about the police department, there’s a lot to take in.
As you wander through, take time to read through the information. Quite a few famous people are from Old Fort!
There is also a small gift shop with homemade products like jam and barbeque sauce, and postcards.
Outside is a small area with picnic tables, a pretty garden, and a fountain.
If you wander behind the two cabins, there’s an outdoor amphitheater that was cool. From the stage, you can see the stone seats with one of the cabins at the top.
Arrowhead Gallery and Studios
Arrowhead Gallery and Studios is run by the Arrowhead Artists and Artisans League. The studio is a space for local artists to share their pieces.
Inside are small exhibits you can visit, and often classes. If there is an artist working when you arrive, they often like to share what they’re doing and why. It’s a great way to learn and appreciate the skill that goes into crafting these beautiful pieces.
Old Fort has some great murals throughout downtown. As you walk around, keep an eye out for them. There are two on the front of buildings housing downtown shops and a third around the corner. But if you’re looking, you’ll see more around town.
Davidson’s Fort Historic Park
Okay, let’s talk about this. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure if it’s on public or private land. You’re going to think your GPS is wrong because it looks like it wants you to turn into the parking lot for Motus Technologies. You want to turn onto the dirt road just past the fence. You’ll see the sign for Bud Hogan Drive.
There are literally two dirt tire tracks with grass in the middle and it looks like a private driveway. The road is not in good shape so be careful if it’s been raining.
You can’t miss the historic fort on your left. If there’s no event going on, the interior will be closed. All you can do is walk around the exterior.
Check for demonstrations and reenactments. If there’s one happening when you’re in town, try to make time to visit.
NOTE: The Geyser is not functioning as of March 2023 due to ongoing repairs. Some locals reported it was working in June, however, it was down again when I visited in August.
Even with the geyser not functioning, this is still a great place to visit. The man-made fountain, named for Colonel Alexander Boyd Andrews, shoots water continuously up 80 feet. The water comes from a pond at the Inn on Mill Creek.
The railroad tracks run in front and behind the park housing the geyser.
But the park is more than the geyser. It’s a monument to the prisoners and slaves that were forced to build the railroad. There’s a plaque commemorating the individuals including the names of those they were able to identify.
Approximately 120 men died building the section of railroad that winds through the local area which was considered dangerous terrain. Some historians estimate the number could be much higher.
It’s a pretty park with a lot of green areas, monuments to those that built the railroad, the geyser, and picnic areas. With plenty of parking, it’s a good place to stop if you’re heading to any of the trails off Mill Creek Road in Pisgah.
Places to Hike and Bike Near Old Fort
Parked at the edge of the beautiful Pisgah National Forest, there are tons of places to hike and mountain bike just minutes from Old Fort.
Catawba Falls Waterfall
Note: Catawba Falls is closed until Spring 2024 due to ongoing trail improvements.
This may be one of the most popular waterfalls in North Carolina. As the water falls down the mountain, it splits into a dizzying array of cascading streams.
The hike is 4 miles round-trip. There are a few stream crossings so good hiking shoes are recommended. Although the trail is currently closed for some much-needed repairs and improvements, the trailhead is just off Interstate 40 making it an easy stop on your future travels.
Old Fort Picnic Area
The Old Fort picnic area is easy to find just off Old US 70. There’s a sign noting the entrance, but you need to look for it. The driveway is a short dirt and gravel road, slightly hidden.
According to the National Park Service, it’s only open from April 1 through November 1.
You’ll find a decent parking area and around 20 cement picnic tables, spread out over a large area. There are small fire pits/grills near each table. Towards the top of a small hill is a group of three tables with a standing grill. Primitive pit toilets are also available along with water fountains.
This is the go-to parking for cyclists heading out on the Point Lookout Trail/Fonta Flora Trail/Greenway which is an easy 0.3 miles further up Old US 70.
You can also access the Kitsuma Peak Trail from the far end of the picnic area.
Point Lookout Trail/Fonta Flora Trail/Greenway
The Point Lookout Trail is a 3.6-mile (one-way) paved road made from an unused section of Old Highway 70. Connecting Old Fort to Ridgecrest, it has a gentle climb up a 900-foot elevation gain to its namesake, Point Lookout.
The trail was included as a section of the Fonta Flora Trail which will connect downtown Asheville to downtown Morganton when completed. It’s perfect for hiking and biking.
When the Old Fort Picnic Area is open, you can park there and continue walking up Old Highway 70 until it dead ends into the trailhead past the Baptist Church. I saw a lot of cyclists parking at the picnic area and heading to the trail.
You can also park at the Ridgecrest end in the Kitsuma Peak Trail parking lot and head down Mill Creek Road.
There is parking near the Baptist Church, but it’s limited and much of the land is private, making it tricky. Parking on Mill Creek is roadside only and a lot of the area is privately owned. Your best bet is one of the parking lots.
Kitsuma Peak Trail
Kitsuma Peak Trail is a 1-mile hike (one-way) to the top of Kitsuma, or 4 miles (one-way) to the Old Fort Picnic Area. For mountain bikers, it’s considered an intermediate trail.
The parking lot at Old Fort Picnic Area is larger, but both lots are decent. If you just want to reach the peak, park in the Kitsuma Trailhead lot off Royal George Road. It’s right near where Mill Creek Road (which switches names to Yates Road) intersects with Old Highway 70.
From the Royal George Road parking area, the first bit of trail is alongside Highway 70. While the noise gets better as you head up the mountain, it’s still there.
There are no blazes, but the trail is easy to follow. Just past a small overlook the trail splits. Head upwards to see the top of the peak. There is no view, it’s just a patch of dirt in the middle of a stand of trees, like an abandoned campground, but it’s the peak. Gaia was on-point with the location.
To hike towards the Old Fort Picnic Area, head back to the trail intersection and go left. The trail will begin to trend down.
For a big day of hiking or mountain biking, you can connect the Point Lookout and Kitsuma Trails to create a loop.
The Gateway Trails are fairly new. While the original Trail has been there for a bit, several new trails have been built and the area continues to expand.
As you drive down the well-maintained dirt road, Gateway Trail is the first one you’ll come to. To reach the others, you’ll need to continue down the road which becomes less maintained and there are limited areas to turn around.
GPS was accurate leading me to the trails using the search “gateway trails”.
They appear to be nice trails, most are around 5 to 7 miles round-trip.
I hate to mention this, but it’s important – I did not feel safe hiking these trails alone. Several reviews mention that these are nice trails and it does seem that some people are comfortable hiking them solo.
As I drove down the road, two cars with men in them that were parked on the side of the road pulled out and followed me to the Gateway Trailhead where they slowed down and continued past.
Later, a pickup truck pulled away from the side of the road and blocked the turn for the Newberry Creek Trail. While these may have been coincidences, my radar was up and I chose not to hike.
Other Areas in Pisgah National Forest
There are tons of additional trails for both hikers and mountain bikers in the area. If you visit Andrews Geyser, then continue down Mill Creek Road, it becomes dirt and gravel, leading you through a scenic drive in the Forest.
Along the way, you’ll see parking for additional trails like the Bernard Mountain Trail and a few hidden ones.
Keep an eye out and grab a map of Pisgah National Forest to find some hidden gems.
You can also stop at the Blue Ridge Traveler Visitor Center in Old Fort for maps and advice.
Where to Eat and Drink Near Old Fort
I’m a huge fan of supporting local restaurants after a day of hiking or biking, and Old Fort makes it easy with great choices. You can also stretch your options by looking for restaurants in nearby Marion and Black Mountain.
Bear Beary Café
Bear Beary Café is a cute little restaurant with world-class cheese curds and ice cream. While those may not sound like they go together, anyone that’s been outdoors all day will understand.
Conveniently located across from the Arrowhead Monument, there’s plenty of parking.
Although the original brewery is in Asheville, the Old Fort location is well-known.
The taproom serves beer and plenty of good food. You can get a Kale Salad or a Barbeque Burger among other items.
Well-behaved dogs on a leash are allowed. There’s parking around the back, but also plenty of street parking. With an outdoor patio, it’s a great place to relax and recharge.
Gogos is where you head when you want dessert for breakfast. Named after the owner’s grandmother, Gogos is all about cinnamon rolls. But we’re talking flavors like Maple Bacon, Chocolate, and Apple Pie.
Stop by for a roll and some coffee. You can pop in or go through the drive-through.
Seekers had not opened when I visited, it’s coming soon, but what’s not to love about a coffee shop? Located just up the road from Hillman Beer and the Blue Ridge Visitor Center, the blue building is sure to become a favorite hang-out.
Whistle Stop Pizza and Subs
Solid pizza and subs with fresh dough. There is some seating inside, but the bulk of their business is to-go. If you’re craving a pizza, this is a good stop, right on Main Street.
Places no Longer in Business
Old Fort Ride House is closed. While I don’t typically mention businesses that have closed, this was a popular destination that was featured on a local TV show and many people are disappointed to find out they went out of business.
Both the Kitsbow store and the attached coffee shop have shut their doors.
Where to Stay in Old Fort, NC
You have options when it comes to staying in Old Fort. Campers can head to the Curtis Creek or Catawba campgrounds.
You can also backpack or primitive camp in Pisgah National Forest.
When it comes to having air conditioning and an actual bed, Airbnb or VRBO are your best choices. There’s also nearby Marion or Black Mountain for additional options.
There’s also the Inn at Mill Creek right in the heart of Pisgah. This is a great location. It’s near all of the hiking trails, Andrews Geyser, and only about 20 minutes from downtown Old Fort.
Events in Old Fort
If you happen to be in the area during one of the festivals, make sure to stop by.
Pioneer Day Festival
Held on the fourth Saturday in April, the 3-day event included both Revolutionary and Civil War re-enactments. There are also exhibitions on blacksmithing, making apple butter, weaving, and woodcarving.
North Carolina Gold Festival
Held the first weekend in June, the festival promotes and educates the gold and gem heritage of the area. North Carolina is home to the first gold rush, which often gets overlooked.
Held in June, cyclists are shuttled to the top of the hill at Ridgecrest. The race has timed sections and casual sections as riders move through the course.
Jerdon Mountain Challenge
Usually held at the end of July, this is backcountry mountain biking at its best. Racers complete a 26-mile course and end with a huge celebration at the Gateway Museum.
Railroad Day Celebration
Held on the third Saturday in September, the festival celebrates the town’s rail history. Local vendors are on hand with crafts, art, and food.
Wrap-Up: Old Fort, NC
You’ll love exploring all of the wonderful things in Old Fort, NC. It’s a great place to get information about the best hiking and biking trails in Pisgah National Forest, enjoy a slow day, and grab some good food.
Cyclists will also love Old Fort Bike Shop for last-minute items and repairs.