Just northeast of Charlotte, down-home Rowan County offers travelers a wide range of things to do. While the area celebrates its history, it’s also in tune with the present. Museums and gold mines, an exotic animal drive-thru, walking trails and wineries, plus loads of little shops, make Rowan County worth a look.
Like its sister counties in the Piedmont of North Carolina, Rowan offers many wineries and breweries for a day of relaxation. Cauble Creek Vineyard, the state’s 100th winery, specializes in sweet North Carolina-grown muscadine wines, while Douglas Vineyards, also known for its sweet fruit wines, boasts great ports. Morgan Ridge Vineyards in Gold Hill offers estate wines and craft brews with expansive grounds, plus, they expanded their business to downtown Salisbury when they opened the Morgan Ridge Railwalk Brewery and Eatery. Stop by for lunch or dinner and enjoy a beer mash fed burger with a glass of Flatcreek Swampwater, one of their original brews. Another brewery worth visiting is named for the original name, Old Sarum, of Salisbury’s namesake and sister city in England, New Sarum Brewing Company’s Cheerwine brew was so popular it sold out quickly after two releases.
2. Go for the Gold
Rowan County has a deep history in gold mining. In its southeastern corner is Gold Hill Mines Historic Park. Here you’ll find one of the most significant facilities for the mining of gold and copper in North Carolina. Gold wasn’t first discovered here, rather on the Reed family farm in nearby Cabarrus County. However, gold production was strong in the region from the 1820s through about 1915. The Historic Village of Gold Hill complex offers festivals and events, like guided ghost tours in the fall, plus Morgan Ridge winery. Soak up the cute village atmosphere while visiting antique shops and art studios. Mama T’s restaurant has two nice porches for dining and offers live musical performances on select evenings. Enjoy juicy sirloin steak, spaghetti with homemade sauce and more. Save room for dessert because Mama T’s are divine!
3. All Aboard!
The North Carolina Transportation Museum is located on the one-time site of the Southern Railway Company’s largest steam locomotive repair facility. This museum will leave the little ones — and adults alike — wide-eyed, with its authentic train depot, antique cars and, the kicker, a 37-bay “Roundhouse,” with 25 locomotives, rail cars and other transportation-themed exhibits. During the pandemic, the museum hosts the Transportation Trail, an outdoor walking tour of the museum’s 60-acre grounds. Exhibits include steam and diesel locomotives, automotive and trucking equipment, plus fire trucks.
4. Canopy Camping
Looking to spend a few days in the area? The Cherry Treesort offers five luxury treehouse rentals, nestled in the Rowan County woods in China Grove. Each rental treehouse offers indoor amenities like air conditioning and bathrooms with showers, as well as outdoor amenities — fire pits, swings and hammocks.
5. Farm Fun
Patterson Farm is one of the largest growers in North Carolina. This 100-year staple of Rowan County is comprised of roughly 1,100 acres bursting with crops from tomatoes and strawberries to peppers and poinsettias. Bring the kids and pick your own produce seasonally. Stay to learn all about where food comes from and how it winds up on the dinner table. The on-site market is open from March to mid-November, too, where you can purchase not only seasonal produce, but jams, jellies, gifts, and — a trusty favorite — hand-dipped ice cream.
6. Exotic Animals
Want to wow the kids? How about giving them a glimpse of a 125-pound Vietnamese pot-bellied pig or a large-eyed, ring-tailed lemur from Madagascar? Three-and-a-half miles of wild safari, packed with these exotic animals, awaits at Lazy 5 Ranch. Located in Mooresville, the animal drive-thru park, opened by Henry Hampton and his family in 1993, features over a thousand animals from six continents. Catch antelopes, giraffes, elk, llamas, camels and more. The popular wagon rides are suspended during the pandemic, but you can still ride through in your personal vehicle.
7. Shopping Spots
Galleries filled with arts and crafts, antique shops and more line the main streets of Salisbury, Kannapolis, Spencer and more. Pop into Caniche, owned by friends Missie Alcorn and Lesleigh Drye, for a sampling of sunny clothes and jewelry, candles and other home accents. You’ll also find personalized gifts like wine glasses and tumblers. Nearby, Critters Cards and Gifts teems with colorful cards, stuffed animals, gag gifts and more. Find funky vintage treasures at the vinyl-filled Lost & Found or Mary Mae’s — A Southern Mercantile in Spencer, where you’ll find everything from teacups and vintage ornaments to a military section and wall tapestries. Whether you’re browsing just to pass the afternoon or looking for a gift for friends or family, Rowan County has a shop for you. Looking for antiques? Hit the Rowan Museum’s annual antiques show the second weekend of November.
8. Historical Strolls
In 1962, a group of students attending nearby Livingstone College organized a protest that ended with the desegregation of area theaters. Today, a historical marker identifies the location of the one-time Capitol Theatre, where it took place. Similar stops, 21 in all, make up the African-American Heritage Trail in downtown Salisbury. The self-guided trail includes a series of historic churches, residences, cemeteries and more that highlight the achievements and legacy of African Americans in Rowan County. To download a brochure, see the online version of this article and hit the pavement.
9. Iconic Beverage
Cheerwine, the fruity-fizzy soft drink, is a way of life in these parts. The special concoction, created in 1917, boasts its own exhibit room in the Rowan Museum. In addition, each year Cheerwine Festival-goers pack the streets of Salisbury to indulge in food, live music, and of course, the cherry drink itself. Looking for a fun photo op? Stop by the original Cheerwine building at 300 E. Council St. in downtown Salisbury.
(Photos: Morgan Ridge Railwalk Brewery and Eatery, NC Transportation Museum, Cheerwine and Janean Flowe and Visit Salisbury NC)