Pillar Talk
North Carolina's Towering Chimney Rock

By Lloyd Rose
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 26, 2003

They've censored the Chimney Rock sign. Back in the 1950s, road signs depicted a line drawing of western North Carolina's famous granite pillar with a smile on it and a waving, welcoming hand attached. A friendly cartoon character beckoning the whole family to have fun. But by the time I was in my twenties, the sign had been replaced by a more realistic photographic image taken from an angle that didn't emphasize quite so strongly what I realize, with the wisdom of age, was the Rock's definite resemblance to, well . . .

Put it this way: Almost any tall, freestanding structure is commonly, if not sniggeringly, referred to as a phallic symbol. And yet, admit it, how many really have the proper shape?

Chimney Rock does.

And so did its signs.

But no more.

Chimney Rock rises over Hickory Nut Gorge, a narrow cleft in the Blue Ridge Mountains 25 miles southeast of Asheville, that allows the town of Chimney Rock room for a single row of buildings on either side of Highway 64/74A. The boulder-filled Rocky Broad River splashes prettily with light rapids, neither broad, in fact, nor very deep.

In the old days, the town had a shabby, precarious air -- a corn-dogs-and-homemade-fudge-and-tacky-cedar-souvenirs ambiance. Now, some of the spirit of nearby Black Mountain, a center for quality North Carolina crafts, has seeped into the place. There are little galleries with interesting work. You can get a cappuccino.

Fortunately, you can also still get corn dogs, at least three different kinds of homemade fudge -- and a souvenir magnet bearing an image of the Rock in all its old phallic glory.

Chimney Rock itself is a 315-foot-high granite monolith jutting out from the mass of Chimney Rock Mountain. In 1902, Lucius B. Morse, a physician, developed it as a tourist attraction, building bridges and roads. And the tourists came. There are delightful period photographs of women in big hats and long dresses sitting in the natural formation quaintly named the Opera Box. The vista behind them explains Chimney Rock's attraction; the place has truly spectacular views.

Today, you can climb up to the Rock -- it's 450 steps from the base to the top -- or take an elevator. From a viewing platform, in the brisk breeze on the bare promontory, you can gaze along the ancient gorge of the Brevard Fault. You're looking at some of the oldest mountains in the world, formed more than 500 million years ago.

An easy three-quarter-mile walk brings you to the top of Hickory Nut Falls, passing on the way there and back various natural formations to which Morse gave colorful names: the aforementioned Opera Box; Devil's Head, which really does resemble a stone demon overlooking the gorge; and Nature's Shower Bath, where even in the driest season droplets of water from some unseen source spatter down on the path.

Though the view from the top of 404-foot-high Hickory Nut Falls is fine, you don't get a good look at the falls themselves. Or any look, really. That's because they're falling, plunging out of sight over what appears to be a sheer drop. On a recent visit, I lay on my stomach and wriggled out on the rock to peer over and see the water drop. All I saw was more rock. The sheer drop doesn't start immediately, and I was looking at a gradient.

A better view of the falls can be gained along a mile-long trail at the bottom. Their height is always impressive (they're among the highest falls on the East Coast), but even in the wettest season, the stream is thin. Like the mountains around them, the falls eschew the dramatic.

At Chimney Rock's eastern end is the township of Lake Lure, home of the columned Lake Lure Inn, where the movie "Dirty Dancing" was filmed. Beside the inn, a road leads off to the Bottomless Pools, a modest natural wonder that once made it into "Ripley's Believe It or Not."

The three Bottomless Pools are caldrons formed by small waterfalls, which erode them in such a way that their sides look almost perfectly round and smooth. Technically speaking, they're "bottomless" because each drains into a fissure the depth of which has never been measured. Except where the little falls hit each one, they look serene -- though if you know anything about water, you suspect that it's a deadly serenity. You're not supposed to swim in the pools, but there aren't any signs shrilly warning of Imminent Death -- or if there are, they're subtle enough that I missed them.

The only sign I saw was an old carved one at the upper pool that read Upper Pool. Below it, on a tree trunk, hung a poem, typed and fitted into an 8-by-10-inch frame. Dated Christmas 2000, it's a eulogy to the poet's mother, one Uvalda Cantrell Dowdy.

Why is it there, warped a bit by damp but undisturbed by curious or malicious visitors? Who was Mrs. Dowdy, and for what reason did her child honor her at this particular spot? Small, poignant, eccentric mystery in a cheap drugstore frame -- like the old, old beauty of the surrounding mountains behind their history of silly signs and cheap souvenirs. A small paradox, a quiet bit of grace, the tourist's undeserved reward.

Lloyd Rose is a former theater critic for The Washington Post.

Details: Chimney Rock, N.C.

GETTING THERE: Chimney Rock is 25 miles southeast of Asheville, N.C., on Highway 64/74A. The drive from Washington is approximately nine hours, via I-95 south to I-85 south of Richmond and then to I-40 near Raleigh, N.C. Then pick up Highway 74A in Asheville.

ADMISSION: Chimney Rock Park is open daily, except for Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. Admission is $14 (reduced when inclement weather closes more than two trails). The Bottomless Pools (828-625-8324), on Highway 64/74A in nearby Lake Lure, are open April to October, weekends in November; admission is $3.

WHERE TO STAY: The Lodge on Lake Lure (361 Charlotte Dr., Lake Lure, 800-733-2785, www.lodgeonlakelure.com) is a rustic stone and wood construction with a solarium breakfast room overlooking the lake and a massive fireplace with a millstone imbedded above it. Added attraction: One of the rooms is haunted. Rates are $149 to $250. The Lake Lure Inn (Highway 64/74A, 888-434-4970, lakelureinn.com; $99-$115), where "Dirty Dancing" was filmed, offers 50 rooms and a pool along the shoreline.

The Wicklow Inn B&B (Highway 64/74A. Chimney Rock Village, 877-625-4038, www.thewicklowinn.com) has five rooms and a suite in a house built right on the river. Complimentary breakfast includes such specials as baked apple pancakes and poached pears with raspberry puree. Rates are $95 to $135.

WHERE TO EAT: Though reconstructed since a recent fire, the Esmeralda Inn (Highway 74A, Chimney Rock Village) still has the atmosphere of a Victorian resort -- and is the place for fine dining. Try the shrimp and grits, local trout and asparagus corn pudding. Dinner entrees $19-$25. The Cajun Pig (496 Main St., Chimney Rock Village) has pork and beef barbecue, plus gumbo and jambalaya. Sandwiches under $6; BBQ dinner platters from $7.50

INFORMATION: Chimney Rock Park, 800-277-9611, www.chimneyrockpark.com. For general info: Hickory Nut Gorge Chamber of Commerce, 828-625-2725, www.thehickorynutgorge.com, or Chimney Rock Village Community Development Association, www.chimneyrock.org.

-- Lloyd Rose

© 2003 The Washington Post Company