My family and I decided to go on a last minute trip at the end of this summer, and North Carolina met our criteria of minimal crowds and no flying. We drove south from New York City to the Outer Banks, then headed west all the way to the Appalachian Mountains. There, we found the highlight of our trip: Pisgah National Forest.

Here’s why this wooded paradise provided the perfect backdrop to a classic family adventure:

FAVORITE SIGHTS

The main highways are crowded and chaotic. The trees are far away, with guardrails and big box businesses ruining the view, making wherever you are seem like everywhere else. We preferred the back roads and what we got to see as we whizzed by: swamps, hills, small farms, abandoned buildings covered in weeds.

The beauty of the Blue Ridge reflected in one of the area's many lakes (Photograph by Rob Langhammer)

The beauty of the Blue Ridge reflected in one of the area’s many lakes (Photograph by Rob Langhammer)

The Blue Ridge Parkway was the most famous road we took, and what I would describe as a “must see” experience. Even though it’s an iconic byway, there were hardly any cars, so whenever we stopped I could get out and skateboard on the empty road. Frequent overlooks showed clouds and fog moving from peak to peak. When we finally entered the national forest, there were no more houses, just a canopy of trees leaning over the road as it went up and over the mountain. There was a light mist, and the high altitudes made my ears pop.

FAVORITE LOCAL EATS

North Carolina takes a lot of pride in its barbecue. Throughout our trip we developed an appreciation for the difference between the sauces they make in the western and the eastern halves of the state. The Eastern style has a vinegar base, which makes it saltier and tangier than its sweeter, tomato-based western counterpart, known as Lexington style. Me? I preferred the Eastern style ‘cue. It has a subtler flavor, and you can taste all of the different ingredients.

We also ate a lot of fried food–from fried chicken to “onion blossoms” to fried corn. Onion blossoms are essentially whole onions that are cut to look like a flower. I loved it, and there was something about the new shape that made the whole thing taste like something I had never eaten before.

FAVORITE ACTIVITIES

Pisgah National Forest is known for its beautiful views, which I could glimpse through breaks in the trees, but the real treat of being here is getting to engage with nature. Here you can fish, ride a bike, go for a hike, swim in the rivers, and play in the waterfalls. One of the most exciting aspects of our trip was camping–something I, being based in Manhattan, don’t get the chance to do very often.

Booker Ziplining with Navitat Canopy Adventures (Photograph courtesy Booker Travels)

Booker Ziplining with Navitat Canopy Adventures (Photograph courtesy Booker Travels)

The owner of Hawg Wild Bar-B-Que had given us some suggestions (while he picked on a banjo) about where we should go to fish, so we decided to put our rods and his advice to use the next morning. As the sun began to rise, we could see fog building up over the river. Light streamed in through the trees as we walked up and down stream, wading to different spots we hoped would bring us luck. I never did catch anything, but I had a ball anyway.

When we got to the famous Sliding Rock, a 50-foot natural water slide, it was overcast, and a bit chilly, but packed with families. I changed into my board shorts and gave it a go. The water was cold (50-60°F) but I was able to get in six runs down the slippery slope before it started raining so hard that it actually hurt.

There are also other things that seem like they are made just for tourists, but some are worth a try. I particularly liked Navitat, a zip-lining adventure course set up over a lush canopy of trees. The ride was thrilling, but the view was absolutely amazing.

FAVORITE CHARACTER

Booker and the "Mushroom Man" (Photograph by Curtis Mitchell)

Booker and the “Mushroom Man” (Photograph by Curtis Mitchell)

When we stumbled upon a farmers market in a small town bordering Pisgah, we met Greg Carter, a mushroom grower with a big beard and a shirt that read, “I’m a Fun Guy” (Fungi, get it?). When he mentioned that he gives tours of his “growing business,” Deep Woods Farm, and teaches people how to hunt for wild mushrooms, we had to take him up on the offer.

The next morning, we rolled up to the farm in nearby Mills River, North Carolina, and were greeted by a bounding golden retriever followed by Greg in his “Shiitake Happens” shirt. Everywhere we looked, we saw logs laying this way and that, simulating ideal growing conditions for the different kinds of mushrooms he was trying to cultivate.

Finally, Greg took us into his “big backyard,” the national forest, to hunt for wild mushrooms and we found two beefsteaks and quite a few specimens from the Lactarius family. As we walked, he gave some tips on how to determine if it’s safe to eat a mushroom. We ended our short hike back at his house, where he threw some butter on a pan to cook each of the mushrooms we found as well as some shiitake and chanterelles to compare the tastes. I never liked mushrooms before, but I do now.

Booker Mitchell is the host of Booker Travels and one of National Geographic’s 2012 Travelers of the Year. Catch up with Booker on Twitter @Booker Travels or on his YouTube Channel.

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