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Text By Jack M. Turner
Photos by The Author and John C. Turner

    Train # 92, Amtrak’s Silver Star, pulls out of Jacksonville, FL right on time a few minutes after 11:00pm and we are glad to trade train station seating for the relative comfort of beds in Viewliner sleeper 62011 Gulf View.  We have a short overnight ride so it’s right to bed rather than enjoying the nocturnal views of our passage from north Florida into the woods and swamplands of southeast Georgia.
   Sleep comes quickly as the train runs nonstop to Savannah then follows the former Seaboard line into South Carolina.  The track north of Savannah is noticeably bumpier as this route is not the focus of attention by its owner, CSX, as the ex-Atlantic Coast Line route via Charleston is its primary freight line.  I wake during our brief stop in Denmark, SC and again in Columbia but manage to sleep as we make three other overnight station stops.  In the morning we eat some breakfast rolls we brought with us since this train doesn’t carry a regular dining car.
   We arrive in Cary, NC less than 10 minutes late at 8:15am and find an interesting little station tucked between the former Seaboard line from Florida and the old Southern Railway line from western North Carolina.  Today the ex-Southern tracks host four Amtrak trains per day in each direction, namely a trio of Piedmont trains linking Raleigh and Charlotte and a lone Carolinian connecting New York with Charlotte.  The station building is a modest but modern brick edifice and the presence of diverging rail lines right outside its doors makes this an interesting place to change trains.  We could have connected in Raleigh but Amtrak’s computer displayed a Cary transfer which allowed a bit more breathing room had our train from Florida been late.
   Train # 75 eases to a stop in Cary on-time at 10:12am and we climb aboard one of its comfortable coaches.  We note that this is a rare Amtrak station (other than terminal stations) where a person can arrive aboard an Amtrak train on one track and depart on a train boarding on a track that diverges from the opposite side of the station.  Only Charlottesville, VA, Selma, NC, and Schenectady, NY come to mind among active non-terminal stations.


An early morning Piedmont arrives in Cary, NC in August 2007 en route to Charlotte.
   The Piedmont route heads west from Cary and within 20 minutes our train calls at Durham, home of Duke University and the Durham Bulls Triple-A baseball team.  We continue west through Greensboro where we join the route of Amtrak’s Crescent which links New York and Washington with Atlanta and New Orleans.  We next roll southwesterly through High Point which is the connecting point for Thruway busses to Winston-Salem.  At 1:10pm the Piedmont makes a timely arrival into Charlotte where we rent a car and begin our tour of North Carolina. 

    The Sapphire Valley/Cashiers area is our first destination and we enjoy several spectacular waterfalls that are accessed with minimal effort.  Each waterfall is unique as one is the tallest waterfall in the eastern United States, two allow visitors to walk behind the bottom of the waterfall greeted by misty spray from the falling waters, and a couple feature swimming holes below the falls.  One of these even doubles as a sliding rock where mostly young folks slide down the modest falls on the seat of their pants.  In addition to the waterfalls, we enjoy shopping, antiquing, and dining in this area and we find the Hampton Inn, Sapphire Valley to be the perfect lodging choice with its clean and quiet rooms which feature beautiful mountain vistas on the front side of the hotel.  The hotel’s indoor pool and front porch rocking chairs are welcomed after our days of exploring waterfalls, hiking, and sightseeing.

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Whitewater Falls, highest waterfall in the eastern United States, is located south of Sapphire, NC.

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Cashiers Sliding Rock is located off Whiteside Cove Road south of Cashiers.

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Silver Run Falls is a short hike from Highway 107 south of Cashiers, NC.

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Dry Falls, along US 64 west of Highlands, NC, allows visitors to view the falls from many perspectives including behind the falling waters.

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The attractive exterior of Hampton Inn Cashiers/Sapphire Valley.

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The view from our room at the Hampton Inn Cashiers/Sapphire Valley.

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This beautiful stone fireplace is the centerpiece of the breakfast area at the Hampton Inn located in Sapphire Valley, NC.

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The indoor swimming pool at Hampton Inn Cashiers/Sapphire Valley.

   An hour west of Sapphire Valley one can ride the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad which operates trains in both directions from Bryson City.  Having made this trip recently, we bypassed it this visit but heartily recommend the ride on this scenic former Southern Railway line.  The trip to the Nantahala Gorge is especially scenic though the shorter trip to Dillsboro is also a pleasant journey.  Both steam and diesel power are employed at various times by the GSMR so it is best to inquire before your visit if that is important to you.  The GSMR is an easy day trip from Sapphire Valley which allows the Hampton Inn to remain a base of operations for your visit to the area.


The engines run around the train on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad trip to Nantahala Gorge.

   After a couple days in Sapphire Valley, we make a short drive to Asheville to visit the beautiful Biltmore House and Gardens which was opened in 1895 by George W. Vanderbilt.  The Biltmore estate offers magnificent vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is truly one of the greatest homes in America.  Construction of the house took six years and required the building of a railroad spur line to bring in construction materials.  An audio tour of the house takes approximately two hours and is very interesting.  Among the rooms we visit are the entrance hall, the banquet hall where up to 60 people could be served dinner, a formal sitting area known as The Salon, a music room, library, tapestry gallery, and numerous bedrooms and sitting rooms.  We also tour the kitchen, pantry, and recreation facilities such as an indoor swimming pool, gymnasium, and bowling alley.  The adjacent horse stables today house an excellent cafe which is worth a lunch time visit.  A series of colorful gardens stand in close proximity to the house and are a must-see during a visit.  During summer 2018 the fantastic Chihuly exhibit featuring works of art made of glass was featured at Biltmore House, primarily in the gardens.  The colorful pieces complimented the natural beauty of the gardens and drew large crowds to the estate.  A visit to Biltmore also includes a scenic country drive with stops at its winery, shopping and dining village, and other points of interest.  There are numerous lodging choices in Asheville but it is wise to plan well in advance to ensure availability and hopefully obtain an affordable rate.

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The stately Biltmore House.

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Construction of the Biltmore House required a railroad spur line to the property.

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The Banquet Hall at Biltmore House could seat up to 60 guests.

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The Blue Ridge Mountains provide a great view from the Biltmore House.

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Biltmore's Tapestry Gallery features a set of tapestries from the 1530s called The Triumph of the Seven Virtues.

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The Billiards Room at Biltmore House.

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Biltmore's gardens featured the Chihuly Exhibition of colorful glassworks in spring/summer 2018.

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One of several varieties of roses in the gardens at Biltmore.

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Hibiscus provide color to the gardens at Biltmore.

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Chihuly works in the pond at Biltmore's Italian Garden.

     Departing Asheville we head eastward to Boone, NC, nestled high in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  This is one of our favorite getaways and we always leave refreshed and relaxed.  Drives on the Blue Ridge Parkway are a favorite activity with a picnic included along the way, usually by the Boone Fork stream near Price Lake.  Tweetsie Railroad is another favorite place to visit as its pair of steam locomotives offer the south’s longest running steam operation.  One will usually find # 190, a native of the White Pass & Yukon Railroad, pulling the train during the busiest part of the summer season with original East Tennessee & Western North Carolina # 12 in charge of the train during other times of the operating season.  On a subsequent visit in June 2018 Tweetsie hosted the popular annual Day Out With Thomas event which is a favorite of children wishing to ride behind Thomas The Tank Engine.  The Holiday Inn Express is convenient to all area attractions and has a variety of outstanding accommodations.  A nightly ritual during our stay is standing on our balcony and watching colorful mountain sunsets amd this year’s visit did not disappoint.

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Thomas the Tank Engine visits Tweetsie Railroad in June 2018.

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Thomas and Tweetsie steam locomotive # 190 head the train during the annual Day Out With Thomas Event.

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# 190 originally served the White Pass & Yukon RR in Alaska before moving to Tweetsie in the 1960s.

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Thomas and # 190 lead the train across Dead Horse Trestle.

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Tweetsie # 12 originally worked for the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad.


Tweetsie # 12 begins another journey in this October 2014 scene.

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Holiday Inn Express, Boone, NC.

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The breakfast room at Holiday Inn Express in Boone.

   Our autumn tradition the past three years has incorporated rail travel with high school and college football.  In 2015 the destination was the Los Angeles area for high school games in Burbank and Upland plus a UCLA game in the Rose Bowl.  The following year we traveled to Fort Worth, Texas and Tulsa, OK for high school football games and to Stillwater, OK for the Oklahoma State vs. Texas game.  Our 2017 journey takes us to a high school football game in Lenoir, NC and to college football games in Durham and Winston-Salem.  Duke University’s Wallace Wade Stadium is interesting as you walk down to your seat after entering the ticket gate.  Most stadiums require walking up to your seats.  Duke is off to a good start en route to an eventual bowl game appearance and we enjoy the game as the Blue Devils defeat Baylor.  A visit to a Duke football game is an enjoyable experience though devoid of the wild atmosphere of Duke basketball games.  It is worth allowing time to enjoy the Duke campus most notably the Sarah P. Duke Gardens and the gothic University Chapel.


Hibriten High School tackles Newton-Conover in an 18-17 thriller in Lenoir, NC in September 2017.


The Baylor Bears offense attempts to move the ball against the Duke Blue Devils.


Duke football games offer excellent seating to watch the Blue Devils offense move the ball.

    We depart as the 4th quarter winds down and made our way westward to Winston-Salem to take in the last three quarters of Wake Forest’s win over Utah State.  The Demon Deacons seem to gain increased energy as the game wears on leading to a blowout win.  Combined with a stroll around the attractive campus, a visit to a game at Wake is a great activity on a football weekend.  Attending two college football games in one day is a new experience for us and we are tired when we return to Boone for the night.


Wake Forest drives the ball against Utah State.


Wake Forest football games are a great autumn activity in Winston-Salem, NC.

   The train trip home will retrace our steps from several days earlier with a leisurely drive to Charlotte for the 3:15pm Piedmont # 76 which takes us to Raleigh.  Our wait stretches to three hours as train 91 the Silver Star is slightly late and once again sleep comes quickly aboard our roomette in Viewliner 62007 Colonial View.  We slide into Jacksonville at 6:55am after an uneventful overnight.
   Numerous Amtrak stations are convenient for accessing Asheville, Sapphire Valley, and Boone by rental car with Charlotte, Greensboro, and High Point easiest.  Winston-Salem is closest to Greensboro and High Point while Durham is a stop for the Piedmont trains and the Carolinian.  Stops in Raleigh and Cary are also convenient for persons traveling on the Silver Star as are many stops along the overnight Crescent route.


Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Hampton Inn Sapphire Valley/Cashiers, NC

Biltmore House and Gardens

Tweetsie Railroad

Holiday Inn Express Boone, NC

Duke University Football

Wake Forest University Football

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