(a 15 minute read)

The scenic beauty of Chimney Rock State Park and Lake Lure, North Carolina, has made the region not only a frequent motion picture location, but also a favorite destination for hiking, boating, waterfall-chasing, and the annual Dirty Dancing Festival!

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I was a guest of Rutherford County Tourism, but all thoughts and opinions are my own.

Chimney Rock State Park & Lake Lure North Carolina

I am a 5th-generation native Floridian, but I have had a close connection with the state of North Carolina since childhood. In the early 1960s, my grandfather and his four siblings bought property in the mountains of Franklin, North Carolina, and built five handmade cabins.

Our extended families created many mountain memories over the years on day trips to historic, scenic, and outdoor adventure locations all over the western region of the state.

I first learned about Chimney Rock and Lake Lure from roadside billboards and rack card displays during summer vacations in the 1960s and 70s, but I never visited the area until 2012 when Jerry and I did a loop road trip through the Southeast. Last summer, I made a return visit when I joined a group of travel writers on a media tour during Lake Lure’s annual Dirty Dancing Festival.

Chimney Rock State Park

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The Chimney Rock tourist attraction was privately-owned by the Morse family from it beginnings in the early 1900s until it was purchased in 2007 by the state of North Carolina and officially became Chimney Rock State Park. The park is run by a management company, yet it enjoys all the benefits of state-funded public lands.

Most park activities involve hiking to scenic locations, but guests may also enjoy rock climbing, fishing on the Rocky Broad River, and picnicking. The park schedules educational ranger programs and seasonal special events, as well.

Trail Map

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Map Credit: Chimney Rock Management, LLC

The six hiking trails at Chimney Rock State Park are rated easy, moderate, and strenuous. Click on the image above to enlarge, zoom, and download the park trail map.

The Monolith

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The star attraction at Chimney Rock State Park is the 315 ft. granite monolith. This massive granite outcropping is estimated to be 535 million years old and offers a 75 mile panoramic view that takes in Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure.

In 2012, Jerry and I took the historic 1949 elevator to the top of the Chimney. However, the elevator was closed for renovation in 2015, and is expected to reopen in 2018. Until then, visitors will need to hike the 499-step Outcroppings Trail to reach the top.

Hickory Nut Falls

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To this confirmed waterfall-chaser, Hickory Nut Falls is almost as impressive as the park’s main feature. At 404 ft., this horsetail cascade waterfall is “the second-highest of its kind east of the Mississippi River.”

The falls are a magnificent reward at the end of the .75 mile Hickory Nut Falls Trail (moderate).

More adventurous hikers may want to take the lower .6 mile Four Seasons Trail to the point where it joins the trail to the falls.

I could not stop taking pictures of Hickory Nut Falls from every distance and every angle, which made it difficult to select the best photos for this post.

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If Hickory Nut Falls look familiar to you, it is with good reason. The last 17 minutes of the 1992 motion picture The Last of the Mohicans starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe were shot on location in the park, and the final climactic fight scene was filmed just above the falls.

Two 1984 feature films, Firestarter starring Drew Barrymore and George C. Scott, and A Breed Apart starring Kathleen Turner and Rutger Hauer, also shot scenes on location in the park.

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I am one of those iPhoneographers who always tries to capture shots minus people, except in cases where they lend perspective to the scene. The viewing platform at the bottom of the falls was one such location.

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And travel writers would not be travel writers if they did not pose for the obligatory waterfall shot!

Animal Discovery Den

Visitors can also visit the Animal Discovery Den, located just beyond the main entrance, to learn about native North Carolina wildlife that inhabit the park. Sometimes animals, such as Goblin the screech owl, escape the den to greet guests at the visitor center.

Chimney Rock State Park is open daily, except holidays, and 1-day admission tickets range from $6 (youth) to $13 (adult).

Chimney Rock Village

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Founded in 1991, Chimney Rock Village (pop. 110) lies at the foot of Chimney Rock Mountain. An eclectic collection of shops, eateries, attractions, and the state park entrance are located along Main Street.

The village’s best feature, in my opinion, is the Rocky Broad River that parallels Main Street. Visitors can navigate the paths and bridges of the riverwalk, cool their heels in the water, climb boulders, or enjoy a cool one from an open air deck overlooking the river.

Lake Lure

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The town of Lake Lure also owes its existence to the Morse family. In 1925, they established the Carolina Mountain Power Company and provided funding to construct a dam on the Broad River. The dam created Lake Lure, and in 1928 the power plant began operation.

To get acquainted with the lake, we enlisted the services of Lake Lure Tours, boarded a pontoon, and embarked on a relaxing afternoon cruise.

At only $15 per person, these guided boat tours are a steal!

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Heading out on the water, we passed Firefly Cove where Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey rehearsed the famous lake lift. Just beyond the cove is the former site of the boys camp, a Dirty Dancing film location for scenes including cabins, the gym, and dining hall.

You can see the iconic steps where “Baby” carried the watermelon, just to the left of the house in the photo above.

YouTube video

My friend and colleague Caroline Makepeace from yTravel Blog gave a great introduction to the lake and Dirty Dancing film locations in this spontaneous video from our cruise.

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Further out on the water we were treated to a 360° sweeping view of the Blue Ridge Foothills and Hickory Nut Gorge. Some spectators claim to see the shape of a reclining woman in the distant mountains.

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As we approached the center and deepest part of the lake, someone mentioned that we could go for a swim if we wanted. Since no one had given me the heads-up to wear a swimsuit, I peeled down to my undershorts, jumped in, and swam over to join my colleagues already in the water. The water was a perfect temperature and so refreshing in the summer sun.

At this point, I interject a Public Service Announcement . . . .

We treaded water for a while, involved in casual conversation, when I realized I was quickly running out of energy and struggling to stay afloat. I have never mastered the art of floating on my back, unlike other members of our group, so I called back to the boat for someone to throw me a life jacket. I pulled the vest over my head and gave a sigh of relief.

I truly believe this event was a wake-up call for me. Even though I would be the first to admit that I was out of shape, it never crossed my mind for a second that I would have any problem going for a swim on a peaceful lake.

In the months since this happened, I have still not gotten back in shape, but I did buy a couple of ski vests, and I keep them in the cargo hold of my Mountaineer for times when Jerry and I might want to go for a swim during our road travels.

Even though I believe “Old Guys Rule,” we often forget our once youthful bodies have aged.

Better safe than sorry!

Lake Lure Flowering Bridge

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Urban renewal can take many forms, and even though the town of Lake Lure is less than 100 years old, it has found a way to repurpose an obsolete piece of infrastructure.

The Lake Lure Flowering Bridge is the love child of a host of local volunteers who transformed the historical 1925 Rocky Broad River Bridge into a pedestrian garden, after a new street traffic bridge was opened a few yards upstream in 2011.

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Map Credit: Friends of the Lake Lure Flowering Bridge

The flowering pedestrian bridge features twelve themed plantings and connects the town of Lake Lure with Chimney Rock Village.

While walking the bridge, pedestrians can enjoy excellent views of Chimney Rock to the west and the Broad River flowing to Lake Lure in the east.

The bridge gardens are planted with more than 700 varieties including hydrangea, variegated elephant’s ear, mallow, and the carnivorous pitcher plant. While walking the path, visitors can take a cell phone audio tour that features a sensory trail identifying plants you can touch, smell, and taste.

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Plantings also highlight native species. One of the most prized native specimens is the Franklin Tree, a member of the tea family, described as “America’s First Rare Plant.”

The National Wildlife Federation has recognized the Lake Lure Flowering Bridge as a Certified Wildlife Habitat and it has been designated a Monarch Butterfly Waystation by Monarch Watch.

As funds become available, volunteers continue to expand the gardens along the west bank of the bridge.

Dirty Dancing Festival

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The Dirty Dancing Festival is Lake Lure’s way of celebrating its connection to the 1987 box office smash and cult favorite movie starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. Classic scenes for the low-budget motion picture, including the interior dancing segments, staff cabins, and golf course, were filmed in Lake Lure.

Other scenes were shot on location in Mountain Lake, Virginia.

The two-day annual event takes place at Lake Lure’s Morse Park Meadows and features a packed schedule of entertainment, competitions, food, and fun!

At $25, adult tickets are a bit pricey, but a portion of the festival profits benefit the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PANCAN), an organization dedicated to finding a cure for the world’s toughest cancer and the disease that took Patrick Swayze’s life.

Our group arrived at the event on Saturday so we missed the Friday night lakeside screening of the the classic movie. Even so, it was a privilege to experience the 8th annual festival celebrating the 30th anniversary of the film’s release.

Before heading out to the festival grounds, I stepped inside the Lake Lure Welcome Center where several pieces of movie memorabilia were on display.

The lake, mountains, and sky present a lovely scenic backdrop for the outdoor event, but I highly recommend that visitors wear a hat, shades, and protection from the August sun.

Dancers from the Asheville Ballet were on hand, giving dance lessons and providing main stage entertainment. Dance captains invited select festival-goers to participate in the performance finale, a reenactment of Kellerman’s Talent Show.

I don’t know that I have ever seen a more dedicated, harder-working team, who kept the Dirty Dancing fun going non-stop!

Morse Park is a 23-acre community park located directly on Lake Lure. The park maintains a meadow, landscaped gardens, wetlands, and a riverside, making it a destination all its own on non-event days.

The town-owned Washburn Marina where we boarded our pontoon is conveniently located adjacent to the park.

Festival attendees encircled a small lake cove for the Lake Lift Competition, the culminating activity of the Dirty Dancing Festival, in recognition of the iconic scene from the movie.

The lead dancer of the Asheville Ballet gave an introductory demonstration while a dozen or so couples lined up to attempt the acrobatic feat. As expected, there were lots of fumbles and laughs, but overall I was impressed with the efforts of the competitors.

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The competition was also the setting for a surprise marriage proposal, and he did not drop the ring in the water!

Lake Lure is also a filming location for Thunder Road (1958) starring Robert Mitchum, My Fellow Americans (1996) starring Jack Lemmon, Dan Aykroyd, and James Garner, and most recently Careful What You Wish For (2016) starring Nick Jonas, Isabel Lucas, and Dermot Mulroney.

Lodging & Dining

The Greater Lake Lure/Chimney Rock area has multiple lodging and dining options, with several locations that offer both.

Lake Lure Inn & Spa

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The 1927 Lake Lure Inn & Spa is the most centrally-located facility in town, situated directly across the highway from Lake Lure Beach. Although we did not stay at the historical property, we stopped in to check it out.

The inn was home base for Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, and other members of the cast and crew while they were in town shooting the movie. The hotel has suites named for the actors, as well as Johnny’s Cabin and Baby’s Bungalow replicas located behind the main building.

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Franklin D. Roosevelt are on the list of other prominent guests who have lodged at Lake Lure Inn. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter even stayed there while on their honeymoon!

Just inside the main entrance, I took a peek at the Moose & Goose Lounge. I’ll give you a nickel if you can tell me how the bar got its name.

I was utterly intrigued by the bar’s vintage road travel decor. I would love to have that collection of antique enameled signs displayed in my house, especially since the interior wall and trim colors are identical to mine.

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The lobby is like a museum, filled with art, antiques, and other pieces original to the Lake Lure Inn. Lucky for us, we had timed our arrival perfectly for the guided tour of the rare disc music box collection. These giant machines, all over one hundred years old, function as pieces of furniture and musical instruments.

The inn’s Art and Antique Collection is open to the public for self-guided tours year round.

 The Esmeralda Inn & Restaurant

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Another dual purpose facility, The Esmeralda Inn & Restaurant, has a storied past dating to 1892. The original inn constructed by Colonel Tom Turner also served as a post office and stagecoach stop in the early days.

The area’s popularity as a movie location actually began when it was discovered in 1912. Several silent movies were filmed at the Esmeralda, and the inn became a “hideout” for early movie stars such as Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks, and Clark Gable.

The Esmeralda Inn was destroyed by fire and rebuilt twice, in 1917 and 1997.

During the second reconstruction, flooring from the boys camp gym where the final “I’ve Had the Time of My Life,” dance scene was filmed were salvaged and donated to the renovation.

We enjoyed a delicious outdoor dinner prepared by Chef Keith Chinn at the Esmeralda Restaurant. Our meal included a cheese board from North Carolina creameries, pan-seared scallops, and a grilled Angus filet mignon.

Click here to book your stay at the Esmeralda Inn on TripAdvisor!

The Lodge on Lake Lure

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The Lodge on Lake Lure is yet another historical location that provides both lodging and dining.

The lodge was built in 1930 as a retreat for the North Carolina Highway Patrol. Some officers would fly-in by seaplane to enjoy the peaceful setting with their families and other officers.

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The lodge opened to the public in 1990, and it remains the only lakefront lodging on Lake Lure.

How about that view?

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The view is equally spectacular from the lodge’s Tree Tops Restaurant, where we went for dinner on our second night in town. Guests may also dine al fresco on the veranda.

Menus include standard and seasonal fare such as buttery croissants, duck wings, and seafood pasta.

La Strada at Lake Lure

Another location that offers al fresco dining with a view is La Strada at Lake Lure. Conveniently located in town, this bar & grill specializes “in NY-style brick oven pizza and traditional Italian cuisine.”

Because it was lunch, I opted for a pistachio encrusted trout salad. Our table shared a parmesan shrimp appetizer and a sampler of ice cream pies.

Click here for more Lake Lure lodging options on TripAdvisor!

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Howard Blount is founder and editor of the travel web site Backroad Planet. He has traveled internationally since boyhood and lived abroad in Mexico, Chile, and Paraguay. Now his passion is navigating the roads-less-traveled of this amazing planet in search of anything rare and remote. On the stuffy side, “Mr. Blount” has been a writer, consultant, and published author with the likes of Simon & Schuster and McGraw-Hill. Recently retired from a 35-year career as a middle school teacher, Howard enjoys spending his time on anything that includes mountains, waterfalls, dachshunds, gospel choirs, books, restored classic movies on Blu-ray, HDTV, autumn, sandhill cranes, hot springs, Florida springs, rain and other gloomy weather, log cabins, cracker shacks, abandoned sites, unearthed history, genealogy, museums, documentaries, To Kill a Mockingbird, scenic and historical sites, castles, cathedrals, the Civil War, cold sheets, National and State Park Passports, quotes, the Rambos, Dionne Warwick, Steely Dan, Doobies, Diet Pepsi, Fish City Grill, anything Apple, all things British, Jesus, and lists. And on a random note, Howard is a fourth cousin once removed to Truman Capote.