BY LYNNE BRANDON
Twin peaks rise majestically against the sky and are the hint of things to come. Gaston County's quartzite monadnocks (monadnocks are remnants of higher mountains) are but one way to get outside and bike, bike, climb or paddle through North Carolina's premiere outdoor location. The two isolated peaks known as Crowders Mountain in the primarily rolling landscape are what makes Gaston like no other.
For starters, the county has more than its share of outdoor activities. Rising 800 feet above the surrounding Piedmont, Crowders Mountain is an ideal training ground for trail runners and hikers and also for those who prefer to take a slower pace. The popular mountain is a main fixture in the park where it resides. Crowders Mountain State Park is built around the two peaks -Kings Pinnacle to the west and Crowders to the the east. Start at the Pinnacle trailhead in Crowders Mountain State Park for a day-long endurance hike on the Ridgeline Trail through Kings Mountain State Park to the trailhead at Kings Mountain National Military Park., where it joins with the 16-mile Kings Mountain National Recreation Trail. Or, be adventuresome and climb to the highest point in the county, King's Pinnacle.
If high elevation is not your cup of tea, stay at lower elevations and take a bike ride, paddle on the Catawba River or take in the beautiful flora at Daniel Stowe Gardens. Bike riders glide along on the Carolina Thread Trail that travels through NC Wildlife Federation-designated Butterfly Highway habitat. Or follows Lake Wylie's shore for 2.8 miles on The Seven Oaks Preserve Trail. Gaston parks are more than places for picnics. The county's bike share program makes it easy to pick up a bike and hop on the county's growing paved greenway network. Bike stations in George Poston and Lineberger Park-along with bikes on the Highland Rail Trail and at the Gaston County Visitor Center-get you on the 4.5-mile Avon & Catawba Creek Greenway, or the Highland Rail Trail from downtown to Rankin Lake Park.
Caterpillars, chrysalides and butterflies are the stars of the show in the Garden's Butterfly Bungalow, a 2,100-square-foot enclosure in which the Garden has created the ideal environment in which they can flourish. Mere feet away, birds, bees, beetles and even snails share the spotlight in the Garden's first mini-golf course of playful, pollinator-themed holes.
Created by local students at Gaston Day School and Highland School of Technology, artists and designers, Pollinator Putting is art you can play. It's a full 18 holes of miniature golf featuring the importance of pollinators. A tricky beehive, the elusive squash bee and chipmunks are some of the fun challenges golfers will encounter.
In the summer the Garden offers butterfly lovers a class on photographing butterflies and fun evenings in the garden with a talk on 'Pollinator Conservation' during the Garden's Thursday night Sip & Stroll event (see website for all details). It is always time well spent to see colorful orchids housed in the Conservatory, the seasonal symmetry of the Canal Garden, and the fairy tale land of Lost Hollow.
Museums like the Schiele Museum in Gastonia educate and entertain. A new exhibit will have visitors in a Halloween mood before the holiday hits in October. The exhibit called Creepy Nature is designed to share the actual science of weird and unusual plants and animals. The exhibit features horror fiction concepts like vampires, zombies, mummies, and alien invaders. Creepy Nature features comic art by illustrator James Lyle from Waynesville, North Carolina. And to burn off calories from the robust Gaston activities, "good eating" is a given.
The towns that make up Gaston County serve up farm fresh and locally grown and owned food. Pita Wheel (formerly a food truck) is now set up a in a brick-and-mortar storefront in Dallas (try the fried pickle Philly steak and cheese, "I Love Lucy" pimento cheese burger, and more); Doffer's Canteen (named for the textile workers called "doffer");Tex-Mex in downtown Cramerton or dinner at Table & Market, a historic 1800s mill that put McAdenville (aka Christmas Town U.S.A. ) on the map. Or, head to downtown Belmont to the String Bean Cafe and Market. Finish up with a craft cocktail on the balcony of the restored movie Art Deco theatre turned-restaurant, Webb Custom Kitchen in Gastonia. For a sweet tooth fix go to See Jane Bake in downtown McAdenville, home of mega-size cinnamon rolls, Mt. Holly's Queen Bee Bake1y for a slice of Almond joy, and orange crush cake. On a hot summer day don't forget to stop at Tony's Ice Cream, a family owned institution since 1915 in Gastonia.