Enjoy a learning vacation in the Blue Ridge Mountains at Wildacres Retreat & Conference Center
Relax and learn in North Carolina's Blue Ridge mountains
Wildacres Retreat and Conference Center is a wonderful facility in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. If you add up all the weeks I've spent there, I've lived nearly 3 months of my life at Wildacres! Obviously, I consider it a great place to be, and I want to give others the benefit of my experience.
Wildacres is run by a nonprofit for the benefit of nonprofits and individuals, and it's dedicated to making our world a better place by providing a low-cost location where people can learn, study, and create. The property is in a huge forested area of the North Carolina mountains and is well away from the traffic, noise, and bustle of the city, so you can truly relax and focus on your purpose for being there. All the necessities (meeting rooms, bedrooms, and the dining hall) are within walking distance and meals are included.
Read on to learn what you can do at Wildacres, see photos of the grounds, and get packing and driving tips if you plan to visit.
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What can I do at Wildacres?
Wildacres is a temporary home for groups of all sorts; it hosts potters, writers, storytellers, stargazers, mushroom hunters, musicians, religious groups,and artists. Any nonprofit group with an educational, cultural, or religious program is welcome.
All of my visits have been as a writer, either attending a workshop or doing a retreat. Wildacres has two artist retreats each year (one in late spring and the other in fall) that allow anyone with a creative project to reside on-site and work on their craft. At my last retreat, I met potters, painters, jewelers, quilters, photographers, and writers, among others. Wildacres has both a pottery studio and a lapidary workshop on the grounds; I've toured the former, and while I'm no expert on pottery, I thought it looked pretty impressive. And the retreat is very inexpensive, considering that it includes lodging and meals.
Wildacres also hosts some specialized retreats, such as the annual Music Gathering (specifically for composers and performers) and the Wildacres Fall Star party (for astronomers).
The Wildacres website lists the groups and programs scheduled for the year. Programs run April through October, and lots of workshops are open to anyone who wants to sign up. But be warned -- popular programs fill up fast! The fall retreat in particular fills up months in advance, so get your application in early if you want to attend.
Other activities on the mountain
While learning and sharing knowledge and experience are the primary focus at Wildacres, that doesn't mean there isn't lots of fun to be had! Many groups fill the time outside of "class" with social opportunities and other events: singers and musicians will hold concerts; writing groups read from their work, and storytellers practice their craft. (One year, I had the privilege of hearing the New Century Saxophone Quartet, pictured here, perform twice -- a treat I still remember vividly.) There are usually impromptu gatherings as well; any time someone pulls out a musical instrument in a public area, people seem to flock to it. And there's always opportunities for relaxed conversations or just enjoying the scenery.
Natural beauty surrounds you
One of the best things about Wildacres conference center is the scenery -- it's utterly gorgeous. The property is thickly forested and you get an amazing view of the mountains. If you can manage to get there in October when the leaves are turning, you're in for a special treat. I was there one year when the leaves had just started to turn and saw a wonderful mix of red, gold, and green leaves.
The roads on the property are surrounded by trees for the most part. There's very little traffic during the day, so the road provides a scenic place to walk and collect your thoughts. There are hiking trails if you're after a bit more adventure; I avoided them since I'm a bug magnet, but I know other people who enjoyed the opportunity to immerse themselves in the forest.
The patio, porches, and amphitheater all offer great views of the mountains. Some of the rooms have a good view also -- it just depends on whether your room is on the mountain side of the building or facing the road that runs through the property.
Leave wallet, keys behind
When you're at Wildacres, you're there for a reason: to learn something new, improve an existing skill, explore a new hobby or revive an old one. And that's the only thing you need to focus on while you're there. The cost of your meals and room (double occupancy, with a bath) are included with your program, so unless you want something extra like a snack or a postcard, you won't need your wallet during your stay. Meals are provided in the dining hall, which is a short walk from the main buildings. Usually there are a few take-away snacks available there too, like fruit or cookies, and they have to-go cups for coffee, tea, and water. Something about the higher altitude must stir up the appetite, because I find I'm hungrier than usual at Wildacres, and I've heard others say the same thing. Luckily you can burn off the extra calories by having a brisk walk around the grounds after meals.
NOTE: There is NO SMOKING allowed in any of the buildings. There are designated outdoor smoking areas.
Prepare to unplug
You should also be aware that you won't have good cell phone reception or Internet access during your stay. Depending on your cell phone provider and phone model, you may not be able to connect at all. (Verizon seems to have the best reception on the mountain, but even they can be spotty, especially when you're in one of the buildings.)
Wildacres has a wi-fi network, but don't count on using it! The network is slow and has limited range -- you have to be in the lobby or on the adjacent porch to connect. It also has limited bandwidth; once it reaches maximum usage for the day, the network shuts down. If you need to use the Internet for more than checking email once a day, you'll need to drive into town and use the wi-fi network at the library, a coffee shop or McDonald's.
While some people find the lack of connection maddening, it's actually useful for eliminating distractions so you can focus on your work. Just be prepared to be in minimal contact for a few days. And be sure to bring whatever reference materials you might need, since you won't have Google at your fingertips.
Packing for the North Carolina mountains
Everyone likes to be prepared, right? So here's a few packing tips based on my experience.
If you're going in the summer, pack for warm weather! It can get pretty hot out there, and the buildings rely on natural A/C (translation: the breeze from outdoors) and ceiling fans. If heat makes you particularly uncomfortable, consider bringing a portable fan.
You also want to be aware of the bug situation, which can put a damper on summer evenings. You're rubbing shoulders with the great outdoors, and there are plenty of gnats and mosquitoes that like to feed on the attendees. (This is particularly true if the preceding winter was a mild one.) It's mainly an issue if you're sitting outside after dark, but I'd advise you to be prepared and bring along some insect repellent and something to treat bites.
If you like hiking, bring a good pair of sneakers or some hiking boots so you can take advantage of the trails. Just see my caveat about bugs in the previous paragraph -- I've been told the ones in the woods are extra-hungry. :-)
If you can't live without coffee, consider bringing along a small coffeemaker. There is brewed coffee available at mealtimes, but some people like to have a steady supply.
Be sure to bring an umbrella! Rain showers are common, especially in summer, and you will need to walk between buildings for classes and meals.
And bring a camera, since you're going to want to capture the lovely view!
Driving up the mountain
There's a great map with directions on the Wildacres website, but maps don't tell you everything, so I thought I'd add a few tips.
First, don't go up the mountain with less than a quarter tank of gas. There aren't a lot of stations as you get further from the main arteries and you don't want to get stuck. (As the Car Talk guys once said, the gas indicator is reliable when it says full or empty, and any other reading is suspect.) Gas is also more expensive the farther you get from the interstate.
Second, the Parkway route is scenic, but it takes longer than I-40, so be advised if that's important to you. (Some groups require that you check in by a certain time; allow roughly 30 minutes to reach Wildacres from the time you exit I-40.)
Third, cell phones and other devices may not get a signal once you leave the interstate, and coverage gets worse the farther you go up the mountain. Don't plan to rely on your GPS! It won't give you good information anyway; the map and directions on the Wildacres website are a better resource, so print it out and don't forget it.
And finally, the drive up to Wildacres can be a little intimidating if you aren't used to driving in the mountains, but just be cautious around the curves and you'll do fine. A lot of people worry that they're going to pass it up. That's natural; in fact, I have the same feeling every single time. I've never missed it yet. The sign is big; trust me, you'll see it.
Wildacres is open from April through October. Check their website (linked below) for the current schedule (posted in March of each year).
Resources for Wildacres and North Carolina
- Wildacres Retreat & Conference Center
The Wildacres website provides information on topics I haven't addressed: the history of Wildacres; how to bring your group to Wildacres; how to apply for a free residency stay; and specific details about the type and size of available facilities.
- North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains
This site has a wealth of information about the mountains that Wildacres calls home.
- Blue Ridge Parkway
Wildacres is located near the Blue Ridge Parkway; this site gives maps and other information about the parkway, including updates about road closures.
© 2014 C. A. Chancellor
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