Travel guide and photographs by Sandra Davidson
The sun rises and sets over the Haw River in Saxapahaw. On a clear morning, brilliant slivers of gold light stream from behind the trees and over the historic mill buildings that rest above the riverbanks. The air is still, and birds jump from rock to rock eyeing the slow-flowing river for breakfast. On a Saturday morning, an occasional cyclist will whiz across the Buddy Collins Memorial Bridge - the perfect place to watch the day begin and end in Saxapahaw. If the day stays clear, the sunset flushes the sky with deep purples, pinks and blues and casts an amber glow on the mill with its last light. The universe provides you with two versions of this landscape: the one above you, grand and undeniable, and the reflection below you, rippling and distorted on the lazy water of the Haw River.
In our first installment of our road trip series, On the Road, we invite you to spend a Saturday in Saxapahaw.
An hour from Raleigh and Winston-Salem, less than 45-minutes from Greensboro and Durham and an even shorter drive from Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Burlington, Saxapahaw is an easy day trip from the Triangle or the Triad. The country roads that lead you into town run past landscapes that possess decades of stories about life in rural North Carolina: open meadows and pastures, small brick churches, an occasional farm house. Saxapahaw is filled with a particularly storied North Carolina history-textiles. The Saxapahaw Historic Mill, once a cotton mill and dyehouse, now holds renovated modern lofts, a large music venue, and a smattering of local businesses. It is the epicenter of the community’s decade long self-described “rural renaissance.”
What you need for your journey: a cooler, sunscreen, a picnic blanket and a hell of an appetite.
The first thing you see when you hit Saxapahaw proper is an unassuming Shell Gas Station, behind which sits the Saxapahaw General Store. Eat breakfast here; Garden & Gun, The New York Times, and The Washington Post agree.
Food Finds: the Breakfast Hash du Jour, which comes with sautéed peppers, crispy potatoes, scrambled eggs, house sourdough bread and local fresh Andouille Sausage, is on point, but it’s hard to beat one of our favorite breakfast items: the sausage, egg and cheese biscuit. Dense, fluffy, and buttery the biscuit is something to write home about, and each fixin’ -- particularly the local sausage -- speaks for itself. It’s a biscuit you’ll dream about.
Before the next activity, stock up on picnic provisions at the General Store, where there is something for everyone. It’s the kind of place where you can pick up a six-pack of Budweiser with a side of Lay’s potato chips or a mixer-sixer of NC craft beer with a side of locally made chocolate or elk jerky. Pick your poison, pack your cooler and prepare for phase two.
The next phase of your relationship with Saxapahaw begins with a trip around the geographic landmark that has defined the community for centuries, the Haw River, and is made possible by the Haw River Canoe & Kayak Co., currently in its 11th season of operation. Owner Joe Jacob established the outfitter out of a love for paddlesports and conservation. Jacob Matheny, who has been with the company since 2008, says its mantra is, “You have to get people out on the water for them to care about the water.” Haw River Canoe & Kayak hopes that facilitating recreational use of the river will inspire community investment in its conservation.
Offering a range of trip options, the mid-morning Saxapahaw Lake & Upriver short trip is a crowd pleaser for the most inexperienced to experienced paddlers. The trip is a moderate, 3-mile circuit around the Haw River Reservoir past lush riverbanks, an island, and plenty of coves prime for exploration. You’re bound to see fish jumping, turtles sunning, and locals lounging on the riverbank. Enjoy lunch afloat in your canoe or from a tree veiled bank.
When back on land re-up on caffeine at Cup 22, a coffeehouse connected to the Haw River Ballroom. Take a gander at the ballroom, the former cotton mill dye house turned one of North Carolina’s best music venues. Check out the ballroom event line-up, for an upcoming show, dance or documentary screening that’ll have you begging to come back.
SHOP: You're going to remember the sausage from your breakfast biscuit. The good news is it’s available for purchase just around the corner from Cup 22 at Left Bank Butchery, a business that does food right. At this point, your cooler should be nearly empty, so restock with sustainable, local meat and charcuterie cut and cured with care. You can also grab a fresh baguette from Village Bakehouse and local cheese from Cornucopia Cheese Co.
WALK: Pop in at Paperhand Puppet Intervention studio located above the Haw River Canoe & Kayak Co. The room is filled with enormous puppets at different phases of construction. These puppets will debut every summer at a Pageant-Play-Spectacle that tours across the state. This is also a great time to explore the river trails that run alongside the Haw. These trails take you below the mills, up to the dam, and through lush thickets of trees and plants with exquisite vistas of the river.
DRINK: Saxapahaw is not very large. There are only a handful of places to eat or drink and they’re all clustered together. After your walk, shop, or long stint at the coffeeshop, we recommend you head over to Haw River Farmhouse Ales, a brewery that specializes in Belgian-Style Country Brewing. It’s located beneath Cup 22 in what once was the bottom floor of the mill. Remnants of the historic space remain--the bar’s tap handles are repurposed cotton spools from the original mill. Here you’ll find a simple bar with a charming outdoor area and a smattering of different beers. Try a flight which comes with four different 6 oz. samples. The Rusted Plow Farmhouse Saison, fruity and hoppy, is a tasty summer drink. The Sun Hands Summer Golden, for those interested in a beer with a bit more punch, is also a great choice. Round out your flight with the Regent’s Rye Tripel which, true to the brewery’s mission of local sourcing, uses 100% NC-grown barley and the Major Arcana Belgian Black Sour, both sour and tangy.
Every Saturday from 5 PM to 8 PM, the town hosts Saturdays in Saxapahaw, an event that brings local music, farmers, artisans and food trucks to one place for locals and visitors alike. There is a makeshift slip-n-slide for kids, hay bales to climb, delicious snacks and pottery, soaps and crafts to purchase. Plop your picnic basket and blanket down in front of the stage and set up camp. A bottle of wine or beer from the General Store wouldn’t be a bad thing to have on hand either.
Treat yourself to a sunset dinner on the deck of the Eddy Pub, Saxapahaw’s elevated gastropub. This is the town’s big restaurant and the food and views are well worth the wait for a table. The customizable charcuterie plate (looking at you again, Left Bank Butchery) is an ideal appetizer, and the pad-thai, a chef speciality that doesn’t exactly scream pub-fare, is spicy, chock full of fresh local vegetables and incredibly satisfying. The deck overlooks part of the mill, the Danny Collins Bridge and the sunset over the beautiful Haw. It’s the optimal spot to relax and reflect on the day you’ve had in Saxapahaw before returning home.
At first glance our recommendations which include a general store, a pub, and a market, may seem pretty ordinary. Look closer though. Saxapahaw is a gem of sustainable redevelopment built on the physical and philosophical backbone of traditional small town life. Happy travels.