One-Tank Adventures

Posted: July 5, 2020 at 6:32 pm

Explore the history, excitement, and creativity of Johnston County, North Carolina

By Robin Howard

Aerial view of downtown Benson at night.
Many downtown Benson businesses participate in First Friday, which draws visitors for refreshments, projects, and sales.

Johnston County, North Carolina—or “JoCo,” as it’s affectionately known— encompasses 11 charming small towns just outside of Raleigh. Known for friendly agritourism, festivals, history, craft breweries, and spectacular hiking and biking trails, JoCo is becoming a not-so-well-kept secret.

Just an hour and a half from Marlboro and Dillion counties, JoCo is close enough for a day trip but far enough away to feel like you’re on vacation.

If you’re ready to travel, North Carolina is welcoming visitors with its Count On Me campaign—a public health initiative that helps businesses and travelers keep each other safe.

Sip and Stay Package

A man behind a bar pouring a drink.
Broadslab Distillery, owned by fifth-generation moonshiner Jeremy Norris, is a local favorite.

JoCo is home to a robust Beer, Wine, and Shine Trail that features seven local breweries, wineries, and distilleries. The Sip and Stay package takes the work out of planning and is an excellent option for a weekend outing. The package includes discounted room rates at nearby hotels such as the adorable Morning Glory Inn, and suggested daily itineraries that cover shopping, spa visits, memorable meals, cocktails, and craft beer and wine tastings.

Even if you don’t drink the hard stuff, it’s worth visiting JoCo’s distilleries to chat with local characters. Jeremy Norris, owner of Broadslab Distillery, is a fifth-generation moonshiner.

In 2008, Jeremy realized that sustaining the small family farm through corn and beans alone was not feasible. His grandfather, Leonard A. Wood, taught him about whiskey distilling, so Jeremy decided to honor the legacy and traditions his family had mastered in the moonshine business by creating a legal distillery. Broadslab Distillery became the state’s first farm distillery in 2012.

His family’s ‘shine recipe dates back before prohibition and is still made “dirt-to-bottle,” Jeremy’s version of farm-to-table.


One of the bright spots of these challenging times is that most of us are learning where our food comes from and trying to shop local. JoCo’s agritourism farms let visitors spend leisurely stretches learning about agriculture, picking their own fruits and vegetables, and dreaming up recipes for small-batch creations such as blueberry salsa. Several farms, such as Sonlight,
have barns full of friendly farm animals, kids’ games, and playgrounds. It is easy to spend an afternoon picking, nibbling, and wandering the farm.

Foodies will want to visit Atkinson Milling Co. in Selma. With any luck, you’ll meet owner Ray Wheeler, who is legally copyrighted as The Cornbread Man. Ray runs a multigenerational family milling business that dates back to 1757.

Ava Gardner Festival and Museum

Men with rifles shooting into the air.
The Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site hosts a large reenactment every five years.

No discussion of JoCo would be complete without the Ava Gardner Festival and museum. Silver screen legend Ava Gardner grew up just a few miles from Smithfield. She acted in hit movies such as “Show Boat,” “The Barefoot Contessa” and “Earthquake,” alongside Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, and Grace Kelly. Her colorful personal life included marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra.

You can visit the Ava Gardner Museum year-round to enjoy exhibits that take you through her life story, including her time in London and Spain. You’ll also see movie costumes.

Every year, Smithfield hosts the annual Ava Gardner Festival. The festival, which includes new exhibits at the museum and premieres 4K re-releases of Gardner’s movies. Re-releases of vintage films in 4K regularly sell out in major markets such as New York and Los Angeles, so festival-goers are in for a treat.

The museum also facilitates Ava Gardner Heritage tours, which includes her hometown, birthplace, and gravesite.


JoCo has a thriving art scene that includes live music, theater, and traditional arts and crafts. The self-guided Clayton Sculpture Trail is a delight, with more than a dozen fascinating sculptures that rotate every year. Check out the wares of local artisans. The best place to find them is farmer’s markets and restaurants such as Double Barely and Revival 1869.


Horses walking with people behind them.
Check out Benson Mule Days in September.

Stretch your weekend vacation to a week by exploring JoCo’s hiking and biking trails that connect with the state’s new Mountains-to-Sea Trail. A 40-year project, the trail begins in Durham and ends on the coast in Morehead City. Paths are paved and landscaped so they are safe, beautiful, and have easy access to restaurants and places to stay. JoCo trails include Clayton River Walk on the Neuse, Sam’s Branch Greenway Trail, and Buffalo Creek Greenway.

JoCo is great for geocaching, which is a family-friendly scavenger hunt where participants look for hidden containers using cellphones and GPS coordinates. Coordinates lead you to within a 25-foot radius of the container, and then it’s up to you to find it.

Millions of these containers, or caches, are hidden worldwide. Once you’ve discovered it, sign the logbook inside. Many boxes also contain fun trinkets that geocachers trade, so bring a stash of small goodies to trade with others.

JoCo has 50 hidden caches along the Johnston County Heritage Geocache Trail. Create a free account on the Geocaching website and search for GC73Q1A.

Where to Stay

JoCo is full of charming inns, such as the Preston Woodall House Bed & Breakfast, and comfortable, affordable hotels. Most hotels, such as Best Western, Sleep Inn, and Holiday Inn Express, include breakfast, parking, and free Wi-Fi. Check out quaint alternative lodging options such as The Horse Farm near Clayton and the Portofino Horse Barn near Smithfield.

Where to Eat

The Old North State Food Hall off I-95 is the first roadside food hall in the nation, with 10 vendors and a full bar at the back called the North Carolina Craft House, which features local beer, wine, and spirits.

In Smithfield, SoDoSoPa offers traditional Southern barbecue and sides. For brunch, locals head to Simple Twist for generous plates of classic comfort food, layered salads, and vegan or vegetarian entrees. For farm-to-table fare, Under the Oak is a nose-to-tail chef-owned kitchen that sources ingredients almost entirely from North Carolina vendors.

If you’re looking for a weekend getaway with outdoor activities, great food, and local spirit, visiting JoCo may be the accessible adventure you need.