Perhaps you’ve heard murmurings of the cool complex of breweries and restaurants located in an historic mill next to the Tar River about one hour’s drive from Raleigh? We certainly did and our curiosity was piqued. It sounded like a fun place to check out, especially since it’s so close to Raleigh!
In April we had an opportunity to visit for the weekend as guests of Rocky Mount Mills to stay in their tiny homes and experience this innovative cultural hub that blends history with a dash of modern charm – all within a stunning natural location.
Let’s delve into what makes Rocky Mount Mills a must-visit and how to make the most of your time there.
What is the Rocky Mount Mills Complex?
Rocky Mount Mills is a community gathering complex situated within a restored 19th Century cotton mill on the Tar River in Eastern North Carolina.
In fact, it’s located right in the place where the piedmont meets the coastal plain – in other words, the best of both worlds. This is an area that has been used by the native Tuscarora people for centuries.
The mill was built in 1818 by slaves on the side of the Falls of the Tar and is believed to have been the second oldest cotton mill in North Carolina. It is responsible for the growth of the nearby city of Rocky Mount.
The mill eventually closed in 1996, and in 1997 the Capitol Broadcasting Corp (the Goodman Family) purchased with the vision of revitalizing it into a community space, which finally happened with its opening in 2018.
Now with its enticing mix of dining, breweries, entertainment, and outdoor spaces, it’s a favorite gathering spot for locals and visitors.
This 82-acre campus is a testament to the remarkable art of historic preservation that brings together residential, commercial, cultural, and entertainment amenities.
It’s not just for playing at the Mills. The complex has a range of office spaces for lease, making it a hub for entrepreneurs and small businesses. There are also residential apartments for rent, which is attracting a large number of talent to the Rocky Mount area.
One of its most successful entrepreneurial ventures has been its beer incubator program whereby small breweries and business owners can start up or expand with all the necessary brewery equipment provided.
You wouldn’t be mistaken if this kind of revitalization sounds familiar to you. Capitol Broadcasting Corp are also responsible for restoring the Tobacco Road campus in Durham into a live, play, work hub with an entrepreneurial vibe!
Is it Worth Visiting Rocky Mount Mills?
What they have done with the revitalized Rocky Mount Mill complex is incredible. It speaks of innovation within preservation.
That is, recognizing the beauty in the old, maintaining its character and history but breathing new life into in a way that serves the community and the creative stories that live inside of it.
Sadly, we’re seeing too much of the tear it down approach in Raleigh to build the same old glass fronted boxed high rise. Its shape may be just slightly different to the new same same building beside it. Places of character in Raleigh like the original Dram & Draught Whiskey Bar in the mechanic shop, to the iconic Char-Grill are going!
I get it. Progress and growth come with development. It’s harder to manage that in bigger cities than small towns. I don’t want to be stuck in the “in my days we rode horses to school” take on life, but it’s okay to acknowledge the nostalgic loss.
That’s why I love places like Rocky Mount Mills even more. It reminds me of Huntsville, a surprising destination that was all about creative innovation.
The old lumberjack yard turned into small bars you can hop between each with their own style of music and the middle school turned into a gathering of restaurants and breweries with a speakeasy bar hidden behind the gym lockers.
These are the stories I tell over and over to our travel community, “you should check out Huntsville, Alabama. It’s cool!”
So now my microphone blast is: “you should check out Rocky Mount Mills. It’s cool.”
Rocky Mount Mills is a haven for food and beverage enthusiasts with its array of renowned restaurants, cafes, and breweries. The campus also hosts a range of events throughout the year, from live music performances to outdoor festivals and community gatherings.
And the bonus is, especially if you stay overnight at the tiny homes, everything you need is right here. So, you can park your car and unpack your bags and walk five minutes to all the attractions and dining.
Then return at night for campfire s’mores and a dram of whisky. Too easy!
Where is Rocky Mount and how to get there?
Rocky Mount is east of Raleigh on the way to the Outer Banks. The mills are a five-minute drive from downtown Rocky Mount (or a 35-minute walk).
Getting to Rocky Mount Mills is a breeze. The complex is conveniently located off Highway 64 and 301 and is easily accessible from major cities such as Raleigh and Greenville. It’s a 50-minute drive from Downtown Raleigh.
If you’re flying in, the nearest airport is Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU), which is about an hour’s drive. Renting a car or arranging a ride share service are the most convenient options for transportation.
Things to do in the Rocky Mount Mills Campus
Eat at the Rocky Mount Mill Restaurants
From pizza to tacos and BBQ, Rocky Mount Mills has a wide variety of dining options. Most will be laid back and casual, which adds to the appeal of a weekend getaway or day trip here, especially in the warmer months with their outdoor seating areas.
Breakfast + Coffee at Books and Beans
The only place to have breakfast and a pretty decent coffee is Books and Beans Cafe, housed in what was once the canteen for the mill workers.
They open daily and have coffee from Counter Culture in Durham, pastries, and a range of sandwiches. Craig said it was the best turkey sandwich he’s had in a while and the kids loved their Nutella waffles.
I was happy that they had gluten-free bread to enjoy their delicious, toasted sandwiches. No matter what you order, y’all be super happy with the affordable prices. We ain’t in Raleigh anymore.
This cafe is also a gathering place for book lovers, and you’ll find shelves of new and used books to browse and purchase. Books and Beans is owned by Etaf Rum, New York Times bestselling author of her debut novel “A Woman Is No Man’.
Etaf Rum was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, by Palestinian immigrants. She teaches college English literature in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.
Tacos from TBC West Tacos and Taproom
More craft beer is on the menu, but this time paired with tacos from the TBC West Tacos & Taproom.
This is another inspiring story from founder Inez Ribustello, who has written a self-published memoir ‘Life After Windows’, sharing her journey from her hometown of Tarboro to Manhattan and back again.
The huge turning point for her return to her roots and opening a wine and retail store in Tarboro with her partner Stephen, to now the Tarboro Brewing Company, was September 11, when she just happened to be away from work that day when her office in the Twin Towers collapsed.
The tacos here were sensational. Don’t miss the Nanas short rib, blackened shrimp, and smoked chicken. Double thumbs up for the quality brews as well and the exceptionally friendly service!
Pizza from Tipsy Tomato
The Tipsy Tomato is the place to go for Artisan Craft Pizza cooked in the wood fire oven.
They have a small dining space inside, or on the deck outside. The kids can run around on the grassy field in front or take it to-go to one of the other breweries or back to the tiny home like our girls did.
We also enjoyed a small serving of their spicy Thai chicken wings while watching live music at Koi Pond before having dinner later at the taco joint! That was a mouthful. A tasty one at that.
Tap 1918 has a gastro pub style with local micro-Carolina breweries on tap, as well as inventive cocktails. They have a fantastic porch in their 100-year-old historic mill house, so come early or reserve in advance as its popular.
You’re looking at elevated pub fare food here soaked in southern roots. Expect low country ingredients and techniques such as smoking, in-house brining, and prickling!
I thoroughly enjoyed my KFT Turkey Wings. It was unlike any other wing dish I’ve had before and loved the Korean flavors. And Craig ordered the Venison Burger. If you like adventurous dishes like Fried Pig Ears and Bone Marrow, they’re on the menu too!
It makes sense the food has a next level taste. Chef and part owner, Justin Gaines is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and has worked in Michelin star restaurants.
BBQ and Jazz at the Prime Smokehouse
Speaking of live music. The Prime Smokehouse on the riverside also has dinner jazz concert series through August. Prime Smokehouse is not just a place for great BBQ, it’s a jazz-themed restaurant situated not far from where legendary jazz pianist Thelonious Monk was born.
We did not get to eat in here, but enjoyed their BBQ at a privately catered event and it was something to remember! The restaurant originally started in Garner, Wake County, but is now exclusively at Rocky Mount Mills.
Enjoy a brew at the Rocky Mount Breweries
Craft beer enthusiasts will be delighted by the impressive selection of expertly brewed beers, ranging from classic styles to innovative craft brews, all created by passionate brewers who take pride in their art. Cheers to the flavors of North Carolina!
As mentioned, breweries are important at Rocky Mount Mills thanks to their innovative incubator program. Not only do they get access to the equipment but opportunities for collaboration, education, and mentoring.
This really is a fun place for brewery hopping with friends. Minimal distance in between, and if you’re staying here you can try as many brews as you like.
We visited most of the breweries and here’s what we enjoyed.
The story of HopFly Brewing is inspiring and testament to the power of the incubator program. HopFly started the program in 2017 and expanded to a much larger taproom….just days before the pandemic!
Thankfully they survived and thrived, so much that they recently expanded to a huge brewery space in Downtown Charlotte, not far from Panthers stadium and entertaining spaces. Incredible success story!
You can have a drink where it all started in a light and airy, welcoming family-friendly and pet friendly space. There are board games and shuffleboard in the lobby of the building.
Craig recommends their Endless Reign Hazy IPA, and I can’t say enough good things about their homemade seltzer.
Their lime and coconut seltzer had depth of flavor that had me feeling like I was vacationing on the islands of Hawaii. I couldn’t get enough of it. It’s probably one of the best seltzers I’ve ever had. I was so wrapped up in its flavor I forgot to capture the name of it!
Koi Pond Brewing
Koi Pond Brewing was the first brewery in Rocky Mount Mills. Their brewery and tap room are located in one of the historic mill houses that dates back to 1835 and is on the national historic registry.
We love their outside seating area filled with picnic tables, yard games and live music. Great spot for families! You can bring food from one of the restaurants – pizza was a great idea – and enjoy a drink. Craig recommends their Falls Road Golden Kolsch.
Mythic Brewing is another incubator success brewery that you may have heard of. They got their start at the Rocky Mount Mills in 2018 and have now expanded with taprooms in Zebulon and Cedar Point, NC.
They have a small, but busy taproom opposite the art studio, and host a wide range of community events from trivia night to live music.
Make sure you get a tour photo with the legendary co-owner – Squatch! Craig recommends their stout coffee.
Goat Island Bottle Shop
Goat Island Bottle Shop is a great place to sit around the u-shaped bar and speak to locals and visitors. We enjoy places that have a “come gather round” atmosphere like this.
It’s a local craft beer and wine bottle shop named after the island near the Mills on the Tar River. Choose a beverage from the tap or grab something from the fridge or shelves. You can drink inside, outside in the beer garden, or take it to go!
Listen to Live Music
We were meant to attend a live Mill Music Session event, but nasty weather got in the way! Hopefully, we can come back for another one this summer. It’s live music on the lawn! You can bring your own picnic or order food from the restaurants or food trucks.
But we still got to experience some live music in the outdoor beer garden area near HopFly and Goat Island Bottle Shop. You can grab a drink from either place or enjoy it outside.
Koi Brewing also had live music in their beer garden. Check the event schedule to see who is playing and when.
See the Nelson Mandela Exhibition, A Light So Powerful
I could not believe what I was seeing as we toured the campus and came upon this historic exhibition on the walls of the main mill event space area. This exhibit is reason enough alone to visit Rocky Mount Mills.
Nelson Mandela is one of my greatest heroes and most admired leaders of our times. Whenever I struggle to forgive someone, I look at how he was able to forgive those who imprisoned him in an effort to reunite South Africa when he became President. And yet I still fail over such trivial matters.
Craig and I have visited the prison where Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner for 27 years on Robben Island in Cape Town South Africa. So, I was absolutely floored that the mills have this fascinating exhibit, A Light So Powerful.
It’s a collection of his personal drawings and narrative of his time on Robben Island and his triumph as President of South Africa.
Jim Goodmon, the President and CEO of Capitol Broadcasting Corporation visited Robben Island in 2006. He was so moved by the experience that when he stumbled upon this collection of works, he purchased them and brought them back to the Mills.
I hope everyone in North Carolina can appreciate how lucky we are to have this!
Take an art class at Pinspiration
If you love doing art classes, especially with kids, don’t miss Pinspiration Craft Studio. You can choose from dozens of the trendiest DIY projects to do including candle making, painting, dream catches, string art and so much more!
We chose the acrylic pouring, which creates beautiful paint puddles using a layered cup poured onto a canvas. You then shake it about to create an abstract masterpiece.
Parents will love how this is a true relaxing art experience – because no matter how much mess you or your kids make, you won’t have to clean it up!
Pinspiration has a warm, inviting space for creativity and they provide all the supplies and instruction from a friendly and creative staff member. You can also purchase wine, soda, and snacks to enjoy while you paint or craft. Just don’t mistake the pot of paint for your wine!
These are the kinds of souvenirs we love to bring home from our travels. They have fun memories attached to them and reflect the joy we feel in immersing ourselves into a culture or destination.
Outdoor Adventure Activities Near Rocky Mount Mills
We don’t want you to just be overindulging on food and drink for your stay. So, let’s start with some of the adventure activities you can do near the campus along the Tar River.
Kayak the Tar River Paddle Trail
A popular activity in the Rocky Mount area for adventure lovers is paddling the Tar River Paddle Trail. The trail consists of 10 canoe and kayak access locations that connect over 55-miles of the Tar River and Stony Creek.
The river was running pretty fast when we kayaked a section of the upper tar, and it only took 40-minutes where we were expecting two hours. It was a serene and beautiful place to paddle. We hopped out just past the old, renovated Power Plant – similar looking to the Mills.
Note: No paddle craft are allowed in the exclusion zone between Falls Road and the Rocky Mount Mills Dam.
If you paddle the lower tar section launching from Battle Park know that, depending upon water level, small rapids (I-II) may be encountered between Battle Park and Hwy 97 access locations.
Hike the Greenway Trail
Enjoy the beauty of the Rocky Mount Greenway Trail, a scenic pathway running beside the Tar River that connects seven parks and spans nearly 300 acres of parkland.
From the Mills, you can walk along the trail to Sunset Park or meander through Battle Park and into the expansive Stith-Talbert Park.
Craig and Savannah walked home from our kayaking trip from Sunset Park back to the Rocky Mount Mills campus, and easy walk.
Mountain Biking at Battle Park
Battle Park is opposite the mill and is a recreational hub for hikers, runners, and bikers. It has beautiful riverside views and abundance of shade provided by the forest canopy.
It’s a popular spot for mountain biking with its trails of various levels. You can find multiple jump lines, technical creek crossings, log rides, rock rolls, a gap jump, multiple rock ledge jumps ranging from 3ft to 7ft, and elevated technical rock bridges.
On the other side of the river is the 1.3-mile Salamander Ridge Loop mountain biking trail.
After flying over the handlebars five minutes into my alpine mountain biking experience in Austria, I was more than happy to coast along the more sedate paved greenway trail. Although I did go for a small run on the basic mountain biking trail with a small hill. And it was fun. And I screamed.
Where to stay at Rocky Mount Mills
It’s the perfect time to untwine at Rocky Mount Mills, and staying overnight has never been easier at the River & Twines Tiny Homes.
River and Twine is a collection of twenty boutique and modern tiny houses in an idyllic setting on the banks of the scenic Tar River across the parking lot from the mill campus. It’s the largest tiny house hotel of its kind in the world.
They offer a minimalist escape from the norm but with all the conveniences you need in a short-term stay!
If you’ve never stayed in a tiny house before, you could think of it as a small cabin. Most of the tiny houses can accommodate up to four guests, and some are pet friendly (we bought our cats Mavis and Ivy!) You can read more about our stay in our full review post on the River & Twine tiny homes.
Staying overnight at Rocky Mount Mills is easy. This way you can enjoy the restaurants and breweries more without worrying about tipping over the limit and driving home.
Keep in mind that Rocky Mount is also conveniently located within driving distance of larger cities, so you could opt for a day trip if you prefer to stay elsewhere.
Final Thoughts about Rocky Mount Mills, NC
Loved it. Loved it. Loved it. I said to my friend yesterday at a Pride event at Raleigh Brewing,
“Hey, have you been to Rocky Mount Mills? OMG. Yes! How cool is it? You’ can just get everything you need there – amazing food, great beer, and you can just walk around from place to place and have a great time.”
So, grab your friends and head out for a memorable day trip or weekend getaway.
Whether you’re a foodie, a history buff, a beer drinker or simply seeking a memorable experience, Rocky Mount Mills is a place that will captivate your heart and leave you craving for more.