Outdoor recreation and outdoor adventures are seemingly endless in the Western North Carolina mountains, the outdoor playground of the Southeast. Acclaimed by numerous magazines as a top outdoor adventure destination, visitors enjoy whitewater rafting, mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking, driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and experiencing the highest peaks and amazing waterfalls in the entire Eastern U.S.
Hiking the mountains of Western North Carolina
Botanical Gardens at Asheville
Admission to the Botanical Gardens at Asheville, located adjacent to University of North Carolina Asheville, is always free. See about 700 species of native and exotic trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, herbs, grasses, sedges, aquatic plants, ferns, mosses, and lichens.
The Asheville Urban Trail
The Asheville Urban Trail has often been called Asheville’s “museum without walls.” Started by a small group of citizens interested in helping revitalize downtown, the Urban Trail consists of thirty stations of bronze sculpture around downtown. Each station has a plaque illuminating some of the very interesting history of downtown’s development and the various notable people who once lived here. Mostly local artists helped to create the whimsical bronze sculptures and other art works that are found at each station. The tour is a 1.7 mile walk that begins and ends at Pack Place and takes about two hours to complete in its entirety.
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail
With many different access points, we recommend access from the Folk Art Center at mile post 382.0 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. You’ll pass Craven Gap, Rattlesnake Lodge and Craggy Gardens before reaching Balsam Gap at mile post 359.8 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This suggested section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is 21.7 miles long, but you can turn around at any point.
The Folk Art Center is also home to a quarter-mile educational loop with information about the local wildlife and foliage. It’s a perfect trail for young children and inquisitive minds.
The entire Mountains-to-Sea Trail will eventually extend from one of the highest points in the North Carolina Mountains, Clingman’s Dome, to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Nags Head. Once the trail is completed, it will cover over 900 miles.
Visit the site of a summer home from the turn of the 20th century. Rattlesnake Lodge was a rejuvenating retreat for the Ambler family from 1904 until 1926 when it was burned. Today you can still find the stone remains of the foundation, as well as remnants of other artifacts, such as a water-powered electricity generator.
Horseback Riding at Biltmore
Biltmore has 8,000 acres that include horseback riding trails through peaceful meadows and shady hardwood forests. Saddle up and catch a Western-style guided trail ride (for adults and children over 6 years old) to see one of the only views of the Biltmore House’s western façade. Extended and private guided rides are available. Another option is a 45-minuted guided carriage ride, where children 5 and less than one years of age ride free with a ticketed adult. Fees are in addition to estate admission costs. Advanced reservations are requested. The estate also offers a Biltmore Equestrian Pass, which allows pass holders, among other things, access to the estate’s equestrian trails for no additional fee.
Cedar Creek Stables
Cedar Creek Stables in Lake Lure sits on 350 acres and offers horseback riding, gem mining, fishing and pony rides. They also offer a three-day, two-night packing trip in the Pisgah National Forest. Riders are supplied everything except sleeping bags and personal clothing. Trips depart March through May and September through November.
Riverside Riding Stables
Riverside Riding Stables in Rutherfordton is open year-round, seven days a week. The stables offer guided trail rides; two-hour river rides for adventurous riders 14-years-old and older (“prepare to get wet” they advise); and a three-day, two-night pack trip with unlimited riding, fishing and camping. Trail rides are open for children older than two years old, with an accompanying adult. Riverside also has pony rides for children.
Sandy Bottom Trail Rides
Sandy Bottom Trail Rides in Marshall offers daily horseback rides. The ranch has been family-owned for three generations, and presents one-, two-, three- and four-hour trail rides that take visitors through scenic meadows and woods. Trail rides are open for people of all ages. Sandy Bottom also offers wagon and buggy rides. Sandy Bottom’s three- and four-hour trail and wagon rides also feature a visit to the 200-year-old Little Pine Garnet Mine.
Gardens / Parks / Drives
The North Carolina Arboretum
The North Carolina Arboretum’s 434-acre campus is nestled along the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 393 in south Asheville and offers 65-acres of cultivated gardens including the Bonsai Exhibition Garden, 10 miles of forested hiking and biking trails, garden tours, Art Walk, nature activities for families, changing science, art and cultural history exhibits, a cafe and gift shop.
Garden shop with a focus on antiques. Fresh flowers, unique plants, unusual containers and beautiful vase in a charming cottage atmosphere. The Gardener’s Cottage is a garden experience not to be missed.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Outstanding scenery and recreational opportunities make the Blue Ridge Parkway one of the most popular units of the National Park System. “America’s Favorite Drive” winds its way 469 miles through mountain meadows and past seemingly endless vistas. Split-rail fences, old farmsteads and historic structures complement spectacular views of distant mountains and neighboring valleys. Don’t miss the 75th Anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2010. The Parkway incorporates several recreation areas, some exceeding 6,000 acres. These parks within the Parkway have visitor centers, camp grounds, picnic areas, trails and, in many instances, concessionaire-operated lodges, restaurants, and other facilities. The Parkway intersects Asheville at US 25, US 70 and US 74, and NC 191. The Linn Cove Viaduct (MP 304) is an engineering marvel that wraps around Grandfather Mountain. Check out the Blue Ridge Parkway Destination Center, the NC Arboretum, and the Folk Art Center.
Great Smoky Mountains
Part of the park’s appeal is its diversity. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s 500,000 acres boasts a range of elevations. Hikers can enjoy a leisurely hike along creek beds or challenge themselves on climbs reaching high peaks. The park boasts 850 miles of hiking trails and paths, including 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
Many trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway lead to waterfalls, depending on the season and rainfall conditions. The Graveyard Fields Loop, found at Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 419, allows easy access to a number of waterfalls flowing from Yellowstone Prong. The trails at Graveyard Fields are well mapped, but can become slippery in wet conditions. Here are a few more favorite waterfalls in the region.
To experience some of the many breathtaking views, follow the Blue Ridge Parkway south from Asheville to N.C. 215. Take 215 south to U.S. 64 and continue west through Lake Toxaway, Sapphire, Cashiers and Highlands. Follow 64 through the colorful Cullasaja Gorge where numerous waterfalls – including Bridal Veil Falls, Dry Falls and majestic Cullasaja Falls – cascade close to the highway. In Franklin, turn north on U.S. Highway 441 and head to Dillsboro. From there, hop on U.S. Highway 23 and drive straight back to Asheville.
White Water Falls
The highest waterfall east of the Rockies, Upper Whitewater Falls drops 411. A trail along rugged terrain leads to the falls. Wildflowers abound throughout the year. Take 240-West to I-26-West. Go to the Asheville Airport/Brevard Exit (exit 40) and take a right onto 280 and follow it toward Brevard. Drive west on U.S. 64. At Sapphire, turn left on NC 281 and go south to the Whitewater Falls entrance.
Looking Glass Falls & the Pisgah National Forest
The Parkway is also a connection point to a scenic loop that meanders through a part of the Pisgah National Forest once owned by George Vanderbilt. From Asheville, take the Blue Ridge Parkway south and exit onto Highway 276 at milepost 412. On this drive you will pass the Cradle of Forestry, which is a great place to stop and learn more about the birth of forestry in America, and several hiking trails are available on the property. Look for the trailhead on the left past the Cradle of Forestry to take a short hike to Moore’s Cove Falls or continue south on Hwy 276 where you can park and walk down stairs to see the breathtaking beauty of the 85-foot Looking Glass Falls. Sliding Rock is also along this stretch of scenic road. You may want to stop for lunch at one of the many scenic picnic spots. The Pisgah Ranger Station, located further down Hwy 276, can provide more information on activities in the area. Continue on 276 until you reach Highway 280. Follow 280 east back to Asheville. Exit to I-26 back into town.
Located at milepost 316.3 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, north of where US 221 crosses the Parkway and south of where NC 181 crosses the Parkway, this series of falls are along the Linville River as it cuts through a steep gorge. An easy trail to the upper and lower falls starts from the Visitor Center.
The trail to Crabtree Falls begins in the Crabtree Meadows picnic area located at mile post 339.5 along the Blue Ridge Parkway. A steep descent nearly one mile down the mountain takes you to the base of the falls where you can view the 100 foot drop of the Toe River.
Hickory Nut Falls at Chimney Rock
A .75-mile trail offers a leisurely walk through hardwood forests of oak, hickory, maple and basswood harboring abundant plant life, including rare and endangered wildflowers and old favorites such as Jack-in-the-pulpit and Solomon’s-seal. The reward is 404ft Hickory Nut Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls east of the Mississippi. Dainty white blossoms of Lady rue and grassy fronds of Deerhair bulrush thrive in the waterfall’s mist. Deerhair bulrush is a grass-like plant with small knobs at the end of shiny, wiry leaves, found growing out of the cracks along the rock and cliff wall near Hickory Nut Falls.