By Corbie Hill and Kurt Dusterberg
Attention couples, families, adventure seekers, retirees and beer & music lovers! If the change in seasons has given you an itch for travel, we recommend that you satisfy your wanderlust in Asheville: it’s not quite four hours west of Raleigh, but it could be a world away. We spoke to locals and those in the know, seeking a variety of suggestions for your mountain city getaway. So go west.
North Carolina Arboretum and Asheville Botanical Garden
Don’t just give your date a few flowers – give him or her acres and acres of them. The sprawling North Carolina Arboretum, which neighbors the Blue Ridge Parkway just southwest of town, features delicate bonsai trees, native azaleas, and a dedicated holly garden. Sit together by the water in the stream garden or on a blanket in the forest meadow. Or simply meander and let your conversation do the same.
In north Asheville and adjacent to UNCA is the smaller Asheville Botanical Garden. Its footpaths make for easy streamside strolls, and its gazebo and grassy meadows are excellent places to while away the time, so as long as you don’t mind the occasional wandering undergrad. It’s the ideal spot to take a moment away from the city for relative quiet and privacy without actually leaving it.
Do go chasing waterfalls – in fact, dedicate the better part of your day to the simple junction of gravity and water. Many of these cascades are a decent drive from Asheville, but it’s still a good home base for those seeking whitewater views.
Seek Highway 64 southwest of Asheville in Brevard and the Lake Toxaway area, a region rich with waterfalls. Or get on the Blue Ridge Parkway – we recommend driving up Town Mountain Road, which starts at the edge of downtown and features views of the city some of the way up – and pick a direction. North is the popular Linville Falls or thespectacular Crabtree Falls, while three waterfalls are accessible from Craggy Gardens. South are the ever-popular Graveyard Fields, but also fairly spectacular (though waterfall-less) views from Devils Courthouse or the highest point on the parkway, which is more than an hour from Asheville but worth the drive.
Asheville Hot Air Balloons
You came here for something distinctive and for a change in elevation, right? Go for both with an hour-long flight over the Asheville area – rise to 500 or 2000 feet in a hot air balloon, and go whichever way the wind takes you. Ride with a group for $235 per person or book a private couples flight, which includes Chateau Biltmore champagne, for $600. Depending on how things go, Asheville Hot Air Balloons does weddings – as in, you can get married in midair.
Have a relaxing time, Asheville-style. Travelling Yogini Yoga Tours offer a variety of unconventional city tours, from guided downtown yoga tours to “bend and brew,” which caters to the intersection of beer, travel and yoga.
In south Asheville, the Salt Spa of Asheville & Himalayan Salt Cave Sanctuary recreates the micro-climate of a natural salt mine, so leave humidity behind. Also of note are the Spa at the Omni Grove Park Inn, a local institution; the Japanese-inspired Shoji Spa; and Wake Foot Sanctuary and Spa in Grove Arcade downtown.
Spend a night (or two)
If you seek the full B&B experience, The Biltmore Village Inn is a 19th-century Victorian mansion tucked away in a neighborhood just uphill of Biltmore Village (and not far from the Biltmore Estate, too); if you’re seeking the opposite, Aloft Hotel offers ultra-modern, high-tech lodging in the heart of downtown. Or save a few bucks and choose the Bohemian option: reserve a private room – definitely a private room, if this is a romantic getaway – at Sweet Peas Hostel on Rankin Avenue downtown.
Pisgah and the Parkway
Leave Asheville and head west through Buncombe County, through Candler, and turn left on Highway 151. As you drive through Hominy Valley, Mount Pisgah will loom larger and larger in your windshield until you’re in its shadow. The trees close in and the road suddenly goes up: it switchbacks up the 5,722-foot peak, eventually reaching the Blue Ridge Parkway after this dizzying ascent. Granted, you could also take the Parkway to Pisgah – and there’s nothing wrong with that – but there’s something dramatically gratifying about making your car climb the mountain before you make it the rest of the way by foot.
Pisgah is great for family hikes because you can make it from parking lot to summit and then back down again in a morning or an afternoon. There are some moderately strenuous sections, sure, but nothing too steep or difficult for elementary school kids or older; the long view from the summit platform is excellent payoff.
Past Pisgah on the Blue Ridge Parkway is the exceedingly popular Graveyard Fields – it’s often crowded, but the waterfalls are worth the parking battle. If you don’t have any fight in you, though, the Art Loeb Trail, which follows a windswept ridgeline, is just a little farther south.
Many Parkway overlooks, it’s worth mentioning, have a trailhead nearby. So take the family into the woods and be pleasantly surprised.
Western North Carolina Farmers Market
With Parkway access not much farther down Brevard Road, West Asheville close by, and I-26, I-40 and I-240 all immediately accessible, it’s easy to put the WNC Farmers Market on the way somewhere – or to treat it as its own destination. Load up on apples, honey, or whatever mountain staple is in season before the drive home.
Carrier Park/French Broad River Park
Once upon a time Carrier Park was a speedway – in fact, the oval race track remains as an exercise loop. Within are basketball courts and a sizable playground, complete with a sprawling, multi-level play structure, appropriate for a wide age range, from pre-k to middle school. Here you can set the kids loose, sit on a bench, and unwind with a book.
The French Broad River Greenway connects Carrier Park to French Broad River Park, which is a short walk away. This park features a river walk and views, sure, but also a dog park, in case you brought pets along. Once your kids are worn out and your batteries are recharged (funny how those go hand in hand), you can head up State Street to West Asheville or across the French Broad River to Biltmore Village or the River Arts District, all of which are conveniently close to these excellent parks.
Western North Carolina Nature Center
See cougars and otters, rattlesnakes and black bears, owls and foxes at the Nature Center. For its modest size, this mountain zoo offers a respectable variety of experiences, from traditional wildlife viewing enclosures to a barnyard petting zoo. It’s easy to forget that you’re within the city limits and less than a mile from I-40.
Curious kids will appreciate the Asheville Art Museum and Colburn Earth Science Museum, both located in Pack Square. Or go hippie-watching at Pritchard Park at the Friday night drum circle – and let your kids dance and go nuts. Duck into nearby toy store Curio, on the corner of Haywood Street and Battery Park Avenue, and then stroll down Wall Street looking for sculptures of cats (hint: they’ll be on the left). The one on the brick wall is watching something – get the kids to follow its gaze to find out what.
If your idea of adventure involves skimming the tree tops at 60 miles per hour, Navitat’s Blue Ridge Experience might be just your speed.
The mountaintop zipline outing features three courses with a variety of breathtaking views 350 feet in the air. At the start of the longest zipline, your view stretches all the way to Tennessee – but you can’t see the finish line, more than 3,600 feet away.
“It’s a pretty epic experience,” says Navitat marketing director Abby Burt.
The tour takes two and a half hours, beginning with a van ride up a mountainside. During short hikes between ziplines your guide will educate you about the flora and fauna of the mountains. The lines are set up side-by-side, in case you want to share the excitement.
If you’re not sure whether your adventure meter includes the extreme heights and speeds, no need to worry. The lines are built with an automatic braking system, so first timers don’t need to worry about controlling their run. And if you change your mind, the guides can get you down.
Navitat also operates the Moody Cove Adventure in Asheville, a tree-based canopy tour with shorter ziplines, bridges and rappels. The season begins March 19th. Each tour is $99.
“Our goal is to thrill, educate and inspire,” Burt says. “There is an opportunity in those moments to inspire people to value the outdoors more.”
Navitat is located 7.5 miles off I-26 near Bardnardsville. For more information, visit www.navitat.com/asheville-nc.
Blue Ridge Hiking Company
Jennifer Pharr Davis has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and a variety of exotic locations around the world. But her heart is in the Pisgah National Forest.
“There’s no place better than the southern Appalachian mountains,” says Davis, the owner of Blue Ridge Hiking Company.
Davis and her trail guides lead half-day ($150 for two people) and full-day ($250) hikes along the Appalachian Trail. And while anyone can strap on a backpack and start walking, Blue Ridge Hiking Company lends some know-how to the journey.
“We know which trails are most crowded, we know where the wildflowers are,” Davis says. “It’s like being in an outdoor classroom. Plus, there’s no getting lost.”
Don’t worry if you’ve never set out on a hiking trail. Blue Ridge is accustomed to working with beginners. They will meet up with you at a convenient location and take you to one of six trailheads around Asheville.
“Some people are fit and active, others just want to be in the woods,” Davis says. “Many people like to take photos or just relax and sit on a rock. We don’t think one is better than the other.”
Blue Ridge Hiking Company also works with people who have a wide range of disabilities. The way Davis figures, if you can get outdoors, you can enjoy the experience.
“It’s like sharing a secret, how to live and spend your time. It sounds so trivial, but it can change your life.”
For more information, visit www.blueridgehikingco.com.
Smoky Mountain Adventure Center
At the Smoky Mountain Adventure Center, you can choose from a variety of activities to get you moving, or you can simply choose to chill.
The recently opened facility features indoor climbing walls as high as 34 feet. If spending time on the water is more your pace, the center rents tubes, kayaks and paddleboards for trips on the French Broad River. Want to explore your surroundings? Rent a bike and tour the River Arts District or downtown Asheville.
The center also has dedicated space for yoga and tai chi classes. After your workout, they will set you up with coffee, tea or a smoothie at their juice bar.
If you would rather kick back with a line in the water, the SMAC can outfit you with fishing poles, bait and tackle. If that’s not enough of a wind-down, just settle in at the Hangout, an elevated wrap-around deck that serves locally crafted beers.
For more information, visit www.smacasheville.com.
Are you a bird nerd? A good pair of binoculars and a field guide is all you need for a good day of birding.
Richmond Hill Park has 180 acres of hiking trails and is home to vibrant-colored song birds, including the indigo bunting, black-and-white warbler and the scarlet tanager.
Swallows and chimney swifts like to swoop over the water in search of insects at the Beaver Lake Bird Sanctuary. The yellow-throated warbler and blue-grey gnatcatcher also nest at the sanctuary. Birders can take part in early-morning bird walks on the first Saturday of the month all year.
If your birding trip has carried over to lunch time, how about a picnic at Craggy Gardens? The location offers beautiful mountaintop views and a setting that attracts migratory species from the northeastern United States, such as slate-colored juncos, winter wrens and blackpoll warblers.
The North Carolina Arboretum is a 434-acre public garden that is home to many songbirds. Or take in Chimney Rock Park, which attracts more than 130 species of birds.
Thomas Wolfe Memorial
Make some time for a literary tour with a visit to the childhood home of author Thomas Wolfe. The Asheville author grew up in a boarding house, which was depicted in the novel Look Homeward, Angel. Artifacts from the early 20th-century home tell the story of his family.
But the residence known as The Old Kentucky Home (called Dixieland in the novel) is just the start. The Asheville Urban Trail is a series of 30 stations that tell the city’s cultural story. Wolfe’s childhood paper route is mapped out, along with a marker that identifies the site of his birthplace.
Wolfe is buried in Riverside Cemetary, among 87 acres of rolling hills and flower gardens that overlook the French Broad River. It is also the burial site of author O. Henry and three Confederate generals. Self-guided tour packets are available Monday through Friday.
For more information, visit www.wolfememorial.com.
River Arts District
Put on your walking shoes and plan to spend the day. The River Arts District is a mile-long stretch of industrial and historic buildings along the French Broad River.
The 23 working studios in the RAD feature the works of more than 200 artists in a wide range of forms, including paint, pottery, metal and glass. While you browse their works, take advantage of the opportunity to meet the artists and discuss the creative process. If you find something to buy, the artists will pack and ship your purchases.
If you come for the bi-annual Studio Stroll weekends in May and October, most of the artists open their studios for hands-on demonstrations. It’s crowded, but free trolley rides make it easy to get to all your favorite studios.
Parking is free in the district, which began converting industrial building into studios in 1985. There are no official hours of operation, but the district is open all year.
If you plan to make a day of it, you’ll work up a hunger. The district has you covered from breakfast through dinner. Whether you have a taste for tacos or pizza, or you are looking for something upscale, there is a dining experience to match your taste.
For more information, visit www.riverartsdistrict.com.
Beer & Music Lovers
Granted, Black Mountain is in Buncombe, the same county as Asheville, but it’s on the far eastern edge and has a completely different character. A music and beer trip to Asheville wouldn’t be complete without a stop here before driving the remaining 20-odd minutes into Asheville proper.
If the sun’s out, stop by Acoustic Corner. True to name, the shop privileges unamplified instruments, particularly those popular in Old Time, Celtic, bluegrass, and folk music. Even if you don’t play, you can still appreciate the artistry of the fiddles, banjos and bouzoukis – oh, and guitars, of course. If the sun’s down, though, ensure you stop by local dive and venue Town Pump Tavern.
One of the most essential Black Mountain stops is Pisgah Brewery, which hosts shows ranging from bluegrass to jam to jazz fusion. This organic certified brewery makes a remarkably smooth and malty porter, which must be enjoyed in draught form.
After a night like that, you’re gonna need some coffee. Go to the Dripolator.
Downtown, music is inescapable. As you walk, watch for buskers performing on the sidewalk. Be prepared to stop and listen to their songs, and drop a few dollars in the hat before moving on to a place with a stage and some taps. It’s forgivable if you get distracted along the way by Wicked Weed, a Biltmore Avenue brewery and restaurant, so leave yourself time to step inside and grab a pint before heading next door to the Orange Peel.
As one of Asheville’s largest music venues, the Orange Peel has a deserved reputation for bringing household names to the area: The Smashing Pumpkins played a residency here in summer 2007, while hip-hop giant Big Boi and quirky rockers The Flaming Lips are among the acts to grace this downtown stage. In the immediate future, CeeLo Green (March 2nd), Tortoise (March 21st) and They Might Be Giants (April 7th) are some of the travel-worthy shows coming to the Orange Peel. Walk back up Biltmore Avenue to Diana Wortham Theatre, a dignified room where orchestra, folk, drama, world music, and all manner of performance art intersect.
Once upon a time, the Grey Eagle was on the edge of downtown, with a diner on one side and warehouses on the other. Over the last decade, though, what is now called the River Arts District has grown up around it, and now this intimate venue is comfortably nestled among galleries. A seated show here is an all-but-required Asheville music experience – of note, Marc Ribot, best known for his skronky, counterintuitive guitar-work on Tom Waits records, plays here April 3. The Grey Eagle has a taqueria, too, so come hungry.
For beer, the area directly south of downtown – South Slope – features a number of breweries and is rapidly becoming the city’s beer district. Catawba Brewing, Twin Leaf and Hi-Wire are all there, while Bhramari Brewhouse just opened in the area. If you want an interesting six-pack, swing by one of Asheville’s top-notch beer stores, such as Tasty Beverage Company or Bruisin Ales.
Across the French Broad River from downtown is West Asheville, a distinct district that’s only really come into its own in the past 15 years. Westville Pub, a cozy little neighborhood bar with a tasty menu, excellent North Carolina beer on tap, and a full music calendar including open mic nights and blues jams, remains a staple.
Just down Haywood Road from Westville, midsize venue The Mothlight is a home to hip, interesting touring bands. Don’t let Diarrhea Planet’s name scare you – the jubilant Nashville rock outfit packs more guitarists than makes sense and they’ll grace the Mothlight stage March 9th. Also on Haywood, ISIS Restaurant and Music Hall offers both traditional concerts and seated dinner shows.