Courtesy of Explore Asheville
Courtesy of Explore Asheville
Mount Mitchell may be the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi but the hikes near the summit are short and easy.
Whether you’re in it for the exercise, the views, or the fun, Black Dome Mountain Sports owner Trent Thomas knows the best hikes.
Within the valley of the French Broad River and surrounded by the highest peaks in the eastern United States, Asheville offers an overwhelming amount of hiking. Luckily, there are well-informed locals like Trent Thomas to show you where to start.
A North Carolina native and owner of Black Dome Mountain Sports, Asheville’s premier full-service outfitter since 1984, Thomas moved to Asheville in 1972 and has been in the outdoors business since 1976, so he knows his stuff. “There are great hikes on both sides of town,” he says. “And you can be in the wilderness in half an hour.”
Below, he outlines the best mountains, trails, and parks for experiencing Asheville’s great outdoors. Whichever you choose, he promises you’ll be wowed by how the vast terrain satisfies every outdoor craving. “It’s a great playground we’ve got right here,” he says.
Hiking comes easily in this city, with nearby peaks like the perfectly pyramidal Mount Pisgah visible from almost every rooftop bar and arty café in town, says Thomas. The most popular route is on Mount Mitchell, the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi at 6,684 feet and the inspiration for one of the country’s first state parks. Here, visitors will find a readily accessible observation deck that looks out over a spruce-fir forest, a museum about the mountain’s natural and cultural history, and an extensive trail network with short hikes near the summit. Thomas’s store is actually named for Mount Mitchell (for local explorer Elisha Mitchell in 1950) but called Black Dome by the area’s Native inhabitants.
Thomas recommends the 2.5-mile round-trip climb at Sam Knob, which stands apart from the other ranges and affords unobstructed vistas in all directions. While there’s no viewpoint from the wooded summit, hikers can circle the top, stopping at a series of huge boulders to enjoy a 360-degree panorama. Sit for a few minutes and you might spot a migrating peregrine falcon riding the thermals that encircle the peak, Thomas says. “I’ve been there on top of that mountain at least 40 times in my life, and at least 10 of them I’ve seen falcons.”
Serious distance hikers should try the Art Loeb Trail through Pisgah National Forest, a 30-mile challenge that crosses four 6,000-foot peaks, including famed Black Balsam Knob, before reaching the Shining Rock Wilderness. “It goes through all these different ecosystems: along the beautiful, lush Davidson River, a popular fly fishing spot, and past beautiful granite cliffs including Cedar Rock and John Rock, which are popular with rock climbers,” Thomas says.
The trail also skirts Cold Mountain (made famous by the novel and movie of the same name) and can be done in sections or as a two- to three-day backpacking trip.
Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Great Craggy Mountains, known simply as “the Craggies” to locals, cut jaggedly against the sky and include Craggy Pinnacle, Craggy Dome, and the wildflower-studded expanse of Craggy Gardens. Thomas says he never tires of the view from the summit of Craggy Pinnacle, where on a clear day you might catch a glimpse of Clingman’s Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “You can see all of the French Broad Valley and Lake Burnett, and if you’re up there in the early mornings the low clouds cover the valley with just the peaks sticking up above them,” he says.
Speaking of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, five of its entrances are located within 70 miles of Asheville, although popular attractions like Cades Cove and Newfound Gap are a couple hours away.
If you want to stick around Asheville, the nearly 1,200-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail passes right through town, Thomas notes; look for the white circular markers indicating sections of the trail. You can follow it up Mount Mitchell or attempt the 18-mile Shut-In Trail section just west of Asheville, which follows the old bridle trail from the Biltmore House to George Vanderbilt’s hunting lodge near the summit of Mount Pisgah.
Other top hikes near Asheville include the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, home to more than 100 tree species (many of which are more than 400 years old or 20 feet in circumference and 100 feet tall); the privately owned Grandfather Mountain, popular with families for its mile-high swinging bridge; and the Rattlesnake Lodge Trail, which leads to the remains of a summer lodge owned by Dr. Chase Ambler and his family in the early 1900s. “It’s just ruins now, but in its day it was a stopping point for people riding horses from Asheville to Mount Mitchell, and it’s cool to think of that history, with all those travelers having a great time up there,” Thomas says.
>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Asheville
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