Nestled in the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville has earned its reputation as a prime vacation spot for outdoor enthusiasts. Boasting upwards of a million acres of protected wilderness, travelers can kayak along the French Broad River, hike trails to cascading waterfalls, watch for bald eagles in lush forests, and so much more. (Pro tip: Avoid crowds and do your part to limit any strain on community resources when you plan your visit during the week and do your best to hit hiking trails and other busy outdoor spots earlier in the day.)
There are less expected ways to explore the city’s natural side, too, from sampling spirits made from locally grown, organic plants to staying at an ecofriendly hotel. Here, discover rewarding activities that are as good for travelers as they are for Asheville.
Try a new kind of “forest bathing”
Soak up the incredible mountain views at Shoji Spa & Lodge, a Japanese-style retreat nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A local favorite that’s minutes from downtown Asheville, guests can unwind in a cedar sauna and relax in private, outdoor salt tubs overlooking the Pisgah National Forest. Need a little extra TLC after a long day of hiking? Indulge in a Zen massage or meditation session under weighted blankets.
Explore a natural wonder
Home to the highest peaks east of the Mississippi River, Mount Mitchell State Park, hosts one of the best places in the U.S. to witness thermal inversion, a phenomenon where low-lying clouds rest in mountain valleys and undulate like waves. For the best conditions, get to the summit early in the morning, just after sunrise. Thermal inversion happens all year long, but you’re most likely to see it in the fall or when nights are cool, and days are warm. While you’re there, don’t miss some of Asheville’s best hiking trails through fragrant balsam forests. On the Deep Gap Trail, you may even find yourself climbing above the clouds.
Sip organic spirits
Despite its plethora of award-winning breweries, Asheville is more than a beer town. For a taste of the local terroir, head to Eda Rhyne Distilling Company, which celebrates the heritage and the therapeutic aspects of moonshine. (According to Eda Rhyne, Appalachia’s microhabitats are home to some 2,500 plant species, of which some 1,100 have been reported to have medicinal properties.) The distillery uses these regional ingredients to produce fine, small-batch liquors such as Appalachian Fernet, Rustic Nocino, and Pinnix Gin.
Learn a new skill (or just relax)
Located within Pisgah National Forest, the North Carolina Arboretum has served as a sanctuary for nature lovers for over 30 years. Within its 434-acre public garden and 10 miles of forested hiking and biking trails, locals and travelers alike can wander among the babbling creeks and shady pathways and find a quiet spot worthy of a picnic. Students of the great outdoors will also no doubt appreciate the Arboretum’s dedicated programming, including photography shows, book launches, and classes on everything from creating a garden at home to learning how to locate constellations.
Check into an ecofriendly masterpiece
Most people come to Biltmore to marvel at its stunning, French Renaissance architecture. Others admire the 8,000-acre estate’s sustainable achievements. Built by George Vanderbilt in 1895 as a self-sufficient residence, today the property has nine acres of solar panels, which offset 20 percent of its total energy. For a particularly special experience, book a night at The Inn on Biltmore Estate, where you can take your time strolling through spectacular, manicured gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, tour a working vineyard and winery, and eat in the stately, white-linen Dining Room with a menu of Southern classics featuring ingredients that come straight from the estate’s farm.
Visit a community success story
A hub of Asheville’s bustling—and growing—creative scene, the River Arts District consists of an eclectic mix of 200-plus working artist studios and galleries that occupy repurposed warehouses and mills along the French Broad River. Stop by the former industrial zone, just minutes from downtown, and tour one of the city’s most dynamic neighborhoods. Try your hand at a glassblowing workshop, purchase local art from printmakers and sculptors, or, if you’re in town on the second Saturday of the month, join a gallery walk featuring demonstrations, live music, and food trucks.