Why Getting Outdoors in This North Carolina Jewel is the Right Way to Travel Now
More than just a chance to get fresh air, people going outdoors more in recent years has helped many heal physically and emotionally when they needed it most. As we return to travel, it’s more important than ever to recreate responsibly and protect public lands for generations to come—so we can have experiences that we truly feel good about.
Asheville has a history going back more than a century as a prime vacation spot for celebrities, presidents, and in-the-know adventurers. But it was the Obama family vacation in April 2010 that shot this unconventional Blue Ridge Mountain town to the top of “must-visit” lists of curious travelers. Since then, travelers have flocked to Asheville—many of whom vacation here specifically for the wide variety of outdoor activities such as hiking, river sports, fishing, and cycling.
Good for you, great for Asheville
Asheville has a multitude of choices for hiking and getting outside, including more than a million acres of hardwood forest, whitewater, scenic waterfalls, and first-rate hiking trails in the surrounding Pisgah National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With so many new visitors coming to the land, it’s important to practice Leave No Trace principles and to spread the word to fellow travelers who may be unfamiliar with these practices. The more we know, the better we can protect our natural resources.
Before heading out on a hike or other outdoor adventure, plan. Check out the route online and read reviews of trails so you know what to expect. Always share your details (departure time, planned route, and expected return time) with a trusted friend or family member who can alert the proper authorities if you don’t return on time. Visitors should also park only in designated parking areas, keep pets leashed, and of course, don’t disturb wildlife or wander off-trail.
The less-traveled seasons
Asheville’s busiest tourist season is during October when the leaves turn from green to blazing shades of yellow, red, and orange. It’s equally beautiful, however, in spring and winter. Consider visiting during the shoulder seasons of September or November, when the fall weather is still dreamy, but parks and other public facilities are less crowded. In winter, it’s not unusual to have popular trails all to yourself where you can enjoy long-range views and dramatic forest silhouettes.
Beyond the Appalachian Trail
Spanning more than 2,100 miles through 14 states from Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail was constructed entirely by volunteers between 1922 and 1937. In North Carolina, it passes through the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, skirts the North Carolina-Tennessee border for 200 miles, and summits Clingman’s Dome, the highest ridge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With four million hikers (and growing) on the Trail each year, it can get crowded on the busiest sections between mid-March and mid-October, when through-hikers are on the move and weekend warriors carve away at completing the goal one section at a time.
The good news? There are hundreds of trails and recreational areas that are just as scenic and accessible as those along the Appalachian Trail. You don’t even have to leave the city limits to enjoy the outdoors: take a leisurely float trip down the French Broad River or enjoy one of the city’s many public parks. The North Carolina Arboretum is another eco-friendly activity, particularly for travelers who love plants and landscaping. Located within the Bent Creek Experimental Forest—a federally designated area for conducting scientific forestry and biological experiments—the 434-acre facility boasts 65 acres of cultivated gardens and scenic, dog-friendly walking trails.
Another standout scenic spot is Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, standing at 6,684 feet. A short 19-mile trip from Asheville, it is part of the Black Mountain subrange of the Appalachians. Mount Mitchell State Park boasts spectacular views and day hikes, plus a museum that explains the mountain’s biological and cultural importance.
Support businesses with transparent, sustainable practices
Eco-minded travelers will have plenty for their agenda on an Asheville visit. Biltmore Estate—the largest private residence in America and legendary family home of the Vanderbilt family—may not seem like a green destination. But delve deeper and visitors will discover numerous sustainability initiatives here, including more than 7,000 solar panels that help offset estate energy usage, LED lighting throughout the property, and a massive milkweed garden that supports Monarch butterflies on their yearly migration path.
Biltmore Estate also recycles cardboard, plastic, glass, paper, steel, and both natural and synthetic wine corks. Grape waste such as stems, seeds, and skins live a second life as compost for the vegetable gardens which supply the Biltmore’s onsite restaurants. Sample varietals in the tasting room, take a tour of the residence, stroll through lush vineyards and formal gardens, or meander down one of several hiking paths on this remarkably self-sustaining property.
A fantastic sustainable lodging option is Hilton Asheville Biltmore Park, the only area hotel with LEED Silver certification. Solar panels on the roof heat seven percent of the hotel’s hot water, rooms feature low-flow showerheads and touchless faucets, and a recycling program diverts more than 93,000 pounds of compostable material from landfills each year.
Asheville also has many eco-friendly businesses, several of which have B Corporation certification, a distinction awarded to companies that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. Make time for the delectable desserts, creative confections, and drinking chocolates—including many vegan and gluten-free options—at French Broad Chocolate. You can’t miss their distinctive blue building in the heart of downtown’s Park Square.
For hand-poured, eco-friendly candles, check out Hummingbird Candle Co., whose fun, friendly staff also hosts group candle-making parties. The earth-toned, hand-thrown pottery at East Fork is known for its simple, yet functional “feel good” design and makes for great gifts or long-lasting souvenirs. And for just about anything else, head to Ware, where you can shop for a wide range of sustainable products ranging from vegan dental floss to botanically-dyed raw silk bandanas.
Health-conscious travelers will revel in sustainable hospitality at Sauna House, a serene yet social bathhouse with hot and cold therapies. Guests can relax in the aspen or cedar saunas, then recharge in the 53-degree cold plunge—a modality shown to decrease stress and inflammation, increase blood flow and athletic performance, and relieve tired muscles and chronic pain. Afterward, relax on the lounging deck on stone-cast heated chairs, or enjoy a next-level massage.
Wind down the day at one of Ashville’s many plant-based restaurants such as Plant, Green Sage Cafe, Pulp + Sprout, Rosetta’s Kitchen, or Laughing Seed Cafe. Craft beer lovers will want to check out New Belgium Brewing, which boasts impressive sustainability initiatives at its riverfront facility.
Support Asheville after the visit
By joining Pledge for the Wild, a nationwide program designed to support the sensitive communities that receive pressure from adventure tourism, visitors can continue to support Asheville’s efforts to keep its public lands healthy long after the vacation is over. Text WILD4ASHEVILLE to 44321 to donate—proceeds go directly to the non-profit groups that help maintain the wild lands that make Asheville so unique. Visitors can also make an impact by partnering with a local trail preservation organization like Pisgah Area Sorba and Carolina Mountain Club—both host regular volunteer days.