Asheville Alfresco: The Best Places to Enjoy the Outdoors in This Vibrant North Carolina City

Where to hike, bike, plunge, and otherwise get outdoorsy in the Blue Ridge Mountains of this vibrant North Carolina city.

A bridge at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville.

The Botanical Gardens at Asheville features peaceful pathways, bridges, a water garden, bird viewing deck, and more.

Photo by Tim Robison

The Blue Ridge Mountains were formed millions of years ago, when the Earth’s tectonic plates collided. Today, the gentle range, both inviting and awe-inspiring, remains one of the oldest and most beautiful in the world. And cutting its way through the mountains and winding its way through Asheville is the majestic French Broad River, thought to be one of the world’s most ancient rivers.

The combination of elevation and waterways makes this Southeast hub a natural draw for the outdoor adventurer, seducing everyone from the casual day hiker to the world-class paddler into its four-season embrace. On any given weekend throughout the year, the well-planned wanderer can enjoy any number of active pursuits—and even one or two that are less about adrenaline and more about relaxation. Our advice? Make sure to try a sampling of each.

Hard Times Trailhead

  • Best for: Mountain biking on a rugged track
  • Location: 375 Wesley Branch Road, Asheville

If your idea of a perfect morning includes an early alarm, a strong cup of coffee, and shredding on a rocky and rooted single track, then you’re in luck. Start at Battle Cat Coffee in West Asheville then head to Bent Creek Experimental Forest and its Hard Times Trailhead, which Riding in Color founder Diana Parra recommends as the most beginner-friendly trail system in Buncombe County due to the variety of gravel and single track. Their group, which hosts rides “for all folks who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color,” has an open-door policy for out-of-towners, Parra says, “so our sweet community can keep growing!” If the Hard Times Trailhead parking lot is full, aim for the other free lot at Rice Pinnacle.

There’s also a great network of trails at DuPont State Recreational Forest, 37 miles south of the city, and a skills area and pump track in West Asheville at Kolo Bike Park. And if you’ve been eager to try an e-bike or want to learn more about Asheville, try doing both at once with a guided e-biking excursion with locally owned Flying Bike Tours. It operates out of the River Arts District and offers tours with themes from history and local artists to the best pizzas around.

Wilma Dykeman Greenway

Cyclists enjoy the Wilma Dykeman Greenway in Asheville.

The accessible Wilma Dykeman Greenway follows the path of the French Broad River, which is believed to be one of the oldest in the world.

Photo by Tim Robison

  • Best for: Walking, skateboarding—and lawn bowling
  • Location: 192 Riverside Drive, Asheville

Even the most enthusiastic greenway supporter couldn’t have imagined how completely this two-mile, tree-lined asphalt path, whose namesake was a local author and environmental activist, would wind up transforming the city. Be sure to join its steady stream of locals commuting to and from work or amusing themselves along its paved, winding paths. Dog walkers—we’ve even spotted a cat on a leash—are popular, as are cyclists, runners, power walkers, skateboarders, and families with strollers. Asheville’s greenway traverses both sides of the French Broad River, with put-ins and take-outs for kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, as well as easy access to local watering holes like New Belgium Brewing. The path extends to Carrier Park, a thriving spot with ample free parking where you can whip your bike around the velodrome, play a game of lawn bowling, or sprawl on the grass with a blanket and a book. There are plans to extend the greenway even further and, if present use is any indication, the added miles will only multiply the joy.

Sliding Rock and Looking Glass Falls

No trip to the Asheville area would be complete without visiting at least one or two waterfalls. Create a core memory at Sliding Rock, about 40 miles south of downtown Asheville, a natural cascade that happens to double as, well, a sliding rock. Slipping down its incline is a local rite of passage, and its eight-foot plunge pool means there’s a soft landing after the thrill.

Just down the road from Sliding Rock, you’ll find Looking Glass Falls—one of the most photographed outdoor features in the area. Known for its 75-foot drop, this is one of the more accessible waterfalls thanks to its roadside observation deck and short staircase to the bottom. Looking Glass is a favorite waterfall of Guillard Climbing owner Pete Guillard, who’s also partial to Hickory Nut Falls, located northeast from here. “These two waterfalls represent how spectacular this region is,” he says. “With their proximity to some of the most iconic rock climbing in the state, Looking Glass Rock and Rumbling Bald, I always suggest a trip to take in the views postclimbing. Each involves a short hike and should not be missed on your next visit to Asheville!” And if you want to kick your adventure up a notch, we recommend booking a half or full day of climbing with Guillard, who offers private instruction for beginners and single and multi-pitch adventures.

The Botanical Gardens at Asheville

Visitors walk on a path at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville.

The visitor center at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville is home to the Cole Botany Library, with its wide selection of nature books, and the Crownover Solarium (or sunroom), which features an example of a Southern Appalachian bog habitat.

Photo by Tim Robison

  • Best for: Less adrenaline, more relaxation
  • Location: 151 WT Weaver Boulevard

Tour the Botanical Gardens at Asheville, offering free parking and admission to 10 acres showcasing an impressive collection of native plants. It’s a prime spot for bird-watching, and the park benches dotted throughout the property allow for peace and reflection; a wheelchair ramp aids in accessing the visitor center and bird deck. Elevate your visit by ordering gourmet charcuterie from the Asheville Picnic Company, which delivers thoughtfully curated local treats right to the Botanical Gardens, plus other nearby picturesque spots, including Craggy Gardens and the Biltmore Estate. Chilling out with a spread at any one of this locations is what we’d call the perfect ending to an otherwise active vacation.

Adventure Center of Asheville, Franny’s Farm, and more

  • Best for: Quirky, curated alfresco experiences
  • Adventure Center Location: 85 Expo Drive, Asheville
  • Franny’s Farm Location: 22 Franny’s Farm Road, Leicester

Sometimes you just want someone else to plan your day. So how about 60 minutes of beginner-friendly yoga poses while surrounded by goats at Franny’s Farm in nearby Leicester? Or a zip-line exploit with the Adventure Center of Asheville, which has a KidZip for younger thrill-seekers? Or a bird’s-eye view of the city with the Asheville Balloon Company? Foodies, meanwhile, will want to opt for an edible foraging trek under the canopy of trees at the historic Omni Grove Park Inn with the guidance of No Taste Like Home: After filling your basket with local mushrooms, roots, nuts, and more, you can arrange to have your “catch of the day” cooked by a chef at one of a handful of local restaurants, including the Market Place, Cultura, or the Bull & Beggar.

Erin McGrady (she/her) is a queer Korean American writer, photographer, and filmmaker based in Asheville, North Carolina.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR