Living out in the pacific northwest, I’ve become very familiar with mountain towns. Winthrop, Bellingham, Bend, Leavenworth… the Upper Left boasts a plethora of these nature-centric cities, nestled in high peaks and surrounded by beautiful scenery. Of course, their location isn’t the sole factor in their titling: true mountain towns boast multiple breweries, several gear shops, deliciously hipster coffee shops, and more flannels per capita than the Canadian Rockies.
Just kidding, Canada. You’ve got us all beat.
Being so used to (and loving) this hipster-gone-camping vibe in the PNW, I was stoked to hear about what the other coast calls the “East Coast’s Boulder”: Asheville, NC. This past spring, I hopped back east to check it out, and spent five marvelous days the city and the rolling hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’ve put together a recommended itinerary based on what I did there, what I feel I missed, and how I think you can get the most out of a brief time in this fantastic part of the country.
Now, because this is an outdoor lifestyle blog, this itinerary really only includes two days in the city of Asheville itself; one day south; and two days up into the mountains north of Asheville. If you are driving over from Raleigh, DC, or any other city east of Winston-Salem, I’d recommend taking the southern route in on 40 and heading home via 421. This avoids the unnecessary backtrack through Asheville.
For lodging, I’d recommend AirBnB or VRBO – both are active in Asheville. I stayed in a charming above-garage studio loft, but unfortunately it acquired some permanent residents shortly thereafter. Still, you’re bound to find something inexpensive and comfortable on these sites.
If you’re a visual learner, you can follow along in this nifty, interactive, Google MyMap. Click here for that.
Day 1: Arrive in Asheville
If you are flying in to Asheville, be sure to rent a car! However you arrive in Asheville today, your first mode of action should be driving into town and grabbing some grub. Asheville has incredible food, and plenty of options for vegetarians/vegans. Head into downtown Asheville for some quick grub. There are tons of options, but for a quick and healthy meal, try Green Sage Cafe. The Chop Chop Asian salad or the Green Beetle beet burger (the sweet potato fries are stellar) are delicious, and round out nicely with a ginger chai milk shake.
Once you are sufficiently full from lunch, walk it all off with a stroll through the River Arts District. Here, you can explore the galleries and workshops of Asheville artisans. There are hundreds of galleries to visit, so be sure to consult the map and gallery hours to plan your visit. After a good stroll through the galleries, head to The Hop for some excellent pre-dinner ice cream. Taste test as many as you like – seriously, they’ll tell you that’s half the fun. The Hop may not be as close to downtown as some other ice cream shops, but you are bound to try some delicious and unique flavors!
For dinner, head to Chai Pani for some incredible Indian street food. This isn’t a place for carry-out, so to get the full experience, plan on sitting down to enjoy the eclectic vibe with your chaat and uttapam.
Head south towards Dupont State Forest this morning. On your way out of town, swing by West End Bakery (aptly named for its location in west Asheville) to grab a cinnamon roll and a breakfast sandwich to fuel you for the day.
Dupont State Recreational Forest has many miles of multi-use trails, but the best bet is a six-mile loop that takes you on a tour of through four major waterfalls. While the park has some decent maps online, take the time to stop in to the visitor’s center to chat with a ranger, as they can give you better directions and recommend a trail that’s right for you. If you are in relatively decent hiking shape, take the scenic six-mile trail that passes by Bridal Veil Falls, Hooker Fall, Triple Falls, and High Falls, and finishes with a walk through the covered bridge. Watch out for horse poop! If you are into mountain biking, you can bring bikes up to Dupont State Forest – but the best views are still within this loop. Pack in lunch, and eat at the base of any of the falls.
On your way back to Raleigh, stop at Graveyard Fields along the Blue Ridge Parkway. If you have time, and a few more hours of energy, hike the 3.2 mile loop through Graveyard Fields. For dinner, head to the popular HomeGrown cafe in West Asheville. HomeGrown epitomizes Asheville: locally relevant, environmentally friendly, and just a dash of down-home good southern style.
Day 3: Biltmore Estate
You really can’t visit Asheville without seeing the Biltmore. It’s absurdly expensive, so book your tickets in advance to save $10, or check their current ticket offers to save money when you get there. Before heading in, grab a quick and delicious breakfast at the Well-Bred Bakery and Cafe in Biltmore Village, just a minute from the Estate Entrance. Try anything: it’s bound to be delicious – but especially treat yourself to some quiche and an eclair. Yes, an eclair for breakfast! It’s worth it. Also consider picking up a sandwich or at least a snack for the day ahead – you won’t want to waste money at the cafes within the Biltmore walls.
Plan on arriving at the Biltmore first thing in the morning – even a little before they open – and park up at the Diana parking area. It’s the farthest lot, but the walk in is less than ten minutes, and offers a wonderful view of the estate. On the Biltmore website, it says it takes roughly 4 hours to go through the home, but it will take closer to six if you choose to read all the placards. The Biltmore gets crowded fast, and school groups are likely to be here during the week, so get ready to take it all in as quickly as possible: the house is only the beginning of the Estate.
Once you finish up at the Biltmore house, walk the expansive gardens. You can also rent bikes in Biltmore, and explore the many trails in solitude. Before leaving, make your way to the Antler Hill Village and Winery. If you aren’t interested in shopping the touristy mini-mall, linger at least long enough to enjoy your wine – the tasting is included in the ticket price.
When you’ve finished at the Biltmore, drive back into downtown for dinner at Laughing Seed Cafe. Meat-eaters, don’t be deterred: while the Laughing Seed is a vegetarian and vegan restaurant, it’s also just fantastic food, and not a place to miss. Try the any of the jackfruit options, if you are feeling truly trendy.
Save some time to head over to Wicked Weed Brewery after dinner. It’s an easy walk from Laughing Seed or any downtown restaurant. Grab a flight to test a few of their beers, and take it outside to any one of the standing tables. If there’s a show happening that night at neighboring entertainment venue The Orange Peel, then you are in for some excellent people watching.
Day 4: Mount Mitchell and Linville Falls
You’re headed out of Asheville, now, and up to Linville Falls! Your best bet in Linville Falls is to stay at the Linville Falls Lodge and Cottages, or, as in Asheville, score an AirBnB. Either way, you won’t be spending much time at your lodging.
Drive north along the Blue Ridge Parkway, stopping at a few of the many overlooks to capture some beautiful of the valley below. After about an hour, peel off and drive up to the top of Mt. Mitchell. Park at a lot just 100 ft below the summit, and take a short stroll to the top of the highest peak East of the Mississippi! If you come from the West Coast, show some respect for your lower-elevation comrades, and be appropriately awed by the 6,684 ft summit. It’s no 14er, sure; but for the Appalachian chain, it’s pretty outstanding.
Enjoy the view at the top, but then head on to the real attraction: Mt. Craig. It’s the second highest peak and only 37 feet lower in elevation than Mt. Mitchell, and will afford you much more solitude and immersion into the environment of this part of the Appalachian range. Take the Deep Gap Trail from the north end of the parking lot to reach the summit. This hike is a short 2 miles round-trip, but boasts some fun rock scrambles and a stellar view. Keep in mind that with this much exposure and elevation, temperatures change rapidly – so bring layers! Keep an eye out for the peak marker when you reach the summit. It can be easy to miss.
On your way back to the parking lot, take a second to check out the museum, or at least read some of the signs. Mt. Mitchell is a fragile environment, and it’s important to know how your visit there affects the wildlife.
After Mt. Mitchell, drive on to Linville Falls. There are several hikes that make it to the falls from the Visitor’s Center, so opt to do the popular 1.6 mile hike to Erwins View Overlook, and the short mile jaunt down to Plunge Basin. This is a great chance to see some true rapids up close. Once you’re done for the day, turn in to make dinner at your hotel, or support the few local restaurants in the area, but don’t expect to find close to as much variety as you had in Asheville.
Grandfather Mountain Attraction – a privately owned, mile-high (not long) bridge – is what most people picture when they hear Grandfather Mountain. Sure, this bridge takes you the easy way to the summit of Grandfather Mountain at Linville Peak, but it’ll cost you $20 per person, and a ton of shuffling through crowds. Note that this part of the park is preserved by the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, and all proceeds from ticket sales go back to preserving the mountain, which does not include the trails of Grandfather Mountain State Park.
To access Grandfather Mountain State Park without paying the lofty fee, park at the Boone Fork Parking area along the parkway, or the Profile Trail lot on highway 105. There are a few highly recommended and strenuous routes to the summit of Calloway Peak, with the most popular being up the rope bridges and ladders of the Profile Trail. For the slightly less adventurous (but still very strenuous) trail to the summit, park at Boone Fork and hike in via the Nuwati and Cragway trails past Flat Rock View.
Note that this area of the mountains experiences extreme weather changes, at the trails and lots are subject to close without warning. If the Blue Ridge Parkway is closed, park at the Asutsi Trailhead along the parallel highway 221. This adds a nominal half mile to your hike.
Grab yourself a free permit and snap a photo of the trail map before heading out for the day. You’ll follow the gently curving Nuwati trail for about a mile before taking a left turn onto the orange-blazed Cragway and up a rocky, interesting trail. This trail has some very exposed sections that can get very windy, so use caution if you are with small children or are afraid of heights. After a steep climb, you’ll see the junction of the Cragway and Daniel Boone Scout Trail. Look right, and scale the last few feet to the tabletop of Flat Rock View. This view in and of itself is spectacular, and a great spot to turn around and follow the Daniel Boone Scout Trail back to the lot if time or energy doesn’t permit you to continue.
But if your goal is Calloway Peak, then you’re halfway there! Grab a snack, then prepare yourself for the next two miles of steep elevation gain and a few permanent ladders that will get you to the summit. After soaking in the views at Calloway peak, head back down and keep an eye out for the trail’s Easter Egg: a crashed plane from 1978. The crew over at A Family Outside has an excellent description of both how to find the plane, and the whole hike in general, and their website is well worth a visit. After glimpsing the plane (if you can find it), follow the Daniel Boone Scout trail all the way back to the parking lot. With that, head back to Asheville, head out towards Boone, or wherever home is for you.
Explore Asheville – Asheville’s own tourism site, with tons of great links
Romantic Asheville – more useful for hikers than the name may suggest
AllTrails Best of the Blue Ridge – great for finding popular hikes and locating maps
Have you been to Asheville, NC before? What did I miss? What’s your favorite hike in the area? Leave a comment below!