How a Nature Lover Spends 3 Obscure Days in Asheville - Atlas Obscura

How a Nature Lover Spends 3 Obscure Days in Asheville

Field biologist Josh Kelly shares his perfect long weekend in the verdant North Carolina city.

The view from the highest peak east of the Mississippi River.
The view from the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. Colby Sexton

Asheville, North Carolina, is a city of superlatives. It’s located in one of the most scenic spots in the U.S., thanks to the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains and the sparkling French Broad River. The combination makes for a stunning urban landscape, one that’s also environmentally significant. “It’s arguably the best area in the eastern United States to explore old-growth forests,” says Josh Kelly, a field biologist for MountainTrue, a conservation organization based in Asheville.

Asheville resident and field biologist Josh Kelly.
Asheville resident and field biologist Josh Kelly. Colby Sexton

Asheville’s abundance of edible plant species has put it at the forefront of the food-foraging movement. The city also boasts one of America’s most vibrant craft beer scenes. And there’s the palatial Biltmore Estate, built by George Vanderbilt III at the height of the Gilded Age. The local mansion still claims the distinction of being the largest privately owned residence in the United States.

You could spend a lifetime studying this region’s incredible biodiversity (more than 2,000 species of fungi alone are known to grow in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, for example, and more salamander species exist here than in any other single place on Earth). But you needn’t quit your day job to experience the area’s natural wonders. With Kelly’s help, we’ve put together this guide to spending “Three Obscure Days” exploring Asheville’s wild beauty.

Day 1: Agenda

  • Learn about local plant species at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville

  • Meet the animals of the area at the Western North Carolina Nature Center

  • Forage for food at George Washington Carver Park

  • Experience the nightlife of West Asheville


Flowers at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville.
Flowers at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville. Explore Asheville

Botanical Gardens at Asheville

As you kick off your three-day adventure, take a moment to get your bearings and learn about local flora and fauna at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville and the Western North Carolina Nature Center.

“[The Botanical Gardens at Asheville] is one spot, it’s free to get into, and it has a really approachable, easy trail system to walk and just a ton of information,” says Kelly.

In the late summer and early fall, you can expect to find sunflowers, goldenrods, and heart-leaved aster, or “a lot of yellow and purple flowers,” as Kelly puts it. You’re also likely to see several species of lilies. Kelly suggests you keep your eyes peeled for North Carolina’s official state wildflower, the Carolina lily, or lilium michauxii. The flower’s scientific name refers to the famed botanist who “discovered” it, André Michaux. Under French royal command in the 18th century, he was sent to North America to investigate plants that could be of benefit to France’s soil. His contributions to botany were ultimately more appreciated in North America than in his home country. Several species of plants native to North Carolina are named after him.


An American river otter at the WNC Nature Center.
An American river otter at the WNC Nature Center. Colby Sexton

Western North Carolina Nature Center

At the Western North Carolina Nature Center (WNC), you’ll become acquainted with the non-human residents of Asheville and its surrounding wilderness. The park highlights each animal’s story via informative signage, making even the most common of animals appealing to observe. According to the center’s website, Sassy the raccoon, for example, is known for her peculiar habit of sucking her foot like a toddler might suck their thumb.

Don’t miss the shier species such as the bobcat or the black bear, and take a moment to appreciate the zoo’s American river otters, Olive and Obi Wan. Once critically endangered in North Carolina, they were rescued from extinction through reintroduction programs in the early 1990s. They’re back to being ubiquitous in the area; Kelly sees otters a few times a year while fly-fishing.


Apples for picking at George Washington Carver Park.
Apples for picking at George Washington Carver Park. Colby Sexton

George Washington Carver Park

For a literal taste of Asheville’s foraging scene, Kelly recommends booking a trip with a guide to forage for “a bounty of wild plants and mushrooms” with one of several outfitters that specialize in such trips. “This will help with your identification abilities for the rest of your stay,” he advises. Alternatively, you can wander on your own into George Washington Carver Park, a public park stocked with edible plant species.

In the summertime, expect to find berries. But according to Kelly, the best time to go is actually in the fall, when the fruit and nut trees are in bloom. As the temperature begins to dip, apples, pears, pawpaws, hazelnuts, and chestnuts beckon you to pick them.


A mural of Dolly Parton by artist Gus Cutty in West Asheville.
A mural of Dolly Parton by artist Gus Cutty in West Asheville. Colby Sexton

West Asheville

If you’re at all squeamish about eating food you’ve found on the ground, in a bush, or hanging from a tree, don’t worry: Asheville has plenty of dining establishments that take advantage of locals’ penchant for foraged food. Restaurants that utilize found ingredients particularly abound in downtown and West Asheville. Some of them will even cook up ingredients you’ve found yourself.

Local bartenders have taken to adding foraged herbs to their cocktails, infusing the city’s vibrant nightlife with a new menu of flavors. Take a seat at one such drinking establishment in West Asheville and end the night by strolling through town, admiring the many colorful murals that have splashed onto buildings in this part of the city.

Day 2: Agenda

  • Hike the picturesque Craggy Pinnacle trail

  • Continue onto Douglas Falls

  • Make a stop in Black Mountain

  • Learn about Black Mountain College’s legacy at the Black Mountain Museum + Arts Center


Rhododendrons in bloom.
Rhododendrons in bloom. Explore Asheville

Craggy Pinnacle Trail

Armed with your newfound knowledge of the local ecosystem (and, hopefully, with some foraged apples or berries for breakfast), head out for one of Asheville’s most photogenic hikes, the Craggy Pinnacle Trail.

You’ll travel the famously scenic Blue Ridge Parkway to get there, which winds through cloud-level mountain crests and acts as a gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Stop by the Craggy Gardens along the way at mile post 367 to take in views among mountain-top meadows, or relax at one of the facility’s picnic tables. Then, head just a bit farther up the road to the trailhead of Craggy Pinnacle, accessible by the Craggy Dome parking area at milepost 364.

Less than a mile round-trip, the trail to the hike’s summit is as easy as it is visually rewarding. Along the way, you’ll pass through dense thickets of fairy-tale-esque forest. In the springtime, these areas are awash in fuchsia as the bountiful rhododendron bloom.

At the summit, a walled overlook allows for safe viewing of the vista you came here to see. If you missed the rhododendron in the spring, perhaps you’re lucky enough to arrive in the fall. “In the fall, those higher elevations change color first, and then after they pass their peak, you can look down on the progression of color as it fades into the valley,” Kelly says.



Douglas Falls.
Douglas Falls. Colby Sexton

Douglas Falls

Hikers who haven’t had their fill of nature can continue farther down the Douglas Falls trail, a route that leads to a 60-foot waterfall. “More impressive, from the naturalist’s point of view,” Kelly says, “is the old-growth northern hardwoods forests along the trail.” The trees in these old-growth forests, he notes, are some of the biggest you’ll find east of the Mississippi.

If the 3.5 mile, downhill hike from Craggy Pinnacle doesn’t sound appealing, there’s an easier way to view the falls. At the end of nearby FS 74 (a narrow, Forest Service road), there’s a trailhead that ends at the falls. This is a comparatively easy hike that covers just under one-mile, round-trip.


The town of Black Mountain.
The town of Black Mountain. Explore Asheville

Black Mountain

“If you’re passing through and want to see a cute little town in the area, Black Mountain is a great one,” Kelly says.

Still closely associated with Black Mountain College (a former art school with a faculty and alumni list that reads like a who’s who of luminaries across disciplines in the 20th century), the town has retained a creative spirit that’s reflected in its restaurants, cafes, and boutiques.

The grounds of the college are closed to the public (and occupied by a summer camp for boys), but they’re open several times per year to host the Lake Eden Arts Festival in May and October and {Re}HAPPENING in March, an evening of supper and performances inspired by John Cage’s Theatre Piece No. 1.


Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center's exterior.
Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center’s exterior. Colby Sexton

Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center

If you’re back in Asheville before it closes in the evening, visit the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center to learn more about the college and those who were associated with it, including Ruth Asawa, Allen Ginsberg, Cy Twombly, Merce Cunningham, and Buckminster Fuller. The permanent collection includes more than 2,000 pieces of artwork and ephemera, all related to the college. One highlight of the museum is alumnus Robert Rauschenberg’s Opal Gospel, 10 American Indian Poems, a piece composed of 10 movable, silk-screened panels depicting American Indian stories and images.

If you’re lucky, you might even catch one of the space’s readings, concerts, or other special events, which are scheduled about once per month.

Day 3: Agenda

  • Hike to the highest point in the U.S. east of the Mississippi

  • Learn about traditional, southern Appalachian craftsmanship at the Folk Art Center

  • Kayak or tube down the French Broad River


Views from the peak of Mt. Mitchell.
Views from the peak of Mt. Mitchell. Explore Asheville

Mount Mitchell’s Summit

You’d be remiss not to visit the peak of Mt. Mitchell on a trip to Asheville. Heading up N.C. Highway 128 (off the Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway at milepost 35), you can drive nearly all the way to the top of the 6,683-foot summit. Mt. Mitchell holds the distinction of being the highest point in the U.S. east of the Mississippi, and the man who gave the mountain its name (the educator and geologist Elisha Mitchell) died in pursuit of proving that fact.

Mitchell first observed that a mountain that was then known as Black Dome appeared to be higher than what was previously believed to be the highest peak in the east (Grandfather Mountain, also in North Carolina) on a geological survey in 1828. He returned to measure the mountain three times between that trip and 1844, in the process proving that his theory was correct. More than a decade later, he would return to the mountain one last time, after his claim was challenged by a state senator. On that fateful journey, he fell to his death at nearby Mitchell Falls.

A short, mile-long hike (round trip) from the parking area at the end of Highway 128 leads visitors to an observation deck where they can take in panoramic views from what is without a doubt the highest point in the U.S. east of the Mississippi river. They can also pay their respects to Mitchell—his tomb is located here.

The branches of a Frasier fir.
The branches of a Frasier fir. Colby Sexton

At this elevation, Kelly explains, you’re also likely to see red spruce, yellow birch, and mountain ash trees, which tend to be associated with states like Maine rather than North Carolina.

Another type of tree to watch out for is the Fraser fir. “Here in the southern Appalachians we have the Fraser fir, which only occurs in this area,” Kelly explains. Plenty of farms in the area harvest these trees for the winter holidays.


Hand-woven baskets at the Folk Art Center.
Hand-woven baskets at the Folk Art Center. Colby Sexton

Folk Art Center

Head back to Asheville on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Stop about eight miles outside of the city at milepost 382 at the Folk Art Center, the home of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, which represents over 900 juried craftspeople from the South. In addition to a permanent collection featuring historical artifacts and rotating exhibitions, the center also maintains the oldest continuously run craft store in the U.S.

One of the guild’s founding members, Frances L. Goodrich, had originally come to this area in the late 19th century as a Presbyterian missionary. Surprised and inspired by the utilitarian yet thoughtful designs of the local people (especially women), she began to unify their efforts to market their wares. Within a few years, she was selling local products nationally, working within the larger Southern Appalachian Handicraft Revival movement.

In contrast to Black Mountain College and its museum in Asheville, the Folk Art Center celebrates traditional craftsmanship. The handmade baskets, pottery, and tapestries on display here favor craft over concept.


The French Broad River.
The French Broad River. Colby Sexton

The French Broad River

The French Broad River is believed to be one of oldest rivers in the world (behind the Nile River and the New River, which also flows through North Carolina). It runs through the center of Asheville and helped shape the Appalachian mountains that surround the city. Named by French settlers who arrived in the region in the late 18th century, Connestee settlements along its course have been dated back to the year 200.

This river is also rare among urban waterways in the U.S., in that residents will happily jump into it. Over the past three decades, Asheville has rallied around keeping its river clean enough for everyone to enjoy. Frequent community “clean-up” days demonstrate the city’s continued devotion to the cause.

The French Broad’s waters flow gently through the city, perfect for paddle-boarding, kayaking, or canoeing. There’s even a portion that runs through Biltmore Estate, offering views of the palatial mansion and its grounds that can’t be seen anywhere else.

Another popular activity is tubing—perhaps the best option for those exhausted from three days spent exploring Asheville.

Kelly has lived in the Asheville area since he was born and isn’t making plans to leave any time soon. For someone with his passion for nature, Asheville is paradise. “I like the fertility of the land,” he says matter-of-factly.

For those with a deep appreciation of the outdoors, Asheville is the perfect getaway. After three days, you’ll have encountered a hemisphere’s worth of disparate plant and animal species, plus the culture, history, and recreation areas that come alongside this thriving natural landscape.

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