Asheville, North Carolina, is a funky, culturally rich town with great restaurants, a happening music scene, and a mellow vibe. But you don't care about that. Situated in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville is also the premier hub for outdoor sports in the highest country east of the Mississippi. Hiking through tunnels of rhododendron, rafting the Nantahala River, fishing for backcountry trout in Great Smoky Mountain National Park it's all within a short drive of Asheville, much of it accessible via the dangerously scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. Just try to keep your eyes on the road.
Picking a hike near Asheville is like choosing between the diamond, the ruby, and the emerald: they're all good, and some are really good. To the west, the Appalachian Trail (AT) takes you through the best of the Smokiesit's crowded, but there's the added excitement of shelters with fences to keep the bears out. Of course, the AT is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to trails in Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Shining Rock Wilderness in the Pisgah National Forest is home to the mysterious Graveyard Fields, Ivestor Gap, the famous Art Loeb Trail, and the Cold Mountain Trail. Close to town, little hikers will especially enjoy Chimney Rock, a stunning granite tower with interpretive nature trails and one of the highest waterfalls in the region.
East of Asheville, the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area is a rugged, remote destination virtually untouched by human influence. To see rhododendron in bloom, you can't beat Craggy Gardens and its trails, including a section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which will cross the length of the state when it's completed. Mount Mitchell is the highest summit in the eastern United States at 6,672 feet. Further afield, the Bartram National Recreation Trail attempts to trace the route of 18th-century naturalist William Bartram, considered by many to be the father of American botany. Nearby, the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest protects one of the region's largest remaining old-growth stands.
The Nantahala is the most popular paddling river in North Carolina, and not without just cause. It's a frothy ride through a high-rimmed gorge, and when they open up the floodgates at Nantahala Lake, hold onto your paddle.
But there are other rivers, too, less crowded and less tame. The Nolichucky is an isolated stretch of wild whitewater near Tennessee. There's some stellar Class V on the North Fork of the French Broad River at the edge of Nantahala National Forest. Along with the Big East Fork of the Pigeon River, it's among seven North Carolina rivers being considered for Wild and Scenic status.
Asheville is home to a number of quality bike shops; if you're in the mood for a quick single-track fix after work, stop by Liberty Bicycles for a map of Bent Creek Experimental Forest, a local favorite. For a longer ride, the Pisgah National Forest lies just beyond Bent Creek's boundaries and boasts the most extensive trail network in the Asheville area. There are also plentiful mountain-biking routes of varying difficulty further west in the Nantahala National Forest. For road biking, the obvious choice is the Blue Ridge Parkway. There's often not much of a shoulder, but the road winds, which means cars don't have the chance to pick up too much speed. Be warned: You are in the mountains. Expect to climb. For a great day trip off the beaten path, take a ride through the Swannanoa Valley. Rural back roads will take you to Black Mountain, a small town near Asheville renowned for its Appalachian folk art galleries.
Hazel Creek is the ultimate fly-fishing getaway in the Smokies, a once devastated ecosystem that now has some of the most abundant insect life in the region. Lesser known but no less worthwhile, the Cataloochee in the eastern part of Great Smoky Mountain National Park is perfect for trout anglers seeking a more primitive experience. For caddis-fly aficionados, Abrams Creek stands alone.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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