Asheville, North Carolina: Outdoor Adventure Mecca of the United States

Adventure Activities in Asheville, NC: Looking Glass Falls

Fourteen years ago, when I was looking at colleges, a small school by the name of Warren Wilson caught my eye. With a student body of just 800 people, it was known to be one of the most alternative and progressive schools in the world.

How very Asheville 😉

This tiny little town was still flying under the radar at that time, but people who knew Asheville knew that it was a special place.

“Don’t tell anyone about us,” the locals would say.

It’s one of those places with a certain je ne sais quois—a certain something that you can’t quite put your finger on. That intangible X-factor that makes people fall in love.

My mother was one of those people. “I’m going to retire here someday,” she said.

I scoffed and snorted. “Yeah, okay, mom. Whatever you say.”

Ten years later, while I was busy gallivanting around New Zealand, she proved me wrong.

The view from my mother's front deck

The view from my mother’s front deck

There’s Something About Asheville

There is something about Asheville—the surrounding mountains, the local culture, the art, and the progressive nature of the community.

There’s something about the bluegrass buskers on Wall Street and the community drum circles that take place in the center of town every Friday night.

There’s something about the farm-to-table culinary scene that lives, breathes, and truly understands good food.

There’s something about the breweries—nearly 30 of them—that make Asheville a craft beer lover’s paradise. In fact, it literally won an award titled “Beer City, USA.”

There’s something about the fact that Asheville, one of the most progressive communities in the country, sits smack-dab in the center of the conservative South. It’s like a desert oasis, unlike anything you’ll find nearby.

There’s something about the mountains that now draw people from all over the world; Asheville lies along the Appalachian Trail, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, next to Pisgah National Forest, which is home to some of the oldest mountains in the country. Maybe even the world.

It was the mountains that actually drew my mother here in the first place. She’s a spiritual person, and the Earth spoke to her, she said.

A lot of people say things like this about Asheville. My mom’s not the only (crazy) one 😉

Embracing the Weird: Learning to Love Asheville

After almost four years of traveling abroad, I came “home” to Asheville.

When I left to travel, “home” was still the house I grew up in. When I returned, the notion of home was one that I had to rediscover.

I won’t lie—I was skeptical about Asheville at first. I wasn’t drawn to it in the same way my mother was. I guess I had my sights set a little further away…you know, like on the other side of the world.

Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway

Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway

After years of traveling and working in some of the best cocktail bars in the world, I immediately immersed myself in Asheville’s flourishing food and drink scene, and took a position as manager at a cocktail and bourbon bar.

I got an apartment right downtown, and spent the next number of months embracing “the weird.” Just like Portland, the locals strive to “Keep Asheville Weird.”

I like to say that if Portland and Denver had a baby, her name would be Asheville.

Coming “home” to this new place was a strange and bizarre experience. But, to my surprise, Asheville had a little bit of everything. From the dozens of breweries to the booming food scene to the progressive art to the bohemian culture to the outdoor adventures, there truly is a lot to like about this place.

Adventure Activities in Asheville, North Carolina

Sunset over the Blue Ridge Mountains in Asheville, NC

Things to Do: Adventure Activities in Asheville

There are so many things to do in Asheville it’s almost hard to know where to start. But let’s start with my favorite: adventure.

Asheville is an outdoor adventure lover’s paradise—and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Just this year, Asheville was named the number two Adventure Sports Spots in the United States by SportsEvents magazine, and it’s gained notoriety as a top adventure destination by National Geographic.

With parts of the Appalachian Trail running right by the city, the hiking in Pisgah National Forest is among the best in the country. Couple that with the French Broad River, hundreds of waterfalls, and numerous other state parks nearby, it’s no wonder people come to Asheville for outdoor thrills.

1. Whitewater Rafting on the French Broad River

The French Broad River is host to pretty much every aquatic sport in the area. It runs for more than 200 miles from North Carolina into Tennessee.

The Nantahala Adventure Center runs half-day and full-day whitewater rafting tours on the French Broad River. Just a 30-minute drive from town, Nantahala was named “One of the Best Outfitters on Earth” by National Geographic Adventure.

Prepare for a wet day of rapids, rock jumping, and, if your guide is feeling frisky, he might even throw you out of the boat!

2. Hot Air Ballooning Over the Blue Ridge Mountains

Want to get high? Asheville Hot Air Balloons is the oldest hot air balloon company in Western North Carolina. There’s nothing but the wind, the distant sounds of life up to a mile below your feet, the creaking of the basket, and the roar as your pilot uses the burner, pulling you higher into the cold morning air, until you’re high enough to be warmed by the day’s first rays of sunshine.

But prepare yourself for an early morning! Flights leave at 6 am, which means you’re probably waking up closer to 5. Trust me, though—it’s worth it.

3. Mountain Biking in DuPont State Forest

Mountain biking in DuPont National State Forest

Mountain biking in DuPont National State Forest

I had heard mutterings about how good the mountain biking was in Asheville, but hadn’t actually given it a shot until my most recent visit last month! Chris from Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventures led me on a custom tour around DuPont State Forest with top-of-the-line mountain bikes.

We hit some of the sickest, downhill single-track bike paths I’ve ever seen, which ultimately brought us to Bridal Veil Falls, a 120-foot waterfall on the Little River. These guys know every trail inside the forest, so if you’re not from the area, I definitely recommend going with a guide.

4. Take a Helicopter Ride Over the Mountains

Helicopter ride over Asheville, NC

Helicopter ride over Asheville, NC

It’s hard to grasp the scope and size of the mountains and valleys around Asheville unless you see it from the air. A helicopter ride with family-run Asheville Helicopters is the best way to get a view of Asheville most people don’t get to see!

We glided right over downtown Asheville, the famous Biltmore Estate, and just barely scraped the Pisgah treetops. Flights leave from the Asheville Airport, which is just 20 minutes outside of town.

5. Explore the Waterfalls of the Blue Ridge Parkway

A hidden waterfall along the Blue Ridge Parkway

A hidden waterfall along the Blue Ridge Parkway

There are hundreds of waterfalls in the area surrounding Asheville. The Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile highway through the mountains, is home to a large majority of them. Popular waterfalls are Looking Glass Falls and Sliding Rock Falls, but Land & Lore Ecotours will show you some of the lesser-known, undiscovered waterfalls in the region.

Jennifer, the proprietor of Land & Lore, isn’t just a natural-born tour guide, she’s tons of fun to hang with, and has a Ph.D. in biology, meaning she actually knows what she’s talking about. I’ve driven the Blue Ridge Parkway countless times, but gained a much deeper understanding of the history of the land and the region after exploring with her for the day!

On top of the Fryingpan Tower Lookout

On top of the Fryingpan Tower Lookout

Other Things to Do in Asheville

  • Walk around downtown and take in the artsy, bohemian vibe. Watch street performers, marvel at the art deco architecture, or do some shopping at the boutique storefronts that line the streets of downtown.
  • BEER! Rub shoulders at one of 27 breweries in Asheville. Check out the up-and-coming South Slope area (Banks Ave.) for Brooklyn-esque breweries and BBQ. Can you get a better combination than that?
  • Visit the Biltmore Estate, the largest home in America (it has 83 bathrooms!), once owned by the ever-wealthy Vanderbilt family.
  • Go on a walking food tour with Eating Asheville and sample some of the best of the best that Asheville’s farm-to-table restaurants have to offer.
  • Join in the community drum circle which takes place every Friday evening, downtown in Pritchard Park.
  • Forage for your own wild food with No Taste Like Home and then have a local restaurant cook up a custom meal made from your findings!
  • Check out the River Arts District (aka RAD) where hundreds of artists maintain their studios. Walk around and check out their work!
  • The WNC Farmer’s Market is a covered market with local produce and crafts, open year round!
  • The music scene in Asheville is iconic. Catch a show—it could be local or international—at Asheville’s famed music venue, The Orange Peel.
  • Enjoy a cocktail and watch the sunset at the Montford Rooftop, where you’ll get some of the best aerial views of downtown Asheville and the surrounding mountains.
  • For more information about visiting Asheville check out ExploreAsheville.com.
Looking for a place to stay in Asheville? I was a guest of the Aloft Downtown, which is quite literally, right downtown! This is one of the most centrally-located hotels in town.

Even though I no longer live in Asheville, my mother does, and it’s a place I hold close to my heart. You can expect to be reading a lot more about Asheville in the future.

It is, as you can see, the adventure mecca of the United States—plus so much more.

And as it turns out, sometimes, mothers do know best.

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2 Responses to Asheville, North Carolina: Outdoor Adventure Mecca of the United States

  1. Rhonda Swan August 30, 2017 at 9:51 pm #

    What a great post! Thanks for sharing your tips and photos. This is a very beautiful part of the country and does have some amazing things to do for the entire family. Thanks for being an “Unstoppable Traveler’

    Cheers,
    The Unstoppable Family

  2. Jeff Whyte September 8, 2017 at 3:05 pm #

    I’m Canadian and we tend to get caught up in going to the big name places, but the United States is huge in terms of varieties in local culture and geography. Much bigger than Canada despite the smaller size. I’ve never heard of Asheville but now I am in the know. Thanks.

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