The Blue Ridge Parkway stretches 469 miles from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. October, when the leaves are colorful and picturesque, is peak tourist season for the parkway. But if you prefer smaller crowds, plan a trip in early to mid-summer to view the blooming rhododendrons, mountain laurel, and flaming azaleas. Tourists can enjoy the scenic vistas from the road and its many pull-offs, or choose to take a closer look while exploring the many hiking trails that wander through the surrounding countryside and the Southern Appalachian mountains. Those who aren't driving or simply want to get a more enriching experience will enjoy the 5-hour guided hiking tour of the Blue Ridge Parkway Waterfalls. Led by an expert local guide, this tour includes transportation to and from Asheville, refreshments, and the opportunity to see several waterfalls while learning about the area's history, flora, and fauna.
At the center of this 8,000-acre estate is Vanderbilt Mansion, the largest private home in the United States. The mansion alone encompasses four acres and features 250 rooms — 199 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms. In addition to admiring the artwork, antiques, and impressive architecture in the home, also leave time to stroll through the gardens and River Bend Farm. Visitors should set aside an entire day to fully explore the estate. For an additional charge, tourists can get a guided tour, which shows parts of the estate that are not open to the public, as well as a tour that highlights the estate's extensive sustainability efforts.
Address: 1 Lodge Street, Asheville, North Carolina
The Western North Carolina Nature Center is a 42-acre facility dedicated to educating the public about the area's varied animal life and natural habitats. Indoor exhibits include resident reptiles and amphibians; small mammals; and the World Underground exhibit, which explores what lies beneath. Outdoor exhibits include a variety of habitats, which are home to native species like otter, turtles, endangered farm animals, raccoons, and foxes. The Appalachian Predators habitat is the park's largest, housing a bobcat, coyotes, grey wolves, and the critically endangered red wolf. The nature center also has a nice hiking trail and offers special programs and events throughout the year.
Address: 75 Gashes Creek Road, Asheville, North Carolina
Biltmore Village was one of the country's first "company towns" – an entire community planned for the purpose of housing Biltmore Estate workers and their families. Designed to resemble an English village, it has become a top tourist destination for both its historic charm and European ambience. It is also a top shopping area, with everything from independent boutiques to major labels, as well as a wide variety of some of Asheville's best restaurants.
Another Biltmore-related spot is Grovewood Village, once the center of Biltmore's woodworking and weaving branches. Here, you will find the Biltmore Industries Homespun Museum, as well as an antique car museum, an art gallery, and a sculpture garden.
The funky, artsy, and eclectic downtown area of Asheville is a draw for visitors and locals alike. There are more than 30 locally owned shops and boutiques in the center, along with a tasty selection of restaurants, coffee shops, and cafés. Street performers of all kinds, from mimes to musicians, might also make an appearance. And after dark, guests can catch an Asheville Community Theatre, Asheville Lyric Opera, or Asheville Symphony show. Tourists can also explore the historic Urban Trail, a 1.7-mile walking-tour route, which is marked by a series of thirty stations that feature informational plaques and sculptures at various significant sites.
The North Carolina Arboretum features over 65 acres of cultivated gardens, which are home to a diverse range of plants. Highlights include the National Native Azalea Collection; the G-scale Rocky Cove Railroad model train; and the Bonsai Exhibition Garden, which houses up to 50 of these unique and fragile plants. The Heritage Garden will be interesting to those who want to learn more about traditional uses for plants, including medicinal and functional applications, and the Quilt Garden is maintained in homage to Appalachian quilting traditions. This 434-acre natural escape offers outdoor activities and 10 miles of hiking trails, and the center offers guided trail walks, self-guided mobile device tours, and geocaching. The arboretum also hosts traveling exhibits and special events.
Address: 100 Frederick Law Olmsted Way, Asheville, North Carolina
For another escape in the natural world, the Botanical Gardens of Asheville are a series of immaculately tended gardens bursting with color and scent. The horticultural displays focus on local flowering plants and trees, many of which are unique to the state. The gardens are open year-round, but peak bloom seasons are generally during mid-April and mid-August. Families will want to stop at the visitor center to pick up Investigation Passports for the kids, a fun way to engage younger ones in learning about the plants they will see. There are also classes and topic-focused walks put on throughout the year for varied ages. This non-profit organization is free and open to the public, so be sure to stop by the on-site gift shop for a memento.
Address: 151 W T Weaver Blvd, Asheville, North Carolina
The Pisgah National Forest covers more than 500,000 acres and is one of the first designated national forests in the country. Within the park, there are multiple day-use areas that offer a variety of amenities and activities, from basic facilities to swimming, showers, trails, and boat ramps. Multiple camping areas are also found throughout the park. Visitors will find numerous geological landmarks including Table Rock, the Chimneys, and Linville Gorge, as well as the Forest Discovery Center located near the town of Brevard. Other highlights include guided nature hikes and seasonal interpretive programs and activities like horseback riding, fishing, hiking, bicycling, and rock climbing.
Expanding on the scenery of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the National Heritage Area includes the communities and scenic byways, which add to the area's cultural richness. In addition to scenic drives, hiking, bicycling, wildlife viewing, and other outdoor activities, the area has a myriad of things to do. Within driving distance of Asheville, tourists can find farmers markets, local festivals and events, theaters, and gemstone quarries. There are also several opportunities to learn more about the history and culture of the Cherokee and other natives who first occupied the land. During peak tourist season, there is a Cherokee Bonfire series and Cherokee Artisan shows, and in the town of Cherokee, you can find a museum dedicated to the culture, as well as the Oconaluftee Indian Village.
Being home to some 20 endangered or threatened varieties of flowers, Craggy Gardens is the perfect stop for anyone interested in rare plants. Visitors can check out (and photograph) the whimsical, wind-bent trees that grow on the mountain, and during June and July you will find purple rhododendrons in full bloom. Because of the high winds, trees rarely grow very tall here and only produce vegetation on the sheltered side of the tree. Amenities include free parking, a picnic area, restrooms, and dog-friendly grounds.
Address: 195 Hemphill Knob Road, Asheville, North Carolina
For a different perspective on the North Carolina landscape, tourists can get a bird's-eye view from the sky or the treetops. Quiet and serene hot air balloon rides are a unique thing to do, giving tourist a way to see Asheville and the surrounding countryside from above. There are multiple tour operators to choose from, and there are also several options for thrill-seekers who want to experience a zipline canopy tour. Autumn is a particularly popular time of year for both activities, when the forest canopy is ablaze with vibrant foliage. Make sure to take (and hold tightly onto) your camera.
Twenty-five miles southeast of Asheville, Chimney Rock State Park features its landmark namesake: a 315-foot solid granite spire that rises over 2,280 feet. Visitors of all physical abilities can reach the top thanks to a 26-story elevator built inside the mountain. Families will enjoy a variety of kid-friendly activities, including the educational Great Woodland Adventure Trail, the Animal Discovery Den, a kids' climbing tower, and scavenger hunts. Another popular sightseeing spot in the park is reached via the Hickory Nut Falls Trail. The moderate, mostly level trail leads to the base of the 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls. For boaters, Lake Lure is the destination of choice.
Address: 431 Main Street, Chimney Rock, North Carolina