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Things to Do in Asheville for Nature Lovers

Asheville, North Carolina is a beautiful city that’s a popular place to visit in the southeast United States. It’s known for its adventurous spirit and hippie vibe, and is filled with wonderful shops, restaurants, and breweries. But its location in the Appalachian Mountains means that it’s close to many fun activities for nature lovers.

Below are some of our favorite things to do in Asheville if you love wildlife and the great outdoors.

The North Carolina Arboretum

If you love plants, then the North Carolina Arboretum is a must-do. Located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Arboretum features different gardens as well as a number of hiking paths. Each of these gives you different exposure to the North Carolina outdoors.

Quilt Garden at the North Carolina Arboretum
Quilt Garden at the North Carolina Arboretum

My favorite garden here is the Quilt Garden. It’s a grid of planted squares with concrete paths in between, planted in such a way that it looks like a quilt. They change the plants seasonally, so if you go at different times of the year, you’ll get to see different “quilts”. Just beside the garden is a raised area that lets you get a more aerial view so you can truly see what the quilt looks like.

Rocky Cove Railroad Exhibit at the North Carolina Arboretum
Rocky Cove Railroad Exhibit at the North Carolina Arboretum

Some other gardens that I really like are the Bonsai Exhibition Garden and the Stream Garden. And I just adore the Rocky Cove Railroad, which is an entire landscape designed around a model train system.

The Arboretum also features several hiking trails of different lengths ranging from a quarter mile to just over a mile. We visited during Arbor Evenings, when the feature live music along with wine and beer. So since it was close to dark, we only did part of a trail. But it ended by Willow Pond, where we saw a lot of butterflies and even a hummingbird moth!

Hummingbird Moth at the North Carolina Arboretum
Hummingbird Moth at the North Carolina Arboretum

There is a nominal entrance fee to visit.

Botanical Gardens at Asheville

Another great place for plant lovers is the Botanical Gardens at Asheville. It’s located on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and it features a half-mile walking trail and a small stream. The gardens focus on native plans, which are useful for maintaining the ecosystems in any location. As such, you won’t find as many cultivated plants as you will at the Arboretum, but the botanical gardens are no less beautiful, just different.

There are benches and picnic tables throughout, as well as a gazebo and the historical Hayes Cabin. (Click here for a photo of the cabin on Flickr.)

Entry is free but donations are encouraged.

Beaver Lake Bird Sanctuary

If birds are your thing, then you have to go to north Asheville’s Beaver Lake Bird Sanctuary. The land was originally slated for retail shopping, but in 1988 after raising $400,000, the Blue Ridge Audubon Chapter of the Audubon Society purchased the land. They restored it, added interpretive signs and benches, and built an inner path for walkers and birdwatchers, and an outer trail for runners.

There’s a parking lot for easy access, and right as you enter you’ll see purple martin houses and a faux “chimney” built to house area chimney swifts. We didn’t see the swifts, but there were two purple martins sitting outside the house.

From the parking lot, if you take the path to the left, it will take you to the edge of Beaver Lake, where we saw a song sparrow and two green herons. The path is circular so you’ll get to the lake either way. In the middle is a beautiful wild area full of native plants, where we saw a ruby-throating hummingbird darting among the flowers.

Some other bird species we saw were an indigo bunting, and nesting American goldfinches.

Some sites online mention that they offer guided tours here every Saturday. We found that information to be outdated, so we enjoyed the sanctuary independently. After emailing with Audubon’s past president, Tom Tribble, I found out that they do the guided walks here only on the first Saturday of each month, at 8am between April and September, and at 9am during the remaining months.

There is no fee to park or enter.

WNC Nature Center

The WNC Nature Center is a zoo, but it focuses on animals native to Western North Carolina. Here you can see foxes and wolves, bobcats and cougars (aka mountain lions), as well as bears, snakes, birds, and more. Most of their animals are unable to be released due to either a previous injury or because they imprinted on humans early in their development. As such, they serve as ambassador animals to help educate visitors.

The nature center caters especially to children, and they offer popup animal encounters (ever wanted to pet a snake?), nature-inspired play areas, and even gem and fossil mining activities.

There is a small entrance fee per person.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Asheville sits right on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic drive that links the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

An overlook from the Blue Ridge Parkway looking east
An overlook from the Blue Ridge Parkway looking east

Not for the faint of heart, the Blue Ridge Parkway has winding roads, up- and downhill climbs, and can be a bit scary or nauseating for those with a fear of heights or who suffer from motion sickness. But if you like these drives, the scenery is amazing.

You can get onto the parkway from several locations within Asheville, and on it you’ll find a number of things to do. We got on the parkway and headed north, and made our first stop at Folk Art Center at Milepost 382. Inside were beautiful displays of artisan works, as well as a store that carries many arts and crafts from local artists.

From there, we continued north to the Craven Gap Trail, where we saw some butterflies and hiked a bit of a trail that was mildly challenging and quite fun. We randomly picked this hike because it was labelled as the only place a United States President has visited the Blue Ridge Parkway; President and First Lady Obama hiked here in 2010. (I’m not sure how they know that no other president ever stepped foot on the parkway, though!)

Glassmine Falls overlook from the Blue Ridge Parkway
Glassmine Falls overlook from the Blue Ridge Parkway

Further north we found the Craggy Gardens visitors’ center at milepost 364.4, then we kept going to the overlook for Glassmine Falls at milepost 361.2. Unfortunately the falls were almost completely dry, and it required binoculars to even see the bare trickle of water present. However, we did see a beautiful cedar waxwing from the overlook, so all wasn’t lost! We also saw a lot of swallowtail butterflies.

All in all, the Blue Ridge Parkway is worth a drive at least once in your life, and more if you enjoy it or want to do many of the hikes whose trailheads are on the parkway.

Appalachian Trail

Speaking of hiking, those who enjoy this activity will love to get in some section hiking of the Appalachian Trail. This famous trail extends from Springer Mountain, Georgia all the way to Katahdin, Maine. And it goes right through Asheville, which is super convenient!

A North Carolina section of the Appalachian Trail
A North Carolina section of the Appalachian Trail

There are a number of hikes you can do along the trail that are easy to get to from Asheville. I personally haven’t hiked the trail here in Asheville; I’ve only done a section of it near the original Nantahala Outdoor Center near Bryson City, NC, about a 90-minute drive west of Asheville. So I’ll point you to two other resources where you can learn more: VisitNC.com and RomanticAsheville.com.

Elk Watching in Cataloochee Valley

Cataloochee Valley is about an hour west of Asheville by car. It’s fairly close to the popular area known as Maggie Valley. Here you’ll find actual wild elk!

An antlered male elk in fall in North Carolina.
An antlered male elk in fall in North Carolina. Photo by Kim Clark.

Elk used to be common in the North Carolina mountains, but habitat loss and hunting decimated their populations. In 2001 several organizations including the National Park Service began working to reintroduce the species to the area. It’s pretty easy to find them early in the morning or around sunset, even from your car, during the spring, summer, and fall. They are not seen as often during the winter.

Elks shed their antlers in the spring, so if you want to see an antlered male, your changes are better in the summer (when the new antlers are in velvet) or during the mating season (“rutting season”) in the fall.

As you can see, there are many things that nature lovers can enjoy in and around Asheville. Every season brings different activities, so plan your visit according to what you want to see and do. Asheville is an amazing city with so many cultural and nature-related activities that you’re sure to never get bored. In fact, you’ll probably leave and immediately start planning a return trip (like I did!) to see everything you missed the first time around!

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