Explore The North Carolina Arboretum,
Asheville's Best Park for Gardens, Hiking and Biking
Hands down, the North Carolina Arboretum is our favorite green space in Asheville. The arboretum's 434 acres of forested mountainsides and deep valleys cut by sparkling mountain streams offer 65 acres of beautifully tended gardens, and over ten miles of splendid hiking trails.
The arboretum is a great family destination and the perfect place for anyone who wants to enjoy the great outdoors close to Asheville. There is so much to see, do and learn here that you can easily spend several hours here without seeing everything.
After paying an entrance fee, you will be given a map that shows the layout of the gardens and the trails that lead through the property. The first things you'll notice as you park are two large, modern buildings. These contain a number of public spaces, including classrooms. The arboretum is affiliated with North Carolina University, and offers a full calendar of special events, garden demonstrations and classes.
We almost always visit the formal flower gardens as soon as we arrive to enjoy the profusion of seasonal blooms neatly laid out in carefully tended beds surrounded by pathways. Look for the pretty Quilt Garden, and be sure to walk up the stairway and view this special garden from above. Each year the Quilt Garden is designed to replicate one of the mountain regions traditional quilt designs. Flowering plants for the Quilt Garden are selected for their shape and color, grown in the production greenhouse, and then planted to create the desired quilt block pattern. Plants are replaced throughout the season to keep the garden looking fresh and colorful.
Beyond the formal gardens, most of the arboretum's steeply rolling mountain property is maintained as natural woodlands with trails through the native trees, shrubs and plants of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Southern Appalachian region. Most of the hiking trails at the North Carolina Arboretum are easy, or of moderate difficulty, and are suitable for families. Some of the trails are open to cycling and some are hiking only.
Be sure to have your Trail and Gardens Map with you when you start hiking as it is essential if you want to follow some of the interesting side-trails through the woods and over the hills. Our favorite hike here follows lovely Bent Creek as it flows through the center of the NC Arboretum. You can walk the main pedestrian road, which follows the serpentine curves of Bent Creek for 1.3 easy miles, and is open to bicyclists and dog walkers. But we also like to follow the less-used shady hikers footpath that loosely parallels the road, but rambles along close beside the banks of Bent Creek, offering lots of places to sit and enjoy the sparkle and burble of the flowing water.
We also enjoy walking the mile long Natural Garden Trail that leads to the Education Center. This gentle mile-long footpath through the woods offers interpretive signs that explain the incredible biological diversity found in the Southern Appalachian forest, and highlights individual trees and shrubs that you pass along the way. The trail begins behind the Baker Exhibit Center at the far end of the formal gardens, and rambles through the woods before emerging into the Plants of Promise Garden, which showcases native landscape plants, and is located just behind the Education Center.
While we have not yet experienced it, we have had trusted friends tell us that a great, fun way to see the arboretum for the first time, and learn a lot about it, is by taking a guided Segway Tour through the facility. Driving a Segway is easy (a lesson is part of every tour) and the knowledgeable guides pack a huge amount of information into the three hour experience. Even a reluctant member of your family can have a good time on this tour, but call ahead for reservations.
Plan to spend time in both of the educational buildings at the arboretum. Inside the Baker Exhibit Center, at the east end of the flower gardens, there is a reception desk where you can pick up a brochure showing the month's educational programs, tours, garden demonstrations and workshops. If you are interested in outdoor sculpture, and want to find all of the sculptures that are displayed out in the gardens, then ask for the Art Walk Brochure as well. And then stop in Connections Gallery, which offers a varied selection of local and regional arts and crafts. You can also enter the exhibit halls to see the latest botanical and nature themed exhibitions.
The second building at the North Carolina Arboretum is simply called the Education Center, and just outside of it you'll find the Arboretum's amazing Bonsai Garden. This is a must-see display garden featuring more than 100 miniature versions of trees and plants.Although the collection includes traditional bonsai, like the Asian Japanese Maple and Chinese Elm bonsai, the real draw here is the growing display of native Blue Ridge Mountain species in bonsai form. The North Carolina Arboretum has established itself as a center of bonsai activity in the southeast, offering bonsai education and cultivating new bonsai using native Southern Appalachian trees and plants, including Eastern Red Cedar and Eastern White Pine. Several large landscape bonsai are on display, including the unusual "Appalachian Cove" that features five native species, Red Maple, American Hornbeam, St. John's-Wort, Carolina Rhododendron and Virginia Spirea, growing in one bonsai container.
Inside the Education Center you'll find an information desk that will give you brochures on the facility and upcoming events, as well as answer any questions. Be sure to head upstairs to see the latest exhibits. These fascinating exhibits feature an aspect of the arboretum, ranging from artist exhibitions, to multi-sensory displays with special effects, to themed exhibits celebrating nature. If you enjoy looking at books, art and decorative items with a garden theme, be sure to visit the Garden Trellis shop. And if you are ready for a light meal, the Savory Thyme Cafe serves sandwiches, salads and soup.
Another fascinating stop is the Asheville Arboretum Greenhouse. From the Education Center, it is a pleasant, moderate hike of just over a mile along the Carolina Mountain Trail to the Greenhouse (or you can drive to the Greenhouse parking lot). The Greenhouse is the production center of the arboretum, growing most of the seasonal plants displayed in the gardens, as well as tropical plants and bonsai. The Greenhouse is usually open to visitors until 2pm on weekdays.
If you visit the arboretum during late spring or early summer, be sure to visit the National Native Azalea Repository Garden. Here you can see the striking bright orange flame azalea, the rare pinkshell azalea and the fourteen other azalea species that are native to the United States growing alongside pretty Bent Creek. Most of these native azaleas can be seen in the wild within 100 miles of the arboretum, and nine of these species are found in North Carolina. The garden also offers a colorful profusion of cultivated varieties and hybrids that grow mingled with native wildflowers. Peak bloom is in mid-May, when the heady fragrance of azaleas such as the delicate white sweet azalea fills the air. This garden can be found just off the Bent Creek Road.
We often combine a trip to the North Carolina Arboretum with a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway or a visit to the nearby WNC Farmers Market. When you leave Asheville's Arboretum, you are on the entrance road to the Blue Ridge Parkway, just turn right as you drive out of the arboretum.
Head west along the Blue Ridge Parkway and you will drive along the ridgeline of the Blue Ridge Mountains through the high mountain terrain, past Mount Pisgah and on to the charming mountain town of Waynesville, which has our favorite Main Street of all the North Carolina mountain towns.
Or, head east along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway to the Folk Art Center, the most visited attraction along the parkway. This is the place to see craft demonstrations and shop in the fabulous Allanstand Craft Shop filled with fine crafts produced by the talented artists of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild.
Or, turn left out of the North Carolina Arboretum and visit the nearby WNC Farmers Market for fresh produce, mountain made jams and jellies and much more. If you are traveling with children, and want to see a fine display of animals and plants that are native to the Blue Ridge Mountains, head farther north into Asheville and visit the WNC Nature Center.
North Carolina Arboretum Visitor Information
The North Carolina Arboretum is located at the Highway 191 entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway (mile marker 393), and is adjacent to Pisgah National Forest to the southwest of downtown Asheville. Take I-26 east from Asheville to exit 33, and then take Hwy 191 south for about 2.1 miles. Watch for the brown signs to the Blue Ridge Parkway and NC Arboretum. The North Carolina Arboretum and the Blue Ridge Parkway share the same entrance, and you will turn right into the arboretum.
The North Carolina Arboretum is open daily from 8am - 9pm (7pm November - March), except for December 25th when it is closed. The Baker Exhibit Center and the Education Center are generally open 9am-5pm Monday - Saturday, and 12pm - 5pm on Sundays, but may be closed on NC State Holidays. There is a $6 parking fee for visitors to the North Carolina Arboretum, but there is no entry fee.
Segway tours through the arboretum grounds are offered Monday - Saturday, and are about 3 hours including the Segway training session. Advance reservations are required, and the tour costs about $45 on weekdays, more on weekends.
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