Are you looking for a place to escape the heat this Summer? A new adventure up in the mountains? Asheville and the surrounding region might be the place for you. Whether you want to go down the white water of the French Broad, Nantahala, or chill out in some of the coolest places in the Great Smoky Mountains, Asheville should be on your travel list this Summer.
Where are the Great Smoky Mountains?
The Great Smoky Mountains sits on the boundary between Tennessee and North Carolina from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina. The national park itself is one of the most-visited parks in the entire United States, and includes many diverse biosystems and landscapes. The Great Smoky Mountains isn’t the only thing of note in this part of the Appalachian Mountains, however; the surrounding region is a culturally-diverse land full of friendly people, hidden waterfalls, and raging rivers.
I think mountains are the best places to hike: moderate temperatures and dramatic views are easy to find. The Great Smoky Mountain region is no different. Some of these hiking trails are accessible through the Blue Ridge Parkway, but several others are local favorites.Although there are hundreds more trails than I list here, these are some of my favorites!
If you are passing through on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Waterrock Knob is a no-brainer. Approximately 15 minutes from the entrance from the Great Smoky Mountain Expressway, this is one of the most accessible hikes on this part of the Parkway. You will be greeted by a paved parking lot with benches, bathrooms, and a viewing area. The paved but fairly steep trail will stop at a few overlooks before turning to a dirt trail until you reach the peak. This part of the trail is fairly well-tracked, but if you explore around the peak you will find a couple trailheads that are much less busy. Be prepared for a more involved, but well-worth hike if you take another trail from Waterrock Knob.
Graveyard Fields is another great Parkway hike! Graveyard Fields is an excellent place to take the whole family. Multiple trails run through this valley which means there are several great things to do here. If you follow the trail to the left after you descend into Graveyard Fields, you can follow the stream all the way up to a waterfall. There is a trail that can bring you safely to the top, but always remember that waterfalls can be slippery even if rocks are dry. Practice caution if you go all the way to the top or hang out around the bottom of the waterfall! I have found that Graveyard Fields is an excellent place to bring your dog, where they can enjoy the fresh streams and blueberry fields right along with you!
Here is a local favorite in Jackson County, North Carolina, a region touching the southern border of the Smoky Mountains. Paradise Falls is a hidden gem of a half mile hike that takes you to a waterfall and natural spring pool. The water is cold, but clear. The bottom is mostly rock, so it is quite pleasant to swim around here barefoot. From the edge of the pool you can see all the way up the waterfall! This spot is a favorite for locals and college students, but make sure you stay aware and prepared: there is steep terrain and possible dangerous water obstacles on your way to the Falls. Some climbing is required to get down to the base of the Falls, but there are ropes to help you get down. Wear comfortable shoes and be careful not to come after heavy rainfall, when the water is highest. The NPS does not maintain this trail, so use caution and your best judgement. As is true in many parts of Jackson County, you probably won’t have any cell service on this hike.
Also known as Cullowhee Falls, High Falls is a great moderate hike about 3.7 miles. You can reach this trail from Lake Glenville or at a trailhead on private property that has been opened up to hikers. This trail can be steep at the beginning but otherwise is not a terribly hard hike to the waterfall. Half the trail follows along the stream that leads from High Falls. High Falls is a tall, but usually relaxed waterfall, however; thanks to the Duke Energy Dam farther up the stream the Falls roar to life and become a particularly popular spot for kayakers. On dam release days, the stream past High Falls has class IV and V rapids down a 6-mile stretch.
Blue Ridge Parkway Overlooks
Looking for a view, but not a hike? The Blue Ridge Parkway is your friend. The Parkway stretches all the way from Virginia to Cherokee, NC, and is quite easy to access if you are coming from Gatlinburg or anywhere south of the Smoky Mountains. You could spend all day driving through the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway: skirt the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains, dip south through Balsam and north again to wrap around Asheville. There are several entrances in this region that make it easy to target specific stretches of the Parkway. I highly recommend taking the Parkway all the way from Cherokee to Asheville, but if you don’t have the time to spare the whole ride, here are a couple you don’t want to miss:
Looking Glass Rock Overlook
If you are on the Asheville side of the Parkway, Looking Glass Rock is a great place to unwind. Although it’s not a bad sunset spot, this overlook would make an even better sunrise overlook. The actual Looking Glass Rock is stark among the green of the surrounding mountains.
Cowee Mountain Overlook
Cowee Mountain Overlook is one of my favorite places of all time. Cowee is close to the highest point of the Parkway, and gives patrons a true panoramic view: this is the only overlook where you can see so many mountain ridges (I count 7) in one spot. This overlook is closest to the entrance on Smoky Mountain Expressway between Sylva and Waynesville. If you come to Cowee Mountain Overlook, I highly recommend getting there 20-30 minutes before sunset. The range of color as the sun goes down is astounding, making it a very popular photographer spot. Don’t forget your jacket or a blanket, even during the Summer! The high elevation means it will be quite chilly even before the sun sets completely.
Other Outdoor Activities
Don’t worry, hiking isn’t the only thing to do around the Smokies! You will find plenty of kayaking, tubing, rafting, and other activities here, too!
I bet you didn’t know there were beaches in the Smokies! Lake Glenville is a great place to swim or boat thanks to the Duke Energy dam. The beach is small, but there are plenty of picnic tables around and different types of watercraft to rent from the local marinas.
Tubing, Kayaking, and Rafting, Oh My!
The French Broad River runs right through Asheville and is a great place to kayak, raft, and even float in a tube. There are rapids in some parts of the French Broad, but only class II-III around Asheville. If you’re looking for something more exciting on the water, we have that too! Along the Tuckaseegee River you’ll find plenty of rafting companies that have rafts for large groups, kayaks, canoes, and tubes. Most of these companies put their boats in the water in Dillsboro, NC. The Tuckaseegee has several class III rapids that are great for beginners and experienced paddlers. If you are looking for class IV and V rapids, look in Nantahala for your rapid adventure fix!
Cataloochee Ski Area
If you happen to be planning a trip during the winter, try the Cataloochee Ski Area! Located in Maggie Valley, Cataloochee is one of the best ski areas in the southeast. 18 slopes and trails run down this ski area, which is maintained by eco-friendly snowmakers. Cataloochee also has a family-friendly snow tubing hill for anyone not shredding the slopes.
Bars and Restaurants
What would we be without our food? Not only is Asheville the beer capital of the United States, but some of the best restaurants are calling Western North Carolina and the Smokies their home.
Innovation Brewing Company
Here’s a favorite for any Western Carolina University Alumni. Innovation (also just called Inno, for short) brewing is a great place to hang out with friends and drink great local beer. Inno has expanded to 3 locations to-date: their original brewery in Sylva, the Innovation Station in Dillsboro, and the Innovation Cullowhee (nicknamed “Innowhee”). The original Inno is a popular laid back place with a couple eating options right next door. Cosmic Carryout cooks out of an airstream-like trailer and serves up some of the best local burgers around. Pie Times, located on the opposite side of Innovations, serves up some of the best high-quality specialty pizza you’ve ever had. The best part? You can order from either of these places and they will bring your food to your table at Inno!
Originally located in Bryson City, NC, Nantahala Brewing is another great local choice west of Asheville. They brag that they use some of the best freshwater in the world straight from The Great Smoky Mountains. You can get a tour and a tasting at their original location, or hang out at their newer establishment in Sylva, NC.
If you’re looking for excellent food with your local beer in downtown Asheville, Pack’s Tavern is a great choice. It would be hard to be disappointed at this place. My personal favorite is the “adult” milkshakes they serve! I didn’t think that a chocolate milkshake could ever mix with liquor, but I’m happy to say it can, and it tastes great.
Thirsty Monk is my absolute go-to if I want a bite to eat and a couple of beers with friends. Thirsty Monk has at least 20 beers of its own making, and a delicious german-themed menu. Their bratwurst gives a spicy kick that’s just enough to make my nose run once in a while, but it makes me so happy to eat! Thirsty Monk has a location downtown and in Biltmore Park.
The Great Smoky Mountains is a beautiful place to get married, whether you are looking to elope or go all out! There is something for everyone here. Consider The Parker Mill for a beautiful mountainside view. What about a beautiful vineyard nestled in the mountains? Check out The Vineyards at Betty’s Creek. What about a no-kidding castle? Explore Castle Ladyhawke and have the fairytale wedding of your dreams.
Places to Stay
Whether you plan to stay in a hotel in downtown Asheville or in a yurt in the middle of the woods, you can find your perfect stay south of the Great Smoky Mountains.
What’s better than visiting the Biltmore? Staying at the Biltmore. The Biltmore Estate has a choice of a hotel, an inn, and several cabins on their 8,000 acre land. The Biltmore is one of Asheville’s most prestigious attractions. Originally built by the Vanderbilt family, this estate is now open to the public with beautiful gardens, a winery, and more. My favorite thing to do is tour the mansion while it’s decorated for Christmas, but the Biltmore has attractions year-round.
Bear Lake Reserve
Did I mention that Castle Ladyhawke is at the top of Bear Lake Reserve? The whole family could stay together at Bear Lake Reserve whether you are planning a wedding or a reunion. Bear Lake Reserve is one of those places you would never have to leave: their hiking trails, tennis courts, mountaintop golf, Lake Club, and of course, the Marina on Bear Lake will keep you occupied.
There are several unique Airbnbs from Cherokee to Asheville: Tiny houses on farms, yurts, glamping, RVs, buses, cabins, you name it. Here are a few of my favorites:
Destination Outdoors Sunset Ridge Yurt
Elegant Tiny House on Organic Farm
Cozy Tiny House Near Downtown and Blue Ridge
We're offering free hotel stays for your vacation or honeymoon if you book your wedding or elopement with Backpacks and Bow Ties in 2022/2023!
Guest Blogger Spotlight:
Beka Harmon is a professional writer based in Asheville, NC. Originally from North Carolina's Coastline, Beka found her love for the mountains while attending Western Carolina University. Now, Beka spends her time exploring the outdoors, local businesses, and the many, many breweries in western North Carolina with her Fiance and their dog, Buster. You can find more blogs from Beka at bekaharmon.com.
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