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Visiting North Carolina? Don’t Miss These Top Outdoor and Cultural Attractions

During the summer of 2021, I got the opportunity of a lifetime to intern at the Asheville Art Museum in Asheville, North Carolina. The opportunity to live and work in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains was an opportunity I will never forget. This experience was made even more memorable by the fact that I was coming off of two-and-a-half semesters of distance learning due to COVID-19. My time there solidified my love for art and awakened a love of the outdoors that had been bubbling for some time. Here are some of the great things I discovered in Western North Carolina and would like to share with you.

The Great Outdoors

Western North Carolina truly is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. With protected lands at the state and federal levels, there are many different parks and forests for you to explore while also offering beautiful views. Make sure to drive to the various lookouts across the scenic highway for the opportunity to take in the aerial views of the mighty Blue Ridge Mountains. 

Mount Mitchell

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Image by Don Shatterly

Mount Mitchell is located in Western North Carolina and is the tallest peak East of the Mississippi River. As a part of Mount Mitchell State Park, this area is a hiker’s haven with over 40 miles of trails within the park. Mount Mitchell is 6,684 feet tall and features a 360-degree view of the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina.

The actual Mount Mitchell hike is considered strenuous and is 5.6 miles one-way. You cannot bike on this trail and though the hike is not handicap accessible, you can still take in the view from the accessible observation deck as you drive up the mountain.

Pisgah National Forest and Great Smoky Mountain National Park

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Image by Tom Sid

Western North Carolina is a beautiful area to take in the great outdoors and spending time in Pisgah National Forest is no exception. Encompassing 500,000 acres of land, Pisgah National Forest offers hardwood forests, white-water rivers, and hundreds of miles of hiking trails. Travel throughout the forest to find beautiful waterfalls and take a trip down Sliding Rock, or swim in Graveyard Fields swimming hole for the opportunity to get out into nature and splash around in the clear–albeit cold–water.

Though it is most famously located in Eastern Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountain National Park does cross the Tennessee-North Carolina border, making it a great place to visit when you’re in this region. Take a trip to the beautiful Fontana Lake, the largest lake in Western North Carolina, and take in the gorgeous views of the smokies around you. Fontana Lake is also home to the largest dam east of the Rocky Mountains at a whopping 480 feet tall (the equivalent of a 50-floor skyscraper). 

Blue Ridge Parkway

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Image by Nathan Anderson

Often called “America’s Favorite Drive,” the Blue Ridge Parkway stretches from Afton, Virginia– around Shenandoah National Park–to Cherokee, Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains. This scenic drive takes you through the mountains on a beautiful winding journey, unlike any other highway you’ve ever seen. Take some time to stop off at the many different lookout points. Notice how quiet it is, and take in the stunning beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains from above. The Blue Ridge Parkway is known for spectacular opportunities to view the regional flora and fauna and is world-renowned for its biodiversity.

Arboretums and Gardens Galore

After all of that hiking and exploring the wilderness, you’re probably tired. Perhaps it’s time for an outdoor adventure that’s a little slower and easier on the knees. Head to the North Carolina Arboretum, which showcases one of the most botanically diverse regions on the planet. Explore the acres of meticulously groomed gardens and catch the current exhibit on display. Even if you visit during the winter, there will be plenty of exhibits to view, including a beautiful winter light display 

After you visit the North Carolina Arboretum, take a trip to the North Carolina Botanical Gardens, located on the University of North Carolina, Asheville campus. Explore beautiful creeks and various native plants. Visit their wildflower garden and Honey Bee Hotel, and take some time to explore the natural flora and fauna that can be found throughout the campus. Explore the ten acres of gardens, walk the trails, and even discover a fascinating cabin located in the garden. Just be careful, there have been several bear sightings on campus.

A Deep History of Culture and Craft

Western North Carolina has created a name for itself in the world of arts and culture, partially thanks to Asheville. Though it may not be the largest city, it has built up quite the reputation for great art, and many museums and galleries here have ties to historic events that helped shape the art world into what it is today. 

Downtown Asheville

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Image by Keira Ezzo

During my internship at the  Asheville Art Museum, I learned a lot about how Art has played a role in this city. Along with the Art Museum, there is the smaller–but very interesting–Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center, as well as the Center for Craft, and the Asheville Museum of Science (AMOS). There are also countless galleries and shops where local artists can show off their work. Just outside of Asheville is the Museum of the Cherokee People, which gives you further insight into the world of the indigenous peoples who lived here before us and helped shape this beautiful area into what it is today. 

Much of the work featured in these art facilities has a deep connection to Western North Carolina and Appalachia. Many of these locations, though separate, work together to show off the beautiful work of American Artists as well as the works of indigenous peoples. Both the Asheville Art Museum and the Center for Craft work to bring to light the importance of craftwork, such as weaving, which can be traced back generations in the Appalachian region.

Black Mountain

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Image by Keira Ezzo

Though not as well known or recognizable as Asheville, Black Mountain is actually more important to the history of American Art. From the 1930s to the 1950s Black Mountain, North Carolina was home to Black Mountain College, an experimental arts college that was once home to artists, architects, and dancers alike. Some notable names who passed through the school during its 20 years include Buckminster Fuller, an architect known for his dome designs, as well as Merce Cunningham, a contemporary dancer whose career spanned over seven decades.

Although the school is no longer running there are still ways to explore the history of this beautiful area. Black Mountain College was known for the way it encouraged students to work with what they had and to be inspired by the world around them. If you find yourself in Black Mountain, North Carolina, and want to explore this historical arts location, you can still drive to the Studies Building–the building of offices built for the students–located on Lake Eden. You can also go glamping on the former college grounds, and stay in the photography studio, or even the Professor’s Cottages. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to create new artwork during your stay.

Biltmore

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Image by Stephanie Klepacki

Probably one of the best-known family homes in the United States, Biltmore is an absolutely gorgeous, French-Renaissance summer home built for the Vanderbilt family. Biltmore is the largest single-family residency in the United States and along with the stunningly gorgeous home to tour, there are acres of gardens and walking trails. There are also opportunities for wine tasting, delicious food, and several hotels to stay at on and around the grounds.

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