Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Asheville, North Carolina

Updated April 7, 2023

We've now been to Asheville, NC, twice. Once during Phase 2 of their reopening after the pandemic, when many of the restaurants and shops were still closed, and most recently when everything was back up and running and we could experience Asheville to its fullest. It's a great place for families, with amazing hikes and a top-notch restaurant scene. The second time we visited, we came with extended family and everyone had a great time.

What to Do

Asheville is a stop toward one end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile, winding, and picturesque road that connects Shenandoah National Park in Virginia with Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, both of which we visited during a two-week road trip. The parkway offers a relaxing and leisurely drive, with many interesting and beautiful stopping points along the way, from natural bridges and waterfalls to scenic overlooks to fun attractions like Mystery Hill in Blowing Rock (here are more details about our recent visit). The only thing is that the drive is so relaxing and leisurely, it adds a lot of driving time to an already long road trip, so the best thing to do may be to hop on and off along the way.

One of the stops along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and only a little over an hour from Asheville, is Grandfather Mountain. After paying an entrance fee, you're free to drive up and down the mountain, stopping at attractions along the way, such as the swinging bridge, the animal habitats, and the rock scrambles and hikes. Sadly, on the morning of the our visit, there were extremely high winds and thick cloud cover, so we weren't able to stay and enjoy all the activities  but I did snap an awesome, atmospheric photo from the swinging bridge.

Pisgah National Forest is one of Asheville's big attractions, and we spent a few hours exploring Sliding Rock and Looking Glass Falls. Sliding Rock is a natural water slide over an enormous and smooth rock face. Sliders get deposited in a pool of freezing water, which my kids did not enjoy. Still, the concept is extremely cool, and many sliders were lined up to take a turn. There's a small fee per person to enjoy Sliding Rock.

Looking Glass Falls is just a couple of minutes from Slide Rock and a quick stop to make if you're all hiked out, as we were by this point in our road trip. The impressive waterfall is just a two-minute walk from the parking lot, and you can wade out into the shallow basin and stand right near the falls if you'd like. The chilly water is very refreshing on a hot day.

During our second visit to Asheville, the whole group of us (ages 2 to 70) went on a family-friendly, 1.5-mile out-and-back hike to Moore Cove Falls. It was a very interactive waterfall that you could touch and explore from all angles, even behind! From certain points, you can spot a rainbow next to the waterfall. 

We had a lot of kid-friendly hikes prepared for our trips to Asheville, but unfortunately some car trouble forced us to be homebound during our first visit, and the second time we were thwarted by rain. We had planned to check out Rough Ridge and Linville Falls (along the Blue Ridge Parkway) and Little Bradley Falls (southeast of Asheville). Next time!

We participated in a fantastic activity while we were in Asheville: the No Taste Like Home foraging tour. A foraging expert takes you out into the woods to look for edible plants, berries, and mushrooms. Each participant is given a basket and tools for cutting and cleaning the food they find, and at the very end, the plants and mushrooms are cooked up on a portable burner and served to everyone for a taste.

Our guide Justin was extremely knowledgeable about the various things we found, and we learned so much about what you can and cannot eat in the wild. It was an extremely educational and interesting tour, and I highly recommend it to anyone that wants to try something different.

During our second visit, we were able to spend a lot more time in the town. We wandered into Woolworth Co. to explore the art stalls and check out the old-fashioned soda fountain; popped into Malaprop's Bookstore, where I was set up on a blind date with a book; played Settlers of Catan and giant Operation while having lunch at Well-Played Board Game Cafe; and checked out the Asheville Pinball Museum.    

For some adventure, I highly recommend the whitewater rafting experience offered by Blue Heron Whitewater in nearby Marshall. We also did the Treetop Express tour at Navitat, which was truly a beginner's ziplining experience (it was on my mother's bucket list to go ziplining). If were to return, I'd definitely opt for the longer, regular Treetops tour. Still, those views can't be beat.

Where to Eat 

So many of the restaurants in Asheville are highly rated, it's hard to choose just a few to visit. There's a wide variety of cuisines, from pan-Asian to tacos, but since we were on vacation in the South, we mostly ate southern fare. Biscuit Head is a fantastic place to grab breakfast. The biscuit sandwiches are out of this world, the gravy is the best I've ever had, and there are dozens of jams to choose from. I had a phenomenal breakfast sandwich with ham, egg, cheese, and fried green tomato.

Another great place for southern comfort food is Tupelo Honey Cafe, in the downtown area. That's where I had the best fried chicken I've ever eaten in my life, plus several fantastic sides: goat cheese grits, crispy seasoned Brussels sprouts, Yukon mashed potatoes, and perfectly baked mac and cheese. I wish I had a bigger stomach so I could try more things.

We also really enjoyed Moe's Original Bar B Que, Mela Indian Restaurant, White Duck Taco Shop, Wild Ginger Noodle Bar, and Rocky's Hot Chicken Shack. Love all the food choices in Asheville!

And if you find yourself on the Blue Ridge Parkway, near Blowing Rock, with a hankering for sushi, be sure to stop by Moon Thai Sushi, a pan-Asian restaurant that's super cute and really yummy, with a lovely waitstaff. It was such a wonderful find in the middle of the mountain.

Where to Stay

Both times we visited Asheville, we decided to stay at a rental home instead of a hotel. The first time around, we stayed at a nice, large suburban home in North Asheville with Towns Property Management. The peaceful sunroom and hot tub in the backyard were a nice bonus. 

The second time around, there were 10 people in our party, and we found the perfect place on VRBO, a sprawling family lodge in nearby Arden. Not only was there a serene lake and boats in the backyard, but all the kids (and the adults!) enjoyed the goats, bunnies, chicken and ducks that resided on property. We also loved all the entertainment spaces and hot tub. The location is about 15 minutes from downtown Asheville, but near many excellent restaurants in Arden.

What's Nearby

Just across the border in Tennessee is Gatlinburg, a touristy spot that's fun for the kids, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where you can experience ethereal clouds clinging to the mountains to produce the namesake smokiness. Here's my itinerary for Gatlinburg, and my suggestions for hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Right next to Gatlinburg is Pigeon Forge, home of the world-famous Dollywood. We visited on a very busy day, so the crowd levels hindered our enjoyment somewhat, but it was still a very nicely themed amusement park, with excellent roller coasters (our favorite was Thunderhead), lots of great kiddy rides for my niece and nephew, and the most amazing food I've ever had in an amusement park. The pork sandwich at Hickory House BBQ and the cinnamon bread at the Grist Mill are not to be missed!