Take a simple stroll under the changing forest leaves or enjoy the splendor of a wide mountain vista.
When you think of Asheville, North Carolina, do you think of Biltmore Estate? We did! But on our recent trip to Asheville, we discovered it has much to offer above and beyond the renowned 250-room home. We found so much to do on our trip, in fact, that we decided to save George Vanderbilt’s former estate for a later visit!
Trees, Mountains and Changing Leaves
We found a wealth of outdoor adventure in Asheville, and each fall it’s a colorful experience. Due to the varied elevation, the leaves change from late September until early November. Updated fall color reports can be found this month at www.exploreasheville.com/leaf.htm.
Some of the most scenic spots we visited were in Pisgah National Forest, patches of which are both north and south of Asheville. We visited the southern area first, traveling along Highway 276, which cuts through Pisgah and hits the Blue Ridge Parkway. We stopped at Looking Glass Falls, a spectacular waterfal visible from the highway that falls 65 feet. Nearby, the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education houses aquariums and hands-on outdoor exhibits focused on mountain habitats and wildlife conservation. At the Pisgah Forest Fish Hatchery, adjacent to the center, we viewed the hatchery-raised brook, rainbow and brown trout.
A few miles north of the falls is the Cradle of Forestry, home to the Biltmore School of Forestry, the first forestry school in America in 1898. Inside the hands-on museum, we traveled with fire fighters on the helicopter simulator to try to stop a forest fire, learned about animal habitats and went on a scavenger hunt.
The Cradle’s Biltmore Campus Trail and Forest Festival Trail are paved, easy for strollers or wheelchairs. Free guided tours are offered throughout the day. The mile-long Biltmore Campus Trail took us through the life of Biltmore Forestry students and forest rangers as we explored the school’s historic buildings, some re-creations and some more than 100 years old. On the Forest Festival Trail, also about one mile long, we learned about trees and the foresters who nurtured them.
From the Cradle of Forestry, we headed east on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We found beautiful views on the parkway, a 469-mile scenic roadway that intersects southern and eastern Asheville. Many pull-off points with picnic tables and hiking trails line the roadway, but our destination was Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi River.
It towers about 20 miles outside of Asheville at 6,684 feet, at mile marker 365. Campsites are available at the base, but since we were staying in Asheville we opted to make it a half-day adventure. The hike from the bottom to the top can be strenuous for young children; it might be more feasible to drive halfway up to the restaurant and hike or drive all the way up to the lot near the top. From the highest parking lot, it’s a short walk to the observation tower. The view from the top is spectacular and vast. It’s chilly up there, though, so take a jacket or sweater!
Maybe your family’s not ready to climb a mountain, but you can still pretend indoors at Climbmax, an indoor climbing center. Filled with cracks, roofs, overhangs and lead walls, Climbmax offers safe climbing for even the youngest mountaineer. When we visited, kids as young a 4 were bouldering, that is means climbing unroped below the “bouldering line”, a horizontal line around the facility about 10 feet up. The floors are padded for safety.
We climbed with the belay services of an experienced Climbmax climber, which requires an appointment. Belayed climbers are harnessed and roped, so we could climb as high as we might on any wall we wanted and not fall. After two climbs each and some bouldering, our fingertips were aching from clinging tightly to the manufactured rock formations. Good thing we didn’t try to conquer any real mountains! Climbmax does offer private outdoor trips in real rock-climbing settings with an experienced guide. Indoor climbing prices vary, depending on if you require belay services; shoe rental is extra, although not required.
Packed with Hands-On Learning
More indoor adventures await downtown at Pack Place, which houses the Asheville Art Museum, Colburn Gem and Mineral Museum and The Health Adventure. Inside The Health Adventure, we learned all about our bodies – from bones to skin. Even the youngest children will find exploration exciting here. Creative PlaySpace, designed especially for ages 6 and younger, contains a climbing structure, dress-up costumes, puppets and toys. The other 10 galleries have a wide spectrum of activities, from hands-on motor activities for toddlers to informational displays for adults, allowing parents and kids to be in the same room but learning on individual levels. Our favorite gallery was ScienceSpace, which has a black light room, electricity displays and a 6,000-year-old neolithic skull.
From Sept. 21 – Oct. 31, families can visit Beakman’s World upstairs in the travelling exhibit gallery. Based on the TV series, the exhibit combines the Beakman philosophy of simple questions, science and humor with hands-on experimentation. Through the exhibit, families can travel to the Philippine rain forest, outer space and even inside the human body.
Also inside Pack Place, the Colburn Gem and Mineral Museum is a must for earth science lovers. The museum’s primary collection includes more than 4,500 specimens of fossils, gems, minerals and crystals from around the world, including a brilliant 229 carat blue topaz from Brazil. In the hands-on gallery, explore the forces that shape the Earth, such as volcanoes, earthquakes and plate tectonics.
A Place to Sleep
Although we spent most of our Asheville visit outdoors, we wanted to stay indoors in comfort! The Country Inn and Suites offers two-room suites ideal for families – the kids can sleep on the hideaway bed while Mom and Dad enjoy the king bed in the separate room.
Next time you think of Asheville, think of the mountains, the trees, the waterfalls and the adventure. With 250 waterfalls in the area and hundreds of miles of hiking trails, there are plenty of choices. Our visit sure changed our perspective!
Area waterfalls: www.visitwaterfalls.com
Colburn Gem and Mineral Museum, 828-254-7162
Cradle of Forestry, 828-877-3130
The Health Adventure, 828-254-6373
Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education, 828-877-4423
Brenna Hansen is associate editor for this publication.