On this mountain playground, like little ones trying to choose which play structure they’ll visit next at a favorite neighborhood park, families delight in deciding how to enjoy precious time together in one of the most beautiful regions east of the Mississippi.
Less than six hours from Richmond, in the mountains of western North Carolina in and around Asheville, discover hiking, biking, kayaking, zipping, sight-seeing, touring, and dining. Here, the land, the rivers, and even the trees are filled with kids and parents, all stretching their boundaries and making memories.
On our recent travels, we enjoyed outdoor activities plus creative, kidfriendly endeavors, centered around our away-from-home-base in Asheville.
Of course, adrenaline enhances the fun factor in outdoor activities, but I must admit: I worry when my kids are involved in some of the riskier stuff. I recall the kayaking trip we took down the New River in western Virginia. In addition to my heightened concern each time we went through rapids, my heart leapt into my throat every time my daughter screamed – which was each time a dragonfly landed on her kayak, or approximately every eight minutes.
This is why I’m especially fond of controlled adventure – where adrenaline rush is high but risk is low – like zip lines and adventure courses.
Just minutes from downtown Asheville is one such adventure, a year-round, 124-acre suburban playground with a tree canopy zip line, jungle gym, and bike park.
Asheville Zipline Canopy Tours take you through eleven zip lines – soaring through the air, challenged only by that initial step off of the platform – plus three sky bridges and views of the Asheville skyline and surrounding mountains. The course includes a 1,200-foot-long, side-by-side racing zip line.
Also on the property is Asheville Treetops Adventure Park, featuring four challenge trails from easy to advanced, using a smart belay system that ensures that guests absolutely can not detach from the harness system till they’re safely back on the ground. Like zip lines, guests travel a challenge course from platform to platform. Challenge courses, however, contain climbs, jumps, swings, rappels, and wobbly walks, calling for interaction, dexterity, and even more gumption.
The creativity of the course elements at Treetops Adventure Park adds to the enjoyment and sense of accomplishment. Although we didn’t make it to the ultra-challenging red trail (let’s blame a shortage of time, shall we?), we were especially amused by those parts of the course that were tailored to an Asheville tour: treetop kayak, snowboard rides, and a hula-hoop hike.
You’ll also want to work in a visit to Kolo Bike Park, four miles of purposebuilt mountain-bike trails of varying levels on rolling terrain in and around Asheville. You can bring bikes in or rent on site.
If some Appalachian Family Robinson had created a zip line course, Navitat would be it. About a half-hour drive northeast of Asheville, Navitat is surrounded by mountain views uninterrupted by human development. Of the ten zips, our favorite was the 1,100-foot ride across a deep ravine, over 200 feet above the forest floor, with a breathtaking view of the mountains. (Though admittedly, I couldn’t say for sure if it was the view that took my breath away or the zip!)
We traversed the Navitat course with two guides and another family. Most of the guests in our group, young and old, were new to zip lining, but the guides were efficient and encouraging, without making us feel rushed. They were also quite knowledgeable about the area’s natural history and the importance of conservation. Our guide told us: The mission is to thrill, educate, and inspire. And they achieved all three.
In addition to the ten zip lines, Navitat’s original Moody Cove Adventure course includes two rappels, two sky bridges, and three short hikes. This month, Navitat introduces a second course. The new Blue Ridge Experience features three pairs of racing-style zips, with riders zooming alongside each other on rides up to nearly three-quarters of a mile long and 350 feet off the ground.
“This tour is all about flying high and flying fast,” said Abby Burt of Navitat. “It’s an experience that’s just as suited to families and zip-lining novices as it is thrill-seekers.”
The green, tree-covered playgrounds in the mountains of western North Carolina don’t always require special equipment or guides. Your family can venture out on trails that are easy and even stroller-friendly, or tackle tougher hikes: trails in the one million acres of forest surrounding Asheville; hikes starting from the Blue Ridge Parkway or along the Appalachian Trail; or summits of one of the forty peaks rising over 6,000 feet.
These mountains are more than just a playground, though. The high Appalachian mountains and protected Status of much of the land creates a marvelous biodiversity.
Western North Carolina rivers, like the French Broad River through Asheville and the nearby Nantahala River, provide opportunities for float trips, kayaking, tubing, canoeing, or stand-up paddleboarding. The rivers afford calm water for sedentary floats or white water rapids for adventure.
Or you can try something completely new on the water. Bellyak, invented by an Asheville local, is like a kayak you lie on, stomach down and face first, steering with your arms – like swimming in a Superman position. The inset curve of the Bellyak creates a comfortable, ergonomic fit and the lower center of gravity aids stability and balance. At Asheville Adventure Rentals, guides will rent you a Bellyak and steer you to an appropriate section of the river. I’m sure we’ll be seeing this phenomenon on the James one day soon, as the Bellyak is appropriate for downstream floats, but not for still water where paddling is required.
If you would like a little extra guidance on any of your outings, there are plenty of outfitter options. On our trip, we visited Pura Vida Adventures, a one-stop shop of outdoor fun: mountain biking, canyoneering, hiking, paddling, and climbing. The folks at Pura Vida can merely help you rent equipment or guide you along the adventure.
Outstanding Inside, Too
On our travels to the mountains of western North Carolina, we typically make Asheville home base, giving us plenty to do when we’re exhausted from the outdoor fun or weather interferes.
The area is arguably best known for Biltmore, the great estate of George and Edith Vanderbilt, established in 1888. The grand, luxurious house has the square footage of four football fields and houses thirty-five bedrooms and forty-three bathrooms – the Vanderbilts liked to entertain.
Visiting the Biltmore property isn’t like visiting Great Aunt Esther’s house, where formality can make bringing the kids a nerve-wracking experience. Instead, the Vanderbilt property is surprisingly family-friendly.
The kids’ audio tour of the Biltmore House is worth the few extra bucks. It’s narrated by Cedric the Saint Bernard and uses descriptions that young minds can relate to, like the banquet hall that is as tall as four giraffes and the dining table that’s longer than a school bus. The mansion also has features that even kids are impressed by: bowling alley, indoor heated pool, fitness center, changing rooms, a library with 10,000 books, and a party room where guests were invited to draw on the walls.
Other kid-focused features on the property include hiking and biking trails, horseback and carriage rides, and the farm exhibits, petting zoo, and Pisgah Playground and maze – all at Antler Hill Village.
We especially enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere at Antler Hill Village. Families relax on the lawns and at picnic tables or grab a bite at the three restaurants or the creamery. At the farm, kids (or parents) can climb aboard a tractor from the early nineteen hundreds, watch blacksmithing in action, pet the animals, or play old-timey games.
If anyone in your group likes chocolate (most likely an affirmative!), consider visiting French Broad Chocolates. Families with older kids would enjoy the French Broad Chocolates Factory tour, every Saturday at two, for insights into how chocolate is made – from cacao tree to final product. Our tour was led by one of the French Broad Chocolates chocolatiers. He told us about the birth of the bean, the business owners’ sustainability and fair-trade philosophy, the Costa Rican cacao farm, and the step-by-step factory process. We got tastings of the cacao along the way – including nib (the center of the cacao bean and the base of all chocolate) and the mouth-watering final product.
After the tour, chocolate becomes a lot more than a sweet treat and superfluous calories. Your metabolism, however, doesn’t know that, so you’ll want to walk the couple of blocks to the French Broad Chocolate Lounge. There you can enjoy The chocolate after it’s been crafted into rich, delectable desserts, candy, and drinks. Certainly you won’t want to pass up this multi-sensory learning experience.
Perhaps the most family-friendly accommodations in Asheville are found at Brookstone Lodge. The rooms and amenities are clean and comfortable and it has an indoor pool, but even more important is that it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Asheville’s Fun Depot: go-carts, laser tag, batting cages, bumper cars, mini-bowling, arcade games, climbing wall, mini-golf, toddler playground, soft play areas, inflatables – all under one roof. If the kids aren’t already worn out from a day spent outside, this’ll finish the job.
Animal lovers will want to visit the Western North Carolina Nature Center, to see local animals in their native, southern Appalachian Mountains habitat: river otters, cougars, coyotes, foxes, red wolves, black bears, bobcats, snakes, and more.
Dining options in Asheville are vast and notably rich. The city is also known for its craft beer, though brewery hopping isn’t usually a recommended kid activity. However, by visiting Asheville Pizza and Brewing’s Brew & View location, parents can get a taste of the city’s renowned craft beer scene while kids are entertained. Besides the game room for amusement, the dine-in movie theater accommodates appetites for pizza and for beer.
Whenever I think of Asheville, I don‘t even try to suppress the smile that plays around the edges of my mouth: the camping vacation we took several years ago with Asheville on the itinerary; this recent trip to zip and sip (yes, I did have a few of those craft breweries on my agenda); or any of the visits in between. The mountains of western North Carolina never fail to create new memories that I continue to savor. No doubt I’ll return, if only to experience another fraction of the fun this region has to offer.
Favorite Hikes and Such:
• Mount Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, with an elevation of 6,684 feet. Besides the amazing view, you’ll find guest facilities, picnic tables with grills, restaurant, and concession stand (in season). The walk to the summit from the park facilities on the Old Mitchell Trail is an easy one, along a paved, ADA-accessible path. Other trails include the Balsam Nature trail, a simple loop trail below the summit, and the Mount Mitchell trail, for those able to tackle an 11-mile round trip and a 3,600-foot descent and climb. (ncparks.gov/Visit/parks/momi/main.php)
• The Mountains to Sea Trail stretches from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. (ncmst.org)
• The North Carolina Arboretum has ten miles of forested hiking and biking trails as well as cultivated gardens, family activities, and changing exhibits. (www.ncarboretum.org)
• Pisgah National Forest encompasses 500,000 acres of land with mile-high peaks, whitewater rivers, and waterfalls (including the popular Looking Glass Falls with swimming allowed). Hundreds of miles of trails afford opportunities for hiking, biking, or horseback riding. (fs.usda.gov/nfsnc)
• Sliding Rock is a 50-foot natural waterslide in Pisgah National Forest ending in a seven-foot-deep natural pool, with lifeguards on duty from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. You don’t really hike once you get there, unless you count each walk from the base of the falls back up to the top. And I predict you’ll want to do that a lot. It’s popular, so get there early. (fs.usda.gov/recarea/nfsnc/recreation/wateractivities/recarea)
• Nantahala National Forest derives its name from a Cherokee word meaning “land of the noonday sun,” appropriate for the Nantahala Gorge, where the sun only reaches the valley floor at midday. The 500,000-acre forest encompasses 600 miles of trails and peaks up to 5,800 feet, including a section of the Appalachian Trail. (fs.usda.gov/nfsnc)
• The Appalachian Trail meanders through North Carolina for 300 miles along its Maine to Georgia route. (appalachiantrail.org or nps.gov/appa)
• Chimney Rock State Park has trails for all ages, including the family-friendly Great Woodland Adventure trail with twelve animal discovery stations and the Skyline trail climbing to the 2,480-foot Exclamation Point, the park’s highest point. The park also affords a 75-mile view from Chimney Rock, a 404-foot waterfall, a variety of workshops, lessons and events. (chimneyrockpark.com)