Asheville, NC is only an hour’s drive from Greenville, but because it is in another state we often neglect to consider it a viable destination for daytrips. That’s bound to change in the future as we find more and more fascinating places to explore in all seasons. Of course there is the city of Asheville itself, but to the south are the famous Biltmore Estate and places like DuPont State Forest, Pisgah NF, the Carl Sandburg Home & Historic Site, the Blue Ridge Parkway and a recent destination, the NC Arboretum.
We found ourselves in Asheville during the holidays, to experience the magic of Christmas at the Grove Park Inn and then a small-town Christmas parade in Cashiers. The Winter Lights at the NC Arboretum are a rather popular (and expensive!) affair, however they didn’t affect our visit on a chilly weekend in December – we just timed our visit earlier in the day. Hours change according to season (so check the website), but the cost of visiting the Arboretum is the same all year: free. Please note that there is a $12 parking fee, but if you visit on the first Tuesday of the month it’s just $6.
The 434-acre North Carolina Arboretum is located within the Bent Creek Experimental Forest of the Pisgah National Forest, adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 393. Established as an affiliate of the University of North Carolina in 1986, the Arboretum will celebrate their 30th anniversary this year, nearly a century after Frederick Law Olmsted (the Father of American Landscape Architecture) first described a research arboretum as part of his legacy and plan for George Vanderbilt at Biltmore Estate.
We started off our visit at the Baker Exhibit Center. There we were able to get trail suggestions and maps, as well as sign out a Discovery Pack to aid in our adventure. The themes available include trees, insects, reptiles & amphibians, and birds, and contain tools and data sheets designed for children to observe, record and report their sightings in nature. Our insect backpack had a butterfly net among other tools (possibly better suited to warmer temperatures), but the draw was a small magnifying glass container that we used to look at everything from rocks to moss. Starting this year iPod touches will be an additional option to include in the packs, and children can become “EcoEXPLORERs” and earn patches for making observations. The Center is also home to traveling exhibits, and on our visit the boys immediately recognized the Robot Zoo which had been at the Children’s Museum of the Upstate not too long ago.
After picking up our TRACK Trail guide at the kiosk behind the Baker Exhibit Center, we started our 1-mile hike on the Natural Garden Trail through a mixed hardwood forest. With overlooks of Bent Creek and National Native Azalea Repository, the hike is guaranteed to be scenic at all times of the year. Our TRACK Trail adventure was a lesson on the eastern box turtle, discussing sources of food, water and shelter for the native turtle along the way.
The loop took us around to the formal gardens, from where it was an additional 0.3 miles back to the Baker Exhibit Center (the TRACK Trail is a 1.3 mile loop). We entered into the Promise Garden, with award-winning landscape plants, new introductions and superior plants derived from the region's native flora are left to spread freely in an ever-changing landscape.
Continuing on we descended through the bonsai garden, where during the summer months up to 50 plants will take their place along the winding path. During the Winter Lights event and the colder months they are replaced with artificial decorations.
Next, the formal gardens with a Stream Garden (a seasonal exhibit), the Quilt Garden (a nod to the heritage crafts of the Appalachians), and the Heritage Garden, a living museum garden devoted to the Southern Appalachian culture, horticulture, and craft. I could have dawdled there for hours, examining the various medicinal and regional plants.
Although we didn’t descend for a closer look due to time constraints, the boys were drawn to the overlook to view the Rocky Cove Railroad, a model train that demonstrates the coming of trains to western North Carolina at the turn of the 20th century. Beyond are the Forest Meadow and Rhododendron Collection.
Not counting the seasonal differences in the formal gardens, there would still be dozens of reasons for a return visit to the Arboretum as we left over 75% unexplored. I foresee a spring visit timed with the blooming of the azaleas, as well as an autumn ‘leaf-peeping’ visit. However on this trip we ducked into the Baker Exhibit Center to return our borrowed Discovery Pack and then packed up the car. A short but scenic trip down Fredrick Law Olmstead Way later and we emerged from the Arboretum to a crossroads; the French Broad River, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Asheville – which directions would we take?