Flanked by the Blue Ridge Parkway, Pisgah National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Asheville is an enthusiastic cheerleader for some of the country’s most popular national parks. But the city doesn’t ignore green spaces within its own boundaries, it just adjusts the focus: celebrating art, architecture, music, culture and community as well as the great outdoors. From LEAF festival to Art in the Park, outdoors celebrations are back in Ashville this summer.
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Pack Square Park
Anchoring downtown, Pack Square is the best place to kick off your visit. And even if you don’t start here, it’s likely you’ll stop by at some point for live music, public art or a moment of relaxation on its green lawn. The Asheville Urban Trail, which delves into the city’s history at 30 sculpture stations, begins beside the park. Most Saturday nights in summer, Pack Square hosts Shindig on the Green, a free celebration of Southern Appalachian culture – it’s a fiddle-and-banjo-with-dancing kind of night. Kids can cool off underwater jets on the Splasheville splash pad, which was revamped in 2021. There is a visitor center in the park pavilion (9am-5pm).
Step up to the Oculus, a 15ft window inside the newly renovated Asheville Art Museum, for a dramatic, high-elevation view of the Pack Square. The Friday night drum circle is a few blocks away at smaller Pritchard Park.
To exercise in a pretty location not far from downtown, make your way to 32-acre Carrier Park, which sits on the north bank of the French Broad River in West Asheville. Interpretive trails navigate the wetlands here and provide access to the multi-use French Broad River Greenway, which swoops past public art and independent businesses as it rolls east from Hominy Creek River Park to Carrier Park and French Broad River & Dog Park.
Cyclists can drop onto the velodrome – dubbed the “mellowdrome” – for a smooth ride while families can let their kids run wild in the large playground here. The playground is in the center of the velodrome track and is reached by a wheelchair-accessible sky bridge. There are also volleyball and basketball courts at the park.
Richmond Hill Park
A new bike skills trail rips through the forest in Richmond Hill Park, which overlooks the French Broad River. Completed in 2021, the trail serves up 15 obstacles, including a rock pile, a stump ride and log pile rollers. Catering to beginner and intermediate riders, as well as families, the bike skills area was a joint effort between the city and the Pisgah Area Southern Off-Road Biking Association (SORBA).
In addition to the new trail skills, the 180-acre park has 5-miles of biking trails, described as “tight and twisty” by MTBikeWNC.com. The bike trails are open to hikers. The park also has a disc golf course. Richmond Hill is four miles northwest of downtown.
Peace Gardens & Market
Located in Asheville’s oldest historically Black neighborhood, these urban gardens support education, peace, community building and the power of art. Co-created by DeWayne Burton and Safi Martin in response to the War on Drugs and the second war in Iraq, the community-supported gardens are chock-full of sculptures, portraits and found-art installations.
You’ll also find meditation areas, a store and a farmstand. Produce from the gardens is delivered to neighborhood elders and used for jams, jellies and salsas. The volunteer-run gardens are open from dawn until dusk daily, with garden workdays on Saturdays (10am-noon). Check the Peace Gardens & Market Facebook page for farmstand hours and live music events.
French Broad River & Dog Park
If you’re traveling with your dog, don’t miss this riverside park in West Asheville. The off-leash dog park is fenced, with separate sections for large and small dogs. You’ll also find a playground, picnic tables, riverside views and lots of trees for shade. Follow the greenway west along the French Broad River to Carrier Park.
Western North Carolina (WNC) Nature Center
Sixty animal species that have lived in or roamed the Southern Appalachians now call the WNC Nature Center home. Many have been injured, some are endangered and others are unable to live safely in the wild. Residents include black bears, American red wolves, river otters and hellbender salamanders. Check the schedule as you enter for information about daily animal programs. Learn about wolves – and howl at the moon – during the popular Wolf Howl evenings, which sell out a month ahead. There is an admission fee (adult/child around $15/$10).
North Carolina Arboretum
Themed gardens embrace Southern Appalachian culture in this acclaimed arboretum 10 miles south of downtown. The arboretum isn’t a city park, but it does sit within an experimental research forest carved out of the greater Pisgah National Forest. The Heritage Garden showcases plants used for Appalachian craft-making while quilt-style block patterns – made of blooming flowers – look cozy in the Quilt Garden. The Bonsai Exhibition Garden, with its miniaturized trees, is an unexpected treasure. Hiking and biking trails also meander across the 434-acre grounds.
The arboretum was the brainchild of famed landscape architect Frederick Olmsted, who designed the grounds of the Biltmore Estate. Olmsted died before the arboretum could be constructed, but the North Carolina state legislature completed his vision decades later with the creation and establishment of the arboretum as an affiliate of the state’s university system. Admission is free, but parking is around $16. You can access the arboretum from the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 393.6.
Foundation Skate Park
Just steps off the Wilma Dykeman Greenway but hidden by graffiti-covered warehouses, this gritty skate park is a local treasure, drawing in-the-know skaters from far and wide. Open to the public and free, this non-profit park sprawls across the foundation of a demolished building on Foundy St in the River Arts District. Watch the skaters – or join them – then wander galleries, studios and shops on Foundy Street. 12 Bones Smokehouse, Wedge Brewing, a local theater, a coffee shop and the indoor RAD skatepark are also nearby.
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