4 Adventurous Weekend Escapes Near Asheville

High above the High Country.
High above the High Country. Caleb Forbes
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Autumn has reached its peak here in Asheville, and we have the traffic to prove it. Our small city has been jam-packed with leaf-peepers, weekend-warriors, festival-goers, and tourists in search of pumpkin ale from Wicked Weed and mountain vistas from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Yes, fall is a truly spectacular time to live in the Blue Ridge...but you can also find yourself waiting a long time for a table on a Friday night.

For locals, this season of bright leaves and brisk days might be the best time to hit the road and explore some of the remarkable outdoor destinations that can be found just an hour or two outside of Asheville.

So gas up the car and switch up the scene: tackle a new hike, explore an unfamiliar wilderness, or get lost in a boulder field full of brand new problems. It’s tourist season after all, so why not be a tourist for the weekend? Don’t worry—we’ll give you the insider’s guide. Here are four weekend escapes near Asheville that are definitely worth the trip.

1. The Nantahala Gorge

Nantahala National Forest in autumn.
Nantahala National Forest in autumn. Dzmitry (Dima) Parul

The Nantahala Gorge  lies only 1.5 hours west of Asheville. Nantahala means “Land of the Noonday Sun” in Cherokee. The river runs through a chasm so steep and narrow that, in some areas, sunlight will only reach the forest floor at high noon. The gorge itself is wild and rugged, studded with waterfalls and sheer cliffs. If you are looking to disappear into the wilderness for the weekend, this is your destination.

For a hiking adventure, Whiteside Mountain is a landmark of the Nantahala National Forest. The mountain is banded by staggering 750-foot cliffs, making for a dramatic and dizzying summit experience. A two-mile loop trail will take you to the rocky outcrop at the top, where, on a clear day, you can see all the way to the Piedmont.

Mountain bikers should head directly to the smooth, soaring trails at Tsali. Two separate looping courses of single track (open to bikers on alternating days throughout the week) are etched into the shores of Lake Fontana in a series of tight turns and wide arcs, providing some of the fastest and certainly the most fun riding in the entire state.

A mid-November ride at Tsali
A mid-November ride at Tsali Jeff Bartlett

Any trip to the gorge would be remiss without a stop at the Nantahala Outdoor Center . In the fall, after the summer fervor has died down, the NOC is just a cool place to relax and hang out. There’s a riverside restaurant, a gear shop, and always a handful of southbound Appalachian Trail thru-hikers swapping stories around the outside fireplace. The NOC hosts all sorts of outdoor events, classes, and workshops, guided rafting trips, zip-lining, river races, and more, so make sure and check out their schedule before you swing by.

In the evening, check out the Nantahala Brewing Company in Bryson City for a Little Tennessee Logger or a Chocolate Cherry Covered Stout. The taproom is complete with a stage, and on the weekends the brewery often boasts the best live music anywhere in the Smoky Mountains. When you’re ready to turn in, book one of the coveted yurts at the Nantahala Yurt Village, and enjoy the true meaning of the word “glamping.”

2. Boone, North Carolina

Sitting high above the High Country.
Sitting high above the High Country. Caleb Forbes

If you were to look up the term "bustling mountain town" in the dictionary, you’d probably find a picture of Boone, North Carolina. Home of the Appalachian State University Mountaineers, Boone is chock-full of cafes, breweries, and farm-to-table restaurants, many of which sit side-by-side on a cozy, old-fashioned Main Street (called King Street). The town is named after the famous American explorer and pioneer Daniel Boone, and fittingly, there is a wealth of outdoor adventure to be found in its vicinity. The drive from Asheville is just under two hours.

Drop by Footsloggers, a downtown gear shop and guide service, to pick up a guidebook or get some beta from a staff member. They will probably point you in the direction of Julian Price Memorial Park, a gorgeous swath of wooded land nestled at the foot of Grandfather Mountain, directly off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Seven different trails wind through the forest and bend around a small lake, cutting across meadows and through streams. The 5-mile Boone Fork Loop Trail is the most challenging and the most popular hike inside the park.

The rugged, rocky slopes of Grandfather Mountain make for another hiking adventure that you won’t want to miss. The Grandfather Trail, also known as the “Chutes and Ladders” trail because of the network of walkways, stairs, and ropes that lead through boulder fields and across exposed rock faces, provides a rigorous full-body workout culminating in an unparalleled view from the 5,946-foot summit. Visitors to Grandfather Mountain also can enjoy more moderate trails, a nature museum, animal habitats, and the iconic mile-high swinging bridge.

Experienced whitewater kayakers can entertain themselves ad nauseam on the nonstop boofs of the Watauga River, the local Class IV/V run. Spectators might enjoy taking the trail down to Stateline Falls to watch the boaters drop over the waterfall, which sits just on the cusp of the North Carolina/Tennessee Border.

Pondering the next move at the Grandmother Boulders.
Pondering the next move at the Grandmother Boulders. Melina Coogan

For climbers, the fun can be found at Grandmother Mountain. More than 400 established routes are scattered across twenty distinct areas on the mountainside in this beloved bouldering mecca- some quiet and secluded, others, like the Mighty Mouse boulder, are always hopping.

Round out your day in the High Country with a stop at Lost Province Brewing Company downtown. You’ll find live music in the evenings, wood-fired pizza, craft beer, and just about anything else you could desire after an active autumn day. There are plenty of campgrounds at Grandfather Mountain, Julian Price Park, and along the parkway. If you really want to live it up, spend the night in a rented cabin or teepee at Blue Bear Mountain Camp. 

3. Johnson City, Tennessee

The bustling taproom at Yee-Haw Brewing Company.
The bustling taproom at Yee-Haw Brewing Company. Courtesy of Yee-Haw Brewing Company.

Johnson City, Tennessee  has experienced some recent revitalization, with new restaurants and breweries inhabiting the historic train stations, the completion of the Tweetsie Trail Greenway, and an upswing in community initiatives such as downtown music concerts and First Friday events. Most people recognize the city from the ubiquitously played bluegrass hit Wagon Wheel , but what you may not realize is that Johnson City is a notable outdoor destination in its own right. Check it out for a day or two—it’s only an hour away from Asheville.

Since it’s such a short drive, why not throw your bike and your boat on top of the car and plan for a multi-sport adventure? Check out the trail offerings at Warrior’s Path in nearby Kingsport: eight miles of sweet, looping single track. Whitewater enthusiasts can spend the day bouncing down the class III rapids of the Nolichucky River, which slices through one of the deepest canyons on the East Coast. With the exception of the notorious Class IV Quarter Mile rapid, which is easily walkable, the “Noli” is a safe and friendly river for newer paddlers looking to transition to something a bit more juicy and technical.

Just 25 miles from downtown Johnson City, the Roan Highlands of Tennessee offer some of the best views along the entire Appalachian Trail
Just 25 miles from downtown Johnson City, the Roan Highlands of Tennessee offer some of the best views along the entire Appalachian Trail Dallas Krentzel

Some of the most phenomenally beautiful hikes in the Southeast can be found at Roan Mountain State Park . The hollows, ridges and grassy balds of Roan Mountain are spectacular in any season, but never more so then when they are decked in their autumn finery. Explore the Doe River, which winds through the 2,000-acre park, or hike up to the Raven Rock overlook.

When your day of adventure is winding down, grab a beer at the YeeHaw Brewery Company, located in the refurbished Tweetsie Railroad Depot. For dinner, Holy Taco Cantina is where you'll find the locals on a Friday night. Rest your head at Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel right off the Appalachian Trail, or treat yourself to a stay at the historic Carnegie Hotel and Spa in downtown Johnson City.

4. Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina

Rainbow Falls in Jones Gap State Park.
Rainbow Falls in Jones Gap State Park. Scott Oves

It’s possible that you’ve driven by the welcome sign to  Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina  on your way up to Greenville and hardly gave it a second thought. Maybe you were confused as to whether the sign indicated a town, or perhaps just an elaborate highway rest stop. As it turns out, the sleepy, unassuming hamlet of Travelers Rest—or TR as the locals call it—has everything you need for an adventurous weekend getaway, including strong coffee in the morning, good beer in the evening, and ample opportunity to play outside in between.

Located at the foot of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, TR is poised between a number of South Carolina’s most wild and scenic state parks, including Table Rock, Jones Gap, Caesar’s Head, and Paris Mountain. That’s right—one tiny town, four beautiful state parks.

Begin your day at the lovely, light-filled Tandem Creperie and Coffee for a breakfast crepe as you consider your options. The fine people at Sunrift Adventures just across the street will be happy to recommend their favorite local excursions, which usually include Rainbow Falls in Jones Gap State Park. A 2.5-mile hike (one way) on the Rainbow Falls Trail leads to the base of this stunning, 90 foot cascade. Autumn foliage only adds to the finery of this aptly named veil of water whispering against brightly colored rock.

If you’re in the mood for some mountain views, hike to the top of Table Rock Mountain. The Table Rock Trail entails a steady ascent for 3.6 miles (one way), leading to the crown of the imposing granite dome. At the summit, the thrill of height and exposure combines with heavenly views in all directions for a spectacular Upcountry experience.

When the light fades, make the short jaunt back to town and hole up at the Swamp Rabbit Brewery. Enjoy a pint of Black Plague, a robust, dark lager that’s a perfect match for the invigorating autumn weather. When you’re ready for dinner, head out back for some food-truck fair, or make your way over to Sidewall Pizza for a thin-crust pie and some homemade ice cream.

Spend the night at a rented cabin, car-camping site, or backcountry camping site, all of which are available throughout the local state parks. For something luxe and truly out of the ordinary, book a night at Hotel Domestique, a boutique hotel created by bikers that caters specifically to adventure enthusiasts such as yourself.

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