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Area AttractionsAsheville Outdoor ActivitiesNC State Parks + Nature CentersOutdoor Adventure

When visitors imagine Western North Carolina, their minds will likely conjure up the image of mountains in various blue hues layered against a breathtaking skyline, which is when references to the Blue Ridge Mountains come in. While the mountains surrounding Asheville, Lake James, and the greater Western North Carolina region are indeed part of the larger Blue Mountain Mountains, the specific forest region closest to Asheville and the surrounding area is called the Pisgah National Forest. 

Situated less than 10 minutes from downtown Asheville and along Blue Ridge Parkway mile markers, the sprawling 500,000-acre Pisgah National Forest is a beautiful haven for outdoor adventurers, those looking for a scenic drive through the mountains, and visitors who want to enjoy views from the deck of a private mountain cabin. At one point, a fifth of Pisgah National Forest was part of the popular Biltmore Estate–America’s Largest Home® and Asheville’s most popular tourist attraction. 

Pisgah National Forest’s beauty is quickly evident in its waterfalls, sweeping mountain views, pristine rivers and streams, and outdoor excursions. The National Forest is divided into 3 Ranger Districts, with the Pisgah Ranger District being one of the more popular sections. The region is well-known for its hundreds of beautiful waterfalls and nearly a hundred waterfall hikes – which is how it earned its moniker, “The Land of Waterfalls.” 

Looking Glass Falls, located right off Highway 276 in Brevard, is a 60-foot tall waterfall that is a popular tourist destination throughout the year–whether visitors are cooling off in its natural pools on a hot summer day, taking in the breathtaking foliage in the fall, hunting for wildflowers in the spring, or seeing its frozen falls in the winter giving off the appearance of the “looking glass” of its namesake. 

As one of the few accessible roadside waterfalls, it’s the perfect spot for those with mobility concerns and challenges. Looking Glass Falls is located near the popular hiking trail Looking Glass Rock and a variety of other hiking and biking trails as well as other waterfall hot spots like Sliding Rock, Moore Cove Falls, and the newly reopened Catawba Falls (located to the east) right outside the town of Old Fort. 

When it comes to outdoor adventure, Pisgah National Forest is teeming with photo-worthy options. There are seemingly endless miles of hiking trails within the forest, including crowd-favorite spots such as Graveyard Fields, Black Balsam, Mount Pisgah, Craggy Gardens, and Mt Mitchell (the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River). 

Graveyard Fields is a popular spot in the summer for blueberry picking and in the fall for the area’s first signs of color-changing foliage. Craggy Gardens is prized for its spectacular display of florals (most notably the Catawba Rhododendron which reaches peak bloom in mid-June). These vibrant pink and purple flowers blanket the Craggy Mountain Bald and create a perfect frame around the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. 

Pisgah National Forest also has numerous mountain biking trails accessible from areas like Bent Creek Experimental Forest (located just 10 minutes from downtown Asheville), the Fonta Flora trail system, and Lake James State Park. In addition to its hiking and mountain biking trails, the Lake James area is a haven for those who love to fish in pristine mountain streams for trout.

The Linville River (part of the Linville Gorge Wilderness) is a prime spot for trout fishing year-round thanks to the hatchery-supported regulations. It’s also an excellent fishing site for walleye (upstream from the NC 126 bridge), though some restrictions apply. 

Lake James is well-known for its impressive collection of largemouth bass, but it also has populations of smallmouth bass, bluegill, white bass, crappie, perch, catfish, and redbreast sunfish. The Catawba River below Lake James is another hot spot for trout fishing. Managed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, the Bridgewater Tailrace area is known as a tailwater trout fishery, and the upper mile of the fishery is stocked with trout in the spring and summer.

The river is primarily home to brown, rainbow, and brook trout, but you’ll also find striped bass, perch, and sunfish. If fishing isn’t your forte, you can opt for ziplining through the tree canopies, whitewater rafting on raging rivers, or boating on Lake James with its scenic backdrop of Linville Gorge.

While adventures are plenty, taking in the beautiful views of Pisgah National Forest doesn’t require you to step outside of your vehicle thanks to the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway–a 76-mile loop drive that is packed with scenery and things to do. While it’s easy to drive a section of the drive, a full driving tour will take about two hours. The route will take you to iconic places like Sliding Rock, Looking Glass Falls, and Looking Glass Rock mentioned above, but our favorite spot along the way is the gorgeous Sunburst Falls. Frequently photographed, the waterfall cascades beneath a historic arched stone bridge that was built in 1937. Situated along the West Fork of the Pigeon River, with crystal clear pools that allow you to see the cobblestones at the bottom, this is another great fishing spot that is stocked with trout for catch-and-release from October through May.  

Along with the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway, the Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the most accessible ways to view Pisgah National Forest with its variety of overlooks, hiking trailheads, and picnic areas. Entrance to Pisgah National Forest is completely free and open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (however some of the specific recreation areas may have designated hours). Attractions such as the North Carolina Arboretum and the Cradle of Forestry do require an admission fee.

From our secluded alpine cabins in Burnsville to our luxury homes in Lake James to our nature-filed retreats in Old Fort, Greybeard has numerous vacation homes and cabins in Pisgah National Forest and close by in Asheville

Once you’ve checked your desired boxes for spots to see in Pisgah National Forest, the neighboring Great Smoky Mountains National Park is less than a two-hour drive for even more adventures. Our list of the Best State Parks and National Parks in NC might also spark some inspiration for where to explore!


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