Head for the hills

Tubing is a great escape. Photos by Jake Frankel

The mountains and rivers surrounding Asheville offer ample opportunities to escape the sweltering crowds and chaos of Bele Chere.

The Blue Ridge Parkway provides easy access to numerous hikes among lofty peaks. Only about a 25-minute drive north of Asheville on the scenic roadway, the Craggy Gardens area near milepost 364 is a convenient starting point for outdoor adventure. From the visitor center, an easy 0.3-mile walk leads to a rustic trail shelter and a beautiful meadow that's great for picnicking. If you're making a spur of the moment retreat from the commotion of downtown, you could even bring one of Bele Chere's infamous Krispy Kreme burgers with you — and the frosting might still be warm as you take in the outstanding view of the Black Mountain Range.

For longer hikes near Craggy, cut off the main trail toward Douglas Falls, an 8-mile strenuous roundtrip journey that rewards determined walkers with a view of a 70-foot cascade. Another option is to follow the Mountains–to–Sea Trail south until it crosses the Craggy Picnic area road and veering right on to the Snowball Mountain Trail. The path follows the ridge line for 8 miles. A highlight is the view of Reems Creek Valley from Hawksbill Rock, another awesome picnic spot.

For festival refugees willing to spend a bit more time in the car, Mount Mitchell State Park lies about 30 minutes farther north on the parkway and includes access to several other gorgeous high-altitude hikes. Rising 6,684 feet, Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Rockies. Although it's only about 35 miles from town, you'll feel like you're a million miles away from the scent of spent fry oil that permeates downtown during Bele Chere.

Going south on the parkway also holds a plethora of opportunities for outdoor adventures. At 5,721 feet, Mount Pisgah is just 26 miles from town. A popular 1.5 mile-hike leads to the top and its spectacular 360-degree view. Drive another 11 miles south to access the more moderate trails at Graveyard Fields, an area of beautiful rhododendron and blueberry bushes complete with a clear stream and gushing waterfalls. A walk through the mist tent at Bele Chere is no match for a dip in one of the area's swimming holes. While you're in the area, head a few more miles up the parkway to the Black Balsam and Tennent Mountain trails, which encompass some of the best open ridges for watching the sunset in the Appalachians.

Float on

There's no need to battle Bele Chere's Ultimate Air Dogs for a chance to take a cool soak over the three-day weekend. Calmer — and less hairy — waters abound, with plenty of convenient options for a relaxing float.

It wasn't long ago that the section of the French Broad River that runs through town was viewed by many as more of a runoff basin than a recreation hub. But the water quality has improved in recent years; the waterway is becoming an increasingly popular tubing run.

From its intersection with Bent Creek south of town through Woodfin to the north, the region's biggest river is remarkably calm, making it perfect for peaceful day trips. Buy or rent a tube (Rental Me This at 535 Merrimon Ave. has some good deals) and park a car where you want to end up so you have an easy way to get back upstream at the end of the day. A fun destination is The Bywater (796 Riverside Drive), a riverside bar in Asheville that awaits tubers after passing under the Pearson Bridge. Bring something to throw on one of The Bywater's many grills when you arrive or enjoy food from one of the local food trucks that regularly park there. If you begin tubing up the road at 12 Bones (5 Riverside Drive), it takes about an hour and a half to make it to the bar.

If you need some help with gear and shuttling — or if you would prefer to have a bit more control on the river — the Asheville Outdoor Center (521 Amboy Road, 232–1970) has numerous daily tours and vessel options, including canoeing, kayaking and rafting trips. The newly opened Asheville Adventure Rentals (704 Riverside Drive, 505-7371) also offers equipment, shuttles and float trips.

For those seeking more adrenaline, several other companies specialize in outfitting and guiding tours of the more strenuous sections of the river downstream toward Hot Springs, including the Nantahala Outdoor Center (www.avl.mx/i2) and French Broad Rafting Expeditions (www.avl.mx/i3).

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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