Some days, what’s most likely to take your breath away on a hiking trip in Bent Creek Experimental Forest or on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is visible before you even get out of your vehicle.
That many Subarus and Toyota Priuses with “Tree-Hugging Dirt Worshipper” or “Hike Naked” bumper stickers shouldn’t fit into one trailhead parking lot or pull-off — and yet, amazingly, there they are.
It’s great that so many people want to get outdoors. It’s not so great for your desire to get away from it all that they want to visit the same stretch of woods you do, all at the same time.
But some places in Buncombe County still offer outdoors solitude without a lengthy drive to Great Smoky Mountains National Park or an obscure corner of Pisgah National Forest. The following guide lists destinations close to home where you typically won’t meet someone at every turn.
This roughly 1,600-acre valley in the Riceville area has small waterfalls, older trees in its upper reaches and a network of mostly unofficial trails on Pisgah National Forest land.
You’ll park in an area that was logged just a few years ago. Head uphill on the old logging road, and the scenery gets better and better as you go. After about a mile, a side trail leads a short distance to the right (east) to Forrest Falls, or you can stay straight to climb to the top of a ridge and a T-intersection with the unofficial Rock Payne Trail.
At this point, the Blue Ridge Parkway is about half a mile to your left (north). You can return to the parking area via a 2-mile steep ridgeline hike to your right with some nice views, or just turn around and use some of the other trails to make an easier loop back to your vehicle.
Online maps show a waterfall or two at the end of a trail up Wolf Branch to the northwest of the parking lot. The path traverses a large cutover area, and the waterfall closest to the trail is not worth the trip.
Getting there. The main trailhead, at the end of Shope Creek Road, is less than a 15-minute drive from Asheville’s Charles George VA Medical Center. Where the pavement ends, cross the creek on a concrete ford. The parking lot is a few yards ahead.
Warren Wilson College
The Swannanoa school has 25 miles of hiking trails. Two nearly flat ones wind through a strip of large sycamores, buckeyes and other trees along the north side of the Swannanoa River for about 2 miles. The paths lie next to the college’s farm fields, which are off-limits to visitors.
You’ll find the main River Trail West and River Trail East trailhead where Warren Wilson Road crosses the river. No parking is available there, so you’ll have to find a visitor parking space on campus. River Trail West dips into more remote, wooded areas and is the prettier of the two.
River Trail East’s other end is in Buncombe County’s Charles D. Owen Park. Look for a small, unmarked grassy slope at the west end of the park’s lower pond. The trail immediately crosses a small bridge, then a powerline right of way.
Getting there. The trails are in three main areas: In and around the campus, the Jones Mountain area half a mile south on Warren Wilson Road and the Berea area across Riceville Road from Berea Baptist Church. Park only where allowed and don’t block gates.
Navigating. A Google search for “Warren Wilson College trails” will turn up maps in several places.
YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly
South of Black Mountain, this conference and retreat center features a well-marked network of 15-20 miles of trails in an enclosed valley that rises to the high ridge that separates the Swannanoa Valley and Fairview.
Most notable is High Windy Trail, which rises 1,600 feet over 2.5 steep miles to the peak of the same name and a great view of the Swannanoa Valley and Craggy Mountains. A gentler option is Carolina Loop. After parting company with High Windy Trail about a third of the way up, it runs through a cove hardwood forest likely to have plenty of wildflowers in early to mid-May.
Getting there. The center is located at 84 Blue Ridge Assembly Road, Black Mountain. Turn off Blue Ridge Road, which runs between N.C. 9 and U.S. 70 on the southwest side of town.
Navigating. Before you start walking, park on the uphill side of the Blue Ridge Center main building, go inside and ask for a free trail map at the front desk. Note its instructions about where to park.
More than 40 miles of trails are maintained by the Montreat Conference Center. They’re no secret, but there is enough room to get away from the crowds.
There are great views to be had from a rock outcropping on Lookout Mountain. The way up for normal people is to take the easy, 1.8-mile Rainbow Road trail, then climb steeply for about 1,000 feet on Lookout Trail. Those who think using a StairMaster is a fun workout can get there more directly by starting at the bottom of Lookout Trail and climbing for roughly 0.4 miles. Combine the two routes for a loop.
Old Mitchell Toll Road is a roadbed used by tourists decades ago to drive from Black Mountain to Mount Mitchell, with grades easy enough for a Model T. The classic Montreat hike is the 8.8-mile round trip on Graybeard Trail to the summit of Graybeard Mountain at 5,408 feet in elevation.
Getting there. Take N.C. 9 north from Interstate 40.
Navigating. A small but useful map of the trail system is available at the “Wilderness” section of montreat.org. Area outfitters sell an excellent “Black Mountain” map put out by Pisgah Map Co. with much more detailed trail information.
Collier Cove Nature Preserve
Buncombe County’s map of this park in Arden warns its trails are “steep and rigorous.” The caution isn’t just to provide a little protection in case someone gets hurt and decides to sue: The 29-acre park boasts a nearly 500-foot change in elevation. Three of the trails — Trillium Trail, Walnut Way and Sassafras Circle — are indeed steep.
That and a rainy forecast may explain why there was only one other vehicle in the parking lot when I visited on a pleasant Saturday morning in mid-April. Still, the 2 miles of trails are certainly walkable — go slow — and at the right time of year are lined with thousands of wildflowers. Large-flowered trillium and other blooms blanketed the slopes during my visit.
Getting there. Collier Cove is at the top of the Royal Pines neighborhood. Ask your smartphone for directions to 194 Rhododendron Drive, Arden. There is also an entrance, but no parking allowed, at the end of Deseret Drive.
Navigating. There is a trail map on the parks section of www.buncombecounty.org and on a sign in the parking lot.
Edited 5/6/19 at 2:40 p.m. to reflect parking access restrictions at one location.