Winter, that most generous of seasons … You see her coming in her white coat, slipping down the mountains, frosty tendrils following at her heels.
The beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, lush and green in the summertime, are more silent now. Filled with campers, hikers, cyclists, rock climbers and a myriad of others, they are alive with activity during the season of light. But now, stark in their beauty, they only awaken for the songs of the winter birds and those avid nature lovers wishing to experience the rush of bright blue skies and views that go on for miles.
Wildfires in our forests
This year was a time of great destruction for the beautiful mountain forests. While the NC Nature Conservancy regularly conducts planned burns to keep the forests healthy and vibrant, this year saw uncontrolled devastation fueled by extreme drought over the summer and the build up of dense forest over the years. Climate change will continue to play a role as we see more and more extremes.
Unbelievably, according to the US Forest Service, most of the fires in October and November of 2016 were believed to be human-caused. Due to the extreme circumstances caused by the lack of rain and other factors, they were difficult to control and extinguish. The toll to wildlife and the environment was inestimable!
But while fires, particularly fires of this magnitude, always change the forest; they also open it up to new life, preparing it for renewal. The forests will return with new growth and wildflowers in the spring.
And until then, even with the chill of winter, our milder climate welcomes its locals and tourists alike, offering activities for all ages.
Hiking the winter trails of WNC
An abundance of great trails beckons nature lovers to hike the great outdoors and marvel at the beauty of this area. The majesty of the leafless trees creates sweeping views of the rolling mountains. Fewer hikers are out and about, so you can revel in the quiet solitude of a winter’s day.
While sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway are closed in the winter, it can be accessed at many of its crossroads or at Asheville’s Folk Art Center. Closed sections can be completely cleared of snow and ice and can be a great place to hike (or bike).
Here are some excellent places to hike that are easily accessible.
Bearwallow Mountain: 19 miles from Asheville will find you at this spot where you can access a two-mile round-trip moderate-rated hiking trail created by the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy. At 4,232 feet, Bearwallow Mountain straddles the Eastern Continental Divide at the western rim of the Hickory Nut Gorge and treats hikers to a grassy meadow at its summit, along with a nearly 360 degree view.
Chimney Rock: Chimney Rock State Park is located 25 miles southeast of Asheville. A number of trails offer sweeping views, many of which are open during winter. An excellent choice is the Four Seasons Trail, which is 1.2 miles round-trip, but quite steep. This trail provides you with a choice to climb to the top of the Chimney or to the bottom of the falls.
John Rock: 37 miles from Asheville will find you at the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education and the trail to this rock summit where you will be treated to a panoramic view of Looking Glass Rock. Cedar Rock Falls is on the way and a perfect place to take a break on this five-mile loop. Lover’s Leap: A great trail 36 miles from Asheville is the short 1.5-mile loop of the Appalachian Trail that starts in downtown Hot Springs. You will cross the French Broad River and climb the ridge to a rock outcropping for some beautiful views of the valley, river and the town. Complete the outing with a hot soak in the mineral springs.
Rainbow Falls: There are a number of great hikes that take you to beautiful cascading waterfalls, many times frozen in glistening formations, dotted with rainbows as the sunlight catches the crystals. Located 53 miles southwest of Asheville, Rainbow Falls is one of four falls on a two-mile stretch of the river in the Nantahala National Forest. This three-mile round-trip hiking trail is rated moderate and begins from the Gorges State Park access area.
Rattlesnake Lodge: Located 14 miles north of Asheville, this local favorite is part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and can be accessed from Ox Creek Road. This three-mile round-trip hike takes you on the old carriage road up the ridge on a gradual climb to the ruins of a summer lodge from the early 1900s.
Make sure you check the weather forecast before heading out and remember that it can be much colder in the higher elevations. Also check with the Forest Service for updated trail closings (their website address can be found at the bottom of this article).
Taking to the Slopes
While winters in Asheville are typically milder, the higher elevations of the mountains in WNC bring plenty of snow and an excellent opportunity for some downhill fun.
Beech Mountain Ski Resort: Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, this resort includes 95 acres of skiable area and 15 slopes and trails designed for all ski levels. The town of Beech Mountain sits at 5,506 feet, which makes it the highest town in the eastern US and a perfect winter spot. A state-of-the-art snow tubing park is located at the base of the slopes adjacent to the Alpine Village where ice skating is available.
Cataloochee Ski Area: Located in Maggie Valley, NC, this winter resort is nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains just 40 miles west of Asheville. Its gentle slopes are excellent for those just starting out, while the 1000 foot Upper Omigosh is perfect for the seasoned expert. With 50 acres of skiable area, nighttime skiing is offered and snow tubing is available.
Sugar Mountain Resort: Located in Banner Elk, NC, this resort features 125 acres of skiable terrain. Eight lifts will get you to the top of their 21 slopes quickly. 15 slopes are available for night skiing and snowboarding. Ice skating and snow tubing are also options.
Wolf Ridge Ski Resort: This Madison County resort is the closest to Asheville, just 30 minutes north of downtown. With beautiful long-range views, the ski terrain boasts 15 runs and four lifts.
Dining in Asheville
In and around Asheville you can always find great food. It can be said that a great many of the nearly 250 independent restaurants truly understand the principles behind sustainability and farm-to-table. All manner of excellent cuisine can be found, so if you’re a foodie, you will be in your element.
Designated as one of the top ten food and wine destinations in the US, Asheville restaurateurs understand the importance of using fresh, locally sourced ingredients. You can enjoy Asheville’s superb and diverse cuisine at any time, but from January 17-26, participating restaurants during Asheville Restaurant Week offer prix fixe menus ranging from $15-$35 per person.
Craft brewing is on the rise in the US, and that’s particularly true here. In addition to great food, about 100 local beers can be found in Asheville, which has more breweries per capita than any other US city.
Bird watching may be something you think of for warmer seasons, but in winter you will find some of the migratory birds that you may not see at other times of the year. You may also see some familiar birds in their winter plumage. These will look completely different and you may not recognize some of them. For example, the male American Goldfinch, while bright yellow in the summer, will appear to be olive to brownish in color.
Winter is the perfect time to observe the nuthatch as they scale the trunks of trees, moving rapidly up and down and even sideways in a rather erratic motion. They jam large seeds and nuts into tree bark before pecking with their sharp bill to dislodge the seeds inside. They also store food under the bark of a tree to eat later. The White-breasted Nuthatch is the most common in this area.
Winter is a great time to visit the Biltmore Estate to see waterfowl, particularly buffleheads, hooded mergansers, teal and ring-necked ducks. Some winters may find flocks of snow geese on the grounds. Year round residents can also be spotted as you walk through the meadows, pastures, fields and woods. It’s easy to see why the Biltmore Estate is an official site on the North Carolina Birding Trail.
Another great bird watching site, no matter the season, is the Beaver Lake Sanctuary. This marvelous wildlife oasis, managed by the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society, is in the heart of the busy north Asheville area. Morning bird expeditions can award you with some great sightings. The 3/8-mile boardwalk through the wetland area and by the lake provides sitting areas to watch the birds. Guided bird walks occur from October through March. Meet at the gazebo on the south end of the lake at 9:00 am on the first Saturday of each month.
To help both new and seasoned birders, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has developed the Merlin Bird ID. They recently added an amazing upgrade that analyzes photos taken on your phone that offers bird ID suggestions. Merlin features 650 bird species and you can download the app for free for your specific device.
And don’t forget indoors If the chill is too much for you and the kids are itching to take off their gloves, there are plenty of things to do.
The Asheville Art Museum is undergoing a major expansion and renovation at its location on Pack Square in downtown Asheville. In the meantime, they’ve opened a pop-up location at 175 Biltmore Ave. This Asheville Art Museum On the Slope is offering programming at that location, and in conjunction with other community locations. Check their event page for upcoming activities.
Everyone enjoys touring America’s largest home, the Biltmore Estate. Their 3rd annual costume exhibition, Designed for Drama: Fashion from the Classics, runs from February 10th through July 4th. The exhibit features over 40 costumes from popular movies, inspired by favorite stories in George Vanderbilt’s 22,000-volume library.
For the artist in all of us, a visit to the Folk Art Center, located on the Blue Ridge Parkway, features artists from Southern Appalachia. Daily craft demonstrations are held where visitors can interact with the artists and gain a better understanding of the inspiration behind their work.
For something completely different, you can tour the Queen Anne-influenced boyhood home of the novelist Thomas Wolfe at 52 North Market Street. The 29-room, Queen Anne-influenced house has been preserved with original furnishings, in much the same way as it was when the writer of Look Homeward, Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again lived there.
After you’ve spent a day in the great outdoors, warm up with a cup of hot cocoa at the French Broad Chocolate Lounge. The kids can choose a variety of drinks or desserts, but if you really love chocolate don’t miss their signature Liquid Truffles.
Whether you’re a local, a tourist or new to the area, Western North Carolina has it all. The unique culture and diversity of Asheville draws you in and the vibrant energy of this area keeps you here. So get out this winter and enjoy what this area offers. Meet the chill head-on and have a great season!
The USDA Forest Service website posts up-to-date information on trail closings in the National Forests in NC