9 Incredible Experiences in the Beautiful Pisgah National Forest
North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest is like a long cool drink in the summer, a brilliant warm color palette in the fall, a quiet retreat from the world in the winter, and a colorful and fragrant promise of rebirth in the spring. This natural treasure is located 2,100 feet above sea level in the mountains of western North Carolina. It sits along US Route 64, northeast of the charming town of Brevard. From Asheville Regional Airport, it takes approximately 30 minutes by car.
In 1915, the famous Vanderbilt family sold 86,700 acres of prime forest land to the United States government, and the Pisgah National Forest was born. The forest now spans 500,000 acres across parts of 15 North Carolina counties. It is considered the birthplace of modern forestry in America, contains the highest mountain peaks east of the Mississippi River, and is a haven for hikers, bikers, and people who just want to bask in the bounty of the nature.
Note: Accommodations for this article were generously provided by Anse Pilote. All opinions are entirely mine.
1. Find your happy place in the forest
The Pisgah National Forest is divided into three main Ranger Districts. My husband and I stayed in a deluxe cabin at Pilot Cove in the Pisgah Ranger District, located on either side of the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Asheville. The Appalachian and Grandfather districts also offer a wide range of experiences, however, on this particular tour we limited ourselves to activities within easy driving distance of Pilot Cove.
Pilot Cove cabins are modern, well equipped for self-catering and comfortable. Our terrace had a view of the lush forest which made outdoor dining and relaxation a delight.
The 64-acre property includes an amphitheater for special events and concerts in the summer, as well as hiking and biking trails. Add an assortment of nearby restaurants and easy driving distances for day trips to Asheville and Biltmore Estate, and set up shop in Pilot Cove as a base for a family wilderness vacation or weekend getaway. makes perfect sense.
Pro tip: Depending on the season, roads in the area may be closed due to snow, ice or flooding. Be sure to check weather and road information before you leave home.
2. Hiking and biking for health and happiness
The Pisgah National Forest is home to hundreds of miles of hiking trails. Whether you like long, challenging hikes, easy-to-travel trails, or something in between, the forest offers you an abundance of choices.
For an easy, family-friendly hike, Graveyard Fields offers unique scenery with a rewarding waterfall. The hike to the top of Looking Glass Rock is more difficult, but waiting at the top of this iconic white granite pluto is the kind of spectacular 180-degree view that’s worth the effort. And these are just the beginning of the adventures of hiking in the forest.
Mountain bike enthusiasts will discover dozens of trails to conquer, ranging from easy to challenging. Be aware, however, that the majority of trails are suitable for intermediate or advanced cyclists.
Try your wheels on the Black Mountain Trail, Sycamore Cove Trails, and the Bracken Mountain Trail System. You’ll find a gentler, gentler option by hiking the path along the Davidson River.
You can also explore the Pisgah National Forest on horseback for a higher view. But whether you’re hiking, biking, or horseback riding, winter is the best time to take in sweeping views of mountain peaks through bare trees.
Pro tip: Before venturing too deep into the Pisgah Forest, be sure to stop by the Pisgah Ranger Station/Visitor Center for maps and helpful trail information.
3. Catch a fish or two
The Pisgah Ranger district of the forest is in the county of Transylvania. The area is blessed with the kind of cool, clear mountain springs that make 500 miles of fishable water every angler’s dream come true.
Small lakes and streams are ideal for fly fishing. Try spinning and reel fishing on the big rivers. Hire a boat or bring your own and get out on the French Broad River. Whichever method you choose, these fish are calling your name.
Pro tip: You will need a North Carolina fishing license to cast your line.
4. Play sports in and on the water
The lakes and rivers of the Pisgah National Forest aren’t just for the fish. Swimming, boating, paddleboarding, tubing, kayaking, canoeing and rafting are even more enjoyable when surrounded by the beauty of the forest. The Lake Powhatan Swimming Area and the Davidson River Recreation Area are just two of the many water sports opportunities.
5. Take a scenic walk
Not in the mood for non-stop activity? Pack a picnic, get in the car and see what you can see.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a popular scenic route, and for good reason. Stunning scenery awaits you at every turn and on every stretch. The walk passes through large parts of the Pisgah National Forest, allowing you to take in its splendor. Choose your ideal spot to get out of the car, stretch your legs and dine al fresco.
Another option is the Forest National Heritage Scenic Byway, which joins the Blue Ridge Parkway at Mile 411.9. Along this 15 mile stretch you will find the spectacular Looking Glass Falls, visible from your car or up close via a short walk. Or you can take a short hike to the falls at Moore Cove. The entrance to the road is in the Brevard sector.
6. Splash at the slippery rock
If you’re traveling the Forest National Heritage Scenic Byway, be sure to stop at Sliding Rock’s natural waterslide, where pure fun awaits. A 60-foot natural waterslide ends in an 8-foot-deep pool and allows for an exhilarating descent on your buttocks and a refreshing dip.
Sliding Rock is staffed with lifeguards and restrooms are open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, 7 days a week, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Pro Tip: This is a very popular site during the summer months, so arrive early.
7. Visit the birthplace of forestry
At the Cradle of Forestry, a 6,500-acre comprehensive learning center, you’ll learn about the history of forest conservation and management in the Pisgah National Forest. The experience will open your eyes to the heart and history of this shimmering gem of nature.
At the Forest Discovery Center, you’ll find a host of informative interactive exhibits, including an old-fashioned forest train and a helicopter simulator that will take you on a firefighting flight.
At America’s First School of Forestry, you can take guided walks, visit historic buildings, and come away with a better understanding and appreciation of forestry in general, and the Pisgah National Forest in particular.
The Cradle of Forestry is a seasonal location, so be sure to check the website for up-to-date information.
Pro Tip: Before your visit, download the National Forest app (available from the Apple Store and Google Play), including maps of the Pisgah district and the Cradle’s 3 miles of interpretive trails, an audio tour of the campus historic trail Biltmore, and more.
8. Explore the fun and fascinating town of Brevard
For a rainy day or a delightful small-town experience, Brevard will keep everyone busy and engaged. From free live music to museums, live theater and shopping, Brevard has enough events and activities to keep you coming back.
Two museums to visit are the Carolinas Veterans History Museum, filled with fascinating historic military artifacts; and the Transylvania Heritage Museum, tracing the history of the county of Transylvania from its beginnings to the present day.
You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy browsing OP Taylor’s, a two-and-a-half-story toy store on steroids. If a toy, book, game or puzzle exists, you’ll likely find it at Taylor.
A simple stroll through the streets of Brevard will bring you face to face with unique objects of interest, such as a creative and colorful rendition of a crane suspended in front of a store and swaying in the breeze.
9. Eat, drink and be pleasantly surprised
Although you can do your own cooking in your Pilot Cove cabin, food and drink are nearby if you feel like you need a break. Hawg Wild Barbecue has a casual vibe and food to match. For something a little more international, check out Japanese Sora. Or for the seafood lover in you, try Pisgah Fish Camp.
When you’re in Brevard, be sure to head to Bracken Mountain Bakery for great coffee and freshly baked cookies, pastries and bread. Brevard is also home to Plaza Garibaldi, a cheerful and economical Mexican restaurant serving tasty food with friendly service.
For a beer or two, try the Oskar Blues Brewery or the Brevard Brewing Company. The former can be a bit tricky to find, but the unique offerings and funky atmosphere are worth it.
A visit to Pisgah Forest is a wonderful experience all year round, but spring and autumn will give you a less crowded and more affordable vacation.
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