Autumn at the North Carolina Arboretum
The North Carolina Arboretum is one of Asheville’s favorite tourist destinations. This 434 acre nature oasis offers visitors the opportunity to enjoy nature in a beautiful peaceful setting. This gem is located far away from the hectic downtown, Biltmore, and Parkway crowds. If you are looking for a tranquil place to enjoy the outdoors in a maintained setting, the arboretum’s cultivated gardens and 10 mile trail system will surely please. While there are many wonderful trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the drive is long and parking is often a hassle, especially during the fall season. Western North Carolina is known for its’ long and colorful autumn season. This time of the year, the temps have finally cooled off and the humidity is typically much lower. Thus, it’s a great time to enjoy a brisk leaf peeping walk.
The Arboretum typically sees fall color a bit later than the higher altitude Parkway areas. Most of the mountains see their peak in the first to second week of October. The 3rd or 4th last week of October is usually a great time to plan a leaf peeping adventure around local Asheville attractions like the arboretum. Sometimes, the color extends into the first week of November. With 10 miles of trails, there is a great option here for everyone. Hikes range from an easy 1 mile nature trail to an intense 4 mile trek through the woods.
Autumn at the Arboretum
The arboretum is by far the prettiest fall leaf peeping destination within the Asheville metro area. Located just 15 minutes from the downtown, you do not have to drive very far to enjoy the lovely fall colors here. If you are looking to keep your driving to a bare minimum, the arboretum is a great alternative to the Parkway. While it can get pretty busy here around peak foliage time, you can easily avoid the crowds by visiting right near opening (8am). Anytime before 10am is usually pretty quiet, even more so on weekdays.
The dazzling medley of colors painting the forest easily makes the arboretum a top leaf peeping destination in WNC. The variety of vivid hues in a beautiful forested setting places a fall visit here right up there with more popular tourist favorites like the Parkway, the Smokies, and Grandfather Mountain. Whereas the different mountain areas peak at different times, most of the leaves change around the same time at the arboretum. Thus, you can enjoy a beautiful medley of golden, red, and orange hues as you meander along the trails. Almost the entire forest is alive with the colors of the season by late October. Bring your camera – you will be taking lots of photos.
The Bonsai Garden
The Arboretum is home to a world-class bonsai garden. The outdoor garden is open May-Nov. and is an absolute must see on any visit to the region. The collection includes more than 100 bonsai, with 50 on display at any given point. Species of American, European, and Asian origin, each cultivated with a special Southern Appalachian inspired touch, are on display in the garden. Fall is a great time of the year to enjoy the dazzling color changes experienced by the deciduous bonsai. The Japanese Maple is particularly impressive this time of year. Do take a few minutes to explore the fabulous collection.
The Natural Garden trail
The best option for tourists looking to leaf peep without embarking on an intense all day hike is the 1 mile Natural Garden Loop which starts near the parking lot. If you wish to make your hike a bit longer, simply walk out-and-back for a nice 2 mile hike. This garden trail is a great place to start for those unfamiliar with the area as there are many interpretative signs along the route. Free guided trail walks (April through October) take place on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Advance registrations on the Arboretum website is recommended due to limited availability.
A brief photo tours of the 2021 fall leaf peeping season
Locations & Pricing details
The North Carolina Arboretum is located at: 100 Frederick Law Olmsted Way. Hours are 8am-9pm (7pm November through March).
Although admission to the arboretum is free, parking is a steep $16 per vehicle. I recommend enjoying the maintained gardens, hiking a trail or 2 (the 2 mile Carolina Mountain/Bent Creek trail is also nice), enjoy the Rocky Cove railroad exhibit (weekends 12-4), and perhaps enjoying lunch on-site at the Bent Creek bistro (featuring a nice patio) to get the most bang-for-your-buck experience. You can easily spend several hours in nature enjoying the various amenities.
For more fall color hotspots around Asheville, check out my Where to find fall foliage near Asheville post.
The Blue Ridge Parkway
Adjacent to the arboretum is the beloved Blue Ridge Parkway drive, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. A cruise along “America’s Favorite drive” is another fantastic way to take in the colors of the seasons. Note that the color may be past peak depending on when you plan your arboretum visit. For those enjoying a longer stay in Western North Carolina, a drive on the Parkway is recommended between the 2nd and 3rd week of October. Particular leaf peeping areas of interest include Crabtree Falls, Linville Falls, the Rough Ridge overlook trail, and Graveyard Fields.