Did we mention that Asheville has trails, too? And a lot of them at that. Within a 30-minute radius of the city, you have access to 500-plus miles of trail including the Appalachian Trail, North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park (This place is a destination in its own right.). This is thanks to the city being surrounded by the Pisgah National Forest, a 500,000-plus-acre forest of cascading waterfalls, southern balds, and rugged mountain terrain. Elevations around the city range from 1,400 feet all the way up to near 6,700 feet and the weather offers virtually year round trail running.
Due to the immensity of miles of trail surrounding the city, we will showcase the best easy, moderate, and advanced trail runs for both west of Asheville and east of Asheville. We will also showcase a local beer to enjoy after completing each run and include a list of good eateries and places to pick up some gear while in town. If you are looking for something a bit more epic while visiting, a couple of incredibly scenic and tough challenge runs are included as well. Finally, if you’d like to learn more about all that is Asheville, look no further than these additional resources.
Easy – Mountains-to-Sea Trail (Asheville Section)
Located within in the city and paralleling the Blue Ridge Parkway is the Asheville Section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, a long-distance trail that stretches from Clingman’s Dome on the North Carolina/Tennessee border all the way to the Outer Banks of North Carolina about 1,000 miles away. This section is about 13 miles of rolling wooded terrain between the Folk Art Center and the French Broad River. There aren’t any climbs over 500 feet and the footing is mostly buffed to mildly technical with roots creeping across the trail. Park at one of the many pull offs on the parkway and go out for whatever mile out and back you are feeling for the day.
Insider’s Scoop: This trail is heavily used by locals so don’t be surprised to see multiple other runners, hikers, and their dogs. Be careful when crossing the parkway as well.
Moderate – Appalachian Trail to Big Bald
Just a 30-minute drive out of town and right off of Interstate 26, the Appalachian Trail crosses the interstate at Sam’s Gap. There is a nice parking area here to access the most iconic trail in the United States. The section to Big Bald (5,514 feet) is incredible and the views from the mountain are hard to beat anywhere. The trail from Sam’s Gap to Big Bald is pretty smooth most of the way and is a rolling uphill climb as it passes through open fields and woodlands. Big Bald is about 6.5 miles from the parking lot, making this out-and-back about 13 miles with nearly 3,500 feet of gain.
Insider’s Scoop: There are multiple springs to fill up your water bottle along the route, so all you would need is one handheld. Make sure to bring a source of water treatment.
Beer: Located in Asheville’s downtown River Arts District, The Wedge is a great place to sit outside and relax if the weather is nice. We suggest trying their ever-so-popular Iron Rail IPA, a delectably intriguing IPA with a strong citrus flavor and a nice hop finish.
Advanced – Shut-In Trail
The Shut-In Trail is a very famous local trail that heads right out of West Asheville and climbs 5,200 feet over 18.5 miles of extremely beautiful singletrack. This trail is also a section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and hugs the parkway for most of the run. Don’t let the proximity of the parkway make you think that this run won’t feel remote. Once on the trail you won’t even notice the parkway until you have to cross it. The trail winds around steep coves, switchbacks up many shorter peaks, and offers some expansive views on its journey to the the parking lot for the summit trail to Mount Pisgah (5,722 feet). The first half of the trail is fairly smooth and extremely runnable. After halfway, the grades become a bit steeper and the terrain becomes much more rocky. This run is a western North Carolina classic and there has been a race held on this trail for 30-plus years called the Shut-In Ridge Run. This race is old school and still requires a paper registration.
Note: This run would require some sort of a shuttle.
Insider’s Scoop: Due to the fact that the trail crosses the parkway on numerous occasions, you can drop aid for yourself before you start your run. Also, if you have made it all the way to the Mount Pisgah parking lot, why not continue on up the summit trail to the top? A wooden deck and 360-degree views await at the summit. Just don’t mind that massive radio tower up there with you.
Beer: The best place to fuel back up after a long day on the trail would definitely be Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company. This place makes some of the best pizza in town as well as beer. While there, you can’t go wrong with the Ninja Porter. But don’t let the high IBV sneak up on you!
Easy – Warren Wilson College Trail System
Just a few minutes east of Asheville rests the pastoral landscape of Warren Wilson College. A college most known for its sustainable agricultural programs, it also includes quite possibly the best gentle trails in the region. Landscapes that the trail system crosses consist of flat river banks, comfy hardwood forest, and open rolling pastures that offer amazing views of the Swannanoa River Valley. The three must-do trails in the system are the River Trail, Suicide Ridge, and the Dam Pasture Trails. A loop of about seven miles can be made by adding a few other trails to those mentioned above. Here is a link to the map of the system.
Insider’s Scoop: These trails are privately owned so follow the rules and park only in designated areas. Be respectful of the college’s generosity in sharing these trails with the public.
Beer: Just a short drive from the college is a brewery known for its delicious variety of organically brewed ales, the Pisgah Brewery. While there, we would suggest indulging in the Pisgah Pale Ale. This beer is very crisp and clean on the palate (Hey, it’s organic.), but if you happen to be there during the right part of the year you cannot pass up the Valdez. This coffee stout is made with locally roasted coffee and might be the best coffee stout we’ve ever tasted.
Moderate – Graybeard Trail/ Montreat College
Nestled in between two prominent ridges is the small Montreat College. The college owns most of the valley it sits in all the way to the peaks and has made some of the best trails in the area on their land and they are open to the public for free! The best trail in the 20-ish-mile system by far is the Graybeard Trail. From the trailhead the trail follows along a creek as it makes its ascent up the mountain until it joins into a section of trail known as the trestle switchbacks. This section is absolutely stunning and a joy to run. The grade is about 3% for almost two miles as the trail utilizes four long switchbacks to get up the mountain. After the switchbacks the trail becomes technical and steep all the way to the summit. A nice view of the Black Mountain Range awaits at the top of this 5,408-foot peak. Total climb for this 11-mile out-and-back is about 2,500 feet. The trail is very technical other than on the switchbacks, with many big rocks and roots in the trail. More info on the area and a trail map can be found here.
Insider’s Scoop: If you are looking for a bit more adventure on your descent we would suggest returning to the trailhead by taking the West Ridge Trail down the infamous Seven Sisters Ridge. Warning!!!! This trail is not recommended for the faint of heart or those with weak ankles as it is obscenely technical and very steep. Once you reach the junction with the Big Piney Trail, take a left and follow it down to the road you drove up on to reach the trailhead and then turn left and follow the road back to your car.
Beer: After bounding your way down the trail, travel over to the French Broad Brewery and get your taste buds jumping with the Rye Hopper Ale. This rye beer has an earthy flavor that is well balanced with a nice hoppy character (Excuse the pun.).
Advanced – Mount Mitchell/ Buncombe Horse Ridge Trail Loop
If you aren’t to go the tourist route and drive up to the summit of the tallest peak east of the Rockies, we would suggest this remarkable 20-mile loop to reach the top of Mount Mitchell (6,684 feet). Starting from the Black Mountain Campground, begin heading 3,700 vertical feet up the Mount Mitchell Trail to the summit. During the first 6.5 miles you will leave the typical southern hardwood forest and transition into a spruce pine forest.
Once you have huffed and puffed your way to the summit, enjoy the views from a very-well-made viewing platform. Make sure to pay respects to the mountain’s namesake as you pass by his grave at the summit. After you have soaked in one of the grandest views you have ever seen, it is time to head back down the mountain. Begin to follow the Camp Alice Trail down to the Buncombe Horse Ridge Trail. Once you reach this trail you can really open up your stride as it is almost perfectly flat for the next three miles, but soon enough you will begin a super-fun descent back down to a gravel road. At the gravel road, turn left and follow it all the way back to the campground. Make sure to dip your toes and aching quads into the Toe River once you finish.
Insider’s Scoop: After summiting Mitchell, there is a restaurant about a mile down an alternate trail called the Old Mitchell Trail. Bring some cash and enjoy some lunch after a hard climb. After stuffing your face, head back the way you came to Camp Alice Trail and then follow the same route above back.
Beer: Located right in downtown Asheville is one of the older breweries in the city, Green Man Brewery. Its brewpub, Jack of the Wood, is a popular hangout and offers a quality selection of beers. We would suggest trying the Green Man ESB. This beer is very well balanced with a dry finish.
Art Loeb Trail
The Art Loeb Trail is a famous long-distance hiking trail that begins in Brevard, NC (30 minutes away from Asheville) and crosses the bald ridgelines of the 6,000-plus-foot Black Balsams. This trail is a true test as it climbs 9,000 feet on its 30.1-mile journey. The views from the trail are incredible, making this run as scenic as it is tough. Plan to carry all your food and water for the entire trip as there aren’t many places to drop aid other than on the parkway (which is usually closed during the winter) about 18 miles in. The trail is pretty technical the entire way and expect to finish this one in a range of seven to 12 hours depending on your ability.
Note: Once the trail enters the Shining Rock Wilderness there are no more blazes and following the trail can get confusing, especially at the intersections. Make sure to carry a map and beware of the trickiest intersection at Shining Rock Gap. A little more info can be found here.
Birthed from the mind of local running legend Adam Hill, this popular FKT route is 67 miles, includes 16,000 feet of elevation gain, and is run between two of Asheville’s most iconic peaks, Mount Pisgah to the southwest and Mount Mitchell to the northeast. Other than the first 1.5 miles on the Mount Pisgah Summit trail, this route is fully run on the singletrack of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. If you can tell by the numbers this run is not easy, but logistics and aid can be since the trail crosses or comes near the parkway at least every seven miles. The first 34 miles are mostly downhill as it follows the Shut-In and Asheville sections of the MST, but still has about 5,000 feet of gain. The rest of that 16,000 feet of total gain comes in the last 33 miles up to Mitchell. The trail is moderately technical the entire way and includes long climbs and short-but-steep descents as it roller coasters its way to the top of the east coast. The fastest known time on this route is 13:28 by another local legend, Mark Lundblad. More information on this run can be found here.
Asheville is also well known for having excellent and abundant eateries and below are some of our less expensive favorites.
Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company – As mentioned earlier, this place has some of the best pizza and beer in town.
Tupelo Honey Cafe – Come here to try a delicate twist on traditional southern cuisine.
White Duck Taco Shop – A great, inexpensive place near the Wedge Brewery to chow down on some unique and delicious taco creations.
Below are a few great local places if you are in need of running gear. Most of the employees have good info to share on other local trails as well.
WNC Trail Runners – A great resource of very friendly trail runners that put on some stellar fun runs (fat ass) in western North Carolina.
HikeWNC – This site has good descriptions of almost all trails in the area and beyond, including maps and GPS files.
Bent Creek Experimental Forest – The Bent Creek Area is probably the most popular mountain biking and running location in Asheville. It has myriad trails and forest-service roads and was not included above because it would have been difficult to explain a loop to meet the criteria of any easy, moderate, or advanced trail run. Pick up a map locally and go explore this place on your own.
Art’s Hiking Maps (Mountains-to-Sea Trail) – A collection of detailed maps of the mountain sections of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Explore Asheville – A resource containing other great eateries, lodging, and things to do while staying in Beer City USA.
Blue Ridge Outdoors – This free publication includes a ton of other things to do outside in the Blue Ridge Mountains besides just running.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Have you visited Beer City, USA, er, Asheville? If so, what are your favorite beers, er, regional trails?
- Have we missed describing your favorite Asheville trail, brewery, restaurant, or resource? Let us know what you love in the comments section!
[Editor’s Note: The preceding was written by Brandon Thrower. Brandon is is an ultrarunner, physical education teacher, and a “fun run” race director living in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in North Carolina. You can follow his adventures in western NC and beyond at trailsandjubilation.