We learned from years of full-time travel that whenever we hit a new location, we need to plan our most important visits at the front end of the planned stay. Weather, mechanical problems, distractions of various sorts, and sheer laziness can all prevent us from getting to some planned destinations if we wait too long to get those visits on the books. I’ve spent years creating mental priority lists along the lines of “on the first sunny day we must do this hike.” So the longer we stay in any place (barring weather delays) the more likely we are to be checking out backup locations or even revisiting spots. But I’m happy to say that Western North Carolina has such an abundance of cool people and places that quality did not decline noticeably in week two.
River Arts District
Asheville has long been home to a thriving arts community, and the epicenter of that community is the River Arts District, where former mills, tanneries, and warehouses have been turned into studios, galleries, and workshop spaces. Artists based in the district work in every possible medium: ceramics, textiles, jewelry, glass, paints, wood, metal, collage, and more. The studio/gallery combination of most spaces means that virtually every art space we visited had an artist within working on new pieces, providing an outstanding opportunity to observe art in action and also chat with the makers. The subdivision of the old industrial properties means that only one or two artists typically use a given space, but even the artists in the tiniest little cubbyholes still work in community. It’s a marvelous benefit for artists and patrons alike, and we spent several days this week exploring different sections of the 1-mile-long district.
The Riverview Station building hosts over 60 artists in more than 110,000 square feet of former tannery space spread over several floors. Needless to say, we could (and did) spend hours wandering the halls and popping into any studios that looked interesting. All the artists we met in the district were welcoming and seemed excited to talk about their techniques, approach, and inspiration, including how their art changed during the pandemic. We thought the works were generally of very high quality, and we saw countless pieces that we would be pleased to own and display. Even works that weren’t really our personal favorite style or subject matter impressed us with the artistry and skill. Most of these artists also advertised their availability to make pieces on commission. In short, if we lived here and tried to furnish a house we would quickly obliterate our bank accounts.
We made a second visit to check out some of the buildings along Depot Street, many of which are repurposed railroad warehouses, where Pink Dog Creative (30+ artists, mostly painting, drawing, photography, and jewelry) and Local Cloth (a co-op of textile and fiber artists) were standouts. We really liked the multi-artist spaces that had little mini-galleries in the lobbies introducing a few pieces by each of the artists working in the building. We also enjoyed the excellent graffiti / street art on the building exteriors throughout the district, which reminded us of Miami’s Wynwood district, but here we felt there was significantly less chance of our car being stolen while we explored. The buildings in the arts district are so packed with art, inside and out, that after a few hours we would get sensory overload (“art brain”) and become numb to what we were seeing. Luckily our relatively long stay in the area is affording us the chance to make multiple visits so we can enjoy different sections of the district in somewhat manageable chunks, while interspersing other types of activities.
Hikes of the Week
We’re noticing that many of the most popular hiking destinations involve roads that take visitors almost the entire distance to the scenic viewpoint, with just a short ~1 mile nature-trail type walk at the main attraction area, but with the option to connect to significantly longer trails as well. We’re not interested in through-hiking a major segment of the Appalachian Trail at this point, but in order to get more miles on our hiking boots we’re doing a lot of hikes that start at the point of scenic interest and then add on an out-and-back portion of a longer trail.
Our first hike of the week exemplified this approach. We drove up to Max Patch, a grassy knob in the Pisgah National Forest with 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside. A treacherous gravel road reaches nearly all the way to the top, and a fairly modest climb on a 1.5 mile loop is all that’s required to see the best views. So we tacked on some time on the intersecting segment of the Appalachian Trail and the Buckeye Ridge equestrian trail to come up with a quasi-loop that took us through terrain ranging from grassy meadows to deciduous oak and maple forest to dense rhododendron thickets. While cloud cover made for some dramatic but fleeting long-range glimpses, the explosion of wildflowers more than made up for the limited mountain views.
On what was predicted to be a very clear day, we undertook the relatively long (1.5 hour) drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Mount Mitchell State Park, the oldest state park in North Carolina. At 6,684 feet, Mt. Mitchell is the highest North American peak east of the Mississippi. The park makes it easy for guests to enjoy the views, with ample parking and picnic areas located just below the summit. We started with the 1-mile nature trail loop (of course) that included the summit, then headed off down the Deep Gap Trail to explore a bit more of the area. We only made it out 1 mile to the summit of Mt. Craig before turning back, but that one mile packed in a ton of entertainment. Every part of the trail featured fairly steep grade, which was challenging for us despite the extremely well-designed rock stairs. Those CCC workers really built things to last! The trail even has several areas that require scrambling up and down rock faces, but all the hard work was rewarded by a combination of outstanding views and welcome shade in a spruce-fir forest. I also had the chance to show my city girl stripes by exclaiming, “It smells like a Christmas tree farm here!”
Finally, we also settled on a zig-zag loop that we enjoy along the interwoven trail network here on the property where we are staying for the month. We can cover several miles, enjoy forested areas across a variety of elevations and ecosystems, get one really outstanding long-range view down the valley (which our hosts call “the Tennessee View”), and say hello to the resident chickens before returning to home base. Resident dog Ruth Ann makes for a charming companion and trail guide.
Craft Beer Central
Asheville has been a center of craft beer for decades, and according to some research I found online it boasts 17 breweries for every 50,000 residents. Amazingly, that’s only good enough for second place nationally, behind Portland, Maine (18 breweries / 50,000 residents) but it means that there are more breweries here than we could possibly sample in a month.
We started off with a visit to the Beer Palace, which is what I call the enormous New Belgium Brewing Company facility near the River Arts District. Founded in 1991 in Fort Collins, CO, New Belgium is one of the grand-daddies of the American craft beer movement. Their Fat Tire Ale helped introduce America to the idea of beer with flavor, and when New Belgium looked for an East Coast production location Asheville was a natural fit. The gigantic brewery can produce half a million barrels of beer each year and includes a large visitor center for tastings and tours. New Belgium is now a subsidiary of Kirin, and not surprisingly the whole experience is extremely corporate. We’ve been to at least 100 different breweries — maybe many more! — and this is literally the first place we’ve encountered that offered flights but didn’t actually allow customers to select the beer for their flights. There are only four “curated” flight options available, and naturally none of those include the unique, small batch brews that are the primary reason to visit a tap room. In general we find that if something seems well-designed to cater to bus tours, then we won’t love it. This was no different.
On a different day we stopped in the River Arts District beer garden of Hi-Wire Brewing, and this place had the funky feel that we expect from a craft brewery. Like the rest of River Arts District, the building is a repurposed industrial building, and the outdoor beer garden is made from upcycled shipping container components. The bold street art murals work well with the colorful circus-themed decor of the brewery. We really enjoyed the beer even though Hi-Wire tends to specialize in light lagers and IPAs (sadly, no porter and just one brown ale on tap). It was a refreshing pick-me-up after another day of filling our senses with interesting art.
Because there is no such thing as too much beer, we also visited the production facility and taproom of Green Man Brewery in Asheville’s South Slope district with friends Eric and Laurel. Green Man is another home-grown Asheville institution, founded in 1997, and we were particularly drawn to their diverse array of beers. Unfortunately for me, we were visiting on a Saturday so I was stuck with only-on-Saturdays policy of “no custom flights” but their options were actually appealing. I guess the non-customizable flight is a thing here in Asheville for the busiest taprooms.
In any case, we would have been happy with anything liquid because we had great company and we were at the tail end of a very warm day featuring a ….
Downtown Gallery Stroll
We loved showing Eric and Laurel around the downtown galleries that most impressed us during our last visit to Asheville in September 2022: Lexington Glassworks, Blue Spiral 1, and Momentum Gallery. These places all show museum-quality pieces, and the prices reflect that. Although we were obviously just window shopping, it was fun to discuss the remarkable pieces from local, regional, and national artists. In fact, we were too busy chatting to take many photos.
And that’s a wrap on another successful week here in Western North Carolina. Next week, we’ll see if we can keep the momentum going for another round of engaging activities.