Overcoming Smoke and Rain in Western North Carolina

This was a good week to be somewhat more modest in our hiking and sightseeing ambitions, since a north wind brought a lot of Canadian wildfire smoke to the area followed by several days of rain. Not only did we get hit with air quality advisories, but the airborne particles pretty much destroyed the nice views. Then we spent several days at “home” with persistent rain and even some pea-sized hail, plus I had a meeting that I needed to attend remotely. No matter; we visited several destinations with hikes over interesting terrain that were not particularly renowned for the views but still provided an excellent experience of the area.

Hikes of the Week

Montreat – Lookout Mountain

The little town of Montreat, located just east of Asheville, is probably most famous for its interdenominational Christian retreat center and for being the long-time home of Billy Graham. A major amenity of the community is the extensive network of hiking trails that weave through private properties and the extensive forests owned by the Mountain Retreat Association.

Despite the name, our hike to Lookout Mountain didn’t feature extensive views, which was fine in light of the smoke situation. By taking the Rainbow Road – Lookout Mountain loop in a counter-clockwise direction, we enjoyed a pleasantly steady ascent up a well-maintained multi-use trail (hikers and bikers) before summiting Lookout Mountain. The descent down the more direct route to the summit was a hair-raising experience of picking our way down steep rock faces and staircases. I was very glad we didn’t attempt that route on the way up! Compared to other spots we’ve visited, the views from the Lookout Rocks were just OK. If we were to visit again, we would hike to the summit of Lookout and return down the same much less crowded and less treacherous route for a longer and more pleasant woodsy hike.


Back to the Arboretum

The shaded trails on the NC Arboretum property don’t offer big views, but they are well-marked, marvelously maintained, and easy to access. Creekside and forest hiking was a perfect choice to beat the summer heat and enjoy the outdoors despite the hazy skies. Our membership at a Florida botanical garden continues to pay dividends, since we have free access to the Arboretum (normally parking is $20 per vehicle) through the American Horticultural Society Reciprocal Access Program. We like this place so much that we’re planning one more visit before we leave the area.


Mountains-to-Sea Trail

North Carolina’s ambitious Mountains-to-Sea Trail covers almost 1,200 miles and stretches from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks. We decided to hike a very small segment of the trail by picking it up at the Folk Art Center and heading north along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Our out-and-back hike totaled just about five miles, had a nice scenic overlook as a destination, and featured a gentle ascent/descent over the 2.5-mile stretch. Since we were hiking in parallel to the Blue Ridge Parkway we did experience regular noise from vehicle traffic. But we really enjoyed exploring the wooded verge along the Parkway at human pace, so we could observe the trees, flowers, berries, and mushrooms, instead of just whipping by at 45 mph. There’s also something to be said for a trailhead with ample parking and modern restroom facilities.


Western North Carolina Nature Center

One afternoon we stopped for a brief visit to the Western North Carolina Nature Center after a day of hiking in the vicinity of this East Asheville municipal attraction. It’s essentially an animal sanctuary for local animals, and according to its website it “connects people with the animals and plants of the Southern Appalachian Mountain region.” Residents include large mammals like bears, wolves, foxes, skunks, and otters, several species of large birds (vultures and owls), reptiles like snakes, salamanders, and turtles, and domestic animals like goats and sheep. None of this explains why there are two red pandas, however.

Protip: visit this place on a warm summer afternoon if you want to get the very best photos of totally zonked-out animals.



The overall facility is pretty modest in size, but we did like that the animal enclosures are fairly large and well-integrated into the environment. By fencing in substantial areas along a wooded mountainside, the nature center was able to give its residents homes that replicate their wild habitat, similar to the approach we loved at Tucson’s Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The artificial stream and pool for the otters is a little more elaborate, and certainly provides the animals with plenty of room for frolicking, and the reptiles are kept in typical aquariums filled with greenery, little ponds, and even some toys. Although small, this municipal nature center seems to be focused on animal welfare and makes for a fun hour-long stop, especially since it was free for us to visit thanks to our membership at a different science facility. Once again, the ASTC passport program proves its value. And luckily the river otters were not sleeping, otherwise the kids (myself included) might have been extremely bored.



Beer Ahoy

We can’t let a week slip by without delving into local beer options, and this week’s visit to the taproom and production facility of Highland Brewing was a winner. Founded in 1994, Highland was the first legal brewery in Asheville since Prohibition, and their excellent products have made them a major force in the North Carolina beer scene. Everything we’ve tried from Highland — both distributed in cans/bottles and on tap in the taprooms — has been incredibly appealing. We particularly like their lineup of richer beers (oatmeal stout, mocha porter, etc.), and the spacious taproom features event space, a very wide selection of standard and special brews, indoor and outdoor seating, friendly staff, and the ability to select one’s own flights.


Plus Some Shopping

It seems strange to write this, but we live in an area with very few stores selling apparel or shoes, other than a specialty outfitter in Apalachicola ($$) and places selling souvenir T-shirts. Our closest option for “regular” clothing is WalMart, 60 miles away, so our wardrobes mainly consist of: (i) T-shirts from places we volunteer, (ii) shorts from Costco, and (iii) other stuff from LLBean or other mail order places. It’s pretty appealing to live in a community where shorts and T-shirts are the standard uniform, especially considering the lack of local retail options.

However, while Ken does OK ordering his footwear online, I generally don’t have great luck buying shoes without trying them on. So while we are in Asheville I jumped at the chance to visit the Asheville outlet mall and restock on sneakers from the New Balance factory outlet. I will readily admit that being in a mall setting for the first time in years provided a bit of sensory overload. Under Armour! Crate and Barrel! A beard supply store?!?! I quickly picked out some new shoes so we could flee.

Meanwhile Back at the Ranch

We spent plenty of time this week at the property where we are staying, and we even helped out our very kind hosts by staging some activities around the property for photos for their Air BnB listings. Ruth Ann and the other pups tagged along for a staged picnic near the orchard. Here are some of the sights on the home front, including the organic garden, some of the delicious garden bounty, and some things seen on the trails.



Next: we try to make the most of our final week in the area before we relocate to our second rental property of the summer.

10 thoughts on “Overcoming Smoke and Rain in Western North Carolina”

  1. Glad you are enjoying your stay in Asheville. I smiled seeing the big bright orange fungus in your last photo collage. We have Chicken of the Woods up here too. I don’t eat mushrooms but I hear that they are quite delicious.

    • I’m not confident enough in my fungus ID skills to eat things plucked from random downed trees, but if I lived in this area I would definitely get into foraging! We are fans of mushrooms in all forms, but the only one I can spot with certainty in the wild is porcini. I’m still regretting not collecting them last summer in Michigan….

  2. Ugh, I well remember the terrible smoke from Canadian wildfires when we were in Wisconsin. Seems like an Eastern smoke season is a “thing” now, unfortunately.

    Hiking = good. Getting to necessary stores in person = good. Beautiful rental location = good. Red Pandas = you needn’t have written about anything else ๐Ÿ˜€

    • I have to say that the smoke here was not nearly as bad as we experienced in the west, like when we were in California during the horrible Camp Fire in 2018. We barely noticed the particulates in the air even though we are both sensitive to them — it was more of a haze issue. Here’s hoping this doesn’t, in fact, become a regular thing in the east!

      I knew you would appreciate the presence of red pandas in the post, albeit sleeping pandas. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. We were pretty shocked when we had those couple of days of smoke advisories. Apparently there is nowhere safe from the ravages of climate change. But honestly, the mild haze we had was (thankfully) nothing like the insanely thick smoke we experienced on the West Coast. Fingers crossed we won’t ever have to deal with that again!

    You guys are continuing to make the most of your time here and finding all the good stuff! The nature center is now on my list (must see those otters! And red pandas!) as well as that colorful brewery. Your photos of the zonked out animals are great, haha!

    Love the idyllic photo of you two picnicking on the grounds of your Airbnb. I wish the weather had been perfect for your month here, but unfortunately, July is the hottest and rainiest month in Western NC. This was our first July here or I would have warned you, LOL. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Despite the smoke, the rain, and the humidity, we are pretty pleased with our weather experience here. I don’t mind getting sweaty hiking outdoors; the key is being able to actually go outdoors without running the risk of a heat stroke. The rain is also what makes these green, green vistas possible, and we’re OK with that tradeoff.

      I have a few more fun places up my sleeve this week — I hope you will be impressed with my mad TripAdvisor skills. ๐Ÿ™‚ Actually, we haven’t visited any place yet that was a clunker, mostly because there are so many interesting places here. Again, I think you guys will be very happy living here.

  4. That’s the nice thing about a place like Asheville – even when the weather goes to crap, you still have options of places to go and things to do. It’s not something that can be said for everywhere. (And I’m not saying that shoe shopping is FUN or anything, but at least you could knock it out easily.)

    The smoke is everywhere. We got some of it from Canada a couple weeks ago, and I imagine we’ll be seeing some from the fires in Greece soon too. It’s really quite shocking (though not shocking at all since climate scientists have been warning us about all this for years and no one would listen because everyone is stupid.)

    What was I saying? Oh, right, sleepy Red Pandas are ADORABLE!

    You’re gonna miss that Air BnB. It really is a keeper!!

    • Even after a month I think we are barely scratching the surface here in Asheville, and while we are mainly focused on outdoor adventures there are plenty of options for rainy days as well. We feel fortunate that the smokey skies here only lasted a few days before the rain cleared things out. Here in the US our weather coverage has mostly shifted from crazy smoke in the east to crazy hot temperatures in the south and southwest, but I did see some news about the terrible fires in Greece as well. It does appear that virtually no place is going unscathed this summer. Which, as you said, is exactly as predicted. Anyhow! We’re feeling like we dodged a bullet in our location selection this summer, it remains to be seen how we will plan for next summer.

  5. I’m loving following along with your Asheville area adventures. You’ve been hitting so many of my favorite places! (And yes, I know I did suggest some of the hikes, so it’s a given I like them. ๐Ÿ™‚ )

    • It’s surprisingly fun to read about a place you know well as seen through the eyes of a visitor. I’m glad that you’re feeling some of the joy we are getting from our adventures — your hiking suggestions are definitely a big part of our success rate!


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