Asheville Has It All for the River-Running, Outdoor Adventurer

Maybe you’ve set your sights on the Asheville, North Carolina, area because your buddy can’t stop raving about The Biltmore, the superb culinary scene, and the amazing elk-viewing in nearby Smoky Mountains National Park. Or perhaps Asheville’s allure has captivated you ever since you learned that F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald retreated to The Omni Grove Park Inn for the summers of 1935 and 1936. (Writerly types, bring extra notebooks—it’s safe to say you’ll be inspired in this bustling town.)

Whatever the reason, you’ve added Asheville to your radar, and we’re here to help you make the most of a quick trip down to the Tar Heel State to explore “The Paris of the South’s” splendors. Rule #1: Spend as much time in the great outdoors fly-fishing to your heart’s delight and chasing river rapids through Appalachia.

Three men rafting down some light rapids in North Carolina.
Courtesy Image

Ahead, we plot an adrenaline junkie’s escape to this rising city of some 95,000 residents. With solid eats, top-notch adventure outfitters, and plenty of overlooks to crack open a craft beer, keep reading for the best Asheville road trip itinerary. Worth noting: Winter weather in Asheville can dip below freezing quite frequently, so to maximize your time outdoors, you might want to consider a spring, summer, or fall trip.

Getting There

If you’re not extending the road trip by driving down to Asheville itself, your best bet is flying into Asheville Regional Airport (AVL), located in Fletcher, NC, about 20 minutes away from Asheville proper. (There isn’t much traffic in these parts, so that really means 20 minutes.) Non-stop flights from Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Washington, D.C., the New York City area, and more service AVL.

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Early Bird Gets the…Fish

On arrival day, take it easy and grab dinner at Buxton Hall Barbecue, which leans heavily on locally-sourced fare, and then perhaps a brew at Bhramari Brewing Company or one of the three locations of Asheville Brewing Company. The next morning you’ll want to set your alarm clock early—we’re talking 5 or 6 a.m.—to meet up with your guide from Asheville Fly Fishing Co. for a two-day float fishing journey. In our video adventure above, we’re led by the owner and lead guide, Galen Kipar, but you’re in good hands no matter who’s rowing your vessel through any of the vast array of floatable rivers in the area.

From the French Broad River to the South Holston and its little sister the Watauga, there’s no shortage of scenic and diverse rivers, and various float fishing hubs all within an hour-and-a-half’s drive of downtown Asheville. The specific river you set your cast will be determined by water levels and the time of year you’re in town. All the more reason to hire a guide—especially since they’ll lead you to little-known gems we can’t reveal here. Whatever river you wind up on, rest assured there will be plenty of trout, smallmouth bass, and musky for anglers to lure. Typically, on Asheville Fly Fishing Co.’s carefully designed itineraries, day one will be casting for trout while day two is in pursuit of bass and muskie.

Along with Davidson and Watauga Rivers, some of the most picturesque and popular nearby options are the French Broad River, South Holston River, and its little sister Watauga River. Beyond these five, there’s no shortage of scenic and stacked rivers and various float fishing hubs all within an hour-and-a-half’s drive of downtown Asheville. The specific river you set your cast will be determined by water levels and the time of year you’re in town. All the more reason to hire a guide—especially since they’ll lead you to little-known gems we can’t reveal here. Whatever river you wind up on, rest assured there will be plenty of trout, smallmouth bass, and musky for anglers to lure. Typically, on Asheville Fly Fishing Co.’s carefully designed itineraries, day one will be casting for trout while day two is in pursuit of bass and musky.

Fish

Asheville autumn is our personal favorite time of year for a fishing excursion, as you can still see your breath in the early morning hours at the put in. Then once the sun crests the ridge and the place warms up, you’re off to an epic day of fishing and soaking up cinematic fall foliage in every direction.

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Rest Your Weary Body Under a Blanket of Stars

With Asheville Fly Fishing Co., you’ll be spoiled with a gourmet cookout and stargazing on the banks of the river. Our intrepid crew feasted on pork chops, pork sausage, grilled trout, collard greens, and Carolina one-pot staple chicken bog rice, but expect whatever you eat to be freshly cooked and crafted with plenty of ingredients from local purveyors—and your own catch. If you swung by Buxton Hall Barbecue during your city adventures, the restaurant’s chef, Nick Barr works with Asheville Fly Fishing Co. and generally comes out to join in the fun and cook on these trips.

After a restorative night’s slumber in warm sleeping bags, brace yourself for another day on the water. You’ll navigate a handful of rapids en route to fishing holes—and while it’s nothing that’ll flip a boat, it will get your blood flowing and definitely help you work up an appetite for the grub to come.

Three guys sitting down to dinner at their campsite in a woodsy river area.
Courtesy Image

You’re in the South. Eat.

Down-home hospitality and generous portions are guiding principles down here. It’s safe to say all that time on the river will make your stomach grumble, so treat yourself after your fishing jaunt wraps up with a marathon of A+ culinary fare.

Our vote is to head to West Asheville’s Haywood Road, the main drag in this section of town for 100+ years. Wherever you go, be sure to swing by Biscuit Head, a joint whose fitting mantra is “put some South in your mouth.” Must-tries here run the gamut from biscuits and gravy and fried green tomatoes to Sriracha slaw and pimento cheese grits. Other go-to spots on Haywood Road include Jargon for globally inspired new American cuisine, Nine Mile for Caribbean-inspired, vegetarian-friendly dishes, and Itto Ramen Bar & Tapas for heaping bowls of ramen and a great sake list.

In downtown Asheville, we’d be remiss in not pointing you towards lunch at Chai Pani for kick-ass Indian fusion and dinner/tapas at Cúrate, which is perpetually packed—so make a reservation. Beforehand, set up shop at One World Brewing, a speakeasy-esque brewery three flights below street level.

Dining room at Table restaurant in Asheville, NC.
Table: an Asheville culinary hot spot. Jason James

Also worth highlighting are the dining establishments of two-time James Beard Award nominee Jacob Sessoms’ Perfectly Ad Hoc hospitality group. First, there’s Table, which has doled out modern American food since 2005, and paved the way for Asheville’s reputation as a culinary hot spot. Adjacent to Table, there’s aptly named sister bar Right There Bar, which slings cocktails, beer, hot dogs, and burgers. If you find yourself in Asheville’s historic Montford neighborhood, grab some food at Sessoms’ All Day Darling, a neighborhood market with standout dishes like mushroom toast, shakshuka, and a fried chicken biscuit.

Best Digs in Asheville

When in Asheville, if you’re not camping, we think vacation rentals of rustic cabins or modern bungalows from Airbnb or Vrbo are the best choices for an enjoyable stay. Still, if you prefer hotels, there are several solid selections.

Channel your penchant for all things The Great Gatsby at The Omni Grove Park Inn, nestled in a part of town with a wealth of historic architecture and landmarks. We also recommend grabbing a drink on the terrace and watching the sun set over Asheville, even if you’re not staying here. Another excellent choice is to splurge for a stay at The Inn on Biltmore Estate, on the grounds of the 250-room summer house of railroad and steamboat baron George Vanderbilt, completed in 1895.

For those looking to stay walking distance to all that downtown has to offer, post up at The Renaissance Asheville Downtown Hotel. It’s close to some of the best venues in Asheville’s robust music scene, like The Orange Peel and Salvage Station—the latter of which has tasty food, too.

Other Off-Road Routes Nearby

Haywood County, about 20 minutes west of Asheville, is a utopia for fresh air fiends. It contains part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with the twins of Maggie Valley and Waynesville being two of the finest Appalachian spots to make your home base. To see elk up close and personal (well, from the safety of a car), the Cataloochee Valley area in the park’s Southeastern corner is one of the prime spots to witness these majestic creatures.

For hiking aficionados, try these Haywood County waterfall hikes and enjoy a picnic, preferably with some leftover victuals from breakfast at Joey’s Pancake House with supersized portions. Some day, we hope Maggie Valley’s Ghost Town in the Sky theme park reopens, but until then reward yourself for a long day in your hiking boots with a brewski at Legends Sports bar and Grill.

Finally, we’re never going to turn down a Polaris Slingshot ride—especially if it’s on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Book your three-wheeler rental with Slinging in the Smokies and let the thrills begin.

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