The best day trips from Asheville

Nestled in the mountains of Western North Carolina, Asheville is in the lucky position of being within a two hour drive of some of the most spectacular country in the eastern United States.

The “Boulder of the southeast” is just a hop, skip, and a jump from sweet little Appalachian mountain towns, bustling major cities, the towering peaks, winding hiking trails, world-class rafting and kayaking, and charmingly kitschy roadside attractions. 

Wondering where to spend a day exploring from your home base Asheville? These are our 18 favorites.

Market Square in Knoxville Tennessee Market Square in Knoxville Tennessee. Image shot 11/2008. Exact date unknown.
Market Square in Knoxville Tennessee Market Square in Knoxville Tennessee. Image shot 11/2008. Exact date unknown. Alamy Stock Photo

1. Knoxville, Tennessee

Knoxville is strutting its stuff these days as an increasingly prominent and polished destination for outdoor, gastronomy and craft-beer enthusiasts. Downtown’s Market Sq is full of ornate 19th-century buildings and lovely outdoor cafes shaded by pear trees, while Old Town and Hundred Block are arty, renovated warehouse districts centered on Gay St. There are a few museums and kitschy landmarks in town, but Knoxville’s best attributes revolve around eating, drinking and the outdoors. 

For hikers and mountain bikers, the city’s ever-expanding Urban Wilderness is becoming its own reason to visit.  Just 3 miles from downtown South Knoxville, 50 miles of hiking and cycling trails known as the Urban Wilderness connect historic battlefields, neighborhoods and parks that make up more than 1000 forested acres.

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Swamp Rabbit Trail Downtown Falls Park Sunrise Scenic ©MarkVanDykePhotography/Shutterstock

2. Greenville, South Carolina

In the foothills of the Blue Mountains, Greenville is home to one of the most photogenic downtowns in the South. The Reedy River twists through the city center, and its dramatic falls tumble beneath the sleek Liberty Bridge at Falls Park. Downtown Main St rolls past a lively array of colorful facades beckoning visitors into indie shops, good restaurants and craft-beer pubs.

Strolling downtown’s riverside oasis, Falls Park on the Reedy, and crossing its stunning suspension bridge over the waterfalls is certainly a highlight. So is the famous Swamp Rabbit Trail, a fabulous 22-mile greenway along which you can stop for juice, sandwiches, ice cream and craft beer. Hit the thriving Saturday Market to get a taste of the South at some of the city’s most beloved restaurants, including the Anchorage, Nose Dive and Soby’s.

Meanwhile, catch a minor league baseball game for as little as $8 at Fluor Field at the West End. It’s the Greenville Drive’s home stadium, designed to resemble Fenway Park. Art fans will enjoy the Peace Center, a classical concert at this popular downtown that sometimes hosts Broadway shows.

Appalachian State University on September 18, 2014 in Boone, North Carolina.
Appalachian State University’s campus in Boone, North Carolina. Alamy Stock Photo

3. Boone, North Carolina

Boone is a fun and lively mountain town where the predominantly youthful inhabitants – many of them students at bustling Appalachian State University – share a hankering for the outdoors. Renowned for its bluegrass musicians and Appalachian storytellers, the town is named after pioneer and explorer Daniel Boone, who often camped in the area. Downtown Boone features a fine assortment of low-rise brick-broad, Colonial Revival, art-deco and streamline-modern buildings. Those that line King St in particular now tend to house charming boutiques, cafes, and crafts galleries.

Landscape photo of a river and old mill with blue sky with clouds and the trees reflecting in the water.
Landscape photo of a river and old mill with blue sky with clouds and the trees reflecting in the water. Alamy Stock Photo

4. Pigeon Forge

Pigeon Forge is named in part for the Little Pigeon River, which flows through the action. Its banks were once a roosting spot for passenger pigeons – now extinct. Best known today as the home of Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s namesake theme park, the city is packed tight with hotels, restaurants and family-friendly attractions, most of them lining Parkway, the main thoroughfare.

You can step aboard the Titanic, ride a 200ft-high Ferris wheel, ogle Ted Bundy’s VW bug and plunge toward the earth on America’s first ‘wing coaster’ in Pigeon Forge, a sprawling cacophony of excess and traffic burning bright in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains. With liquor by the drink available since 2013, the city has also loosened up a bit at night.

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High-angle view of Tallulah Falls and gorge during autumn. ©Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

5. Tallulah Gorge State Park

This 2739-acre state park is home to a spectacular gorge nearly 1000ft deep and 2 miles long. It protects six endangered plant species, including the persistent trillium (there are at least 22 species in Georgia) and harbors six waterfalls collectively known as the Tallulah Falls. In the mid-19th century, Tallulah Gorge became a resort area for coastal residents on the run from yellow fever.

The introduction of the railroad in 1882 increased access and ushered in the ‘Grand Era’ of hotels on the rim of the gorge. The damming of the river in the early 1900s to create electricity for Atlanta reduced the flow by 90% or more and killed off a devastating chunk of tourism. Today, it’s one of North Georgia’s most popular destinations for outdoor adventure, including hiking, biking and climbing. Scenes from 1972’s Deliverance were filmed here.

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A rocky outcrop at Grandfather Mountain State Park. ©Elizabeth Abalo/Shutterstock

6. Blowing Rock

A stately and idyllic mountain village, tiny Blowing Rock beckons from its perch at 4000ft above sea level, the only full-service town directly on the Blue Ridge Pkwy. It’s easy to be seduced by its postcard-perfect Main St, lined with antique shops, kitschy boutiques, potters, silversmiths, sweet shops, lively taverns and excellent restaurants. There are even a couple of bucolic, duck-filled lakes to drive home the storybook nature of it all. The only thing that spoils the illusion is the sheer difficulty of finding a place to park in high season.

Blowing Rock makes a homier base than nearby Boone, 8 miles north, for High Country attractions such as the Tweetsie Railroad, North Carolina’s only remaining fully functional steam-engine train, and Grandfather Mountain. As you drive in, pick up a historic downtown walking-tour map from the regional welcome center.

Visitors enjoy scenic Dry Falls in the Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina
Visitors enjoy scenic Dry Falls in the Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina Alamy Stock Photo

7. Nantahala National Forest

The largest of North Carolina’s four national forests, Nantahala National Forest covers more than half a million acres of the state’s westernmost portion, extending south from Great Smoky Mountains National Park all the way to the South Carolina and Georgia state lines.

The name Nantahala means ‘Land of the Noonday Sun’ in Cherokee, because only when the sun is at its highest can it penetrate all the way to the floor of the Nantahala Gorge. The gorge itself is in the forest’s Nantahala Ranger District, which also holds the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi. Very close to South Carolina, 26 miles southwest of Brevard, Whitewater Falls can be reached via a steep 1-mile hike from NC 281.

Every section of the Nantahala forest holds its fair share of hiking trails. To admire some magnificent – and all too rare – old-growth forest, head to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, 40 miles west of Bryson City. Easy loop-hikes lead past centuries-old tulip poplars, while the adjoining Slickrock Wilderness Area offers more demanding terrain for backpackers.

Toccoa Falls
Toccoa Falls Alamy Stock Photo

8. Toccoa, Georgia

Founded shortly after the Civil War, tiny Toccoa – believed to mean ‘beautiful’ in a Native American dialect – is a small-time North Georgia town with big-time history and hospitality. It’s perhaps most famous as the site of WWII’s Camp Toccoa at Currahee, the inaugural US Army paratrooper training camp and the inspiration for Tom Hanks’ and Steven Spielberg’s Emmy- and Golden Globe–winning war-drama miniseries, Band of Brothers.

The paratroopers’ intense training regime involved a daily ‘3 miles up, 3 miles down’ to the top of Currahee Mountain just outside town, which affords a panoramic North Georgia view for those who climb it. Toccoa’s historic downtown boasts an epic restored art-deco theater and emblematic low-rise late 19th-century architecture along its main drag, Doyle St. Toccoa Falls, one of the tallest free-falling waterfalls east of the Mississippi River, wows travelers on the campus of Toccoa Falls College.

Johnson City, Tennessee - April 5, 2020:  Shelter In Place deserted Streets of Johnson City in Tennessee.
© Alamy Stock Photo

9. Johnson City

Johnson City is more than a catchy reference in Old Crow Medicine Show’s popular song ‘Wagon Wheel.’ One of the three municipalities in East Tennessee’s Tri-Cities Region – along with Kingsport and Bristol – this former railroad boomtown, now home to Eastern Tennessee State University, is convenient to the Cherokee National Forest, too.

If you’ve brought your bike or your tennis shoes, hop onto the Tweetsie Trail, a rail-to-trails pathway, for an 8-mile jaunt to Elizabethton. Yee-Haw Brewing and White Duck Taco Shop share space at the old Tweetsie Railroad Depot downtown, too, if you want to refuel afterwards.

Whether you’re staying a spell or just passing through, be sure to pull up to the window at Pal’s Sudden Service – this turquoise retro fast food joint is an iconic East Tennessee classic for a reason. Just look for the giant hot dog.

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© Meghan O’Dea / Lonely Planet

10. The Ocoee Whitewater Center

Site of the canoe and kayak slalom events for the 1996 Summer Olympics, the Ocoee Whitewater Center today doubles as a regional visitor center and a gorgeous place for hiking and cycling. Step inside for maps and outdoor-adventure information or gaze at the Ocoee River from a rocking chair. Out back there’s a 1-mile, wheelchair-accessible trail that loops around the boulder-strewn Olympic course. The center anchors the Tanasi Trail System, a 30-mile network of hiking and cycling trails.

Adventure awaits
The Boardwalk Trail is the starting point for the vast majority of hikes within Congaree National Park near Columbia, South Carolina © Getty Images/Aurora Open

11. Columbia, South Carolina

South Carolina’s state capital, affectionally dubbed ‘Cola,’ is a quiet place, with wide, shady streets and the kind of old-fashioned downtown where pillbox hats are still on display in the windows of family-run department stores. Columbia is cooler than you think, however, and the best proof is slightly out of town, near the Jim Hamilton–LB Owens Airport.

This is where in-the-know locals head for their gardening and boozing needs, which go surprisingly well together. First stop is City Roots, the state’s self-proclaimed ‘first urban farm,’ where you can wander around, buy farm items and talk to people about all things agriculture. With that out of the way, it’s time to head across the street to Hunter-Gatherer Brewery at Curtiss-Wright Hangar, a brewery and taproom inside a massive and beautifully restored 13,000-sq-ft airplane hangar. The booze is delightful and the high-heat oven cooks up some delicious thin-crust pizza.

History buffs will appreciate a tour of the capital’s historic homes, and particularly should not miss the Robert Mills House. (Others sites of interest include the Hampton-Preston Mansion, the Mann-Simons Site and the Woodrow Wilson Family Home.) The abodes have been lovingly restored by Historic Columbia, a nonprofit that preserves the city’s heritage and offers house tours.

Wedding Chapel. Townsend, Tennessee, USA.
Wedding Chapel. Townsend, Tennessee, USA. Alamy Stock Photo

12. Townsend, Tennessee

Tucked between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Little River, pretty Townsend makes a great base camp for exploring Cades Cove, which is only 9 miles away in the national park. Posh cabins at Dancing Bear Lodge are a comfy retreat after a hard day of hiking, and the delicious mountain-inspired dishes at the lodge’s Appalachian Bistro are alone worth a drive to Townsend.

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Sunset from Roan Mountain. ©Mary Terriberry/Shutterstock

13. Cherokee National Forest 

Hiding in plain sight along the eastern border of Tennessee, but overshadowed by Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this 650,000-acre national forest is chock-full of outdoor adventures and stunning scenery. Here, white-water rafters careen along class IV rapids, mountain bikers tear through the trees on single-track trails, and day hikers stop and smell the wildflowers after rock-hopping across burbling streams.

Divided into northern and southern sections, which are separated by the national park, the forest is home to four ranger districts and 15 recreational zones. The Ocoee District is the best known of the districts, impressing visitors with a scenic byway, two vast trail networks and top-tier rafting on the Ocoee River. Across the forest, you’ll find waterfalls, wildflowers, picnic areas and scenic overlooks. Many attractions are convenient to both eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina.

Looking Glass waterfall
Long exposure of Looking Glass Waterfall and river in the Appalachians of North Carolina. ©makasana/Getty Images

14. Brevard, North Carolina

One of those charming little mountain towns that set travelers daydreaming of putting down roots, Brevard is best known as the home of the prestigious Brevard Music Center. A summer school for music students, the center also stages the Brevard Music Festival, which runs from June through mid-August and features over 80 concerts, ranging from classical and opera to bluegrass and movie music.

Brevard is also the seat of the ominous-sounding Transylvania County, which more appealingly styles itself as ‘Land of Waterfalls.’ Visitors flock in year-round to enjoy the surrounding scenery, at its finest in the nearby Pisgah National Forest.

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Spectators observe Olympic Kayaking hopefuls practice on the Nantahala River at the Nantahala Outdoor Center near Bryson City. ©elvisvaughn/Shutterstock

15. Bryson City, North Carolina

This tiny, charming mountain town straddling the Tuckasegee River is not only a cute little base for exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but an adventure destination in its own right. Handily poised for Nantahala National Forest, it’s a great spot for water sports such as rafting and kayaking. You might remember it from Cormac McCarthy’s 1979 novel, Suttree – the title character winds up here after wandering over the mountains from Gatlinburg.

Home to a smattering of good restaurants and breweries, Bryson City is also the starting point for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which leaves from a historic depot downtown.

Helen, Georgia, USA Cityscape
German style houses in Helen, Georgia. ©SeanPavonePhoto/Getty Images

16. Helen, Georgia

Awash in lederhosen and fahrvergnügen (driving pleasure) and lots of other questionable German cliches, gingerbread-trimmed Helen is a little bit of Bavaria in Appalachia (call it ‘Alppalachia’, if you will). It is certainly a startling, out-of-place sight. Here scores of North Georgians and Atlanta day-trippers (some 1.5 million per year) run amok among German-style architecture fueled by steins of Dunkelweizens, Doppelbocks and Pils like it’s Oktoberfest year-round.

This kitschy, Epcot-style Alpine playground was dreamed up in the 1960s by a few local businesspeople wanting to revitalize the town. In 1969 local businesses and carpenters got to work – with help from a local artist with German roots – transforming this former mill town into the self-proclaimed best little German town in America.

Linn Cove Viaduct
Linn Cove Viaduct along Blue Ridge Parkway. ©Devon Wolfhart/Getty Images

17. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Blairsville, GA Historic Union County Courthouse
Blairsville, GA Historic Union County Courthouse Alamy Stock Photo

18. Blairsville, Georgia

Easygoing Blairsville sits deep in the heart of the Chattahoochee National Forest and North Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. The town is home to a slightly unorthodox rounded town ‘square’ which wraps itself around Blairsville’s historic courthouse, dating to 1899.

Like similar North Georgia mountain towns, the great outdoors plays big in Blairsville, the closest city to Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest mountain and its biggest draw. Blairsville is also close to Vogel State Park, Blood Mountain and a plethora of waterfalls, lakes, hiking and biking trails. While nearby Dahlonega was considered the first-known gold site in the USA, Blairsville’s nuggets were said to be the purest of them all.

Adventure in the North Georgia mountains

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