Adventure Guide: Pisgah National Forest

Wander amid hardwood forest and cascading waterfalls in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The West’s open skies and rugged peaks get all the glory, but if you really want to immerse yourself in nature, head east. The ancient woods of the Southern Appalachians are covered with trails and shot through with whitewater rivers, innumerable waterfalls, immense granite domes, and wildflower-speckled balds. For a full sampling, head to Pisgah National Forest, a locals’ playground near Asheville, North Carolina. Here, you’ll find hundreds of miles of trail—including considerable chunks of the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail and 1,175-mile Mountains to Sea Trail.

Though Pisgah is far less crowded than its neighbor to the west, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, it has its own repertoire of showstoppers. Take 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, for example, the tallest peak east of the Mississippi. Or the sheer silver cliffs of Linville Gorge, which draw rock climbers from across the Southeast. No matter your adventure tastes, Pisgah National Forest has something to offer.  

The Forest’s First Inhabitants 

The land now known as Pisgah National Forest  was originally inhabited by members of the Catawba Nation and Cherokee Nation, who have over 5,000 years of history in the area. These Indigenous peoples relied on various forest plants for food, medicine, and other resources, and had a rich culture built around their relationships with the land. But when European settlers arrived in the early 1800s, they wanted the land for forestry and agriculture and forcibly removed Native peoples from their homelands. 

In the late 1880s, the Vanderbilt family moved to the area to build their famous Biltmore Estate, and established an 86,700-acre forest reserve around the home. That reserve became the site of the first forest conservation school in America. In 1915, the government purchased that land and established Pisgah National Forest, now the oldest national forest in America. 

Ancient Peaks

The Appalachian Mountains—including Pisgah’s subrange, the Blue Ridge Mountains—are some of the oldest peaks on earth. When they were formed 400 million years ago they rivaled the Rockies and the Alps in both height and ruggedness. Today, centuries of weathering have scoured them to the rolling hills, rounded domes, and quartzite-bottomed river valleys. The area is also known for its cliffs and rocky outcrops, critical ecosystems where raptors, lichens, and other unique plant species thrive. 

Visiting the National Forest

While Pisgah National Forest’s main attractions do see some crowds—especially on holiday weekends—it’s an easy place to find space, especially if you’re willing to hike a few miles from the trailhead. Spring and fall bring rain, but every season has its charms. The higher peaks provide a cool escape during the summer heat, and autumn casts the maples and beech trees in brilliant red and bronze. Here’s when to go to make the most of your visit. 


Winters in the Blue Ridge Mountains are typically cool and wet, and snow isn’t uncommon. This is the best time of year to find solitude and test your winter hiking or snowshoeing skills. (A snow-covered Mount Mitchell makes a popular training hike for aspiring mountaineers.) Cross-country skiing is also available on some trails during the winter. Winter is also the best time to seek out views: Clear winter skies and leafless trees open up rolling vistas across the Appalachians.  


March and April bring warmer temperatures, greening buds, and the year’s first blooms. Come in April for dogwood blooms and May for mountain laurel and flame azalea. Beware: Nighttime temps can drop below freezing throughout the spring, so be prepared with cool-weather camping gear if you plan to stay overnight.


When school is out and oppressive heat settles into the lowlands, Pisgah’s highlands—much of which sit at 3,000 to 4,000 feet in elevation—make a refreshing respite. Go in June for a chance to see the rhododendron bloom (hike to the Rhododendron Gardens near Carver’s Gap for a real spectacle). And don’t forget to take a dip on hotter days: The forest is laced with creeks and swimming holes. 


Autumn is among the best times to visit Pisgah National Forest. The foliage starts turning in late September in the high peaks and trickles down to lower elevations come October. Catch all the color with a tour along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the state’s most iconic scenic driving route, which crosses much of Pisgah on its route from Asheville to Blowing Rock. 

Outdoor Activities 

Pisgah National Forest offers everything from rock climbing and mountain biking to camping and backpacking. Make your next visit a multi-sport vacation with these picks. 

Take a Hike

See some of Pisgah’s best spots on these half-day trips.  

Looking Glass Rock: Summit one of North Carolina’s most iconic mountains and get sweeping views across the piedmont on this 5-mile out-and-back. 

Linville River: Hike down to the slickrock slabs and natural waterslides of the Linville River in a 2.8-mile out-and-back along the Spence Ridge Trail. 

Moore’s Cove Falls: Wander through hardwood forest to the falls, which hang like a curtain over the mouth of a cave, on this mellow 1.4-mile out-and-back.  

Ride a Mountain Bike

There are a few trails in Pisgah National Forest that are open to mountain biking. The Bent Creek Experimental Forest, just south of Asheville, offers a variety of trails suitable for bikers at every level. 

Go Backpacking 

Pisgah’s hundreds of miles of trail make it North Carolina’s premiere backpacking destination. Dispersed camping is permitted through much of Pisgah National Forest (check regulations here), and three-sided camping shelters abound, especially along the Appalachian Trail. Here are a few favored routes: 

Art Loeb Trail (31-mile point-to-point): Thru-hike the Art Loeb Trail, a local classic. The trail traces a series ridges and knobs from the Davidson River Campground north to Camp Daniel Boone with plentiful views and elevation gain in between. Best done in three days.

Overmountain to Roan Bald (14-mile point-to-point): Trace the Appalachian Trail from U.S. Highway 19 to the historic Overmountain Shelter. Next day, follow the trail across grassy balds to spin-around views at Roan Mountain. End at Carver’s Gap. Best done in two days.

Black Balsam-Shining Rock Loop (25-mile loop): Starting at the Black Balsam Trailhead, pick up the Art Loeb Trail going north. Tag some of the region’s highest peaks, touch the glittering quartz summit of Shining Rock, and then circle back to the trailhead via the Shining Rock Path, Big East Fork Trail, and Bridge Camp Gap Trail. Best done in two days. 

Notch a Classic Climb 

Pisgah National Forest is home to some of the highest-quality rock climbing in the state. Head to Looking Glass Rock for Yosemite-like multi-pitch climbing on a 500-foot granite shield. Here, you’ll find quintessential North Carolina slab climbing interspersed with “eyebrows,” or unique horizontal grooves in the rock. For more vertical climbing, try Shortoff Mountain or the Amphitheatre area in Linville Gorge. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.