The North Carolina Arboretum is a public garden located within the Bent Creek Experimental Forest…about 10 minutes south of downtown Asheville. Spanning 434 acres, the Arboretum is home to nature trails, gardens, educational exhibits, art, and most importantly….bonsai trees!
Established in 1986 as an affiliate of the University of North Carolina by the State General Assembly, the North Carolina Arboretum is nestled in the heart of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Dedicated to cultivating connections between people and plants, the Arboretum was established to educate the public about the beauty of nature, and how we can coexist with it…without exhausting its resources. The Arboretum offers a wide range of educational activities on conservation, research, economic development, and garden demonstrations. Brochures and information regarding classes, programs, tours, and demonstrations can be obtained from the information desks located in the Education Center or the Baker Exhibit Center. The Arboretum is kid friendly, dog friendly, and many of the gardens are wheelchair accessible.
The Arboretum does charge a parking fee, which is $12.00 per vehicle, and $50.00 for RVs and motorhomes. They do offer memberships, though, so if you’re planning to visit more than once during the year (and if you live close by, you have absolutely no reason not to visit more than once) I would suggest getting one. It is $50.00 for an individual membership, and $70.00 for a household. Along with free parking, members also receive discounts at the cafe and gift shop, invitations to member only events, access to over 300 other gardens and parks as well as the North Carolina Zoo, and it’s tax deductible. It truly is worth the price. Visit this page to learn more about the different levels of membership the Arboretum offers.
Lets’s begin our tour at the Education Center. Located at the top of the parking area, the Education Center is home to the Entrance Plaza, exhibits and art, classrooms, an information desk, research labs, as well as the Savory Thyme Cafe (quick service cafe offering soups, sandwiches, and salads…as well as catering services for special events). The Entrance Plaza just outside is full of fun things to see. Sculptures, fountains, seasonal flowers….you could spend a few hours just taking pictures and admiring everything in this small area. Once inside, rotating art and nature exhibits and competitions are held monthly, so there is always something new to see. My favorite events are the photography exhibits (rotates monthly), the azalea show (April), and the orchid festival (March).
Just outside the Education Center you’ll find the Plants of Promise Garden. This garden features landscape plants appropriate for the Southern Appalachian region, ways to use stones in the garden, as well as sculptures and art installations that appear in the Art Walk that’s featured throughout the Arboretum (maps can be picked up from the information desk or information kiosks spread throughout the Arboretum). Below the Plants of Promise Garden, there will be access to the Carolina Mountain Trail, which takes you from the Education Center to the Production Greenhouse and back. The Plants of Promise Garden is also a great place to hunt for blooms and butterflies!
Heading downhill, the Bonsai Exhibition Garden will be on the right. Established in 2005, the world renowned Bonsai Garden is a meandering, aesthetically pleasing, paved trail that showcases up to 50 different species of bonsai. Amongst the tiny trees, there are information boards detailing bonsai techniques and tips, and a calming, babbling brook that you traverse over a few times…to add to the relaxed ambiance. It truly is a peaceful respite from the busy rigors faced day to day.
Once exiting the Bonsai Exhibition Garden, you’ll be greeted with the Grand Garden Promenade. This area features several different garden areas, the first of which is the Stream Garden, located on the parking lot side of the Promenade. This garden represents Western North Carolina mountain streams and the plant communities that live around them. The second section is the Quilt Garden, a floral representation of traditional quilt patterns. There is a viewing platform with stairs to allow for a birds-eye view. The third section is the Heritage Garden, which features a chimney, stone foundation, and water spring that represents old homestead sites. This garden includes medicinal plants and herbs that were used in the regions medical craft industries. During Christmas, these areas transform into a walking Christmas light extravaganza, so there is always something to see year round.
The central portion of the Promenade features Blue Ridge Court. This area contains a central water feature, the first standing sculpture created of Frederick Law Olmsted, access to the Outdoor Events Center and the Forest Meadow, and I feel the best view the Arboretum offers…as you can see the meadow and forest and the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Outdoor Events Center is an amphitheater that provides space for lectures and lessons, weddings, demonstrations, and occasionally performances. The Forest Meadow is designed to be especially beautiful during the fall months, as it showcases trees, shrubs, and ground cover plantings.
*I would suggest using the free Cell Phone Tour when exploring the main garden areas. You just look for the little cell phone symbol, call the number (1-828-974-3118), input the tour stop number you’re on, and get a lot of useful information about each area of the gardens. There are brochures for the tour at the information desks, or the kiosks beside the parking lot. It is definitely worth the time, and if you don’t finish, you can always pick up where you left off. To learn more, visit this page.*
As we continue our tour down through the Promenade, our next stop is the Baker Exhibit Center. This building houses traveling, rotating educational exhibits, a greenhouse, classrooms, and also offers a gift shop full of local crafts, books, and toys.
From the Baker Exhibit Center, you can access the Natural Garden Trail. Connecting the two main buildings (Baker and Education Centers), this easy loop hike is full of local regional plants, and offers informational signage about the many woodland species as you make your way through the naturally surfaced trail.
There will be opportunities to veer off of the Natural Garden Trail and head down to the Arboretum’s main corridor, Bent Creek Road. Though the main (and more popular) access is just beyond the front gate, this trail is shared by hikers, runners, bikers, and pets alike. A favorite for local trail runners, this trail does get busy during the warmer months, but being beside the creek for the entire duration, and being flanked by rock outcroppings and wildflowers, it can be a really beautiful, peaceful place to walk and to just enjoy nature.
Also featured along Bent Creek Road is the National Native Azalea Repository, a germplasm collection that focuses on the 17 native azalea species found in the United States….11 of which can be found within a one hundred mile radius of the Arboretum. The Repository is intended to be the most complete collection of azalea species native to the United States, and features looping trails that traverse under forest canopy, through rhododendron and azalea, and up close and personal with Bent Creek. For a more detailed read about the Arboretum germplasm collection, visit this page.
The Arboretum consists of over 10 miles of hiking trails, ranging from easy quarter mile jaunts, to difficult 4 mile treks that connect with much longer trails outside of the Arboretum property through the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Pisgah National Forest. There is something for every type of adventurer, young and old. For younger explorers, there are fun adventure trails known as TRACK Trails. These trails feature self-guided tours through brochures and signs, and kids can earn prizes(!!!) for tracking their adventures online.
*Learn more about the TRACK program and other adventures and parks for families to explore by visiting the Kids in Parks website by clicking HERE.*
The Arboretum has several dedications to Frederick Law Olmsted (the main Arboretum roadway is Frederick Law Olmsted Way). Frederick Law Olmsted was a founding father in American landscape architecture, designing major parks and grounds such as New York’s Central Park, the grounds of the US Capitol , and he was the main landscape architect for the Biltmore Estate. It was at Biltmore where Olmsted designed an arboretum to be featured on the Estate, consisting of a 9 mile linear layout of plants and experimental timber species guests could enjoy. Although work had begun, the arboretum was never completed. Olmsted is vitally important to the North Carolina Arboretum because at its foundation, the Arboretum is really a work of landscape architecture. His design and process form the standards for modern landscape architectural practice, and you can see his philosophy still shining through in the gardens and trails of the Arboretum today.
The Arboretum offers a little something for everybody. Photographers and artists will find blooms and wildlife and sweeping landscapes to capture, hikers and runners will find challenging trails to test their endurance and grit, nature and plant lovers will find a treasure trove of information and exhibits, and young adventurers will find a blossoming love for the outdoors. And that is exactly what the Arboretum is all about; bringing together plants and people…and giving us the tools and information (and inspiration) to continue to live in harmony together.
For more information, visit the official Arboretum website: www.ncarboretum.org