North Carolina Arboretum Gardens - Large bronze statue of a bearded man holding an open scroll that looks like it could be garden plans. Statue stands on a bolder with trees to the right rear and blue skies to left rear
Statue of Frederick Law Olmsted known as the father of American landscape Architecture.

North Carolina Arboretum Field Report

Today was the day. I would finally get around to exploring the North Carolina Arboretum. It was the first Tuesday of the month, which means half price parking, so I knew it would be really crowded. And guess what, it was. When I got there at 9:30, I had 6 cars in front of me at the gate.

I was told that it can be hit or miss with the crowds. The previous Monday, Memorial Day, had been one of the busiest days on record. But some days it might be slow, you just don’t know until you get there. But holidays and half price days will always be busy.

Initial Impressions

The drive from the gate house to the parking lot is about a mile long and really nice. Mountain Laurel was in bloom toady, and just like the rest of the grounds, the roadside is meticulously cared for.

Bronze sculpture of a water birs with long legs and outstretched wire form wings. The bird stands on a base cage full of river stones. Lush greenery all around.
“Stillness Meets Trajectory” by Annie Mariano in the gardens

I entered the gardens on the western end and spent some time wandering around, moving in the general direction of the visitors center on the eastern side. We’re in that awkward time between spring and summer when not a lot flowers are blooming, but the trees, plants, and shrubbery more than made up for it. Not to mention the landscaping and art inhalations throughout the gardens. Near the center of the complex, the quilt garden had recently been replanted, so it was interesting to see it from this early on.

I continued on to the visitor center which is a large 2 story building. The top floor exits into the gardens, the ground floor from the parking lots. The second floor features an art exhibit and gift shop. The lower level has the information desk where maps are available.

garden laid out in squares with walkways between each square. Flowers planted in the squares. a stone wall runs behind with a wing sculpture in the middle
Quilt garden with a backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains

Plenty of Places to Escape the Crowds

Although it’s nice sometimes to wander around without a map, there are so many points of interest just in the main garden complex that a map is a must to make sure you don’t miss anything. And if you want to venture away from the manicured gardens into the natural areas of the arboretum, a map is a definite must have. Since it was really busy, I decided to do just that and take in a trail and check back to the gardens later.

The arboretum grounds have over 10 miles of hiking trails, but they also connect with trails in Bent Creek Experimental Forest outside the park. Those trails to Lake Powhatan were my destination now.

mountain lake with trees running up a large hill on the opposite shore as mountain laurel blooming
Lake Powhatan in Bent Creek Experimental Forest

The start of the trails to the lake are by the Education Center on the far side of the main complex. Making my way to the trailhead, I was briefly sidetracked by the Bonsai Exhibit, but again it was crowded, so I decided it would have to wait.

Looking at my map, I saw two different trails would take me to where I wanted to be. I chose the Creekside Trail because I thought it would be nice to walk along the creek. From the left side of the Education Center, I followed Running Cedar Road down to the creek.

Finlay On a Trail

The Creekside trail is a footpath that runs mostly parallel and occasionaly crisscrossing Bent Creek Road. It’s mostly level and easy to walk without a lot of roots, but there are times when it may seem like you’re walking through a tunnel of Mountain Laurel. The road is much smoother and suitable for folks on bicycles.

The foot path ends shortly before leaving the park, and from there I followed the road to the arboretum gates and beyond. When traveling out of the park by foot, be aware of the time and that the gates are locked one hour before the property closes. You don’t want to be locked out!

The road from the arboretum will end when it intersects a trail in Bent Creek Experimental Forest, just turn to the left to keep following the creek. A little farther, another trail will turn to the left crossing a bridge on the creek. If you want to get to the lake as soon as possible, ignore that turn. Just keep going straight, you’ll hit the lake in no time. The rest of the path is more or less level and like a gravel road, and you’ll come out at the fishing dock on Lake Powhatan.

Lake Powhatan Loop

mountain lake framed by mountain laurel in the foreground. An island is visible and a dock at the far end of lake
Lake Powhatan from the Loop Trail

If you’re looking for a little more of a foot trail, cross the bridge and take the first path to the right. This trail runs on the opposite side of the creek and is a little more rugged. There are lots of roots and rocks to trip over and it runs up and down hill all the way around the lake. It crosses a number of small bridges, runs past the swimming area and ends on a paved road. Turning right on the road will lead to the a fishing dock on the lake and meets up with the other end of the trail from earlier.

To get back to the arboretum, take the trial to the left of the dock and follow the creek back.

Greenhouses and the Carolina Mountain Trail

On my way back, I took a side trip to the production greenhouses. It’s a short walk up Wolf Branch Road to the left shortly after crossing back through the park gates. Organized tours are available through the greenhouses, but no other access is allowed, so unless you’re on a tour, there’s not much to see.

Trail through the woods with stone steps leading up
Carolina Mountain Trail can bee steep at times

I took the Carolina Mountain Trail back to the main campus. It’s a moderate foot trail with a few steep bits and stones and roots in the path. The trail brought me back to the Education Center on the opposite side from where I started. I could hear music and soon saw that musicians had arrived and were playing at the outdoor seating area for the bistro.

Back to the Gardens

After taking a rest and collecting my thoughts, I ventured back out into the gardens. It was still a little crowded, but not as bad. First stop was the Bonsai Exhibit. The path leads past a number of bonsai tree displays of various types. Not just miniature junipers here, but a variety of tropical plants and American trees as well.

seven different species of tree and bush growing as bonsai trees displayed on a ledge including an azalea with pink blooms
All types of Bonsai Trees can be seen at the exhibit.

The amphitheater is located down a flight of stairs from the Bonsai Exhibit and across from it I found a pleasant surprise. A miniature railroad and towns are on have been set up including plants, buildings, and trees. The railroad wasn’t running as I passed through, though.

After a brief walk through the adjacent Forest Meadow installation, I returned to the gardens via the Blue Ridge Court to find more musicians playing around the fountain. The gardens are set up in a grid pattern, and I walked through one more time to try and make sure I saw everything. Then decided to call it a day.

Final Thoughts

For nature lovers, the North Carolina Arboretum is must stop spot in Western North Carolina. It’s located along the Blue Ridge Parkway and is a popular and great place to spend the afternoon.

The gardens have lots of benches and some nooks and corners where you can maybe get away from the crowds. If you can’t find anyplace in the main gardens, the forest meadow seems to be far less crowded.

Hikers will enjoy the 10 miles of hiking trails. One of the really nice things about the trails are the call boxes located throughout the system. Since you’re in the mountains and cell service is spotty, the call boxes are a nice touch in case of emergencies. Porta Potties are also set up along the trails, so another nice touch.

It would be nice if there were a little bit better signage pointing out where trails start and how to get to trailheads. Even with a map, it was a little hard to tell how to get to the Creekside Trail, but there are plenty of people working that you can ask. Once on the trails, the signage is great to help you get to where you’re going.

There also aren’t any picnic tables in the campus. Some tables and chairs are set up near the Education Center, and I saw folks bringing in their lunches. The parking lot also has large medians and folks were putting down a blanket for an old fashioned picnic.

The $16 parking fee may seem a little high, but remember that’s the only admission fee. So it’s the same price for one person or for a family. If you figure four or five people getting in for $16, it doesn’t seem like that much. Or you can do like I did, and visit on the second Tuesday of the month for half price parking.