North Carolina Arboretum

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History of the North Carolina Arboretum

Frederick Law Olmsted was the first to envision an arboretum in the North Carolina mountains. Known as the father of American landscape design, Olmsted designed public parks around the nation. In the late 19th Century, he found himself in Asheville designing the gardens for Biltmore Estate. It was there that he first conceived of a research arboretum in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but it would take another 100 years for this dream to become a reality.

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 at the North Carolina Arboretum.

In 1986, the General Assembly created North Carolina Arboretum within the already existing Bent Creek Experimental Forest. As a part of the University of North Carolina system, the Arboretum focuses not only on education and research, but conservation, garden demonstration, and economic development as well.

artificial canal like stream running under bridge surrounded by plants.
The North Carolina Arboretum’s Mountain Stream Exhibit that demonstrated how native plants, insects, and invertebrates live together in the numerous streams throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains.

With 434 acres total and 65 acres of cultivated gardens, the Arboretum is a plant lovers dream. As you stroll around the gardens, all the plants are labeled. That way if you see something you want in your own garden, you know what it is. The main gardens are wheelchair accessible and there are lots of shaded areas.

Exhibits at the North Carolina Arboretum

One of the most popular exhibits in the Arboretum is the Bonsai Collection. Established in 1992, the collection not includes over 100 bonsai that rotate out to display throughout the year. Not only including traditional trees like the Japanese Maple or the Chinese Elm, but many American species as well like the Bald Cypress and Limber Pine.

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 Quilt Garden located near the center of the garden complex is laid out in grid like patterns to resemble a traditional Appalachian Quilt. The plants are changed every season, so locals have the opportunity to visit often and see the quilt develop.

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

Other exhibits are the Heritage Garden showcasing medicinal herbs, plants used in crafts and the daily life of the regions settlers. A Stream Garden showing plants and trees that grow along the mountains many streams. And one really popular with the young and young at hart, the Rocky Cove Railroad. That’s a Garden Scale model railroad demonstrating the affect improving transportation had on rural communities of Western North Carolina.

Garden scale model railroad from above with viewing platform
Rocky Cove Railroad – G Scale model railroad located next to the amphitheater.

Art Exhibits and Education Center at the North Carolina Arboretum

Art installations are set up throughout the gardens as well as an indoor exhibit on the top level of the Baker Exhibit Center. You’ll also find a gift shop and information desk at the same place.

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

The Arboretum is much more interactive than traditional gardens. They offer educational programs throughout the year. Everything from nature walks to seminars where you can learn about the plants and animals native to the Blue Ridge Mountains. They offer over 300 classes a year, so there’s always some type of tour, demonstration, or work shop going on. The Arboretum’s educational programs are cantered at the Education Center at the easternend of the gardens. The center also houses a bistro and a nature discovery room.

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

For those looking for a little adventure, the Arboretum has them covered too. Over 10 miles of hiking and biking trails run throughout the complex. The biking trails aren’t very long though. The hiking trails range from easy to difficult and are mostly under a mile each, but they interconnect to make it seem like a much longer hike. The trails even lead out of the Arboretum grounds into Bent Creek Experimental Forest and on to nearby Lake Powhatan.

mountain lake framed by mountain laurel in the foreground. An island is visible and a dock at the far end of lake
Lake Powhatan in nearby Bent Creek Experimental Forest with mountain laurel in bloom.

In addition to their normal activities, the Arboretum hosts a number of special events throughout the year, The most popular is the Winter Lights exhibit. The gardens are filled with over half a million multi colored lights.

Final Thoughts About the North Carolina Arboretum

For details on our visit check out our North Carolina Arboretum Field Report

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.

wooden bench under arbor with green leafy plants growing
The gardens have lots of benches, most of them in shade where you can have a rest and cool off.

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 trail heads. 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.

g scale model railroad with bridge and town
Rocky Cove Railroad. That’s a Garden Scale model railroad demonstrating the affect improving transportation had on rural communities of Western North Carolina.

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.

Bonsai tree in an arrangement with smaller shrubs and a path running down middle
As the numerous Bonsai displays are a popular part of the Arboretum, the Bonsai exhibit is always crowded.

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.

More Information:
North Carolina Arboretum Field Report

Fast Facts About the North Carolina Arboretum

Type:Arboretum and curated formal gardens with hiking trails
Admission:$16 per car parking fee – check website for discount days
Location:100 Frederick Law Olmsted Way, Asheville, NC 28806
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Things to do: Hiking, bird watching, learn about nature, art and sculpture viewing

Map to the North Carolina Arboretum