This story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of our print edition.
Nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville is a lovable, quirky breath of fresh Southern air. Not only is it the filming location for “The Hunger Games” and home to a wealthy Vanderbilt estate called The Biltmore, but it’s also a hub for art, live music, outdoor enthusiasts, and (perhaps most importantly) beer. Here, breweries almost outnumber people, and hometown flavor upstages even the most successful restaurant chain. Naturally, this community-driven vibe translates to the crag. Old-school locals scrambled up the blank gneiss slabs of Looking Glass Rock as far back as the 1970s, and younger generations enjoy world-class bouldering at 107, Stony Bald, and Grandmother Mountain near Boone. The climate makes for crisp fall days with golden foliage as far as the eye can see. Hikes often end at waterfalls, and almost every store has beer on tap. So if you want to feel like a local in a new city, look no further. Asheville is an unassuming paradise full of good vibes, good people, and some of the best rock in the country.
Where to Eat
For true local flavor, try Sunny Point Café, a family-owned café serving traditional Southern breakfast from dawn ’til dusk—all with ingredients grown in the garden outside. Go on a Saturday for half-priced wine or on a Wednesday for $2 pints of select microbrews. Want more kick? Head to Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack for some seriously hot chicken wings. With spice levels ranging from “XX Hot – Mount St. Hell No!” to just plain fried chicken, this west Asheville chicken house has something for everyone. For lighter fare, Asheville has a plethora of ethnic choices all over the city, ranging from sushi to gyros, as well as vegetarian options like The Laughing Seed Café. A downtown staple for almost 25 years, The Laughing Seed offers the finest organic, local, and vegetarian cuisine, sampling international flavors from Thailand, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean.
Where to Drink
Asheville is a drinking city, with craft brew options on almost every street corner. For a laid-back option, try The Bywater, located right on the banks of the French Broad River. Bonus: There are food trucks nearby, or you can bring your own meat and charcoal to grill. It’s accessible from the river too; anyone can float or kayak right up for a refreshing cocktail or local craft brew. For true beer nerds, The Thirsty Monk is heaven on Earth. With five different locations around Asheville, this award-winning bar specializes in an expansive and diverse craft beer selection, including a location dedicated to homebrews. Although their beers are constantly changing, we recommend Asheville Brewing’s Lemon Space Dog, an American wheat full of zesty lemon flavor, perfect after a long day at the crag. You can sample even more by hopping on the Amazing Pubcycle tour, where friends and strangers operate a multi-seat bike contraption (with its own bar) around downtown.
How to Spend a Rest Day
When you’re not at the crag (or the pub), check out the River Arts District, which features 22 former factories and historical buildings converted into art galleries, studios, and showrooms. Open every day year-round, these artists work in a variety of media, and many galleries also double as restaurants, cafés, or bars. Given the active bar scene, it’s no surprise that live music also thrives here. The Orange Peel is a popular choice but tends to have more nationally known artists and the resulting crowds. For local vibes, try Isis Restaurant and Music Hall. Featuring a jazz showcase every Sunday, this restaurant/concert hall spotlights many local, regional, and national acts throughout the week. There are also plenty of farmers markets running as late as November for all your fresh produce needs. Move your legs and catch one of the best views in the region by hiking the Art Loeb trail, which sticks to the ridges and peaks more than the valleys. Plan at least one evening to watch the sunset at Max Patch, a grassy bald surrounded by mountains with a fair amount of parking close by. Visit Backpacker’s North Carolina Trails page for info.
Where to Stay
Camping? North Mills Campground is the perfect spot for those looking to climb at Looking Glass. Cradled by the Appalachian Mountains, it’s surrounded by dense forests on the banks of Mills River, making it a good spot for a quick swim or trout fishing. It’s a relatively small facility, and although it’s pretty far from downtown Asheville, visitors can trek to the small town of Brevard for amenities and services. The campsite provides the basics like toilets, campfire rings, picnic area, showers, and firewood for $6/night.
Where to Buy Gear
Asheville’s go-to is Fox Mountain Guides and Climbing Services for guided climbing throughout the Southeast. Accredited by the American Mountain Guides Association since 2005, they provide both rock and ice climbing day trips and skills courses. You can also try ClimbMax Sport Climbing Center, located downtown. They have a private outdoor climbing guide program, which means your group (or even you individually) will get a guide catered to your specific needs. They offer 6-hour, 8-hour, or full-day (10-hour) guided climbs to various routes around the area, as well as guided ice climbing when in season. For gear, check out Black Dome Mountain Sports, native to Asheville for more than 30 years and staffed by experienced climbers. Close to downtown, Black Dome is fully stocked with camping and climbing gear, plus plenty of local beta for your stay.
What to Climb: The 10 Best 4-Star Routes
As ranked by Mountain Project users
The Daddy (5.6)
“Real adventure climbing with views big enough to swallow you whole. Don’t forget to belay while drooling over the Gold Coast across the gorge. If you want to make the climb even more exciting and avoid some boring traverses, go straight up direct on pitch three (5.8).”
Fruit Loops (5.7+)
“So fun! The first pitch crack is great, but the weirdness of the second pitch is where it’s at! Moving out onto the face is a blast, and once there, although the climbing is not spectacular, the views of Lake Lure are hard to beat.”
“Climbing Groover was a truly memorable adventure. Straddling the water grooves on pitches four and five make the runouts even spicier. Great day!”
Dopey Duck (5.9)
“This route has got it all. Super fun from beginning to end. The second pitch is full of great placements, but the horizontals aren’t as juggy as they look. Those placements will pump you out, so plug and go! For a more aesthetic start, climb the first pitch of Toxic Shock (5.9) to reach the large belay ledge.”
Airlie Gardens (5.9)
“Do yourself a favor and climb this route. Second pitch is short, but the exposure is dizzying. Be sure to stop and take in the air beneath your feet for almost the entirety of this climb!”
Dinkus Dog (5.10-)
Looking Glass Rock
“Definitely my favorite eyebrow route I’ve climbed on the Glass, fun moves the whole way and well-protected once you’ve spent some time plugging brows.”
“Climb the face via amazing finger buckets and horizontals past a tricky section protected by a bolt. Pull the crux and continue up on amazing jugs.”
Shredded Wheat (5.11a)
“Pretty sustained 5.10 finger climbing broken up by good rests to a distinct, thin-fingers crux. Totally awesome route. One of the best granite finger cracks anywhere. Anywhere. Seriously. It rules.”
Cornflake Crack (5.11-)
Looking Glass Rock
“Shoot-dang this route is good, man! Varied and interesting the whole way. Certainly rivals The Naked Edge in Colorado as the best 5.11 crack climb I’ve ever done.”
The Dark Angel (5.12b)
“This is THE area classic. Much better than just ‘good for North Carolina.’ Steep, proud line out the tallest section of the cave. Potential for big air time with the entire gorge at your back. So good!”
Get route beta, photos, and topos at mountainproject.com.