Blue Ridge Hot Spots With Easy Access to the Outdoors and Vibrant Local Culture
The Blue Ridge is full of vibrant towns that offer fast access to outdoor adventures, bustling burgs not far from hiking with wild ponies, kayaking world-class rapids, and catching live music every night of the week. we asked BRO readers to pick their favorites. Whittled down from a list of 100 towns across the Southeast, votes were cast in big numbers to select these four towns as the best places to live, visit, and recreate in the region.
Asheville, North Carolina
The cat has long been out of the bag about Asheville. The booming western North Carolina mountain town with a colorful arts scene has nearly tripled in size over the last 20 years, and for good reason. Asheville is flanked on the east by Pisgah National Forest, containing miles of pristine hikes and world class mountain biking, the highest peak east of the Mississippi (Mt. Mitchell), and a particularly scenic stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway— and that’s only on one side of town. Less than an hour west sits Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s more wild land than you’d expect to surround a 300,000-person city with more than 20 dedicated music venues.
The rare combo of a big city culture scene and quick access to wilderness keeps folks coming back to Asheville. While those things may seem separate, locals know that in Asheville, the city’s vibrance is shaped by the nature just outside of town.
Take local kayaker Shane Benedict, who worked in Asheville at a budding music club before co-founding LiquidLogic, a now world-renowned kayak outfitter. When Benedict first came to town in the late 80s, Asheville was at the beginning of a renaissance. “We were traveling from all over the place to paddle the Green [River],” Benedict said, “then as Asheville grew, there was all the good food and great music; it just made it even better to get into town.” In 2000, Benedict moved to Asheville and co-founded LiquidLogic to make kayaks specifically for paddling western North Carolina rivers like the Green, whose dam-controlled waters enjoy 250+ days of paddleable conditions per year.
Benedict’s story is indicative of how Asheville’s outdoor culture has shaped the area. It’s no wonder popular innovations as varied as ENO hammocks and Moog synthesizers also got their start in Asheville, and their companies still call the town home. But don’t miss the artists that haven’t made it big yet—Asheville’s River Arts District is home to hundreds of local artisans who show, craft, and teach there. Check out local orgs like the North Carolina Glass Center, a nonprofit that showcases emerging artists and teaches beginner glassblowing at their studio in the RAD.
Recreation abounds both in town and in the surrounding Roanoke Valley, as locals mountain bike at Carvins Cove, hike the Appalachian Trail, and ride road bikes on the Blue Ridge Parkway. After long days of play, bellies are filled at popular restaurants like Burger in the Square and Local Roots.
Water is everywhere in Charleston, a port city surrounded by rivers, creeks, and lakes for kayaking and paddleboarding. Locals can typically be found gliding across favorites like Charleston Harbor and Shem Creek.
Bristol, Virginia + Tennessee
Sitting right on the border of Tennessee and Virginia, the twin cities of Bristol come together to form one vibrant spot brimming with opportunity for adventure. On the Virginia side, the Mendota Trail—a Rails to Trails project set to be complete later this year—will meander for 12 miles of countryside connecting Bristol to nearby Mendota, VA, creating a scenic hiking and biking route to rival the nearby Virginia Creeper Trail. Less than 10 miles southeast, South Holston Lake boasts over 7,500 acres of open water that stretch right up to the peaks of the Blue Ridge, creating a serene landscape for boating, paddle boarding, and fishing.
It’s that mountain lake setting that brought Christopher Perrin, who serves as the marketing director for the town, to move his family to Bristol from Florida nearly 30 years ago. “It just took my breath away the first time that I saw it,” said Perrin of South Holston. “I’ve always enjoyed time on the lake, but I was probably just as captivated looking at the scenery around me instead of participating in the activities.” Perrin says what makes Bristol’s outdoor scene special is the diversity of activities it offers. At Steele Creek Park, visitors can bike, fish, play a round of disc golf, and hike in a 2,200-acre tract of undeveloped forest, all without ever leaving town.
For culture inside the city limits, look to Bristol’s historic country music scene. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum hosts exhibits chronicling the city’s deep roots in Appalachian sounds and regularly features speakers, performances, and trivia nights. The music doesn’t stop there— in addition to legendary venues like the Paramount Center for the Arts and the Cameo Theater, there is local food favorite Burger Bar, where lore has it Hank Williams Sr. ate his last meal.
Appalachian State football has been making all the headlines lately, but this college town in the North Carolina High Country has long been revered for an abundance of outdoor treasures. Favorites include hiking the Daniel Boone Scout Trail to Calloway Peak, riding at Rocky Knob Mountain Bike Park, and skiing at nearby resorts, including Beech Mountain.
From Charlottesville, it’s an easy drive to the northern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the southern end of Shenandoah National Park. But the small city also has plenty of in-town recreation, including hiking on the Rivanna Trail and mountain biking at Preddy Creek Park.
Tucked tightly into a high valley near the Tennessee border, the town of Abingdon benefits from being the southern terminus of the Virginia Creeper Trail, the 34-mile rails-to-trails bike path that draws thousands of visitors to the area every year.
But there’s also more to see near Abingdon. “If you’re looking outdoors, you’re not limited to just the Virginia Creeper Trail. That’s kind of a gift for our area,” said Jill Dalton, an Abingdon native and co-owner of Creeper’s End Lodging, a cozy group of cottages tucked right at the end of the trail. Dalton runs Creeper’s End with her husband Dave, and the two often direct visitors to lesser-known attractions, such as the fishing and paddling opportunities at Hidden Valley Lake, several nearby caves such as Wolf Cave, and scenic drives to Burke’s Garden near Tazewell, which Dave describes as “God’s country.”
Chad Thompson, who grew up in Washington County and said he accepted his dream job when he began working for the town’s tourism department, also remarked on Abingdon’s proximity to such a wide range of outdoor opportunities. “I try to refer to ourselves as a base for adventure,” said Thompson. “So you can stay here and eat here, then you can go find places to play all around us.”
Abingdon is better than your average base camp too— the town hosts a robust arts scene highlighted by the Barter Theater and features sleek modern shops like Salt of the Earth Spa, which provides post-adventure massages and therapies. “The creeper trail is 34 miles long, so if you’re one of the brave souls that does the entire thing,” said Thompson, “getting a spa treatment afterwards would definitely be something I would need to do.”
A low-key gem in the central Virginia Blue Ridge, Bedford sits in close proximity to some of the region’s best natural treasures, including the Appalachian Trail, Peaks of Otter, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Smith Mountain Lake.
Deep in the mountains of western North Carolina, surrounded by the Nantahala National Forest, Franklin is well known as a friendly trail town due to its location right near the A.T. A perfect day: hike to Wayah Bald, then head back to town for beers at Lazy Hiker Brewing Co.
In Damascus, there’s no boundary between the town’s outdoor scene and thriving local culture. Just ask Tyler Irving, manager of Appalachian Heritage Distillery, which, like many of Damascus’ small businesses, sits right on the Appalachian Trail. “As a trail runner and the manager of this place, I’m always trying to tie the two things together, because that’s just what I like to do and it’s what I know,” said Irving.
The distillery shares the town’s main drag with other local favorites like the Damascus Diner (where Irving says he could eat breakfast every day of his life) and Main Street Coffee & Cream, both of which often feed travelers coming from the A.T. or one of the other six nationally recognized trails—the Virginia Creeper Trail, the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, and the Iron Mountain Trail among them—that run through town.
But with so much to do in and around the small southwest Virginia town, Damascus, aptly known as “Trail Town USA,” is more than just a pit stop. The area’s main draws have long been biking the Creeper Trail or hiking among wild ponies in nearby Grayson Highlands State Park, but locals glow about lesser known moves like a walk up to the waterfall at Backbone Rock, a dip in one of dozens of swimming holes in Whitetop Laurel Creek, or wide open ridgeline hiking on the Iron Mountain Trail. Back in town, there’s more than a post-hike beer or ice cream to enjoy. You can get both at local joint Wicked Chicken, but you’ll also get live music there every weekend, a regular feature of other Damascus taverns as well.
Quaint, idyllic, and funky, Floyd is a vibrant spot in a southwest Virginia stretch of the Blue Ridge that mixes old-school mountain town charm with a thriving arts scene. Locals can be found hiking at Buffalo Mountain Natural Area Preserve or paddling the Little River, and a must-do is catching bluegrass tunes at the Floyd Country Store’s Friday Night Jamboree.
Berkeley Springs, W.Va.
This historic town in the West Virginia mountains offers a sweet mix of adventure and relaxation. Take a hike on the Tuscarora Trail, then soak in the mineral springs at Berkeley Springs State Park.
Cover Photo: Scenes from Asheville, N.C.Photos Courtesy of exploreasheville.com