Looking for the perfect place to spend the day outdoors? The North Carolina Arboretum is much more than a beautiful garden. In addition to gorgeous flower beds bursting with color, you’ll also find hiking trails, an outdoor miniature train display, a cafe, a greenhouse, water features and even rotating art exhibits. There’s something for everyone in the family at the arboretum and since it’s located in nearby Asheville, you’ve got a great day trip in the making.
Looking to make a day trip out of your trip to the North Carolina Arboretum? Check out our list of Western North Carolina Day Trip ideas to have a fun-filled day!
Visiting the North Carolina Arboretum
The North Carolina Arboretum is located just south of Asheville, NC. Their website provides directions, and they indicate that GPS should not be trusted. I have to admit not reading that little tidbit, and our GPS directions have always worked just fine. Do be aware however that the cell signal is not strong in this area.
When you arrive at the arboretum you’ll pay for parking. The cost is $16 per car. There is no further admission or per-person cost, which makes this a pretty affordable family day trip. Pack some snacks or a lunch and you won’t have to spend another dime. But if you’d rather go out for lunch, there’s a cafe at the arboretum. Asheville is also just about 20 minutes away with virtually limitless dining options.
Baker Exhibit Center
The main parking lot for the North Carolina Arboretum is at the Baker Exhibit Center. This will be where you start the day. I recommend bringing any snacks, drinks, and necessary items like diaper bags with you. Depending on where you end up exploring, it can be a long walk back to the car to get a drink.
As you enter the building, you’ll find maps to the right of the door. Inside you’ll find clean restrooms and an information desk. To access the gardens you’ll climb the stairs and head to the back of the building. On your way, you’ll pass a fantastic gift shop, a greenhouse, and an art exhibit space. Often there are small plants for sale in the greenhouse and artwork on display in the exhibit space.
The Gardens at the NC Arboretum
Throughout the grounds of the arboretum, you’ll find beautiful flowers and leafy plants full of color. There are gorgeous arbors and gazebos to rest under, fountains to watch, and paved pathways to wander. One of our favorite sections of the garden is a quilt garden, named because when you climb the stone stairs beside it and look down, it does indeed look like a quilt. The flowers in this quilt pattern change. Each time we have visited the quilt garden has been different.
Another section of the garden we love to explore is the Bonsai Garden. You might not think looking at Bonsai trees would be interesting to children, but my kids really like these. Each one looks different, some are themed and a lot of them have descriptive and sometimes humorous names. The perfectly pruned miniature trees are truly works of art. The Bonsai section of the arboretum is open from 9 am to 5 pm daily, with additional hours for special guided tours with the Curator.
Rocky Cove Railroad
The Rocky Cove Railroad runs Saturdays, and Sundays from noon to 4 pm. It’s a G-Scale model train that runs through this outdoor garden depicting Western North Carolina at the turn of the 20th century when trains first arrived. Two different trains run through the display. One of them is a Thomas train. If you have young children who love Thomas, you definitely don’t want to miss Thomas running through this little town display. My favorite thing about this display is that all the trees throughout the display are perfectly pruned, live trees cut to fit the size of the display.
Trails to Hike
The Arboretum has many trails available for hiking and biking if you prefer your gardens to be a bit wilder. In the spring, don’t miss the hike down to the woodland garden that contains the National Native Azalea Collection where you’ll find almost every native azalea species in the United States blooming side by side. The nature trail is another great trail any time of the year and this one doesn’t allow biking so you won’t have to watch out for riders on this trail.
The second building at the Arboretum is the Education Center. You’ll find scheduled educational programming here as well as a few educational exhibits. This is also where the cafe is located. There is a lovely porch with a plethora of rocking chairs that overlook the gardens. Purchase a snack or open up the lunch you packed, this is a great spot to sit for a while and relax.
Mom Review: NC Arboretum
The NC Arboretum is a great place for the family to spend some time. We’ve brought our children a few times, including when they were quite young. There is plenty of room for little kids to run off steam, but also a lot of interesting things to see for older kids. The train has always been a highlight and I usually save that for the end of the trip, otherwise, we’d never see the rest of the garden. The garden paths are paved, but if you plan to walk any of the woodland trails, know that they are dirt and gravel. You’ll probably appreciate wearing sneakers. Do bring lots to drink, especially if you’re going in the summer.
North Carolina Arboretum
$16 Parking – get $1 off if you have AAA
20 Frederick Law Olmsted Way
Asheville, NC 28806
Hours: Daily 8 am – 7 pm (winter hours)
Hours: Daily 8 am – 9 pm (summer hours)