Sylvan Asheville, North Carolina

Photograph by Derek Olson


Heading south on Future I-26 into Asheville feels like sled riding through Sherwood Forest, even without an inch of snow on the ground in mid-January.

These are easily the biggest hills you can careen up, over and down again anywhere this side of the Great Plains, Western North Carolina holding the record for the six highest mountains East of the Mississippi. Though a massive and fast four lane freeway, I-26 bears neither your typical boring interstate scenery nor the official government title (hence the “Future” I-26) due to a lack of meeting some specific bureaucratic regulations. Instead, forest walls of spruce and pine trees climb up from behind the guard rails, for miles and miles with little evidence of civilization short of the occasional off ramp sign resting travelers assured of the presence of your typical chain hotel and fast food amenities, if only they’ll point their headlights off the main road a few miles. As another mountain crests and one’s view opens up to survey all of the land in panoramic visual gluttony that spans around them before beginning to descend again, there it appears. Asheville’s tallest buildings stand junoesque, stern and brown and ever presently bursting from the canopy surrounding them. Stalwart testament to the heights man can achieve with brick and mortar, the city is a castle in these most gorgeous of forested peaks and valleys.

What appears to loom from a distance quickly contracts into not the sylvan megalopolis seen from a distance, but a compact several few blocks focused around two or three streets of buskers chanting Appalachia, good old fashioned Southern folk wearing Carolina blue sweatshirts and hip young dads carrying infants in slings strewn ’round their chests. In only a few blocks worth of Lexington Avenue, the arrow running straight through the middle of the Mom tattoo that is the city’s center, all of the amenities of a larger city fill in every available storefront, from sushi and European fare to smoke shops and boutiques. Cars swerve and vie for precious little parking spaces, cyclists steady up the San Francisco steep hills, while skateboarding kids all too young to smoke cigarettes do so anyway, dodging the sprawled out legs of bums and dog leashes.  The front porch of the Southern plays a siren song to the drinking crowd, smoking cigarettes and hoisting pints of the plentitude of local beers available as everyone looks toned down hipster cool, like a bar full of James Deans on a scarf kick.

Transplants are everywhere. No one is “from Asheville”, and unlike other up and coming / came and went meccas of artists, musicians and scruffy beards like Austin or Portland, no one is mad that more and more people are coming every day. Asheville comes with all of the progressive, artsy, beer soaked culture found in other great new city havens, without the typically prerequisite pretentiousness from it’s locals. At least that’s what it feels like before you start hearing the tales of gun barrels pointed at hikers looking to take a shortcut through some farmer’s field. But that’s more of a story for the outskirts, and we haven’t made it that far up Lexington yet.

Asheville is it’s own creature. It’s easy to try and compare it to larger cities already somewhat more established as being “coolest American cities”, but it’s more than that. Small, local, and tucked as high up the mountains and deep into the forests as it gets in the original 13 colonies, Asheville is it’s own thing, and ever deserving of it’s position as first pin in our travels here at Wand’rly.

Explore Asheville

The Essentials

Our favorite hotels, hostels and campgrounds to stay at in AVL, + where to eat, get local & organic groceries, and good coffee.

Dive into AVL

We’ve got something to do in and around Asheville every day of the week, for all types of people.

  1. Asheville is a music town, here’s where to catch a great show.
  2. But it’s also Beer City, USA. Over a dozen breweries to choose from, we can help get you started.
  3. Family friendly fun with Frisbee Golf and a day out in Black Mountain.
  4. The North Carolina Stage Company for you theatre types. We thoroughly enjoyed it.
  5. Like bikes? Volunteer at the Bike Recyclery and you could even earn your own wheels.
  6. Day hikes (and more serious ones if you’re up to the task) in nearby Montreat, NC.
  7. Or take it easy on a drive through three seasons on the Blue Ridge Parkway.