Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on February 26, 2024.
Of the four national forests in North Carolina, Pisgah National Forest is the second largest (after Nantahala) and possibly the best known. Given the variety of things to do in Pisgah National Forest, this is one of our favorite places to visit, hike, and drive in North Carolina.
Pisgah is located in Western North Carolina and surrounds Asheville, making it easily accessible for Asheville tourists and locals. Over five million people visit the forest annually, indicating its popularity and beauty.
Many of our favorite waterfalls, natural formations, hiking trails, and views lay within Pisgah National Forest. If you want to spend a few days in the area or visit one or two top attractions, you’ll need this guide we’ve created.
We’ll go over where the forest is located, its history, and the top attractions based on which section of the forest you’re exploring.
We’ll also include sections on hiking trails, waterfalls, and camping opportunities in Pisgah National Forest. Here’s how we have organized this guide:
- Where is Pisgah National Forest?
- Background and History of Pisgah NF
- Leave No Trace Reminder
- Safety Reminder
- Things to Do in the Pisgah Ranger District
- Things to Do in the Appalachian Ranger District
- Things to Do in the Grandfather Ranger District
- Hiking in Pisgah National Forest
- Waterfalls in Pisgah National Forest
- Camping in Pisgah National Forest
- Towns In Pisgah National Forest
Skip ahead to any section of our top tips for visiting Pisgah National Forest or keep reading about the location and history of this wonderful public space!
Where is Pisgah National Forest NC?
- Avery County
- Buncombe County
- Burke County
- Caldwell County
- Haywood County
- Henderson County
- McDowell County
- Madison County
- Mitchell County
- Transylvania County
- Watauga County
- Yancey County
Pisgah National Forest Districts
Because of its size, the forest is divided into three districts.
- The Pisgah Ranger District is southwest of Asheville and is triangulated between Asheville, Waynesville, and Brevard. This district borders Nantahala National Forest to the west.
- The Appalachian Ranger District covers a strip of land along the NC-Tennessee border, above the Great Smoky Mountains Range.
- The Grandfather Ranger District is the largest district stretching from Asheville northeast to Blowing Rock.
The History of Pisgah National Forest
Before we cover our favorite things to do in Pisgah National Forest, here is some important background info and historical tidbits:
- While Nantahala holds the title of largest national forest, Pisgah is the oldest national forest in North Carolina.
- It was established in 1916 after the federal government passed the Weeks Act of 1914, which allowed the government to purchase and create national forests on the eastern coast.
- After the Weeks Act passed, the federal government purchased 86,700 acres of forest from the Vanderbilts, the family who built the famed Biltmore Estate. This parcel of land was the first conceptualization of Pisgah National Forest.
- Over the following decades, the forest grew as Boone National Forest was incorporated into Pisgah in 1921, and Unaka National Forest was added in 1936.
- Pisgah is also the birthplace of the first school of forestry in the country, which is preserved at the Cradle of Forestry historic site.
- Today, Pisgah’s 500,000+ acres comprise hardwood forests, whitewater rivers, waterfalls, and hiking trails.
Leave No Trace Reminder
Before continuing, we want to remind you to leave Pisgah National Forest as you found it. With your help, this beautiful wilderness can continue to be preserved well into the future.
Pack out what you pack in and leave no trace.
- Safety is your responsibility when exploring Pisgah National Forest’s attractions.
- If you’re bringing a dog, keep them on a leash inside Pisgah National Forest.
- Visitors, hikers, and backcountry campers should be bear-aware, as several black bear populations live throughout the forest.
- Severe weather is always possible. Our mountains experience extreme cold, wind, annual snow, lightning strikes, and other weather extremes.
The mountainous landscape features some of the best outdoor recreation in the state. Given the sheer size of Pisgah, we’ve broken this section up by district.
If you find yourself in a particular district, you can easily locate the best things to do for that area.
Pisgah Ranger District
As a reminder, this district is southwest of downtown Asheville and borders Nantahala National Forest.
- Scenic Drives: The Blue Ridge Parkway, America’s favorite scenic byway, runs along the border of Pisgah and Nantahala through Asheville and into the Grandfather District. The Forest Heritage Scenic Byway, another scenic road, connects at Mile Post 411.9 for extra scenic views and stunning locations.
- Mount Pisgah: The namesake mountain of Pisgah National Forest is the perfect place to absorb the beauty of the wilderness. Once owned by George Washington Vanderbilt of the Biltmore Estate, Mt. Pisgah is a popular stop along the Blue Ridge Parkway at MP 408.6. It’s the highest elevation in this district and is surrounded by lots to do, including the Pisgah Inn & Restaurant and 16-mile Shut-In Trail.
- Graveyard Fields: Another excellent Blue Ridge Parkway stop is Graveyard Fields at MP 418.8. From the parking lot, there are two treks to two waterfalls: the one-third-mile hike to the Lower Falls and the 3.3-mile loop to the Upper Falls.
- Cradle of Forestry in America: As mentioned earlier, this was the first school of forestry in the country. This historic site on the former land of the Biltmore educates visitors on Blue Ridge culture and forest management in a fun and engaging way. There are exhibits, guided tours, and short walking paths.
- Black Balsam Knob Trail: This 1.4-mile roundtrip hike is part of the 30-mile Art Loeb Trail network. The hike winds through some gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountain balds, aptly named “balds” because of a lack of tree cover on the mountains. The trailhead is at MP 420 of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
- Devil’s Courthouse: This is a mountain and hiking trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The name comes from the legend Judaculla, an ancient Cherokee spirit being and giant who held “court” in these mountains.
- Looking Glass Falls: This is one of our favorite waterfalls in NC due to its beauty and accessibility. The 60-foot roadside waterfall is located just off the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway. It’s popular to get in the water on warm summer days, so be prepared for crowds.
- Sliding Rock Falls: Sliding Rock will probably be your kids’ favorite thing to do in Pisgah National Forest. It’s a naturally sliding waterfall over a rock bed that you can slide into a refreshing pool. Given its popularity, we recommend going early in the morning. There is a $4 admission fee in the summer as lifeguards are on duty.
- Sunburst Falls: Sunburst Falls is a stunning roadside waterfall along the NC-215 section of the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway. It’s a lovely waterfall to pull over and check out.
- NC Arboretum: You may not have known that this Asheville landmark is also a part of Pisgah National Forest! The 434-acre botanical garden is one of our favorite places to visit in North Carolina and features educational programs, trails, and more.
Appalachian Ranger District
As a reminder, this district runs along the North Carolina-Tennessee border and includes some gorgeous gems.
- French Broad River: This 200+ mile stream flows into the mighty Tennessee River. It’s the third oldest river in the world and has created some stunning formations over the years. The trail along the river passes three waterfalls: French Broad Falls, Mill Shoals, and Cathedral Falls.
- Harmon Den Wildlife Management Area: This recreation area is a haven for hikers, with over 40 miles of hiking trails and 14 for horseback riding.
- Max Patch Mountain: Just 4.5 miles from Harmon Den is Max Patch, a 1,600-foot bald mountain along the famed Appalachian Trail. The Max Patch Trail is a relatively easy 1.5-mile loop that takes visitors to the top of the Bald, where panoramic views await.
- Craggy Gardens: The Great Craggy Mountains are a sub-range of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The name “craggy” comes from the twisted, jagged rock faces dispersed throughout the range, with the highest peak being Craggy Dome at 6,105 ft. Visitors can park at the Visitor Center and embark on one of the several trails to the top.
Grandfather Ranger District
The Grandfather District is the easternmost section of Pisgah National Forest and features some of the most popular attractions in the mountains of North Carolina.
- Blue Ridge Parkway: As mentioned earlier, the Blue Ridge Parkway stretches for miles upon miles in this district.
- Linville Gorge Wilderness: This gigantic gorge is the gem of Pisgah National Forest, located directly in the center of the Grandfather District. The area has many hiking spots and attractions, such as Linville Falls, the Hawksbill Mountain Trail, and Wiseman’s View.
- Catawba Falls: This is easily one of our favorite waterfalls in Pisgah National Forest. The 100-foot cascade is reachable via a 3-mile roundtrip hike and features many beautiful sights.
- Grandfather Mountain: This massive mountain is a North Carolina icon for which this section of the forest is named. It’s surrounded by the Grandfather Mountain State Park, which is full of other things to do as well!
- Mount Mitchell State Park: Mount Mitchell is the tallest mountain in the state at 6,684 feet. The state park and the peak are within Pisgah National Forest and full of great things to do.
Hiking in Pisgah National Forest
Hiking is the top thing to do in Pisgah National Forest. The hikes in Pisgah are unique with miles of trails winding through forests, mountains, and scenery. Some of these hikes will be repeats from the top things to do based on district, while others will be new.
- Appalachian Trail: The AT trail weaves through North Carolina for 95 miles, beginning from the Nantahala Forest into Pisgah’s Appalachian District. Many of the hikes in this area of Pisgah are part of this extended trail.
- Black Balsam Knob Trail: A 1.4-mile roundtrip hike in the Pisgah Ranger District. The trailhead is at MP 420 of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
- Max Patch Trail: The Max Patch Trail is a relatively easy 1.5-mile loop that takes visitors to the top of the Bald.
- Hawksbill Mountain Trail: Located in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, this trail is a moderate 1.1-mile trail leading up to the top of Hawksbill Mountain. You’ll climb up 700 feet but be rewarded with stunning views.
- Table Rock Mountain Trail: Another great Linville Gorge hike, Table Rock is another short yet steep trail that ascends a mountain. It’s about a mile one way with gorgeous views of the rugged landscape.
- Roan Mountain: This mountain is a collection of five summits in the Roan Highlands. Trails of varying lengths and difficulty lead up to each summit, so it is perfect for all levels of hikers.
Waterfalls in Pisgah National Forest
Pisgah National Forest is filled with cascading waterfalls of all sizes. Here are some of our favorites.
- Graveyard Fields (Upper and Lower Falls): This double waterfall is at MP 418.8 of the Blue Ridge Parkway. From the parking lot, there are two treks to two waterfalls: the one-third-mile hike to the Lower Falls and the 3.3-mile loop to the Upper Falls.
- Looking Glass Falls: This popular waterfall is one of the most accessible and beautiful in the forest. It’s a 60-foot roadside waterfall just off the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway.
- Sliding Rock Falls: Sliding Rock is a naturally sliding waterfall you can slide down! Given its popularity, we recommend going early in the morning. There is a $4 admission fee in the summer as lifeguards are on duty.
- Catawba Falls: Catawba is easily one of our favorite waterfalls in Pisgah National Forest. The 100-foot cascade is reachable via a 3-mile roundtrip hike and features many beautiful sights. The waterfall is closed until Spring 2024 as significant trail improvements are made.
- Linville Falls: This is one of the most impressive falls in the state. It’s a massive set of cascades dropping over 90 feet. Park at Blue Ridge Parkway MP 316 and choose from a set of trails leading to the waterfall.
- French Broad Falls, Mill Shoals, and Cathedral Falls: This waterfall trio sits on the French Broad River and is reachable via the same short hike. The first two falls are connected while the third, Cathedral Falls, is just a few minutes away.
- Moore Cove Falls: Moore Cove is another Forest Heritage Scenic Byway stop near Brevard. It’s a 50-foot waterfall with a cave behind it; if you venture behind the falls, do so cautiously.
- Douglas Falls: Douglas Falls Trail is close to Craggy Gardens. It’s a 4-mile hike to the incredible 70-foot waterfall.
- Crabtree Falls: Inside the Black Mountains is the 70-foot Crabtree Falls at Blue Ridge Parkway MP 339.5. We recommend two routes to the falls: a short 0.9-mile hike and the steeper 1.6-mile trail.
Camping in Pisgah National Forest
Pisgah National Forest is the perfect place to connect with the outdoors, especially through camping. A couple of campsites throughout the forest have amenities to make your stay perfect. A full list of campgrounds is on the Forest Service website.
- Black Mountain Campground: The campground is at the base of Mount Mitchell. There are 37 primitive sites and three sites with electric hookups. Campers can partake in nearby hikes, fishing, and scenic driving.
- Curtis Creek Campground: This campsite has tent and RV campsites. It’s located by Curtis Creek, which is great for fishing and hiking.
- Davidson River Recreation Area: In Pisgah River District, Davidson River is one of the most popular campgrounds. It’s surrounded by several waterfalls and close to the Cradle Forestry.
- Harmon Den Horse Camping: Besides trails, Harmon Den has a large horse camp available by reservation area. The campsites can accommodate 8 people and 4 horses.
Pisgah National Forest Towns
The mountain towns of Western North Carolina are the perfect base for exploring Pisgah National Forest. These are within a short drive of Pisgah National Forest adventure.
- Banner Elk
- Blowing Rock
- Hot Springs
- Little Switzerland
- Old Fort
Asheville is the largest city in the NC mountains and as mentioned, is almost surrounded by Pisgah National Forest. We’ve often used it as a base for day trips to nearby hikes and waterfalls, but you don’t have to leave Asheville to explore Pisgah NF.
Banner Elk is the first of a few great places in the High Country that’s in the heart of Pisgah National Forest near the Tennessee border.
At 3,701 feet, downtown Banner Elk is high enough, but the town is a perfect base for driving to Roan Mountain’s Carvers Gap trailhead. Banner Elk is near the beautiful but very dangerous Elk River Falls.
Stick around, and you’ll see why Banner Elk is one of our favorite places for a weekend getaway in Western North Carolina. A great lineup of restaurants and shops await throughout the year, but there’s seasonal fun, too!
The whole family will enjoy visiting Apple Hill Farm and the incredible Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster, too!
Blowing Rock is a stunning mountain town that welcomes thousands of visitors for the summer season, but our favorite time to visit is the fall! This town on the eastern border of Pisgah National Forest features the most incredible fall foliage in the state.
The Blue Ridge Parkway runs through here, with stops like Linn Cove Viaduct and the Rough Ridge Trail not far away.
The Blowing Rock is known as “North Carolina’s Oldest Travel Attraction” and is at the top of most itineraries. Other things to do in Blowing Rock include strolling downtown, the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum, and Tweetsie Railroad.
We can’t mention Banner Elk and Blowing Rock without discussing Boone. It’s further east of Pisgah National Forest, but not by enough to be disqualified from this guide.
Brevard is just outside the southern border of the Pisgah Ranger District and a few minutes from the entrance to the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway. The town is a great base to explore the hundreds of waterfalls near here.
Looking Glass Falls and Sliding Rock Falls are two primary reasons people (including us) use Brevard as a base for visiting Pisgah National Forest. We also love to stroll through Brevard’s cozy downtown, lined with bustling local businesses like O P Taylor’s Toy Store and Highland Books.
When you get hungry after exploring Pisgah, we recommend Rocky’s Grill & Soda Shop for an old-fashioned milkshake and hot dog or The Square Root, an upscale restaurant serving a little of everything.
For dessert, Downtown Chocolates never disappoints as a culinary experience.
Burnsville sits north of Pisgah National Forest and is usually our gateway to Mount Mitchell, the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi. One hike to the top of Mount Mitchell starts from the Black Mountain Campground, with Setrock Creek Falls just a short hike away from the BMC.
Spend time in Burnsville, and you’ll encounter a thriving art community through the Toe River Arts and awesome barn quilt trails! Burnsville is also home to a great restaurant scene, which you can explore downtown and beyond!
Hot Springs is one of the most adorable North Carolina mountain communities, best known for its hot mineral springs. We’ve used this town as a place to relax but also for hiking the Appalachian Trail, which winds through downtown.
From downtown Hot Springs, you can hike up to Lover’s Leap, a 2-mile loop with a gain of 500 feet in elevation. Max Patch Trail is about 45 minutes away from Hot Springs, and an excellent hike for the family to enjoy!
Nestled between the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Grandfather District of Pisgah is Little Switzerland. While the town may be unincorporated, it still packs a might punch for visitors.
Stay at the Switzerland Inn and enjoy the inn’s two in-house restaurants, expansive mountain views, and a relaxing spa. Sights to see in town include the Switzerland Cafe & General Store, which boasts one of the state’s largest wood-fired smokehouses, and Books and Beans, one of the best bookstores in NC.
If you’re an adventurous driver, you’ll enjoy the Diamondback. It’s a 38-mile loop provides a thrilling challenge for motorcyclists and mountain drivers, with some steep switchbacks looping almost 360 degrees.
Marion is situated at the base of Mount Mitchell and is known as the place where “The Mountains meet Main Street.” Big names like Linville Falls are nearby but the lovely Tom’s Creek Falls is about 10 minutes from downtown Marion.
Spend some time in Marion, hike around Mount Ida, and grab some food at one of the town’s awesome restaurants.
Morganton is also south of Pisgah National Forest and not far from Marion on I-40. It’s largely known as the gateway to the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, and on clear days, you can even see Table Rock Mountain from downtown.
It takes about an hour (sometimes longer) to reach Table Rock and its Gorge neighbors, Hawksbill Mountain and Linville Falls, the nearby Wiseman’s View. The Pisgah Loop Scenic Byway will take you to these amazing spots and also Upper Creek Falls along the way.
After you drive, hike, and explore, many great restaurants and breweries await back in downtown Morganton. Check out the Catawba River Greenway in Morganton if you bring your bike.
Include stops in Valdese (more on it later), Connelly Springs, and other great smaller towns. JD’s Smokehouse in Connelly Springs is one of our favorite barbecue restaurants in NC!
The historic town of Old Fort is also located in the Grandfather District, just west of Marion. The town played a pivotal role in history, as it was the site of Davidson’s Fort which was the westernmost point for the thirteen colonies before the Revolutionary War.
All of this history and more is detailed in the Mountain Gateway Museum.
Old Fort is a hub for outdoor enthusiasts, as it hosts two endurance races a year, one for biking and one for hiking in the mountains of Pisgah National Forest.
Andrews Geyser is another outdoor attraction that brings in many visitors, shooting up to 80 feet in the air.
Finally, we have Waynesville, the largest town in Haywood County, and an incredible neighbor to Pisgah National Forest. It’s home to adorable shops, amazing restaurants, and surrounded by beautiful outdoor scenery.
The town sits north of the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway’s intersection of NC-215 and US-276.
Ready to Explore Pisgah National Forest?
From the first time we set foot in Pisgah National Forest many years ago to today, it still feels like a new place to explore. We’ll continue discovering new things within this vast and special place and share what we find.
While we’re doing that, we’d love to hear from you. What’s the first place you think of when Pisgah National Forest comes to mind?
What’s the first place you want to visit if you’ve never visited? Let us know in the comments or by email.
Don’t forget to share your Pisgah National Forest adventures in our North Carolina Travel Facebook Group.
More Things to Do in Pisgah National Forest
We’ve covered these things to do in Pisgah National Forest in many of our NC travel guides. Here are a few of them.