If you can spare about two hours of your time on a lovely day in Asheville, you ought to strongly consider deepening your knowledge of the city, enjoying some public artwork, and getting some laidback exercise in the heart of town all in one fell swoop by taking the Asheville Urban Trail. It may not be a whopper of a wilderness trek, but this cosmopolitan foray delivers its own unique rewards.
This 1.7-mile-long loop comprises 30 informative art stations with plaques or sculptures evoking elements of Asheville heritage. The route, which begins and ends in Pack Square, transports you through five distinct cultural periods of Asheville history (marked by sidewalk symbols along the way) while doubling as a walking tour of downtown.
Of course you can dip into the Asheville Urban Trail at any point and follow it any which way you please, but we’ll summarize it in the counterclockwise order it’s presented.
You’ll start at the invitational “Walk Into History” plaque at Pack Square (Station #1) and explore the stations of the Gilded Age section. These include homages to luminaries with local connections: O. Henry, the famed Greensboro-born short-story author who lived in Asheville for a few months late in his life, and Elizabeth Blackwell, a resident who became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the country.
You’ll also stop to admire some truly iconic landmarks, among them the Art Deco S&W Building (Station #7), designed by Asheville architect Douglas Ellington, and the continent’s largest freestanding elliptical dome, 58 feet by 82 feet, that crowns the Baroque Revival Basilica of St. Lawrence (Station #12, “Gustavio’s Monument”).
Then it’s east on Walnut Street to a couple of stops in the Frontier Period (Stations #15 and 16) before you learn about one of Asheville’s most famous native sons in the Times of Thomas Wolfe quadrant. Station #18, “Wolfe’s Neighborhood,” uses a diorama to reveal the city skyline of yesteryear, while a plaque marks the site of the writer’s birthplace. At the next waypoint, you’ll find a sculpture of Wolfe’s shoes where his mother’s boardinghouse, Old Kentucky Home (which Wolfe referred to as “Dixieland” in his novels), still stands.
Wending your way south and then west to complete the loop, you’ll pass through the final two sections of the Asheville Urban Trail. The Era of Civic Pride stretch includes the site of a time capsule buried in 1997 and set to be unveiled in 2047 (Station #24), while in the Age of Diversity segment you can reflect on Asheville’s vital African-American heritage at “The Block” (Station #29), a bronze relief by Winston Wingo.
Now you’re back where you started in Pack Square, and with that much more insight into the backstory and artistic spirit of North Carolina’s one-of-a-kind mountain metropolis, Asheville!
-The course of the Asheville Urban Trail works its way through some very vibrant districts of downtown Asheville. While you can certainly just motor through the 30 stations of the trail in a couple hours, it’s that much more fun to grab lunch or perhaps a happy-hour beverage to fuel up en route…
-Doing just a little bit of homework before walking the Asheville Urban Trail can enrich your experience of it. Reading a snapshot summary of Asheville history can help put the story the different stations tell in context, but by no means is it necessary!