Among the very oldest of the national forests in the eastern U.S., the Pisgah is downright legendary for its recreational opportunities and scenery. The fact that its Southern Appalachian mountainscapes are so readily reached from Asheville—among the East’s foremost outdoorsy hubs—has only enhanced its reputation.
The Pisgah covers more than 500,000 acres of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina. This is some of the highest and most rugged terrains in eastern North America, with numerous peaks and ridgetops exceeding 6,000 feet. Blue Ridge subranges with some of their acreage on the Pisgah include the Black Mountains, Great Balsams, Roan Highlands, and Great Craggies.
The Pisgah is managed alongside the Nantahala and Croatan national forests as one unit: the “National Forests of North Carolina.” This collective forestland is managed out of the Forest Supervisor’s Office in Asheville. The Pisgah proper is broken into three ranger districts. The Appalachian R.D. is based in Mars Hill, the Grandfather R.D. in Nebo, and the Pisgah R.D. in Pisgah Forest, also home to the Pisgah Visitor Center.
The first school of forestry in the U.S., the Biltmore Forest School, was based on the Pisgah. You can visit this site and enjoy interpretive exhibits and guided activities at the 6,500-acre Cradle of Forestry in America attraction.
Three federal wilderness areas—two of them among the first designated in the U.S.—fall within the Pisgah National Forest. With motorized vehicles and equipment banned, these protected areas provide a taste for the Southern Appalachians at their most deliciously primitive.
In the Great Balsam Mountains, the 18-477-acre Shining Rock Wilderness ranks as the biggest wilderness area in North Carolina. It tops out on 6,030-foot Cold Mountain, among the legendary Southern Appalachian peaks. Bordering the Shining Rock is the 7,482-acre Middle Prong, crossed by the Mountains-to-Sea and Green Mountain trails.
Then there’s the 11,653-acre Linville Gorge Wilderness, which encompasses the namesake chasm often called the “Grand Canyon of the Southeast.” Heading at magnificent Linville Falls, the Linville Gorge reaches close to 3,000 feet at its deepest and sees the Linville River drop some 2,000 feet en route to the Catawba Valley below. The views of the gorge from scenic promontories such as Table Rock and Hawksbill Mountain are unforgettable. The Linville Gorge also preserves significant swaths of old-growth forest.
While backpackers and backcountry hunters and anglers enjoy the remote challenges of the Pisgah’s wildernesses, there are plenty of more accessible and developed recreational sites on the Forest. These include designated campgrounds such as Harmon Den, Black Mountain, Lake Powhatan, and Carolina Hemlocks. Sightseers savor the vistas along the 79-mile-long Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway.
Some of the greatest hikes in Asheville’s general vicinity lie on the Pisgah, from Fryingpan Mountain Lookout to Looking Glass Rock and Max Patch (a highlight of the Appalachian Trail). Mountain-biking opportunities are equally rich. There’s world-class trout fishing on offer, plus whitewater rafting and tubing on the French Broad and other rivers. Rock climbers seek out spots such as Slate Rock, Little Lost Cove Cliffs, and the Curtis Creek bouldering area.
The Pisgah embodies the multiple-use appeal and rich history of America’s national forests. Whether you’re seeking a leisurely scenic drive or streamside picnic or thirst for backcountry adventure, this venerable—and beautiful—piece of public land delivers!
-Always check in with Pisgah National Forest ranger districts and/or the website before visiting. From weather conditions to fire danger to visitor overuse, certain areas may be closed or restricted.
-It’s also important to know in advance whether a particular recreational site or activity requires a pass, permit, or fee.