NORTH CAROLINA: The Back Way into the North Carolina Arboretum

If you like to be cheap you can walk into the North Carolina Arboretum from Lake Powatan for FREE. Yes, I did say FREE. It’s only about 4 miles round trip, so strap on some hiking boots and go check out Asheville’s world class arboretum without spending a dime – just a few calories. 

Is it goat approved? Not in the arboretum portion as they don’t take kindly to critters nibbling their plants. 

How you get there: Park just before Hard Times Trail head at 35.488179, -82.623145. This is a paved pull off, the connector trail goes off down the power lines. 

Time for hike: The distance for this hike is about 4 mi out and back total if you go to the main building at the arboretum and out to Lake Powatan then back to the car. The entire route is pretty much flat, and much of it runs in the bottom land next to the stream/lake. 

Best season to do this hike: Year around. While a decade ago this back way in was pretty much unknown, today it is very popular not just with mountain bikers (who have always frequented the area around Lake Powatan) but also hikers and the casual 3 year old cruising down the dirt trail on tricycles and pink sneakers. You will have company no matter when you go, so just wait for stuff to be in bloom or covered in Christmas lights at the arboretum.

Trails to Take

Starting off at the parking area, following the powerlines into the woods. Ignore Hard Times Connector Trail – just follow your little unofficial trail till it dead ends into a large, flat trail running along the creek. Go left to go the arboretum, or right to go to Lake Powatan. The route is flat, following the creek until you get to the big metal gate that separates Lake Powatan from the North Carolina Arboretum property. The gate closes promptly at 5pm so make it back out before then because the fence is tall and would be annoying to climb. 

The gate into the arboretum

The route continues until you come up on a sign and a trail running gently up hill towards the greenhouses. You want to go this way, either on the Carolina Mountain’s trail, or up the gravel road, (they both go the same place). You will pass a small childrens garden and the greenhouses are up on the hill. The greenhouses are no longer open – they are used for production. However, you can see inside the greenhouse through the big glass windows – they have some interesting plants usually on display. During the winter in the shade houses out behind the greenhouse you will find the majority of the arboretum’s bonsai collection. The rest of the year they are on display in the bonsai garden, but here, in the back stage area of the arboretum, they have a beauty all their own. 

From the green house take the trail that leads out of the greenhouse’s main parking area (think this is more of Carolina Mountains Trail). It will wind out through the woods on a picturesque, main trail and take you up to the main original building of the arboretum and the main gardens. Explore, enjoy, remember to stop by the gift shop and spend your money on something more meaningful than admission, then head back the way you came, satisfied in the knowledge you had a fun day out on the cheap. 

Chill’in at the arboretum Christmas event

Once you return to where you started, instead of going back up the powerlines, go straight ahead, in a few minutes you will pass a stone lined chute, the dam, and finally the picturesque and wintry lake Powatan under the steel grey sky. 

Lake Powatan
Chute down from the dam
Lake Powatan Dam

Then go home. Cause that’s about it on the interesting stuff for this hike. 


Generally, its a straight line from Lake Powatan along the creek to the arboretum


  1. Not a lot of parking.
  2. Tends to be popular.
  3. The gate out of the arboretum closes at EXACTLY 5pm. Don’t be caught on the wrong side – climbing the fence would be pretty hard. 

In sum: 

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