[Updated January 5, 2023]
For far too long, Hendersonville NC seemed like the Jan Brady to Asheville‘s Marcia, never quite garnering all the accolades and attention it deserved.
But in recent years, Asheville’s immense popularity has proven to be a double-edged sword.
Thanks to national media attention, Asheville’s population has grown by nearly 12% since the 2010 census. Many of its “hidden gem“ hotspots are becoming overcrowded, creating elements of tension among some locals.
Hendersonville, on the other hand, remains a relatively small Blue Ridge mountain town, with a population of just 14,351 people in 2020 (to Asheville’s 93,000+).
And while Downtown Asheville seems to be teetering on the verge of oversaturation, the city located just 23 miles south is beginning to blossom in beautiful ways.
Hendersonville boasts many of the same attractions– an eclectic downtown area, excellent restaurants, gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountain scenery, and ample outdoor activities– but on a much smaller scale. And the rural regions outside the city offer just as many activities as its charming downtown area.
Best Things to Do in Hendersonville NC Guide
- Explore Downtown Hendersonville
- Visit the Henderson County Heritage Museum
- Dine at Hendersonville Restaurants
- Play at the Appalachian Pinball Museum
- Meet Cool Animals at the Team ECCO Aquarium & Shark Lab
- Hike to Waterfalls in DuPont State Forest
- Enjoy a Tasting Flight at Bold Rock Mills River Cidery
- Explore the Historic Johnson Farm
- Apple Picking at Grandad’s Apples
- Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site
- Family Fun at Justus Orchard
- Sample Hendersonville Wineries on the Cheers Trail
- Drive the Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway
- Tour the Sierra Nevada Brewery
- Slide Down Sliding Rock Falls
- Visit the Cradle of Forestry in America
- Marvel at Looking Glass Falls
- Take a Day Trip to Asheville
- Go on a Hayride at Stepp’s Hillcrest Orchard
- Watch the Sunset at Jump Off Rock
1. Explore Downtown Hendersonville
Begin your journey at the Hendersonville Visitor Center, located at 201 S Main St. There you can pick up a map of Downtown Hendersonville, which centers on a 7-block stretch running from W Allen St north to 7th Ave.
Some of the buildings in this downtown area date back to the 1800s, with the Henderson County Courthouse completed in 1905 and completely renovated in 2008. Historic Downtown Hendersonville was entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
Shaded benches and sunny restaurant patios offer options for those who want to soak in the scenery for a while, or you can peruse the area’s many antique stores, clothing boutiques, museums, and galleries.
But to really get a feel for the towns vibe, we recommend starting at the museum located inside the Historic Henderson County Courthouse, just two blocks down from the Visitor Center.
READ MORE: The Best Places to Celebrate Christmas in NC
2. Visit the Henderson County Heritage Museum
Located inside the old Courthouse, the Henderson County Heritage Museum is impressively comprehensive for a small town historical museum. It was expanded considerably with new exhibits back in 2021.
The tour starts with the “The Coming of the Railroad” exhibit, which pays tribute to the nation’s steepest standard-gauge mainline railroad, which launched the area’s Golden Age.
There’s also a small exhibit on the area’s Cherokee Indian population, a larger one on America’s military history, and a “Life Along the Ridge” exhibit on the history of the area’s mountain communities.
These and other exhibits take up the entire first floor of the historic building.
The third floor (which requires visitors to be accompanied by a museum docent) is home to an exhibit on Quilting and “the Courthouse Room,” a scale model of the original 1905 Courthouse.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Things to Do in Winston Salem NC
3. Dine at Hendersonville Restaurants
Much like Blue Ridge GA and Clayton GA, Hendersonville is blessed with more than its fair share of good restaurants, with a level of culinary diversity you might not expect from a small mountain town.
On Main St, Never Blue offers exquisite culinary fusions with Asian, Caribbean, Italian, and Middle Eastern influences. Shine serves upscale American fare in a swanky setting, with craft cocktails, an extensive beer and wine menu, and one of the best brunches in town.
Down the road you’ll find Dandelion, run by the Safelight charity, which offers victims of violence on-the-job training in a casual café setting. There’s also Umi Sushi & Japanese, which is the most highly rated of all the places to eat in Hendersonville.
Other local restaurants we loved included Pi-Squared, which offers delicious Detroit-style pan pizza; HenDough Chicken & Donuts, whose Donut Breakfast Sandwich was one of the most decadent things we’ve ever eaten; and the exceptional BBQ of Hubba Hubba Smokehouse in nearby Flat Rock NC.
4. Play at the Appalachian Pinball Museum
As an avid ’80s/’90s video game junkie, this excellent Hendersonville attraction (from the same guys behind the Asheville Pinball Museum) had me from the second we walked in the door.
The Appalachian Pinball Museum features an extensive collection of 50+ vintage pinball machines and video games you can play for one set price ($12 play all day).
Some of the machines here date back to the ’60s and ’70s, but the majority comes from the Golden Age of gaming I grew up in.
So you’ll find Star Wars, KISS, Twilight Zone, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Elvira pinball machines as well as classic video games such as Pac-Man, Galaga, Dig Dug, etc.
You can play as many games as you want for as long as you want. They also offer adult beverages such as beer (including some from local breweries), hard seltzer, a BlackJack Cola Cocktail, and more!
READ MORE: The Best Christmas Lights in North Carolina
5. Meet Cool Animals at Team ECCO Aquarium & Shark Lab
The attraction is the passion project of former teacher Brenda J. Ramer, who started the marine science non-profit in her kitchen in 2001. It began with a simple idea: “Experience is the best teacher, and a positive learning experience can change a life.”
Today, the first inland aquarium in the state of North Carolina is home to nearly 300 fish, invertebrates, reptiles, and salamanders. Many of their residents were former pet rescues, including an African Spurred Tortoise, Leopard Gecko, Barracuda, and weird animals such as the Guitar Fish and Axolotl.
Ramer, who has a Masters in Education, uses nearly 25 exhibits (including a 2,000-gallon shark study tank) to teach school groups about marine life and the importance of conservation.
She also works with high school and college interns, teaching them vital skills in marine science, animal husbandry, and ecosystem management.
It’s an inspiring place, to be sure. But watching an intern feeding engaging Geckos, or one of Ramer’s dogs trying to entice one of the largest Tortoises in the world to play, is also a whole lot of fun!
6. Hike to Waterfalls in DuPont State Forest
Located 14 miles from downtown Hendersonville, the 12,000-acre wilderness of DuPont State Recreational Forest offers a chance to explore the exceptional natural beauty of the North Carolina mountains.
One of our favorite NC State Parks, the forest’s 80+ miles of multi-use trails are used by hikers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers alike. They encompass several lakes, picnic shelters, and stunning scenic views that have been featured in films such as The Last of the Mohicans and The Hunger Games.
Hooker Falls is an easy 1/4-mile hike from the parking lot. The 3-level cascades of Triple Falls are a moderate 1/2-mile hike, and majestic High Falls is just .6 mile beyond that. Bridal Veil Falls is just over 2 miles, while Wintergreen Falls and Grassy Creek Falls are two smaller falls nearby.
We did the 2.7-mile Hooker/Triple/High Falls hike during a morning day trip. But you could easily spend a couple of days exploring DuPont State Forest if you have the time!
7. Enjoy a Tasting Flight at Bold Rock Mills River Cidery
Located 8 miles from Hendersonville, the town of Mills River is located in Henderson County, but also part of the Asheville Metropolitan Statistical Area.
So both of these cities like to claim Mills River’s acclaimed assemblage of breweries and cideries as their own.
Bold Rock Hard Cider is the #2 Cider distributor in the USA, and visiting their Cidery is second only to the Sierra Nevada Brewery among the most popular things to do in Mills River NC.
It’s easy to see why: The expansive, family-friendly attraction offers just about every flavor of hard cider imaginable, a solid restaurant, indoor and outdoor seating, and special events such as weekly Trivia Nights.
They also offer two different tasting flights to choose from, the Flagship Flight and the Premium Flight. Each offers a well-balanced sampling of four different ciders from Bold Rock’s line.
Ours ran the gamut from dry varietals that evoked the flavors of champagne or IPA beer, to the smoothly sweet Carolina Draft, to the crisply tart Carolina Apple, to seasonal flavors such as Blackberry and Watermelon.
READ MORE: Exploring the 12 Best Asheville NC Breweries
8. Explore the Historic Johnson Farm
Anyone interested in the 19th and early 20th century history of the Blue Ridge Mountains will enjoy a visit to the Historic Johnson Farm, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
Now managed by the Henderson County Education Foundation, the farm dates back to 1874, when wealthy tobacco farmer Oliver Moss hired Riley Barnett to build the first brick home in the county. Using clay from the French Broad River, the bricks were fired on site, then coated to cover flaws and penciled with white lines.
After the tobacco market collapsed, Moss sold the house and 310 acres to Robert Leverett, whose daughter Sallie Johnson (a widow with two young sons) inherited the farm and turned it into a tourist retreat in 1913.
Today visitors can tour the former boardinghouse, as well as explore the many outbuildings built by Johnson’s sons, Vernon and Leander. The brothers stayed on the property after their mother’s death in 1958, and ultimately bequeathed it to the Henderson County Board of Education to create a heritage center for kids.
You can do a self-guided audio tour of the property. But the guided tour offered at 10:30 AM Mon-Fri offers excellent insight on the antiques inside the home, many of which were hand-crafted by Vernon Johnson himself!
9. Apple Picking at Grandad’s Apples
Their season typically lasts from early summer to the end of November, with apple picking available on select weekends. They have an extensive variety to choose from, including some we haven’t seen anywhere else!
In addition to apples, they also sell peaches, pumpkins, apple cider, as well as locally made jams, honey, soap, candles, and home decor.
Other activities on the 120-acre property include an apple cannon, corn maze, playground, and tasting delicious sweet treats from the bakery.
10. Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site
Widely considered “the Voice of America,” Carl Sandburg was an iconic poet, author and folk musician. He won 3 Pulitzer Prizes, including two for poetry and one for a biography of Abraham Lincoln.
He was also the first white person ever to be honored with the Silver Plaque Award by the NAACP, which called him a “major prophet of Civil Rights in our time” for his work as a journalist writing about race riots.
Located near the tiny village of Flat Rock NC, the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site preserves Connemara, the 270-acre estate where he lived and worked for the last 22 years of his life.
Free guided tours (which must be reserved online in advance) last 30 to 40 minutes, taking guests through 11 rooms in the house’s top two floors. The interior is exactly as it was when he died in 1967, with period antiques.
11. Family Fun at Justus Orchard
One of the oldest apple orchards in Hendersonville, Justus Orchard was founded by current owner Don Justus’ great grandfather. They’ve been offering apple picking for locals and visitors alike for 55+ years!
The 5th generation family-owned farm encompasses 75 pastoral acres, with more than 25 different varieties of apples grown on the property.
Open 9AM to 5PM every day from July to November, the orchard is full of family-friendly activities. There are apple cannons, an animal barn (with donkeys, goats, pigs, and peacocks), cow train rides, and a huge playground.
They also have a BBQ restaurant and bakery on site, offering apple cider, apple cider donuts, and the most delicious fried apple pies we’ve had.
Check out their website for special events, including various festivals and live music by local artists.
12. Sample Hendersonville Wineries on the Cheers Trail
Home to the 77-year-old North Carolina Apple Festival every Labor Day weekend, Hendersonville has long been known for its fertile apple orchards.
But over the last decade, Henderson County has also become home to an excellent array of wineries, breweries, and cideries. So they created the 25-stop Cheers Trail as a way for visitors to explore them all, four of which we visited during our time in Hendersonville.
We started at Burntshirt Vineyards, which was North Carolina Winery of the Year 5 out of the last 6 years. The award-winning Reserve Grüner Veltliner is their best-selling varietal. But we loved the Reserve and Harvest Moon Chardonnays, the cherry and plum notes of the Bat Cave Blend, and the potent Finale dessert wine.
Point Lookout Vineyards offers stunning mountain views that stretch 50 miles on clear days. They also boast award-winning wines and meads: Our faves included the sweet apple notes of Sugarloaf 2019, the coffee and berry flavors of Javine 2018, and the Calm (Chamomile Lavender) and Beguile (Raspberry) meads.
Stone Ashe Vineyards is a new winery that opened in summer 2020. We sampled two wines grown on their gorgeous property– a 2019 Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The former was dry, with apple and pear notes, but none of the oaky flavor you expect. The latter was crisp and tart, with hints of citrus and melon.
READ MORE: The 15 Best NC Wineries to Visit
13. Drive the Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway
This 79-mile scenic route follows 3 highways– 276, 215 and 64.
But the 15-mile section from Brevard to the Blue Ridge Parkway is arguably among the most beautiful stretches of road we’ve ever traveled, following the Davidson River into the heart of the forest.
The area is home to some of the best Pisgah National Forest hiking trails, including the Art Loeb Trail, Looking Glass Rock Trail, John Rock Trail, and Pink Beds Trail (which has lots of wildflowers in spring and summer).
There are also countless incredible waterfalls along the way, with hikes to Twin Falls, Daniel Ridge Falls, Cove Creek Falls, Moore Cove Falls, Log Hollow Falls, and more, all on one glorious 9-mile stretch.
14. Tour the Sierra Nevada Brewery
One of the largest breweries in western North Carolina, the Sierra Nevada Brewery is located in Mills River NC, which is almost equidistant from Asheville and Hendersonville.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that both of these mountain towns try to claim this key player in the rise of craft beer as their own.
Opened in 2015, the Platinum LEED-certified brewery has an amazing taproom/restaurant, outdoor concert area, garden, nature trail, and more.
They offer a variety of brewery tours by reservation only. These range from a free 45-minute tour that gives guests a look at the facility’s beer-making process to a 3-hour “Beer Geek Tour.” There are also several tasting tours, which range from $12 to $30 and up.
Their Taproom restaurant is a great place to sample a wide array of year-round, seasonal, and specialty brews.
It also offers food, including items made with beer (Pale Ale jack cheese, Porter mustard vinaigrette) and made to pair well with beer (Danish Smørrebrød, Duck Fat Fries, etc).
15. Slide Down Sliding Rock Falls
Not only because of it stunning natural beauty, but also because it’s an age-old tradition for local families to hurl themselves down the 60-foot-long natural rock water slide before splashing into the deep pool below.
Longtime locals still grumble about the fact that Adventure Pisgah charges a nominal $4 usage fee for the days when their services are provided.
But the Sliding Rock is open to visitors 365 days a year, for those willing to risk injury, or just extremely cold mountain water!
16. Visit the Cradle of Forestry in America
Originally known as Biltmore Forest School, the Cradle of Forestry was founded in 1898 by Carl A. Schenck, who was hired by George W. Vanderbilt to manage 100,000+ acres of forests around the Biltmore Estate.
Established to teach responsible forest management to local men in the timber industry, the original school only operated for 15 years.
Now it has become a popular historical attraction in Pisgah National Forest, with a heritage museum that features numerous original buildings, railway cars, self-guided hiking trails, and special events.
It’s a great place to learn all about the history and future of forest conservation and environmental stewardship, as well as to simply enjoy the natural beauty of the area known as “the Pink Beds” for its copious wildflowers in late spring and early summer.
If you visit during the week, don’t be surprised if there are numerous school groups touring the attraction, with costumed “living history” actors leading the way.
17. Marvel at Looking Glass Falls
Though the area suffered some damage from severe storms in August 2021, Looking Glass Falls remains one of the most popular waterfalls in Western North Carolina.
This is partly due to its sheer beauty and partly due to its accessibility: The waterfall is visible from the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway, and just a few miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Looking Glass Falls has everything you expect from big waterfalls like Crabtree Falls, including height, water volume, and massive rock faces. The difference is that this roadside waterfall doesn’t require any hiking at all!
That’s the upside. The downside is that the waterfall can get extremely crowded on weekends and during peak leaf-peeping season. So if you want to visit during that time, our advice is to go early.
Regardless, the 60-foot waterfall is truly impressive as it plunges into the creek, and makes a great stop before or after a visit to the Cradle of Forestry or DuPont State Forest.
18. Take a Day Trip to Asheville
With its historic art deco buildings, hip indie sensibilities, and thriving food and live music scenes, Asheville is a progressive hotbed in a traditionally Red state.
But what makes burgeoning metropolis truly extraordinary is the fact that it’s surrounded by unspoiled natural beauty, which becomes even more spectacular as the fall colors begin to reach their peak.
Located just 21 miles north of Hendersonville, the city makes for a great day trip, whether you want to explore the myriad hiking trails near Asheville or wander the chic downtown area.
If you do visit, make sure to check out some of the excellent downtown Asheville restaurants, including favorites such as the award-winning Curaté (tapas), Posana (farm-to-table), Bouchon (French provincial), Plant (vegan/vegetarian), and the 12 Bones Smokehouse (BBQ).
We also recommend a visit to the River Arts District, which features an incredible array of galleries, shops, and restaurants in 23 former industrial buildings along a one-mile stretch of the French Broad River.
READ MORE: The 25 Best Things to Do in Asheville NC
19. Hayrides & Apple Cannons at Stepp’s Hillcrest Orchard
The late J.H. Stepp was a trailblazer in the NC apple industry, and his orchard (which began offering u-pick apples back in the 1960s) is one of the oldest in Hendersonville.
Today, the 105-acre family farm is run by his son, Mike Stepp, with help from Mike’s wife Rita, their daughter Danielle, and her husband. Even MIke’s grandkids are learning the ropes, making this a 3-generation farm.
It’s surrounded by the stunning Appalachian Mountains, and features more than two dozen types of apples, a pumpkin patch, and pick-your-own grapes, sunflowers, tulips, and zinnias.
Weekends are a great time for families to visit Stepp’s Hillcrest Orchard. Guests can take a wagon-pulled hayride through the 40-acre orchard, try to navigate a 5-acre corn maze, or take a shot at target practice with their apple cannons.
The orchard also has a covered picnic area, a bakery offering delicious apple cider and pumpkin donuts, and various jams, jellies, and souvenirs.
20. Watch the Sunset at Jump Off Rock
Those charming towns are surrounded by mountains in the 5,000 to 6,000-foot range. But Hendersonville sits at an elevation of 2,152 feet, and the nearest 5,000-footer– Little Pisgah Mountain– is a 50-minute drive away.
But if stunning scenic overlooks is what you’re after, Jump Off Rock is less than 5 miles from Hendersonville. You can drive right to it, and it offers exceptional views of the Pisgah and Blue Ridge Mountain ranges.
The park is free to visit, open daily from sunrise to sunset, and features 3 hiking trails. The easy Blue Trail takes about 8 minutes, the moderate Yellow Trail takes 15 minutes, while the Red Trail is longer and more challenging.
Our advice is to get there at least 15 minutes before sunset, as this is a very popular spot. And make sure you hang around for the spectacular afterglow, when the colors are at their richest!
Best Hendersonville NC Hotels & Cabin Rentals
Built in 1938 by Samuel J. Childs, the historic Brightwaters Guesthouse was originally an 8 BR, 6 BA guesthouse in the Brightwaters Estates resort.
The resort also featured 25 log cabin-style cottages (many of which you can still see as homes today) spanning some 400 acres, and became popular with visitors from Florida seeking cooler climates in summer.
Today the house has been divided into two levels: We stayed in the 2 BR, 2 BA Verandah, which encompassed the entire top level of this beautifully restored stone building.
If offered tons of lavishly designed interior space, a full kitchen, and all of the modern amenities you’d expect (including Wifi, cable TVs, and 5 different climate controls for various parts of the flat).
But our favorite feature was the verandah itself. Its screened windows offered cooling afternoon cross-breezes, and the cozy rockers and couches made for a comfortable place for working and relaxing.
The Henderson Inn, Restaurant & Bar
Ranking among the highest-rated hotels in town, the Henderson Inn, Restaurant & Bar is located in the heart of downtown Hendersonville, just one block from Main St on 3rd Ave.
Built as a hotel in 1919-1921, the property was certified as a National Historic building in 1989, then renovated extensively in 2006.
Current owners Michael & Jeanne kept the building’s historic charm intact, but also added their own quirky sensibilities by adding lots of early- and mid-20th century Hollywood memorabilia.
But the real attraction here is Harvey’s Restaurant, in which Michael– an award-winning Executive Chef whose resume includes the Ritz Carlton, Michelin Star restaurants, and the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines– crafts a delightful array of dishes at breakfast and dinner.
Even if you don’t stay there, it’s worth visiting just to have dinner at one the best restaurants in Downtown Hendersonville! –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted