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 restaurant scene, 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
- Sample Hendersonville Wineries on the Cheers Trail
- Drive the Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway
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.
Today, much of the 19th and early 20th century architecture is adorned with vivid colors, which pair perfectly with the many flowers and trees that line Main St.
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 town, we recommend starting at the museum located inside the Historic Henderson County Courthouse, just two blocks down from the Visitor Center.
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. And it’s currently being expanded with new exhibits for 2021!
It starts with the “The Coming of the Railroad” exhibit, which pays tribute to the nation’s steepest standard-gauge mainline railroad that launched the area’s Golden Age.
There’s also a small exhibit on the area’s Cherokee Indian population, a much larger one on America’s military history, a tribute to Henderson County’s Summer Camp tradition, 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.
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, the most highly rated of all the Downtown Hendersonville restaurants.
Other local eateries 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.
READ MORE: The 13 Best Restaurants in Blue Ridge GA
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 numerous local brews), hard seltzer, a BlackJack Cola Cocktail, and more!
Meet Cool Animals at Team ECCO Aquarium & Shark Lab
You don’t expect to see an aquarium in the heart of a mountain town. But we found visiting the Team ECCO Aquarium & Shark Lab to be one of the most fun things to do in Downtown Hendersonville.
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 North Carolina aquarium 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!
Hike to Waterfalls in DuPont State Forest
Located just 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.
But the most popular attractions in DuPont Forest are the bevy of beautiful waterfalls there, which include some of the best Western North Carolina waterfalls for hiking.
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!
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.
It’s easy to see why: The expansive, family-friendly attraction offers just about every flavor of hard cider imaginable, an array of food options, socially distanced indoor and outdoor seating, and special events such as weekly Trivia Nights and monthly Classic Video Game 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.
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 historical insight on the countless antiques inside the home, many of which were expertly hand-crafted by Vernon Johnson himself!
Sample Hendersonville Wineries on the Cheers Trail
Home to the 60-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 23-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, opening in summer 2020. So we only 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: Exploring the 12 Best Asheville NC Breweries
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, Looking Glass Falls, Moore Cove Falls, Log Hollow Falls, and the famous Sliding Rock all on one glorious 9-mile stretch.
If you do make the drive, be sure to stop at the Cradle of Forestry in America, the birthplace of science-based forest management and former home to the Biltmore Forest School, which was founded in 1898.
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; photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett