A Day on the Asheville Urban Trail
By Mark File
Walking through History on Asheville’s Urban Trail
Asheville loves to do things differently. So it’s fitting the city’s history museum is outdoors along the sidewalks of downtown. Take a self-guided “scavenger hunt” to learn about tidbits of Asheville’s fascinating past. With the help of a map, walk 1.7 miles to 30 stations, each with a piece of art and a bronze plaque that commemorates the city’s most significant cultural, educational, social and architecture stories. While the trail could be walked in an hour, you’ll probably end up spending much of the day since there are so many tempting distractions along the way.
The Urban Trail is divided into five distinct eras, each of which has a symbol carved into pink granite blocks placed in the sidewalk along the way. Download this handy map and guide to take with you. The “museum without walls” begins and ends at Pack Square Park, and you can walk as much or as little as you like.
Here’s a sampling of what you’ll see:
The first 14 stops span The Gilded Age (1880-1930), the pre-depression boom time when the arrival of the railroad brought many travelers. If you have visited downtown Asheville before, you’ll probably recognize the second stop with the bronze pigs and turkeys walking on a path in front of the Vance Monument. This represents the 1827 Buncombe Turnpike, a busy route for stagecoaches and cover wagons filled with animals going to market.
Next, walk down Patton Avenue to the bronze top hat on a bench (#3) and the O. Henry plaque, complete with the comb and watch (#4) from his famous short story “The Gift of the Magi.” Then read about Elizabeth Blackwell MD (#6), who founded the first four-year medical college for women in the 1850s. Along this section, check out the beautiful art-deco Kress and Woolworth Buildings, former department stores now filled with works of many local artists.
Another familiar sculpture on the Urban Trail is the giant iron (#8) in front of the 1926 Flat Iron Building. Often, musicians and other entertainers are delighting crowds there. Walk down charming Wall Street to see the cast metal cats (#9) that represent the cat walks that were used to transport goods to buildings on this steep hillside.
Next, climb the steps to read about Grove’s vision for an unrealized skyscraper atop Grove Arcade (#10). Be sure to go inside the historic mall to browse the galleries and local shops. Outside, visit with artist at the portico street market. And it’s a great place to grab an al fresco lunch at one of the many restaurants.
As you leave Grove Arcade, find the giant guest book for the Battery Park Hotel with signatures of famous visitors like Eleanor Roosevelt (#11). Walk by the Basilica of St. Lawrence with North America’s largest freestanding elliptical dome (it’s often open for you to peek inside). In front of the U.S. Cellular Center, pose for a shot with the life-size bronze dancers and musicians (#13) that remind us of the rich music heritage of the Blue Ridge.
The next stop, Shopping Daze (#14), is located in front of Malaprop’s Bookstore. This is another great distraction since it’s often recognized as one of the best independent bookstores in the country.
The next two stops represent the Frontier Period (1784-1880): the Marketplace (#15) recognizes an area popular for produce markets and livery stables, and Visionary Young Boy (#16) honors Biltmore architect Richard Sharp Smith who designed many other amazing buildings in town.
The “Times of Thomas Wolfe” covers 1900-1938 in the famous novelist’s boyhood
neighborhood. Stop for a fascinating tour of this rambling home that was once a boarding house.
Perhaps the most interesting sculpture on the trail is “On the Move” that represents the history of transportation (#21). Spin the giant wheel to hear 11 different sounds ranging from trains to horse-drawn wagons. While you are there, check out what’s playing at the Asheville Community Theatre.
The “Era of Civic Pride” covers stops 22-26 with a nod to City Hall, the Beaucatcher Tunnel and even marks the location of a time capsule to be opened in 2047.
The last section is the “Age of Diversity” with stops along Eagle Street that recognize citizens and businesses of the historic African-American center. The final stop gives a nod to some of the grand hotels near the stagecoach stop.
After completing the trail, treat yourself with ice cream or delicious handcrafted delights at French Broad Chocolate Lounge on Pack Square.
Iron sculpture by Reed Todd. "Shopping Daze" metal sculpture by Tekla & Dan Howachyn.