Asheville, North Carolina is a charming city that is full of down home Southern etiquette and a big city vibe. It is home to lots of unique, modern places, yet there is also a rich history and culture all around the city, especially the downtown area. One thing that you will find in downtown Asheville, NC is its Urban Trail. This is something you will not find anywhere else and is a must do in Western North Carolina.
Asheville’s Urban Trail is a 1.7 mile outdoor loop throughout the downtown area. It is a self-guided tour along a paved trail and has 30 designated stops. Each stop has a beautiful sculpture, statue, or marker plaque that tells a piece of Asheville’s history, its architectural masterpieces, or achievements of some of its most noted people.
Five Periods of Asheville History
The trail is divided into 5 different periods of Asheville’s history. As you walk along the trail, look for pink granite blocks, set within the sidewalk. Each pink block has a symbol and denotes one of the following specific ages of Asheville: a feather represents the Gilded Age, a horseshoe symbolizes the Frontier Period, an angel signifies the Times of Thomas Wolfe, a courthouse represents the Era of Civic Pride, and an eagle symbolizes the Age of Diversity.
The Urban Trail officially starts at Asheville’s Pack Square; however, you may start at any point on the trail. You can take the tour in historical order, 1 through 30, or choose the time period you are most interested in and start there. There are no rules to the trail! It is free and dog friendly, so go at your own pace and discover fascinating facts about this very special city.
The Urban Trail Station Stops
- Walk into History: plaque – Stop number 1 marks Pack Square. This is where the 1st Asheville Courthouse stood in 1893.
- Crossroads: train rails embedded into the sidewalk & statues of pigs & geese walking – This is the former site of the Buncombe Turnpike, which was journeyed by Native Americans and herders taking their livestock to market. The rails mark the arrival of the train in 1880.
- Stepping Out: statue of a top hat, gloves, & a cane – The statues represent the theaters and the Grand Opera House that were once on Patton Avenue. It was the center of culture.
- O. Henry: bronze pocket watch – This stop signifies writer William Sydney Porter, otherwise known as O. Henry. The stopwatch is from his famous short story The Gift of the Magi. He was a resident of Asheville and is buried in Riverside Cemetery.
- Immovable Image: plaque – The plaque directs the viewer to notice the Victorian frieze architecture on the Drhumor Building, which was constructed in 1895. The main face in the frieze is of Cyrus Deake, who was an area merchant who liked to watch the stone work.
- Elizabeth Blackwell: bench with a bower of medicinal herbs & her face – Elizabeth Blackwell was an Asheville resident, who was the 1st woman in the U.S. to receive a medical degree. She also founded the 1st four year medical college for women and the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857.
- Art Deco Masterpiece: tile mosaic station marker – This stop pays tribute to the 1929 S&W Building, which was inspired by Douglas Ellison’s time at the Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris. A studio in Venice, Italy made the mosaic and shipped it to Asheville.
- Flat Iron Architecture: huge flat iron statue – The stop represents the irons used by the local laundry and the 1926 Flat Iron Building, which was designed like a 1902 New York skyscraper.
- Cat Walk: bronze cat statue scratching a brick wall – This marks the site of the 1886 Battery Park Hotel. Footbridges, called catwalks, stretched from the retaining wall to the 2nd floor shop entrances.
- Grove’s Vision: glass etching – The glass etching represents the original plans for Grove Arcade. Construction on the Arcade was started in 1926 and E.W. Grove planned for it to cover an entire block.
- Historic Hilltop: an open guest book statue – This stop represents the old and new Battery Park Hotels, known for their guest lists. The original hotel stood on a seven story hill and was destroyed by fire.
- Guastavino’s Monument: dome of The Basilica of St. Laurence – This dome is the largest self-supporting elliptical dome constructed in the tile work style of architect Raphael Guastavino.
- Appalachian Stage: 5 bronze figures playing & enjoying music – These statues portray the songs of the Appalachian Mountains and the 1927 Mountain Dance and Folk Festival.
- Shopping Daze: modern metal statues of 3 well-dressed ladies – The stop marks a time when Haywood Street was the center of fashion shopping.
- Marketplace: bronze basket of apples balanced on wagon wheels – This spot signifies the markets and livery stables that once were present on this street.
- Legacy of Design: statue of a boy on stilts – The statue stands for the spirit of Richard Sharp Smith. He was the architect who designed over 300 buildings with his partner, Albert Heath Carrier.
- Woodfin House: ceramic replica of the house, in the sidewalk – The Woodfin House was built by Nicholas Woodfin, a farmer and lawyer, in 1840. The eight pillared house stood for 130 years and became a tuberculosis clinic in the 1920s and a YMCA, later.
- Wolfe’s Neighborhood: diorama of today’s skyline & Wolfe’s buildings – On the sidewalk, near the diorama, are famed Asheville author Thomas Wolfe’s footprints. If you stand on the footprints and look at the diorama, you’ll see views of both time periods together!
- Dixieland: bronze statue of Wolfe’s shoes – This stop is another tribute to celebrated author Thomas Wolfe. It marks his mother’s boarding house, named Old Kentucky Home. This boarding house is called Dixieland in Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward Angel.
- Curtain Calls: abstract metal sculpture of a face on the Asheville Community Theater building – This stop stands for Asheville’s vivacious theater life.
- On the Move: silver art in motion sculpture with Art Deco stamps on it – The sculpture represents the history of transportation in Asheville, and it marks the last remaining brick street in downtown. Spin the wheel to the right to hear transportation sounds from the last century!
- Civic Pride: big bell statue – This statue is a replica of the Asheville City Building’s bell that rang from 1892 to 1926.
- Man and Mountain: bronze plaque – The plaque pays tribute to the mountains and Beaucatcher Road, which was a path into the valley of town.
- Time Remembered: marker surrounded by grass – The marker marks the spot where a time capsule was buried during Asheville’s bicentennial. The time capsule will be opened in 2047.
- Ellington’s Dream: granite etching – This etching represents Douglas Ellington’s original idea of two adjacent Art Deco buildings. Only one of these buildings, the City Building, was ever built.
- Past and Promise: bronze statue of a girl drinking from a fountain – This station stands for youth and the time when children played in Pack Square.
- Monument Corner: stone replica of a tombstone & carving tools – This stands for W. O. Wolfe’s tombstone shop. There, Wolfe engraved an angel, sent from another city, for a Hendersonville gravesite. This angel in the one described in Thomas Wolfe’s most famous novel, Look Homeward Angel.
- Brick Artisan: plaque within sidewalk – This marker pays tribute to the son of slaves, James Vester. He was a master brick mason and artisan for the Municipal Building and various churches in the area.
- The Block: bronze relief of Asheville’s African-American culture – The bronze relief acclaims the spirit and culture of the African-American community. George Vanderbilt hired Richard Sharp Smith to design the Young Men’s Institute Building for the black community and Biltmore Estate employees.
- Hotel District: bronze eagle overlooking the hotel district – The famed hotel district from days of old is celebrated here. The Eagle Hotel, built in the early 1800s, was the first hotel in the neighborhood.
The next time you visit Asheville, take a walk on the Urban Trail. Along the way, stop at some of the unique local shops and restaurants you pass. Take your time and soak in all that downtown has to offer. The Urban Trail is perfect for anyone who enjoys taking in the sites, engaging in the stories of the past and present, or discovering the people who came before us. There is nothing else like this in Western North Carolina!