Written by Shawndra Russell
Want to upgrade your summertime wanderings, explorations, and general activities? Western North Carolina has plenty of fun and unique rentals perfect for the adventurous soul.
Summer in Western North Carolina is magical – temperatures sway from low-to-mid-80s to campfire-worthy 60s at night, thanks to our lovely mountain breezes. But the true star of an epic summertime experience here is the great outdoors: millions of acres of national forests, umpteenth hiking and mountain biking trails, and a plethora of swimming holes are all located within an easy day trip. You can kayak between breweries along the French Broad River Paddle Trail, hike the tallest peak east of the Mississippi at Mount Mitchell, or pilot a standup paddleboard across Santeetlah Lake, named by Microsoft’s MSN as the #1 most beautiful lake in the United States.
And if you don’t want to go it alone, you can always browse through the fairly new Airbnb Experiences in Asheville, where you can essentially rent a human to enjoy all kinds of crazy cool Asheville activities. (Yes, you read that correctly: rent a human. Or at least employ their services for a period of time.)
Many of the Airbnb Experiences hosts—and Ashevillians in general—have taken up some kind of outdoor hobby since moving to The Land of the Sky (and most juggle multiple such hobbies!), but the cost of gear can certainly add up quick. So, we wanted to see what kind of gear you can rent in and around Western North Carolina to help our readers navigate what they can try before they buy—or, in many instances, what they can do without ever having to buy at all. (Who has room to store all that gear anyway?)
Maybe you just want to book a one-time, super cool experience that could lay the groundwork for the best day of your whole summer, like renting a luxury, exotic, or off-road vehicle, or perhaps jumping on a bike, since motorcycle and electric bike versions both can be rented to take on what has been described in the media as “America’s Longest Scenic Drive,” a/k/a, the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Whatever your goal, you’ll be doing your brain a favor because, as Harvard Medical School famously shared in “Rev Up Your Thinking Skills by Trying Something New,” their December 2015 health letter: “It turns out that the human brain has a great potential for something called neuronal plasticity—that is, it’s malleable. It appears that challenging our brains—for example, by learning a new skill—leads to actual changes in the adult brain.” Or, as Harvard neuropsychologist Dr. Kathryn Papp explained in the article, “It may create new connections between brain cells by changing the balance of available neurotransmitters and changing how connections are made.”
And if your new interest becomes a full-blown hobby, it can improve your whole life. In April of 2018, in her article for Mental Health Matters, “Pursuing a Hobby Can Improve Your Mental Health,” journalist Sally Phillips observed, “A hobby or activity can help an individual by reducing stress; help to improve mood and especially effective in managing mood swings; certain activities will promote and encourage socialization that can help combat loneliness; it can help improve memory; and, helps to reduce depression, especially if you pursue a hobby or activity that makes you extremely happy.”
Rent a Human
Let’s dive right in to the awesome experiences you can book directly with a local resident through Asheville Airbnb Experiences. You can rent an artist’s brain and book painting, tie-dying, photography, glassblowing, jewelry, or clothes making lessons. Or, enjoy nature atop a horse or with an expert fly fisherman, cyclist, naturalist, birder, or your very own alpaca hiking buddy. Maybe you’re ready to learn from some of Foodtopia’s local talent? Rent a chef, chocolatier, foodie, or baker for a spell. Practically every category of interests is covered through these Airbnb Experiences, a feature the company launched in 2016 that has now rolled out in over 1,000 cities globally and secured more than one million so-called “experience bookings.” Users can search through categories including sports, food and drink, entertainment, nature, classes and workshops, health and wellness, arts, cooking classes, and history tours. In Asheville there are over 80 experiences to choose from so far.
Semi-pro riverboarding athlete, and Appalachian Riverboard Company owner, Kevin Yount is actually one of the Asheville Experiences hosts you can “rent” and is billed as the only riverboard guide provider in the Southeast. Yount moved to Western North Carolina from the Piedmont specifically to build a tourism business around the sport he loved, but struggled to make a living doing.
“I chose and have remained in the area,” Yount explains, “because there are still a lot of streams that have yet to be riverboarded—I really like pioneering first descents—and it’s a great place to enjoy other outdoor activities. Later, I also began trying my hand at building boards as well and that’s how Appalachian Riverboard Company came about.” He adds that he has goals to set up outposts throughout the Southeast, including Tennessee, West Virginia, and Georgia, but for now, he loves spreading the word about this new whitewater sport, which he describes as “bodyboarding for whitewater.”
“A lot of people perceive it as dangerous since you are going head first, but since you are prepared to be in the water for the entire duration (with wetsuit, knee and shin pads, and fins, in addition to standard helmet and personal flotation device for whitewater), you’re in a much better position to be swimming through whitewater than if you miss a roll in a kayak or fall out of a raft,” Yount says, clarifying, “[But] like other whitewater activities, it can be as mild or as extreme as you choose to make it by the river that you choose.”
A Different Kind of Wheels
Sure, it’s fun to rent a Jeep or convertible from a standard car rental place, but why not check out the area atop something a little more… out there? Consider renting the futuristic 2-seated, 3-wheeled Polaris Slingshots from Slinging in the Smokies, located in Maggie Valley. A few states, including Maine, New York, Wisconsin, and Montana, require that Slingshot drivers have a motorcycle endorsement, but in North Carolina, just a regular driver’s license will suffice. However, Polaris does recommend “always wearing a DOT approved full face helmet” when driving a Slingshot. Slinging in the Smokies outlines nine touring routes on their website that take riders through big swaths of Western North Carolina, with landmarks, restaurants, and waterfall stops noted carefully.
Perhaps you’d rather add more wheels, not less, to your tour of Asheville and be able to drink at the same time? Then book a spot aboard the Amazing Pubcycle, Asheville’s 13-person giant bicycle (motor assisted and includes a driver) that will take you on a 40-minute jaunt through the city, or a pub tour with two stops. Operations Manager Joe Carroll shares that about 40 percent of their business comes from locals, usually in the form of company outings, team building events, and birthday parties. “We have benefited greatly from the talented performers that we have on staff,” Carroll says. “Our backgrounds range from stand-up comedians to brewers to bird-watchers. Our eclectic mix of tour-guides keep the passengers guessing.” Sometimes, though, the tables are turned and the passengers become the performers, like when a flash-dance team had the pubcycle stop at several junctions downtown to show off their choreographed moves. Did we mention their tours are BYOB?
Asheville also features several skateparks, and AshevilleNC.com considers Asheville to offer “some of the most exciting skateboarding action in the Southeast” in part for its 17,000-sq.-ft. government Skatepark, located downtown at the corner of Flint and Cherry Streets. Over in the River Arts Districts, skaters can thrash indoors year-round across RAD Skatepark’s 10,000-sq.-ft. space, the first indoor skateboard arena built in Western North Carolina. You can rent skateboards there and take lessons for $35 an hour from professional skateboarder Kevin Shelton, who turned pro in 1987.
(Or maybe you’re looking for a taste of glam with which to wheel elegantly through the region? You can reserve an exotic car from the Exotic Car Collection by Enterprise, a service over at the Charlotte airport and only offered currently in 51 cities. Their inventory includes about 30 high-end choices from carmakers like Jaguar, Maserati, and Porsche. Take your pick, head to the mountains, and impress your friends—or maybe pick your friends up at the airport and transport them in style to the mountains.)
You might already know that Asheville is considered one of the best places to tube in America, at least according to Afar magazine, in part, because dog companions—life vested, of course!—are permitted on the French Broad River. Afar writer Shilo Urban recently described the experience as “more social than secluded, this eclectic and sunny strip boasts waterfront gastropubs and craft breweries with easy river access. Carry a cover-up or change of clothes in a dry bag so you can stop to nosh on chargrilled oysters at the shipping container restaurant Smoky Park Supper Club, grab a bucket of peanuts at The Wedge Brewery, or play lawn games by the bonfires at Bywater Bar.” Several outfitters like Zen Tubing and French Broad Outfitters rent tubes for the Broad, or you can check out other great tubing spots in the area like Deep Creek, Green River, and Catawba River.
Tubers might also enjoy the nice-and-easy pace of renting a pedal boat at Rumbling Bald Resort located on Lake Lure (and previously profiled in “Song of the Summer,” in our July 2017 issue). Two- and four-person boats are available for hourly rates, along with SUPs (standup paddleboards). The boats are very user-friendly and ideal for families as they’re very safe, too. Or, go bigger and rent a pontoon boat from Rumbling Bald’s North Shore Beach Cabana, which also features an on-site restaurant, Legends.
To go really big, try the latest SUP-board craze… a 6-person giant that will cart you and five of your favorite people down the French Broad River. Touted as the GodzillaSUP, this 17-foot behemoth (which the river veterans at French Broad Outfitters calls “The Invader”) makes for a whole new way to enjoy the water—and bond with your fellow paddlers, since you have no choice but to use teamwork to keep this big rig moving.
Meanwhile, Wai Mauna Asheville SUP Tours, whose founder, Kyle Ellison, was profiled in the August 2017 issue of this magazine, also has a huge SUP board you can rent nicknamed the Party Barge. Wai Mauna (a Hawaiian term that translates as “fresh water in the mountains”) offers paddleboard delivery and pickup for those who want to rent boards both large and standard size, but who also don’t want to have to strap them to the top of their car or have them poking out the rear of a hatchback. You can also sign up for one of their stand-up paddle classes to try your hand at whitewater SUPing. This experience requires two separate 3-hour classes to ensure paddlers are ready to safely navigate Class I-II rapids, and Wai Mauna’s guides are all required to have their paddleboard certification from the American Canoe Association.
And if you’re looking for a bit more adventure and speed, consider renting a Bellyak. Similar to a riverboard, Bellyak riders face forward and lay on their stomachs in an experience the company dubs as being “to kayaking what snowboarding is to skiing… an entirely new way to experience the same terrain.” Our region has eight rental locations, and they often host demo events across the country, or interested Bellyakers can sign up for classes, which are taught on the Tuckasegee Gorge in Dillsboro, North Carolina.
A Little More Rugged
Speaking of exploring old terrain in a new way, have you ever done the Land Rover Experience at Biltmore? Of course, everyone loves perusing the home, gardens, and winery, but the Estate has tons of outdoor activities you can book, including Segway tours, sporting clays, and falconry. During the Land Rover Experience, drivers get to test their skills against off-road obstacles, which include steep ascents and descents, side tilts, log crossings, and rock crawls. Guests can opt for a 1-2 hour experience or an entire day, with the opportunity to navigate even tougher terrain. And if you just want to be a passenger, an expert can drive you for only $25 per person (driving experiences start at $275 per vehicle, with up to three riders permitted).
Of course, if you’d rather have a wilder ride and tackle more intense off-road challenges, you can rent an ATV or UTV—think tough golf cart!—and explore one of two trail systems located within Western North Carolina designated for off-highway vehicles, or OHVs: the Wayehutta OHV Trail System located within Nantahala National Forest, or the Brown Mountain OHV Trail System in Pisgah National Forest. In fact, North Carolina boasts four off-road trail systems, and all allow ATVs, 4-wheel drives, and dirt bikes with a valid day or seasonal pass. Interested off-roaders can rent from Grandfather Powersports located in Boone or High Country Polaris in Newland.
Not ready to venture out on your own? Join a 4-hour guided ATV tour with Appalachian Outdoor Adventures based in Boone or jump on a UTV with Off the Grid Mountain Adventures located in Elk Park. And Marion’s Blue Ridge Expeditions specializes in taking clients off-roading in Land Rovers and providing safety and agility training on extremely rugged terrain. “Take in the sights, sounds, and feedback through the steering wheel and seat of your pants,” explained owner Marshall Grant, in a July 2018 Capital at Play profile. “Be aware of what others are doing in your 4×4 convoy and, pretty soon, you will begin to anticipate what your fellow drivers are doing… I want people to enjoy this sport and do it safely.”
For those who just want to soak in the sights and sounds of the gorgeous outdoor wonderland that is Western North Carolina at a nice easy pace, consider renting an electric bike or motorcycle. Electric bikes can be rented for up to eight hours, and note that bikers must be at least 16 with a suggested minimum height of five feet. Alice Kexel, of Asheville’s The Flying Bike, shares that 90 percent of their tour bookings come from visitors, but when it comes to renting an eBike, locals take the cake as a means to test out if they want to buy their own. “The hills really show off the advantages of the electric bikes and generate a lot of smiling faces when our guests cruise up a street with little effort,” she says, adding, “and as parents of young kids, we know how hard it can be to find something fun and accessible for the whole family. How is it possible for the average person to bike up a mountain with a two- and five-year old? Electric bikes level the playing field and make these kinds of experiences possible.”
But motorcycle enthusiasts will want to take advantage of exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway—called “America’s Favorite Drive” by USA Today and many other outlets—atop a big bike to appreciate all the twists and turns that make up this 469-mile stretch of beautiful mountainside.
Phil Cann, owner of Asheville Motorcycle Rentals, the only area rental shop that exclusively rents motorcycles, says he opened his shop, because, “when I was moving here from the UK with my wife, I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a motorcycle rental shop here already—the riding in the area is amongst the best in the country. So I thought it would be a good opportunity to start one.” And while 90 percent of his riders are tourists, he does see locals come in who have motorcycling friends visiting. Not surprisingly, business booms for Phil in the fall when riders want to take in the changing foliage. He also notes that he’s had several customers share that taking a Harley Davidson on the Parkway “is a tick on their bucket list.”
Regardless of which of these rental experiences make it onto your personal bucket list for this summer and beyond, you can find lots of affordable ways to ride, glide, or float across the mountains and waterways that make Western North Carolina, one of the most outdoor adventure-friendly areas in the world.”
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…