Asheville Area Guide
By Erin McGrady
Photos by Caroline Whatley
My wife and I spend about half the year traveling in our small camper van — but homebase is Asheville, North Carolina.
Our small mountain town has a little bit of everything, so it’s a destination for everyone — from the Biltmore visitor, to the hiker/biker, to the craft beer connoisseur. (At last count, we had 33 breweries, 40 if you count satellite tasting rooms and it seems like there’s a new one popping up each month.)
If you’re the kind of van traveler who has a love for the outdoors and who also loves to eat and drink, then put Asheville into your GPS and come see for yourself why it’s one of the most popular adventure hubs in the Southeast.
Asheville and much of the Southeast was built on the ancestral land of the Anigiduwagi, more commonly known as the Cherokee. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian recently (September 2021) teamed up with Buncombe County’s Register of Deeds to create and release a land acknowledgment project. You can learn more about the history of violence and broken treaties here.
A sunset view from the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville, NC.
Top Things To Do
- Check out downtown Asheville. There’s a ton of restaurants and bars as well as art galleries and shops.
- Go for a hike or trail run on one of the many numerous trails in the area. You can hike a portion of the Mountains to Sea Trail, which spans from the western edge of the state, near Asheville, and then leads all the way to the Outer Banks.
- Ride the trails on your mountain bike in Bent Creek Experimental Forest. The Hard Times trailhead is a good spot to start but it fills up quickly so go early.
- Float the French Broad River in a tube or paddle it on an SUP.
To-Go beers from 12 Bones Brewing.
Where To Eat and Drink
- One can’t-miss spot is the newly remodeled S & W Market which is now home to Highland Brewing, the Hop Ice Cream, Bun Intended (Thai Street Food), and more.
- Visit one of the farmers markets around town and pick up some locally grown and made food. Keep an eye out for the delicious Cantonese food made by my friend J Chong.
- If you like ramen, you must try Itto Ramen. They have two locations, one downtown and one in West Asheville. This Asian-owned business is the best in Asheville but if you happen to drive south into Arden, stop at Wild Ginger for their pho or banh mi!
- Pick up a coffee and a pastry for the road and support Grind AVL, a Black-owned local business in the River Arts District.
- Visit Banks Ave., an LGBQT+ safe space that regularly has drag shows and karaoke nights.
Where To Camp
- Unfortunately, overnight camping is not allowed at any of the overlooks along the iconic Blue Ridge Parkway. The Mount Pisgah Campground at Milepost 408, however, is a great spot that in the summer is cooler because it’s at elevation.
- Another spot fairly close to town is the campground at Lake Powhatan.
- The Davidson River Campground near Brevard is 33 miles from downtown Asheville and is a beautiful spot with 144 sites for RV’s and tents with access to hot showers.
Caroline Whatley and Erin McGrady of Authentic Asheville.
Erin McGrady and Caroline Whatley are writers, photographers, and content creators. They travel frequently for work in their small camper van but when they’re not on the road they hang their hats in Asheville, North Carolina.
Follow their adventures on Instagram at @e.mcgrady, @carolineperdue, and @authenticasheville and via their blog Authentic Asheville. To work with them, check out their portfolio or drop them a line at firstname.lastname@example.org !
Wind Wolves Preserve
By Natasha Van Horne
Southern California’s got all sorts of well-known parks and spots to enjoy the great outdoors, but I’m excited to share with you a hidden gem, a bit off the beaten path.
This little-known spot in Kern County, CA is the largest non-profit nature preserve in Southern California and at 95,000 acres, this place has seemingly endless terrain to explore. Wind Wolves Preserve is located about 41 miles from Bakersfield, California – the biggest city in the Kern County valley.
In 1996, the preserve was acquired by the Wildlands Conservancy. Wind Wolves Preserve is the ancestral land of the Chumash, Yokuts, and possibly the lesser known Hul Kuhk’u nations. After a conflict between the Nations and Spanish colonizers in the 1700’s, the area became a part of Mexico. It was renamed by a Spanish mission party in 1806.
In 1842, Jose Antonio Dominguez applied for the lands, and the Mexican government awarded Dominguez the land grant in July of 1842. During this time, John C. Fremont led an army expedition into California and eventually took control of California in 1846. Fremont is infamous for a number of massacres against Native Americans in California and he eventually stole the ancestral lands of the Chumash, Yokuts, and Hul Kuhk’u nations.
Thankfully, after such a marred history, the land is finally being restored, and its history is being shared due to the momentum of several volunteers of the Wildlands Conservancy. The Conservancy and its numerous volunteers have worked tirelessly to restore this landscape. It’s home to many endangered species such as the San Joaquin kit fox, the Buena Vista Lake ornate shrew, and the blunt-nosed leopard lizard. It also includes one of the most impressive arrays of Native American rock art in all of North America. (Wildlandsconservancy.org)
Admission to Wind Wolves is free, and it’s open from 8:00AM to 6:00PM daily! From camping, hiking, bike riding, or planning to watch the wildlife, this is a must-see destination.
Each year, Wind Wolves Preserve starts their season off with the Spring Nature Festival where you can enjoy free educational exhibits, guided hikes, and more. It’s a popular time to explore the preserve due to its impressive wildflower blooms after the spring rains. (Learn more here).
Top Things To Do
- The San Emigdio Campground has 12 campsites that include picnic tables, water and flush restrooms with an outdoor sink. It is a beautiful spot to spend the night stargazing. 11 out of the 12 campsites are accessible to people with disabilities.
- Camping is free, although reservations are encouraged and are first come first serve. See website for prohibitions. https://wildlandsconservancy.org/preserves/windwolves/camping
- On their website, the preserve offers several activities on their calendar. From guided night hikes, movies in the canyon (!), volunteer days, to educational opportunities, there is a whole slew of activities to participate in for the whole family.
Several hikes range from beginner to more advanced day hikes to a pond further in the preserve. You may even spot a herd of Tule Elk that are being reintroduced to their historic range! They play an important part in restoring the preserve’s ecosystem.
Hiking in the springtime is personally my favorite time to visit the preserve. The trails are well taken care of and I’ve taken my daughter multiple times since she was a toddler and she loves to run through the trails.
Wind Wolves Preserve offers a bevy of educational programs, from learning about the stars and stargazing night hikes, to learning about the wildlife and plants that are native to the area. They have an Outdoor Discovery program that has been a wonderful addition to many local schools in Kern County. Don’t forget to check out their online calendar to see what event is coming up next!
If you’re interested in furthering your experience in helping preserve the outdoors, Wind Wolves Preserve has a wonderful volunteer program. Their staff is knowledgeable in the area and you’ll find a friendly cohort of like-minded individuals to learn from.
Top Places To Stay:
There is free camping at the preserve with prior reservations. It is a wonderful way to enjoy stargazing, and enjoy the full experience of your visit. It is located about 41 miles from Bakersfield, California – the biggest city in the Kern County valley where you can find multiple hotels, or other campgrounds to stay at. You can contact the preserve to reserve a campsite at (661) 858-1115, or email them at email@example.com (Link also above under “Camping”)
I’ve enjoyed parking my camper van in their campsite and looking up at the full moon and stars at night. They do lock the gates at night, but give you a combination so you can get in or out as needed.
Resources & Other Notable Tips
- Tent camping and camper vans/trucks only. No RVs or Trailers allowed. Max length 21 feet.
- Max length of stay: 6 nights.
- There is no electricity available; and no generators allowed.
- The Campground has flush toilet restrooms and a dishwashing station. There are showers available, although the sinks have running water to do a quick wash-up in as well.
- Wood fires are only allowed when the fire ban gets lifted in the winter months. Propane grills, stoves, and portable fire propane pits are permitted year round.
If you find yourself driving through Kern County along the 99 freeway, or the 5 freeway – don’t forget to stop, explore, and learn more about this beautiful landscape!
Find Natasha on Instagram @tashofalltrades! All photos courtesy of Natasha Van Horne.
Bay Area, California
By Luu Phan & Alex Ortiz
Learn about this vibrant city area where Luu and Alex, full-time vanlifers, spend most of their time!
We are on occupied Ohlone Land. The Ohlone Tribe comprises nearly 50 different indigenous groups within the area that have lived on and cared for this land for thousands of years. The Muwekma Ohlone people inhabited the land that is now known as the San Francisco Bay Area. You can learn more about the Muwekma Ohlone here.
If you are traveling through the East Bay please take time to check out Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, an organization based on Huchiun land. Sogorea Te’ Land Trust is an urban indigenous women led organization working to educate, preserve, and revive their culture. This organization encourages people occupying the land to pay The Shuumi Land Tax, which helps the organization’s work. This work includes purchasing land in the Bay Area and returning it to Indigenous people.
Bay Area at a Glance
The Bay Area is a culturally diverse hub, a place with a rich history, and a playground for nature lovers who still want to be close to city life. If you are traveling through the Bay Area, chances are you will be able to find a community that reflects your identity.
Many cities in the Bay Area have been historically known as places of resistance. There have been a lot of social justice movements that have come from the Bay Area, like the Black Panther Party in Oakland and many LGBTQIA+ organizations in San Francisco. People who have been living in the Bay Area for generations continue to resist systems of oppression.
For those who enjoy doing outdoors activities, the Bay Area offers a wide range of activities that are within reach in all directions. You can find numerous mountain biking trails, hiking trails, oceans and more. The Bay Area has mild weather year round! There is no good or bad time to visit the area. We do not experience extreme weather on either ends of being too cold or too hot. But Bay Area folks know to always bring layers because our daily temperature can shift and change throughout the day.
Things To Check Out
1. Educational – Museums
- Oakland Museum of California (Oakland, CA): great collection of California History, California Art, and California Natural Science. The OMCA also does amazing work with both permanent and temporary exhibits with a focus on social justice education. (family friendly, kid friendly)
- Exploratorium (San Francisco, CA): a great museum for adults and kids! They offer regular Story Time for children during the mid-day. On Thursday nights they have their “After Dark” event for 18+ audience with rotating learning experiences for adults. Imagine a sip and learn kind of event.
- Lindsay Wildlife Experience (Walnut Creek, CA): The first ever wildlife hospital established in the US, this space runs both as a wildlife museum and wildlife rehabilitation center. They offer a range of educational experiences for people of all ages to learn about different wildlife and how to care for them.
2. Outdoors activities
- Point Reyes National Seashore: One of our favorite local spaces to visit! It is north of San Francisco and offers so many outdoor activities including kayaking, fishing, hiking, camping, backpacking, swimming, and fresh oysters.
- Joaquin Miller in Oakland: One of the best ways to feel like you are deep in the forest while still being minutes within the city!
- Joaquin Miller offers many trails for hiking and biking.
- Lafayette Reservoir, San Pablo Reservoir, Lake Temescal, Lake Chabot, Quarry Lakes: If you are into fishing or want to try it out, the Bay Area is a fun place to learn! There are many different locations to fish here. Some have boating docks and also rent out boats.
Top Places To Camp Nearby
The Bay Area does offer some local options for camping but they are limited. But there are a ton of nice campgrounds within a 2-3 hour drive that are worth checking out!
- Yosemite National Park (3 hours)
- Big Sur (3 hours)
- Limekiln State Park
- Big Sur Campground and Cabins
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
- Pinnacles National Park (2 hours)
- Pinecrest Lake (3 hours)
- One of our favorite places to camp!
- Hendy Woods (2 hours)
- Sugarloaf Ridge (2 hours)
- Samuel P. Taylor State Park (1 hour)
- Lake Berryessa (1 hour)
- Tahoe National Forest (3 hours)
By Faren Rajkumar
A partially-rooted nomad’s guide to Southern Oregon, including the city of Ashland..
For nearly two years, I’ve been blessed to base my nomad life out of the hippie & van-friendly city of Ashland, Oregon. In this dusty, beautiful, and spiritual bubble of the Rogue Valley, I’ve found community, liberation, safety, job opportunities, knowledge, and myself. In between full-time vanlifing around the Pacific Northwest, I’ve lived on farms in this valley whenever it feels right to be happily grounded here.
These are the original lands of the Latgawa and Takelma Indigenous people, and my profound gratitude makes me even more eager to share this special valley with like-minded nomads!
The Indigenous History
Learn the exact, original boundaries of the Latgawa and Takelma people’s lands, and about neighboring tribes on https://native-land.ca/.
Some of the history of the valley’s original humans, including their music and clothing, can be found here: https://americanindiancoc.org/native-american-tribes-the-indian-history-in-ashland-oregon/
A Working Farm Town
My partner and I were first called to Ashland, Oregon by the promise of safe and pleasant hemp farm work during the annual harvest season, which is roughly August through December. This makes Autumn an excellent time to visit the valley — not to mention the crisp cool air, colorful foliage, and refreshing rains. After experiencing all four seasons in this area, I can confidently say Autumn and late Spring are my favorite times of year here.
In Autumn, abundant hemp “grows” speckle the brown valley with bright green fields and countless seasonal crews who travel into town just for work. I have met countless unique nomads, vanlifers, backpackers, and longtime locals at the hemp farm, leading to great friendships and further opportunities to find different gigs or local hidden gems. I also learned the long process of harvesting, hanging, drying, bucking, and trimming hemp plants & flowers.
Where To Park
- https://www.workaway.info/ is a secure and easy way to find farms & land who are open to vanlifers & travelers who need a place to park or camp in exchange for volunteer farm or garden work. I’ve completed quality work-away gigs in this valley. The work is often fun, the new connections can lead to deep friendships, and sometimes meals or free produce are included in the agreement!
- Lithia Park is a beautiful and expansive daytime parking spot, where the parking lots are usually filled with vans, colorfully painted minibuses, and RVs. The park is built around Lithia Creek, with many long hiking trails, a swimming hole, and groves of ancient trees.
- Remote overnight parking is possible on Indian Memorial Road, after driving up the hills into some beautiful grassy fields. We’ve spent many days and nights in a favorite spot along this quiet, hidden road, and still somehow had great cell service the entire time!
- Affordable camping at the Jackson Wellsprings, site of sacred Indigenous lands with access to showers, the hot springs, and more. Camping open to vans, RVs, tents, or you can choose to stay at rentable small structures on site. Pets are allowed for a $5 fee.
- Day hike or backpack on the many trails in Ashland, connecting to the PCT
- Embrace ski or snowboard season with a pass to Mount Ashland Ski Resort
- Rock climb at Emigrant Lake, the local crag with many accessible grades (info on Mountain Project) and of course, swimming & boating in the lake after rainy season
Things To Do
- Stroll downtown Ashland on Saturday or Sunday before 6:00 pm for the Artisan Market. Come with your desire for colorful “hippie” jewelry, wood carvings, artwork, wild hats, and more
- Dine in or take out at amazing restaurants, including a Shakepsearean tavern, zen teahouse, sushi, coal-fired pizza, Indian buffet, local + organic breads, chocolates, Oregon wine, gelato, and more
- Heal your body & mind with a soak at the Jackson Wellsprings, home to sacred Indigenous lands and sacred hot springs. Entry includes access to the gardens, temple, community center, classes, swimming pool, dry sauna, showers, and more
- Let loose at an ecstatic dance in the great outdoors! Every Tuesday night on the sacred lands at the Wellsprings, with trippy, rhythmic music by a local or visiting DJ
Fire Season Caution
June through September is peak fire season in the Rogue Valley, as well as much of the West. This means absolutely NO campfires, fireworks, open burning, discarded cigarettes, or anything that could unintentionally catch fire. Anything will readily burn in this drought-scarred region. It would be awful to be the accidental cause of a huge fire! Especially after the tragic 2020 Alameda fire, local law enforcement and residents take fire precautions very seriously and will not hesitate to investigate or report any flames, smoke, etc.
Embracing The "Ashland Vibe"
We’ve called this area our “home base” for nearly two years mostly because of the beautiful community and the positive, ever-changing energy of the land that attracts similar spirits. Though we’ve hit the road for months at a time to explore neighboring states, we always seem to come back “home” to Ashland, Oregon. The people here tend to be open-minded, friendly, curious and un-shy about vanlife, and graciously willing to help if needed in a pickle. There is an abundance of kindness and opportunity to learn, work, play, explore, and connect. A spiritually-minded community, centered at the Jackson Wellsprings, also has a positive effect on the larger community, and invites conversation about important topics. This includes Indigenous history, BIPOC inclusion, the unhoused population, protests to support social & political causes, climate change awareness, land stewardship, solar tech, and more. I love this valley, and even though my nomadic tendencies will take me away from it one day, it will always have a special place in my heart.
All photos courtesy of Faren Rajkumar.
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Shorts Bar Recreation Site
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