Visiting the NC Arboretum with Kids

One of our favorite things to do with kids in Asheville is to visit the NC Arboretum. If you’re looking for a serene setting to enjoy the outdoors with the whole family, you can’t go wrong with the Arboretum. In fact, it’s at the top of the list of our favorite things to do in Asheville with kids!

You’ll find plenty of space to run in the green forest meadow, several trails to explore, a cafe to grab a quick snack and even a model train that runs on weekends. Our kids (ages 1 and 4) especially love the model train!

The NC Arboretum is the perfect destination for our family because there is plenty for kids to do without the risk of losing their attention.

Table of Contents

  1. NC Arboretum Admission
  2. Why we love visiting the NC Arboretum with Kids
    1. The NC Arboretum’s Manicured Garden Mazes
    2. NC Arboretum’s Rocky Cove Railroad Model Train
    3. The Kid-Friendly Trails at the NC Arboretum
    4. The NC Arboretum’s Bonsai Exhibit
    5. Bent Creek Bistro at the NC Arboretum
    6. Winter Lights at the NC Arboretum (November – January)
  3. Is the NC Arboretum stroller-friendly?

NC Arboretum Admission

Before we get started on all of the things we love about the Arboretum for our kids, we first thought we’d give you a little bit of information on admission to the NC Arboretum.

There is a parking fee required to enter with a personal vehicle at the Arboretum’s main gate. As of Winter 2023, the fee is $16. This includes entry for a whole vehicle and no other admission fees are required.

Annual Membership

If you are local or plan on going at least 3 times per year, you should definitely look into getting an annual pass to the Arboretum. As of April 2022, membership is $50 for an individual and $75 for a household (two adults.) A membership pass allows for parking and entry for a full vehicle.

We have a membership, so we try to pop by often to make the most of it. Sometimes we go just to check out the trains, other times we spend a whole afternoon there picnicking and exploring.


Another great option to explore the Arboretum if you are local is with a ZOOM pass from the Buncombe County Library. Library cardholders can get free access to the Arboretum every 30 days. Find out more about the ZOOM Pass program here.

Why we love visiting the NC Arboretum with kids

This is a great post for you if you have wondered if the NC Arboretum is good for kids. We share all of our favorite things about visiting the Arboretum with our kids (including their favorite parts of it!) If you are visiting the Arboretum for the first time, you should consult the map of the NC Arboretum before to get an idea of where things are.

1. The NC Arboretum’s Manicured Garden Mazes

Flowers blooming at the North Carolina Arboretum

To us, the NC Arboretum feels like a beautifully manicured garden. But to our little ones, the Arboretum feels like an enchanted maze full of wonders around every corner. The main gardens at the NC Arboretum are comprised of several pockets with different themes.

Our kids love watching the water flow through the stream garden, exploring through the pergola garden huts, watching fish in the coy pond and getting lost in all the twists and turns. It’s always our first stop with the kids.

2. NC Arboretum’s Rocky Cove Railroad Model Train

The Rocky Cove Railroad is an obvious favorite for many kids. The garden scale train runs on Saturdays and Sundays from noon – 4pm from April to October. The intricate setup includes several trains and buildings in a beautifully landscaped garden area. You can also watch above from the bridge in the gardens.

3. The Kid-Friendly Trails at the NC Arboretum

There are several kid-friendly trails around the NC Arboretum grounds. Starting at the Baker Exhibit Center, the Natural Garden Path meanders through the forest with several stops along the way. The total length of the natural garden path is 3/4 miles with some moderate inclines and descents.

After about 1/2 mile, you will arrive at the Forest Meadow Trail, where you can loop around on a paved sidewalk or cut right through the sea of wildflowers. The forest meadow area is a great spot to explore and have a picnic in the grass under a shady tree. From the forest meadow, you can hop back on the natural garden path and venture toward the Education Center.

Heading further along the Natural Garden Path, you climb the ascent through the woods and arrive at the naturally set Plants of Promise garden with its switchback paths and benches and rocking chairs scattered around.

Another one of our favorite trails is the Carolina Garden Trail which starts behind the Education Center and travels down to Bent Creek. Check out our article about hiking the Carolina Garden Trail with our family for all the details!

4. The NC Arboretum’s Bonsai Exhibit

One of our favorite parts is the Bonsai Exhibition Gardens featuring over 100 different bonsai trees, each with their own look. Kids love the magical-looking trees that look like they are home to elves. They are all true works of art!

The pictures featured here are from early-November 2021. We were all delighted to find that the Bonsai trees had their full fall colors on display.

5. Bent Creek Bistro at the NC Arboretum

At the top of the Plants of Promise garden or the bonsai exhibit, you will find the Education Center and the Bent Creek Bistro. This is the perfect spot for delicious and well-deserved snacks and refreshments at the Arboretum. There are outdoor patio tables next to the cafe or you can order food to go for a picnic anywhere on the grounds.

Bent Creek Bistro accepts cards only, so plan for that! We typically bring our own picnic lunch but occasionally enjoy a sandwich or quiche from the bistro. You can check out this post for details on a day at the Arboretum with our kids with lunch at Bent Creek Bistro.

6. Winter Lights at the NC Arboretum (November – January)

The NC Arboretum puts on the most amazing Winter Lights display in the evenings from mid-November to mid-January. There is a separate fee from regular admission to get into Winter Lights. It’s definitely worth it if you are looking to get in the holiday spirit, though! The area is filled with lights from top to bottom. You’ll find hot chocolate stands, live music and coordinated light displays.

Winter Lights is a wonderful family outing, especially for older children. It doesn’t open until the evenings, so it may be past bedtime for some of the younger kids. At least, that was the case for us last year! We went as soon as it opened and didn’t stay too long. However, even the hour we were there was plenty enough to be filled with delight! The model train runs every evening during Winter Lights, which was the hit of the show for us.

Is the NC Arboretum stroller-friendly?

Paved path at the NC Arboretum

Yes, most of the NC Arboretum’s areas near the parking lot are stroller-friendly. However, there are a few places that are more accessible than others.

ou can easily stroll through the main garden and take the path to Bent Creek Bistro and the Education Center with a stroller.

The various hiking trails aren’t paved and would be tricky to navigate with a stroller. It may be helpful to view this accessibility map of the NC Arboretum before your visit.

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