Forests, Fairies, Fish, and Pinball: Fun with the Family in Hendersonville

Bearfootin' in Hendersonville - Downtown Art Display


Hendersonville may be nicknamed “The City of Four Seasons,” but this picturesque mountain town especially stands out in the summertime. With kid-friendly attractions, top-notch restaurants to suit all tastes, and charming accommodations within walking distance of downtown, it makes the ideal destination for a family weekend getaway.

Just a bit outside of town are state forests and botanical gardens where you can feel the cool mountain breeze underneath a canopy of trees on a warm summer day. If the heat is too much, or if a spontaneous summer storm rolls in, Main Street Hendersonville has several places to duck inside where the kids – even Mom and Dad – can entertain themselves and learn something new, too.

Here are a few of our favorite Hendersonville spots to keep everyone in the family happy whether it’s a quick trip or a long stay this summer:

ECCO volunteerThe Aquarium and Shark Lab by Team ECCO features approximately 25 exhibits, the largest being a 2,000-gallon tank. A staff educator hosts a daily lecture for visitors about the sharks, rays, and other marine life in the tank while a diver feeds the animals underwater.

For former teacher B. J. Ramer, who started the aquarium in her home’s kitchen 20 years ago, the space provides an opportunity to continue a life’s work in education by bringing the sea to the mountains. According to Ramer, 65% of Western North Carolina residents never see the ocean. She took on the mantra, “Each one should reach one,” as she grew her aquarium collection in an effort to show many of those kids who would grow up far from the ocean about its ecology and teach them the importance of ocean health to our planet’s environment.

Live feeding in the 2000 gallon aquariumWhen Ramer’s Team ECCO opened in Hendersonville in 2009, it became the first inland aquarium in North Carolina. Today, it’s involved in a number of scientific studies with research institutions and also partners with the Town of Hendersonville to test stormwater. It welcomes 10,000 visitors and instructs 4,500 students each year.

ECCO stands for “Educating Children to Care about the Ocean,” and this place does a fantastic job instilling that lesson. Many Team ECCO staffers are students who’ve volunteered at the aquarium since they were kids themselves.

For information about hours and ticket prices, visit the website for The Aquarium and Shark Lab by Team ECCO. It is located on Main Street only a couple of storefronts down from Mast General Store.

Holmes Educational State Forest is just 20 minutes southwest of Hendersonville. Varieties of hardwood trees, rhododendrons, flame azaleas, and wildflowers thrive in the rich cove forest that covers much of the state forest’s 235 acres. Five miles of hiking trails cross mountain streams and lead past a small waterfall. There’s also a large picnic shelter with a pair of fireplaces, clean rest facilities, and an onsite campground for organized youth groups.

Education Ranger DwigansDespite its gorgeous setting and many amenities, Educational Ranger E. J. Dwigans says that Holmes is an often-overlooked resource in the area.

“Many locals enjoy it for daily walks with their pets,” Dwigans says, “but visitors often disregard it in favor of our much larger next-door neighbor, DuPont State Recreational Forest.”

Holmes State Forest’s educational focus provides many activities for families. A half-mile Talking Tree Trail offers an easy hike with interactive experiences that allow kids to push a button on mechanical displays at seven tree-specific stations. At each point, a pre-recorded voice tells them about the station’s featured tree and describes its role in the ecosystem. Other points of interest in Holmes Forest include a fire education display, which features a decommissioned, Vietnam-era Huey Helicopter used to put out forest fires and a fire observation tower, a pollinator garden, and a meditation labyrinth.

Talking Trees TrailHolmes State Forest, which became an Educational State Forest in 1977, stands on land cleared by the Civilian Conservation Corps to be used as a pine and yellow poplar nursery in the 1930s. Today, it’s one of only six educational forests that remain in North Carolina as it carries on the state and region’s legacy of responsible forest management and stewardship of natural resources. It even bears the name of North Carolina’s first State Forester, John Simcox Holmes.

“Holmes State Forest is a welcoming place for families with young children, students, and curious travelers to explore and get to know nature through leisure and learning,” Educational Ranger Dwigans says.

It is certainly a living outdoor classroom for all to enjoy. Access to the forest is free, and guided hikes, ranger-led public programs, and shelter reservations are available upon request. For more information, visit Holmes Educational State Forest’s website

Fairies at Bullington GardensMore than 8,000 visitors came to Bullington Gardens last year - many of them in search of fairies. The popularity of one of this gorgeous place’s favorite annual events skyrocketed in 2020 as Bullington Gardens’ Fairy Trail spread a little magic into people’s lives during an otherwise difficult time of being cloistered indoors.

The Fairy Trail, which opened on June 1, remains an enchanting escape for both kids and adults as they follow a path through the colorful gardens into the refreshing shade of the nearby woods looking for signs of fairies and their fanciful dwellings. Sharing too much more might spoil the fun of this whimsical adventure because we hear that fairies value their privacy. Needless to say, this is a quest everyone in the family will enjoy!

The entirety of Bullington Gardens is certainly worth exploring. It features 10 themed gardens on 12 acres minutes outside of Hendersonville. Many of the gardens have an educational focus. Bullington partners with Henderson County Public Schools and the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. Just before the school year ended, for instance, an annual prize was awarded to a group of special needs students from one of the county’s public high schools that constructed a bed and raised a garden from seed on a budget of $50. These impressive student gardens are on display alongside a therapy garden, a woodland garden, a perennial garden, and a dahlia garden.

What began as the project of a retired New York City police officer, who relocated to Hendersonville to pursue his personal passion for horticulture in the North Carolina mountains, is now a thriving public garden that teaches all its visitors – especially kids – the value of plants and the care it requires to grow them. Not to mention, Bullington Gardens displays the magic – both real and imagined – that rises from the earth. The gardens are free to the public but, as a nonprofit, donations are appreciated. For more information, check out its website.

Flex your thumbs for an eccentric, retro, and action-packed time indoors. The Appalachian Pinball Museum is guaranteed to light up your smile like a… well, pinball machine! This hip Hendersonville destination has been in Main Street’s old Skyland cinema for only four years, but stepping inside its doors is enough to take you back in time.

Visiting family at the Appalachian Pinball MuseumThe whirring, banging, humming, and buzzing of more than 80 active, antique pinball machines announce this place as much more of an arcade than a “museum.” Nevertheless, gaming geeks along with anyone of a certain age who ever pulled back the plunger of a pinball machine will appreciate the detailed description of each and every game from the year it was introduced to its designer, artist, and theme. Don’t feel left out (like usual) Gen Xer’s… There’s also a section of the museum devoted to arcade games from the 1980s and ‘90s like Asteroids, Galaga, Tetris, and Donkey Kong.

That’s not to say that today’s kids won’t jump in and start flicking flippers and smacking buttons on these timeless games from a different era. Hours easily fly by for every kid at heart in this place. Mom and Dad can also pick up a frosty adult beverage at the snack bar, so time passes even faster. Soda and treats are available there, too.

Entry to the Appalachian Pinball Museum is free for a hands-off peek, but admission for a full day’s play is $12. A wristband allows you to reenter in case you need a meal break, and we recommend diving in with a day’s commitment. To find more information, go to its website

Breakfast at Arabella'sYou’ll work up an appetite between all your outdoor adventuring and indoor antics, and there are plenty of downtown restaurant options to feed everyone in the family. Arabella Breakfast & Brunch uses fresh, locally-sourced ingredients in homemade dishes. Its extensive menu features made-from-scratch pancakes, build-your-own omelets, “Lunch-ish sammies,” specialty lattes, craft brunch cocktails, and an entire section of Latin classics that will fill you up and leave you wanting “más.” Try the Huevos Motuleños, and you’ll agree as soon as you take a bite of the fried plantains. Click here for the full menu.

Another one of the most popular spots on Main Street is Mountain Deli. It’s another small Hendersonville restaurant whose emphasis on fresh, local, sustainably-farmed food produces excellent quality. Mountain Deli’s made-to-order menu showcases bagels and breakfast sandwiches for early birds and subs, sandwiches, and soups for lunch – Don’t be surprised if the lunch line wraps out the front door. There’s plenty of sidewalk seating, and the food is well worth the wait. Find out more on their website.

White Duck TacoIf you and the family are willing to take a short walk away from Main Street, you can visit a slightly-off-the-beaten-path destination that’s bound to be a crowd-pleaser. White Duck Taco Shop is a small chain with restaurants in the Carolinas and Tennessee. Its Hendersonville location on 7th Avenue has lots of room for outdoor patio seating in this up-and-coming downtown district that’s home to a local butcher, several microbreweries, and a handful of evening entertainment options.

White Duck Taco Shop’s menu is as worldly as its trendy neighbors with taco toppings as diverse as Korean Beef Bulgogi, Thai Peanut Chicken, Greek Lamb Gyro, Vietnamese Bahn Mi Tofu, and many more. Despite its international inspiration, nearly every product on the menu is American-made. Cheers again to fresh, locally-sourced flavors! For more information on this tasty hangout, visit their website

Waverly InnAfter a few big meals and exciting expeditions, your family will need a place to recharge at night. You’d be hard-pressed to find a quainter setting with kinder hospitality than the 1898 Waverly Inn. Owned and operated by Mike and Tracey Burnette, this bed and breakfast resides in a grand, three-story home on North Main Street only a few minutes’ walk from Downtown Hendersonville’s shopping and dining. The Waverly Inn is the oldest surviving lodging in Hendersonville, and its historic character and charm are evident in every nook. Updated amenities, delicious local breakfast fare (Sense a theme common to Hendersonville cooking?), and a fun evening social hour add touches of modern elegance to the building’s long history.

Still, there’s nothing quite like kicking back on either the main floor or 2nd story front porch. Even the youngest traveler on your vacation will appreciate this vantage point as Hendersonville’s casual pace strolls past your family on a quiet summer evening. A pair of multi-bed Family Suites and a King Suite are available, so book your stay here in advance

For more vacation tips and suggestions, stop by the Hendersonville Visitor Information Center on South Main Street or drop in virtually with a click here. There’s much to do for any family this summer, and, once you visit, you’ll find there’s even more to bring you back to the City of Four Seasons.

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