Biltmore Trails: Discover the Magic of Frederick Olmsted
The two miles of trails carry you to several distinct spaces.
It is a gorgeous early summer day and I’m touring Asheville’s Biltmore House. There is no doubt that America’s largest private residence is an architectural masterpiece, and I’m enjoying its collection of furniture, statuary, centuries-old Flemish tapestries and paintings from some of the world’s great masters. However, the pleasant weather has enticed hundreds of other people to visit, and I’m soon weary of being crowded and rushed along when I want to stop for a few moments to admire something that has caught my eye.
It’s when I step outside for a respite that I find an aspect of the estate that I had been unaware of. Just as George Washington Vanderbilt hired a famous architect, Richard Morris Hunt (creator of the façade and Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), to design the house, Vanderbilt also employed acclaimed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (best known for his work on New York City’s Central Park) to create a series of gardens laced by entwined and meandering pathways, some paved and some left with a natural surface.
This, of course, is the end of house touring for the day for me. How can I go back inside when there’s a two-mile-long, gently descending trail system just waiting for me to explore for the first time?
The South Terrace, one of the entrances to the gardens, looks across much of the 8,000 acres that presently make up the estate. However, at its zenith, Vanderbilt’s empire encompassed an astounding 125,000 acres – more than half the size of Shenandoah National Park. As I’m taking in the scenery, one of the groundskeepers points to a prominent peak visible far to the south. To get a perspective on just how much land Vanderbilt owned, Mount Pisgah is a little more than 16 miles from the Biltmore House and marks the southern extent of his holdings. Yet, his property also spread eastward from the main crest of the Blue Ridge, taking in the mountains and valleys of the Pink Beds area. In fact, there was so much land that upon Vanderbilt’s death, his heirs sold an enormous tract, including Mount Pisgah, in 1914 to the federal government. It became the basis of the Pisgah National Forest.
The role of a landscape architect is to provide the visitor with a visually pleasing experience, and every twist and turn of Biltmore’s pathways reveals Olmsted’s genius. The graceful movements of the golden koi contrast with the stationary dignity of the weathered-gray classical statues in the Italian Garden. Spreading tree canopies cause the sun to create shadow and light in an ever-changing pattern, accentuating the various shapes and forms of more than 500 plant species in the Shrub Garden.
Within the Walled Garden, two long arbors of winding vines draw my gaze across four acres of dahlias, zinnias, globe amaranth and 200 varieties of heirloom and hybrid roses to the Hunt-designed Conservatory. Inside the glass-roofed building are hundreds of exotic tropical plants that provide flowers for the house year-round.
Olmsted’s touch continues even after the formal gardens end. The pathway, with one side bordered by luxuriant growths of wild geranium and the other side by a perfectly manicured lawn, passes through woodland and meadow. Even the short footbridges, whose handrails are constructed from limbs and branches of fallen trees, blend in with the natural scenery where they cross a small, burbling creek.
Ever the ones to have their projects be as pleasing to the eye as possible, Olmsted and Hunt collaborated on the design of Bass Pond when it was created in 1895. The latter placed the gazebo at the head of the pond so that guests could look across its expanse. Olmsted went so far as to consider what the shoreline would look like from opposite sides of the pond and to ensure that the dammed waters would leave two small islands as a refuge for waterfowl and shore birds. His bridge over a tributary is unmistakable to anyone who has watched “The Last of the Mohicans;” the Redcoats marched over it in a memorable scene from the 1991 movie. Beyond the bridge, the falls created by water flowing over Olmsted’s stone dam is one of the estate’s most photographed spots.
On the return ascent, the Woodland and Rhododendron Loop trails provide a more natural setting and an alternative to walking the same terrain to deliver me to the Azalea Garden, with America’s largest collection of native azalea shrubs. The Spring Garden surprises me with the exposed knees of a bald cypress tree, whose natural habitat is the coastal plain and not the North Carolina highlands.
Above Antler Hill Village at the western edge of the estate, I find another trail system, this one situated across a series of knobs with about eight miles of interconnecting old roads and single track also open to mountain bikes. Walking one of the routes, it’s easy to envision a Vanderbilt hunting party ascending toward the Blue Ridge in noisy anticipation. The men, riding and leading horses laden with provisions, talk excitedly about the events of the next few days, while the dogs run ahead, scaring up squirrels, chipmunks and deer. Here I also find that, evidently, even the chickens lived well on the Vanderbilt estate – one of the trails goes by a large, two-storied, arch-windowed home that was the brooder house.
It’s late in the day when I leave the estate, but I find that because I purchased my admission ticket after 4 p.m., I can return for free tomorrow, giving me more than enough time to tour the parts of the house I missed and to once again, enjoy the splendors of the trails.