Meet up with like-minded hikers, campers, dog lovers

Karen Chávez
The Asheville Citizen-Times

There’s no reason to be alone in the outdoors. People pick up from cities to move to the Western North Carolina mountains, sometimes on hearsay, sometimes only visiting once, and want to get out and play. But sometimes all that nature is more fun with someone else.

Enter the power and the plethora of Meetups. Asheville Meetups with an outdoorsy edge are forming all the time. Pick your interest - hiking, extreme hiking, slow and easy hiking, kayaking, big water kayaking, mountain biking, backpacking and camping with women, heading outdoors just to take pictures, and on and on.

Leslie Pardue moved to town last year from the Raleigh area to be in a more suitable place for her passion — hiking in the mountains.

A freelance writer and editor, Pardue had been active in the Lady Trailblazers hiking club in the Piedmont and set about looking into the Asheville Meetup groups.

The groups are typically free to join, with a club for every interest possible in Asheville, from Reiki and meditation, to the love of pugs, wine and beer drinking, of course, clubs for writers and runners, and even groups for those who sing a capella or just love to cuddle.

Pardue joined a couple of the hiking Meetup groups, but found they hiked too fast or too slow for her taste, and one group even kicked her out for life — for not attending enough hikes in a month.

“I decided to start my own group, Asheville Women Outdoors. It’s been growing pretty steadily and women who join are very enthusiastic,” Pardue said.

The group now has 460 members who take mostly weekend, but some weekday trips. Hikers can come and go to any outing they please, and nobody gets kicked out for not meeting a hike quota.

“Our group is for women only and it’s more low-key than other groups. We don’t move at a rapid pace or have long hikes,” Pardue said. “We are beginner friendly and for those who might be just getting back into hiking, or haven’t done anything since Girl Scouts.”

The outings draw from 10-20 women at a time and can be hikes to waterfalls or high elevations like Roan Mountain on the Tennessee border, or camping trips to Linville Gorge, and include other outings such as festivals, and wine and painting parties.

Colleen Finegan, a retired teacher from Ohio, also moved to Asheville last year. She tried out some of the Meetups and settled on Asheville Women Outdoors.

“It’s more of a community, and it’s dog friendly. Leslie is very understanding,” Finegan said. “It’s a great thing for new people to the area. Sometimes we meet at a vegetarian restaurant, and once we took a tour through Trader Joe’s to see the vegan products they had. It’s educational as well as being fun, particular for single women, or for wives of couch potatoes.”

Pardue said the Meetup has all ages, from 20s-70s, of all persuasions, “retirees, working women, gay, straight, old, young,” and she tries to make a welcoming, comfortable atmosphere for everyone.

“It’s not meant to exclude men, but my experience is a lot of women don’t feel comfort hiking in groups with men. Here they tend to relax and feel more comfortable hiking with other women, can let their hair down and don’t have to edit what they say.”

Plenty of outdoors to go around

There are many other co-ed outdoors-related Meetups, such as Ski and Outings, Asheville Green Drinks (a social hour for discussing sustainability), Asheville/Hendersonville Nature Lovers, Asheville Runners, Asheville Mountains-To-Sea Hiking Club, Asheville Outdoor Singles, and the granddaddy of the local Meetups — The Asheville Hiking Club.

Formed in 2008, it was one of the original outdoorsy minded Meetups, and now has 6,810 members who do everything from strenuous, 12-mile one day hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to shorter hikes in Bent Creek, and camping trips.

Jerome Smith, a meditation instructor, moved from Chicago to Asheville about 10 years ago for the outdoors lifestyle. To meet like-minded people, he joined the Western Carolina Kayaking Meetup and became its leader when the founder left.

“The mission is to get people into kayaking and make it accessible,” he said. “There is so much water here, so many rivers and lakes, we want to facilitate and create community around kayaking and to help beginners, especially those who find kayaking intimidating.”

The group has more than 1,000 members who take trips on the French Broad River, the Upper and Lower Green River, Lake James, Bear Lake, Lake Jocassee, and have members from North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

He said the Meetup is open to anyone, but most are in their 20s through 40s.

“Kayaking is another way to commune with nature. It creates community. People have become friends, some break off and do their own trips.”

Many Meetups start with a basic premise and are honed down to find that sweet spot. Five years ago, Wendy Olsen had joined another hiking group but they went so fast, she didn’t have time to take pictures.

So she started the Hiking with Cameras Meetup, which has grown to more than 2,000 members.

“We are composed of people who don’t even use cameras to people with iPhone to professionals,” Olsen said. “We do dog hikes, backpacking, camping hikes, but we’re best known for going to places that are pretty.”

There are two sub-groups — one that stays local and another that travels.

Frequent local destinations are waterfalls, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains. The travelers have been to Scotland and Ireland and this year are going to Alaska.

“We just take photos at will. It’s not about photography learning, it’s about photography love.”

Olsen also just joined perhaps the newest outdoor meetup — Asheville National Parks Meetup, which was formed about three weeks ago and now has 163 members.

“We wanted to reach out to people about the values and threats to national parks and engage people in the issues, have a good time but at the same time we’re hoping to catalyze people to take action,” said Jeff Hunter, who leads the group with Ulla Reeves of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association.

The NPCA began in 1919 and is nonpartisan, Hunter said. The Meetup will explore the region’s national parks including the parkway, the Smokies and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

The outings will vary in difficulty from easy to strenuous, with most 2-5 miles in length. The hikes are free but registration is requested 30 days before the outing to know how big a group to expect.

Hunter said there will also be clinics, trainings, guest speakers, book discussions, film screenings, volunteer opportunities and more, all surrounding the national parks. There are only a couple of rules: no dogs, except service dogs, and no unaccompanied minors.

The first trip in late April was to look for migratory birds at Mount Mitchell State Park.

“We saw a pair of bald eagles and a peregrine falcon soaring over Mount Mitchell,” Hunter said.

Following are some of the scheduled National Park Meetup outings:

June 3: National Trails Day, moderate 4.8-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail to Rich Mountain fire tower.

June 8: Civic Voice Lessons. Local NPCA staff lead a two-hour interactive training to provide park enthusiasts with “Civic Voice Lessons” that will allow individuals to speak up on behalf of America’s National Parks.

July 1: Moderate 4.2-mile hike along the Big Creek Trail in the Smokies. This in and out hike to Mouse Creek Falls will pass Midnight Hole, a popular swimming hole in the park.

For more information on Meetups, visit