Easily accessible via the Blue Ridge Parkway and not far from I-26 is a true natural gem -- Bent Creek Experimental Forest. The forest is right off Brevard Road (Rt. 191) south of Asheville. It encompasses nearly 6,000 acres of forest and streams, is home to the North Carolina Arboretum, and includes the Lake Powhatan recreational area (swimming, fishing and camping).
Bent Creek is also as close as you can get to doggie heaven. There are miles and miles of trails appropriate for hiking and biking -- everything from wide former logging roads to narrow dirt paths that meander through the woods or take ambitious hikers high into the mountains. An added bonus during the summer is that many of the trails are shaded and cool.
Dogs love the smells, sounds and running creeks. While dogs should technically be on leash (and they must be leashed at Lake Powhatan), many owners seem to feel comfortable allowing their dogs to explore off-leash. If you use trails that are not near to the Lake Powhatan area, chances are you your dog can enjoy a memorable off-leash experience, as long as he or she is well-behaved and returns when called. (Tip: Hunting is allowed in Bent Creek during the fall. Don't allow your dog off-leash during hunting season. Watch for a sign indicating the dates for hunting season posted near the entrance to Bent Creek, opposite the service entrance of the NC Arboretum.)
There are so many trails and access points that it is difficult to recommend any one or mention them all. The best thing to do is explore on your own since trails are well-marked. You can also make use of the trail map which you can download here.
You'll find that Bent Creek is especially popular (and frequently crowded) on weekends. To avoid the crowds, Carolina Mountain Dog's advice is to drive past all of the obvious entry points to Bent Creek. Go beyond the entrance to Lake Powhatan and continue on the dirt road that curves around to the right. You'll see another access area to the right, but keep driving down the dirt road, which curves to the left. Continue a mile or two and you'll find several more access points with small parking areas to the left and right. Many less-traveled trails are off this road.