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Travel Guide to the North Carolina Arboretum Winter Lights in Asheville

Explore the spectacular Christmas light display from November 17 until December 31, 2023.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my Affiliate Disclosure here.

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Over 200 artists have recorded a version of “Winter Wonderland” since it was written in 1934. Although there was no glistening snow, I felt like I was walking in a winter wonderland at the North Carolina Arboretum Winter Lights. After walking through a million twinkling lights, I dreamed by the fire as I roasted marshmallows instead of building a snowman.

Winter Lights is an annual event – started in 2014 – at the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville. It’s an open-air, walk-through holiday light display.

Music fills the air, along with murmurs of conversations for a thousand guests. Colorful lights stand against the black of night. The only thing missing is a cup of hot chocolate available at the Cocoa Shake. It’s everything you need for a festive Christmas holiday.

Here’s everything you need to know about attending the annual North Carolina Arboretum Winter Lights and a few tips to make the most of your trip.

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NC Arboretum Winter Lights Maps

How to use this map | Click the icon in the top-left corner to open the Map Legend, then click on any of the legend items to display more information. If you have a Google account, click the (very faint) star at the end of the map’s name to save this map to your account, then access the map from your smartphone during your trip.

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NC Arboretum Winter Lights Schedule in 2023

The North Carolina Arboretum Winter Lights is open nightly from November 17 – December 31, 2023. Winter Lights is open on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day.

The event runs from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m. each night.

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NC Arboretum Winter Lights Tickets

Winter Lights is the North Carolina Arboretum’s largest annual fundraiser. Tickets go on sale weeks before the event begins. Since the inaugural show in 2013, Winter Lights has become the most popular Christmas light display in western North Carolina.

Winter Lights tickets vary from $40 – $80 for all occupants in personal vehicles, depending on a few factors.

Ordering tickets in advance online is $10 cheaper than buying tickets at the gate. It’s also significantly faster and keeps traffic moving smoothly into the arboretum.

Ticket prices are divided into three tiers:

  • $40 Pink Tier applies to most weeknights in November.
  • $55 Blue Tier applies to most weekends.
  • $70 Yellow Tier applies to the weekend after Thanksgiving and from December 16 – 28.

Users must choose an entry time when buying a tiered ticket. There is no difference in price based on entry time – it’s merely a way of controlling the number of vehicles trying to enter the arboretum simultaneously. You can enter the arboretum at 6 p.m., 7 p.m., or 8 p.m., with 9 p.m. being the last entry allowed. Only a limited number of tickets are sold for each time window.

A fourth option is the $80 Flex ticket. Pink, Blue, and Yellow Tier tickets are non-refundable regardless of weather conditions. The Flex ticket can be changed to another non-sold-out night up to 48 hours in advance.

Visit the North Carolina Arboretum Winter Lights website for more purchase options for larger vehicles and to buy tickets in advance.

Pro Travel Tip

Timed entry tickets must be used during the allotted time window. The best option is to buy the 6 p.m. – 9 p.m. ticket for greatest flexibility.

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NC Arboretum Winter Lights

The North Carolina Arboretum Winter Lights is an annual open-air, walk-through holiday light display in Asheville. The lights are spread throughout the formal gardens between the Baker Visitor Center and Education Center. Casually walking along the concrete plaza takes about an hour to see all the lights.

Winter Lights features an impressive one million lights that take the staff about 12,000 hours to install. The LED bulbs use 80% less electricity than traditional Christmas lights, continuing the arboretum’s sustainable efforts into the holidays.

Guests begin the adventure through the Baker Visitor Center, exiting into a tunnel of lights to begin the journey to the Education Center. The lights are accessible for wheelchairs and walkers.

The weather is typically chilly during Winter Lights, with temperatures hovering around 50 degrees – dress accordingly. There are a few benches where you can sit to enjoy the spectacular light displays, listen to live music, and enjoy the evening at the arboretum.

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Quilt Garden

One of the most impressive displays at Winter Lights is the Quilt Garden. The formal gardens are covered in thousands of lights, creating a spectacular quilt of lights. The pattern changes every year, giving returning guests something new to see.

National Park Week 2024

Learn about the annual celebration of the National Park System and read my travel guides to national park units across the country.

Tree of Light

The 50-foot-tall Tree of Light is the center of Winter Lights. The string light tree is impossible to miss near the Quilt Garden. It’s an excellent place to capture a family photo to remember the evening.

Magical Maples

My favorite part of Winter Lights is the thousands of lights strung throughout the sprawling branches of trees at the north end of the plaza. The lights hang like Spanish moss, turning the barren tree limbs into something beautiful to admire at Winter Lights.

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Cocoa Shacks and S’mores Land

A Cocoa Shack near the Baker Visitor Center and Education Center sells hot chocolate, hot apple cider, and s’mores ingredients. It’s a quick and easy way to get something warm to drink during Winter Lights. And, of course, graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate for the fire pits!

S’Mores Land features two fire pits where guests can roast their marshmallows and build scrumptious s’mores.

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Bent Creek Bistro Winter Lights Menu

You won’t have to go hungry all night if you skip dinner before arriving at the NC Arboretum Winter Lights. The Bent Creek Bistro, located in the Education Center, has a full menu for the special event.

The menu includes sandwiches, soup, and sharable meals like homemade pimento cheese dip. You can get a hot chocolate, hot apple cider, local craft beer, or a canned wine to go with the meal.

Bent Creek Bistro also sells ingredients for s’mores.

Best Time to Visit the NC Arboretum Winter Lights

Ticket prices vary by $30 depending on which night you attend. The best time to visit the North Carolina Arboretum Winter Lights is Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday the week after Thanksgiving. If you want to attend the event during the final two weeks before Christmas, try to visit on a weekday for a thinner crowd.

The gate opens at 6 p.m. nightly. But getting there early doesn’t help – it’s actually counterintuitive. The best time each night to arrive is 7:30 p.m. or later. The gate closes at 9 p.m., and the event ends at 10 p.m., so arriving later is better for a smaller crowd and less traffic.

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Tips for Seeing the NC Arboretum Winter Lights

Here are a few tips for making the most of your trip to see the North Carolina Arboretum Winter Lights:

  • Visit on a weekday
  • Plan to arrive around 7:30 p.m.
  • Wear comfortable shoes and warm clothing
  • Pack the Ocoopa Hand Warmers to keep your hands toasty all night
  • Get a hot chocolate, hot apple cider, or craft beer
  • Make s’mores at the fire pits in S’mores Land
  • Enjoy the live music at the Education Center
  • Take a selfie or family photo at the Tree of Light
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Directions to the NC Arboretum Winter Lights

There are a few ways to get to the North Carolina Arboretum Winter Lights, including a short drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. But I recommend only one way, regardless of which direction you are traveling from.

Take Exit 33 on Interstate 26 and turn southbound onto Brevard Road (NC Highway 191). Pass the Asheville Outlets on the left and continue along the four-lane highway.

The entrance to the North Carolina Arboretum will be on the right on a spur road connecting to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Although there is a traffic light at the intersection, turning right into the arboretum is by far the easiest way to get to the Winter Lights.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is Winter Lights a drive-through or walk-through show?

Winter Lights is a walk-through show throughout the gardens.

Do I need to buy a ticket for every person?

No. The NC Arboretum Winter Lights tickets apply to all vehicle occupants.

Are tickets refundable?

No. Winter Lights tickets are non-refundable and non-transferable. However, Flex tickets can be changed to a different non-sold-out night.

How long does it take to see the Winter Lights?

Plan to spend at least an hour casually walking through the light displays. You should also plan to spend about 30 minutes sitting in traffic while entering and exiting the arboretum.

Are the restrooms at the Winter Lights?

Yes. Restrooms are available at the Baker Visitor Center and Education Center at either end of the walk-through display.

Is Winter Lights accessible?

Yes. Most of the gardens are accessible for wheelchairs and walkers. Designated handicapped parking spaces are near the Baker Visitor Center.

Can I buy a ticket to the Winter Lights at the gatehouse?

Yes. Tickets are sold at the gatehouse from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. nightly. The tickets are $10 more expensive than buying in advance and are limited to availability.

Do I need to buy an entry ticket if I’m using a rideshare?

Yes. You will need to buy an entry ticket for any vehicle you use to enter the arboretum. Since tickets cover all occupants of the vehicle, you could invite the driver to enjoy the lights while dropping you off.

When do the gates open for Winter Lights?

The gates open at 6 p.m. nightly. The entrance gate closes at 9 p.m.

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