Touted as “America’s most scenic drive,” no one can argue that The Blue Ridge Parkway earns one of the top spots in terms of beauty. This is the epitome of what it means to go on a road trip.
This national park is best experienced at a slow pace. One can take in the Appalachian Highlands’ pastoral views, revel in rugged mountain scenery, and be drawn in by amazing long-range vistas. It is 469 miles of pure relaxation, with hundreds of scenic overlooks to stop the car and stretch the legs.
The park has a convenient wayfinding tool, the parkway mileposts that mark each mile along the route. You can orient yourself by knowing that if the marker is on your left, you are traveling north – if it is on your right side, you are traveling south.
Humpback Rocks Visitor Center
Located at milepost 5.8, a few miles from the Northern Entrance in Waynesboro, this visitor’s center is an excellent way to start your Blue Ridge Parkway journey. With a gift shop and information desk, the friendly folks here will set you up with your National Park Passport Stamp, maps, and fun things to do along the way. Follow the short, paved trail from the visitor center to the Outdoor Farm Museum. Tour a log home and see exactly how farm life was in the Appalachians of yesteryear.
Dive into Appalachian History
The mountains here are a billion years old – among the oldest in the world. About 12,000 years ago, native peoples such as the Cherokee, Iroquois, Siouan Manhoacs, and Shawnee settled here. Then in the 1700s, white settlers arrived and quickly began farming the fertile land. There are several historical places along the Parkway where you can delve much deeper into the history of the mountains and the people who lived here.
The Hiking is Endless
One could spend weeks hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway and still not see it all. Rough Ridge Trail, located at milepost 302.8, is a gem. This 1.8-mile out-and-back trail runs near Blowing Rock, and from the rocks at the top of a ridge, you can get a wonderful view of Linn Cove Viaduct.
The waterfall hikes here are numerous. Falling Cascades at milepost 83.1 is a great 1.4-mile loop trail and just the thing for enjoying the deep cool forest. Linville Falls at milepost 316.4 is spectacular and the more popular of the falls in the area, plunging more than 90 feet into the massive Linville Gorge. Linville Falls has a 4-mile loop trail leading to three different overlooks for views of the waterfall. There are several well-traveled trails here – all worth exploring if you have the time.
Crabtree Falls is a steep, moderately strenuous loop trail, but well worth the effort if you can swing it. Dropping more than 70 feet, it spills over the rocks below in dramatic fan-like patterns. When the rhododendrons and mountain laurels are in bloom, it is a special treat. Looking Glass Falls at milepost 412.2 is about 10 miles off the parkway, but worth the small side trip, as wading and swimming are allowed here.
Peaks of Otter
Located at milepost 86, there is a lot to do here, and an excellent spot to spend a night or two. Along with the visitor center, there is a lodge on the edge of Abbott Lake, featuring a stunning view of Sharp Top Mountain, its restaurant serves delicious meals with views of the mountain and lake. There is also a campground opposite the lodge. Hike any number of numerous trails, such as the easy 1-mile Abbott Lake Loop Trail, the 1.8-mile Johnson Farm Loop Trail, or the 3.3-mile Harkening Hill Trail, just to name a few.
At milepost 176.1, this iconic destination features a short trail leading to stairs going across the aqueduct feeding water to the wheel, winding through several small buildings, an old wagon, and through the forest. On some weekends, the mill is open for visitors to take a peek. Then stop in the Mabry Mill Restaurant for a wonderful home-cooked meal in a cozy dining space.
Linn Cove Viaduct
Just off of milepost 304, discover this engineering marvel completed in 1987 which has won numerous design awards. Coming in at 1,243 feet long, the bridge was built with segmented concrete hugging the face of Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. This is one of the most photo-worthy sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Stop by the bridge museum and visitor center located at the south end of the viaduct.
Richland Balsam Overlook
Milepost 431.4 offers this overlook; the highest point in the Blue Ridge Parkway. One lone sign marks its significance, and the landscape is full of evergreen trees as far as the eye can see. Hearty hikers will enjoy the 1.5-mile loop trail to the summit of Richland Balsam, which stands at 6,410 feet.
The Wildlife is Plentiful
The landscape on either side of the Blue Ridge Parkway is ripe with unique habitats for so many plants and animals; 50 species of mammals, 150 bird species, and 40 reptile species. Species that have long been endangered or threatened are making a comeback here; peregrine falcons, river otters, beaver, and black bears.
Speaking of which, there’s a good chance you’ll see at least one bear in your travels along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Just remember to give them plenty of space, and they’ll leave you alone. If a bear changes its behavior when you are in sight, it means you are too close, and slowly move on. Remember to never feed them or leave food at your campsite for them to find.
Know Before You Go
No matter what time of year, you’ll want to check road conditions before heading on your adventure. America’s Favorite Drive is designed to be taken at a slow leisurely pace. Be sure to adhere to all speed limits and drive carefully. Stop often to get out and enjoy the scenery. During peak times, expect heavy traffic and delays. Fall foliage season is a big one, lasting from mid to late October.
With over 200 amazing overlooks, there is room enough for everyone. If you come to an overlook full of cars and visitors, keep going, as there is another one just around the bend.
And don’t forget the nearby communities. They offer their own wonderful experiences and events, not to mention a nice variety of food and lodging options.
If you opt for camping or lodging inside the park, be sure to make reservations. The Blue Ridge Parkway has eight campgrounds to choose from. Come prepared with a sense of adventure, remember to recreate responsibly, and follow the Leave No Trace principles.
Most of all, enjoy the view!
Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist who had the rare privilege of studying under Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park when he was just 19 years old. Now, Rob is on a journey to explore and photograph all of America’s National Parks. He’s creating WPA-style posters to help people celebrate their own national park adventures — as well as encourage others to get out and explore!
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