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Blue Ridge Country....

JUST OFF THE PARKWAY:

JAUNTS JUST FOR YOU

The Blue Ridge Parkway (www.blueridgeparkway.org) is quite possibly one of America’s best drives. It meets all of the prerequisites in resounding fashion: only two lanes of traffic; historical interest; friendly and interesting people; great scenery; and good food and accommodations possibilities. What more could you ask of a road?

Occasionally, however, even veteran Parkway visitors like to head a bit further afield. From big cities to small towns or quiet hiking trails, there’s also lots to see or do within a few feet or miles of the Parkway.

Since its inception, the Blue Ridge Parkway has been called America's favorite drive. It was authorized in the 1930s as a Depression-era public works project, but was a half-century in the making. It was the nation's first (and ultimately the longest) rural parkway. It connects the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia (the Skyline Drive) with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

The Blue Ridge Parkway drive officially starts at Rockfish Gap, where you find the zero Milepost marker. These markers become the welcome signs of your location on the drive and run progressively each mile southward along the Parkway. They can also help in finding the right drives or hikes nearby.

There are many places to pull off the Blue Ridge Parkway for a short or long hike, as well as big city and small town adventures within a few miles. Below you’ll find drives to two cities ( Roanoke and Asheville) and two towns (Floyd and Blowing Rock), as well as varied hiking recommendations in both states. You’re sure to find that perfect place to drive (or walk), just off the Parkway.

ROANOKE

Roanoke (www.visitroanokeva.com) is ideally situated just a few miles off the Parkway. Along with Asheville (see below), it’s one of the Parkway’s great ‘big city’ excursions.

Virginia’s Explore Park (MP 115) is a perfect way to start a Roanoke exploration (and you don’t even have to leave the Parkway). This living history museum in the great outdoors features a 1671 Native American village, a 1740s frontier life area, and an 1850s settlement. Recreational enthusiasts can enjoy single-track mountain biking, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, fishing, and more on the Roanoke River.

On the way down the mountain, be sure to stop at Mill Mountain, where highlights include the Mill Mountain Zoo, the famed 88-foot neon star, and great views of the city and the rest of the Shenandoah Valley. You can see the road you’ll be driving heading right into town. At night, the star’s 2,000 feet of tubing can be seen for up to 60 miles.

The city of Roanoke proper is justifiably famous for its Historic Farmers Market, where farmers have been selling their fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers for nearly 120 years. It is generally open every day, except Sunday, year-round and is full of refreshing sights, sounds, and smells.

The flavor of the market is enhanced by the restored City Market Building and its international food court, as well as nearly 100 lively shops, antique dealers, art galleries, and restaurants, that surround the produce stalls.

Roanoke's other pride and joy is Center in the Square, a multi-cultural complex with several facets. The Science Museum of Western Virginia teaches the wonders of science through hands-on experience. The Art Museum of Western Virginia features the works of local, regional, and international artists. Mill Mountain Theatre offers professional and alternative productions on a regular basis. Another favorite stop in Center in the Square is the History Museum of Western Virginia, covering the area's background from prehistoric artifacts, frontier settlement, the boom days of the railroad, and the present.

The rest of downtown Roanoke is great for walking. Conveniently near the bustling downtown area, the Virginia Museum of Transportation is located in Roanoke’s historic freight station. As the state’s transportation museum, exhibits include railcars, locomotives, vintage cars, carriages, trucks, trolleys, a multi-level miniature train set, aviation and space equipment, interactive exhibits, and special events and exhibits thorughout the year.. Just outside of town, you’ll find the Epperly family's Miniature Graceland (you have to see it to believe it). After getting back on the Parkway, it’s not very far to the Floyd exit.

FLOYD

Small town fans should definitely make the short side-trip to Floyd (www.community.floyd.va.us), six miles north of the Parkway via VA 8, just past Milepost 165.

Floyd and the entire surrounding county of the same name features just one stoplight, providing a perfect reason to visit. This small town (and county) offers up a plethora of small town charm, friendliness, shopping, country-style dining, and accommodations. You’re sure to find it hard to return to the Parkway after a visit to Floyd.

Downtown Floyd main streets include several unique shopping opportunities that are about as far away from Rodeo Drive as you can be. The Floyd Country Store is an old-time general store with lots of locally made crafts, wicker, corn cob jelly, ice cream, hot dogs, pinto beans, and cornbread. There’s even an old-fashioned candy counter, a small antique museum, and a 1940 working juke box. This is also the home of the famed Friday Nite Jamboree, with local and visiting musicians creating a wonderful venue for music, food, dancing, and more. Blue Ridge Parkway refugees are more than welcome any Friday evening.

Nearby, County Records is the world’s largest distributor of bluegrass and old-time music. You’ll find more than 5,000 tapes, records, albums, books, and videos. The collection is truly phenomenal, so browsers are more than welcome (and they’ll ship your purchase if your trunk is full)

Farmer’s Supply is a true farming supply company for the locals, but there’s much more. The options include unique earthenware, housewares, lawn and garden supplies, hardware, and much more.

The Harvest Moon Food Store features organic & bulk foods, gourmet items, fresh breads, dairy products, gourmet coffees and teas, gift cards, health care products, vitamins, and much more. New Mountain Mercantile is a unique gift shop for hand-made and unusual items. Local crafts and art include hand-wrought jewelry, clothes, games, toys, furniture, weavings, potter, stained glass, and more.

In addition, visitors flock to Floyd for three entire floors of every fabric imaginable. It’s located in Floyd’s old school house building, which is now suitably called School House Fabrics.

If all of this Floyd shopping make you hungry for some homestyle country cooking, then you’re in luck. Floyd features the Pine Tavern Lodge & Restaurant (established in 1927) and the Blue Ridge Restaurant. Both offer heaping portions of fresh home cooking and friendliness. Just make sure to drink some coffee before returning to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Better yet, extend your stay in Floyd by choosing one of the many B&Bs in the area. It’s not far along the Parkway to a new state and another charming small town.

BLOWING ROCK

Located virtually on the Parkway in an area called the High Country (intersection of Highways 221 and 321), Blowing Rock’s (www.blowingrock.com and www.highcountryhost.com) small-town charm is evident immediately. Before driving off the Parkway, be sure to visit the Moses H. Cone Mansion (MP 294), a stately residence that’s been turned into the Parkway Craft Center, which is a retail establishment of the Highland Craft Guild (see the Asheville section for another great location). The work inside is as inspiring as the view outside.

Also just outside town, on Highway 321, the namesake ‘Blowing Rock’ shouldn’t be missed. Situated 4,090 above John’s River Gorge, prevailing winds return light objects thrown over the void. There’s a short hike with stunning views, a garden waterfall, an observation deck, and a small shop.

In Blowing Rock proper, it’s obvious that many artisans like the mountain air. The crafts shopping possibilities are almost endless. Some highlights include: oversized pottery and handwoven garments at Expressions Gallery; original jewelry designers at Fovea; High Country Candles; The Dulcimer Shop; and delicate paintings on silk at the shop of Roberta Nosti.

Blowing Rock is one of many stops on the area’s Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina (there’s a book by the same name). These varied drives include all of the shops mentioned above for Blowing Rock, as well as many more in this community and others in the region. The ‘High Country Ramble’ Craft Heritage Trail ends in Blowing Rock, after stops in Boone, Todd, Jefferson, Sparta, Glendale Springs, Valle Crucis, and Banner Elk. The book features places to shop, eat, and sleep all along the way.

Along with simply enjoying small town life, other Blowing Rock highlights include: the 15-year-old Blowing Rock Stage Company, with professional theater June through September; whitewater rafting with companies like High Mountain Expeditions; nearby mountain golf; and many other possibilities.

If all of this exploration (and shopping) makes you hungry, Blowing Rock features several local favorites before you head back to the highway (or one of many quaint B&Bs and cabin rentals in the area). Local and visitor favorites include Crippin’s Country Inn & Restaurant, the Gamekeeper, and several others, ranging from country casual to High Country elegance.

Of course, the High Country area offers even more driving excursions near Blowing Rock. Some High Country picks include: the city of Boone, the quaint town of Banner Elk; the resort area of Beech Mountain; the Tweetsie Railroad, a fun family park that includes a three-mile steam locomotive trip; or a visit to good old Grandfather Mountain, with it’s mile-high swinging bridge and much more. The next stop is Asheville, just down the Parkway.

ASHEVILLE

Like Roanoke to the north, Asheville (www.ashevillechamber.org) is an ideal ‘big city’ excursion just off the Parkway. Also like Roanoke and Virginia’s Explore Park, an Asheville exploration starts with a stop right on the Parkway.

The Folk Art Center (MP 382) is the home of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, representing craft artists from Southern Appalachia. The Center houses the century-old Allanstand Craft Shop, which carries the work of more than 300 Guild members. Upstairs, visitors will find craft galleries with changing exhibits of regional and national scope. If you’re lucky, live crafts demonstrations will be taking place. From there, it’s just a short drive into the city.

Down in Asheville proper, there’s a downtown renaissance taking place. Entire blocks have been transformed, as businesses, restaurants, retailers, residents, and visitors have turned Biltmore Avenue and the rest of downtown into what many are calling the ‘Paris of the South.’ The ‘Asheville Urban Trail’ brochure provides a 1.6-mile loop that highlights the history of the city and it’s people (like authors O. Henry and Thomas Wolfe, architects Douglas Ellington and Richard Sharp Smith, and Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first female physician).

Of course, no drive into Asheville would be complete without a visit to the Biltmore Estate. The 8,000-acre estate includes the 250-room Biltmore House, which is America’s largest home, as well as many acres of gardens and woodlands, restaurants, shops, and the nation’s most-visited winery.

Any Asheville visit should also include one or more of the following: the Asheville Art Museum (very strong 20th century American art collection) and the rest of downtown’s centerpiece Park Place Education Arts & Science Center (also including the Colburn Gem & Mineral Museum, Diana Wortham Theatre, and The Health Adventure); the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site; the Estes Winn Auto Museum and the Shades of the Past Auto Museum; the Smith McDowell House Museum (Asheville’s oldest house); the Swannanoa Valley Museum (highlights the history of the area); and the Thomas Wolfe Memorial.

Back on the Parkway to the south, be sure to visit the North Carolina Arboretum, another Asheville-area attraction that’s perfect before or after your big city visit (if you’re coming from the south, visit here first). Miles of nature trails offer leisurely walking and challenging hiking, with cultivated gardens reflecting the unique culture of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The state-of-the-art greenhouse is truly a colorful highlight.

TAKE A HIKE

One of the beauties of driving the Blue Ridge Parkway is the ability to pull off almost anywhere for some good hiking. From a short leg-stretcher to an all day trek, it’s easy to drive to some great hiking.

The Virginia and North Carolina sections both have many varied hiking possibilities. Just be sure not to tackle too much, wear appropriate footwear and clothing, and take plenty of water.

Some of the best short hikes can be found just off the Parkway. A few popular possibilities include: Otter Lake (MP 63.1, l8 mi); Abbot Lake at Peaks of Otter (MP 85.7, one mi); Roanoke River (MP 114.9, .7 mi); Craggy Gardens (MP 364.6, 2 mi); Graveyard Fields Loop (MP 418.8, 2.2 mi); and Waterrock Knob (MP 451.2, 1.1 mi). All of these moderate hikes lead to some great views.

Longer hikes are just as accessible either right off the Parkway or within a short drive. Some favorites include: practically anywhere along the Appalachian Trail (AT), which crosses the Parkway several times; Humpback Rocks (MP 6.0, 4.3 mi), along the AT; Sharp Top Trail (MP 86.0, 3 mi) at Peaks of Otter; Rock Castle Gorge (MP 167.1; 10.6 mi); and Tanawha Trail (MP 305.2, 13.5 mi). These longer hikes involve significant elevation changes and are only recommended for experienced hikers.

Thus, whether you’re looking for big city stimulation just off the quiet Parkway or just want to visit a nice small town or take a hike, it’s easy to find in a short drive.