THE BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY:
A DRIVE THROUGH THE SOUTHERN SKY
If you want to experience the mountains of the Southeast, theres no better drive than the Blue Ridge Parkway. At 469 miles, this linear national park is the longest in the nation. But the best thing about this drive is that it takes you right to an incredible amount of outdoor pursuits in the Southeasts majestic Blue Ridge Mountains. So pack your rack of choice and hit the Parkway.
Authorized in the 1930s as a Depression-era public works project, but more than a half-century in the making, the Blue Ridge Parkway connects the Shenandoah National Park in Virginias north to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in western North Carolina.
I-64 leads right to the start of the Parkway at Rockfish Gap between Charlottesville and Staunton. If you need gas, get it here, because there arent many opportunities on the Parkway and there are lots of gas-guzzling uphill grinds to come.
The Blue Ridge Parkway starts right where the 105-mile Skyline Drive ends (this is also a great little road trip, with plenty of hiking, biking, and even four-season Massanutten Resort nearby). The winding climb south on the Parkway and out of Rockfish Gap leads to the first overlook before you even pass the first simple concrete mileage marker.
The overlooks on the Parkway (youll be drawn to many) are almost as frequent as the 469 mileage markers (1 and up headed south, with references to places typically using MP XX). The speed limit is never greater than 45 miles per hour, providing a nice pace for exploration and stops.
Around MP 6, Humpback Rocks Visitor Center is the first of many pulloffs where you can pick up an excellent Blue Ridge Parkway map and other information. Theres a recreated working farm here, as well as a trail up to Humpback Rocks. This is one of dozens of short and sometimes steep hikes right off the Parkway.
Between MP 13 and 14, Route 664 heads down the mountain one mile to Wintergreen Resort. Well-known for skiing, this four-season property also offers great hiking, mountain biking, canoeing, nature programs, and more from spring to fall.
Bluff Mountain Tunnel at MP 53 is the first of tons of tunnels on the Parkway, while Otter Creek Campground six miles further down the road is typical of many varied National Park Service campgrounds available to those so inclined. From this area down to Roanoke, the Appalachian Trail often parallels the Parkway, offering a great chance to hike portions of the famed AT (Peaks of Otter Lodge is a great base for non-campers).
Roanoke is near MP 120. The Star City got its name from the huge lighted star on Mill Mountain overlooking the bustling town. Fat tire fiends will want to head to Explore Park (MP 115), where there are some serious single-track trails devoted to mountain biking.
The rest of the Virginia portion includes possible stops at Chateau Morrisette Winery (try the Our Dog Blue white), Mabry Mill (great pancakes made from stone ground flour), and The Wormy Chestnut and other small stores that dot the Parkway (with merchandise ranging from incredible crafts to tent pegs).
You hit the North Carolina state line around MP 217 at Cumberland Knob. Except for areas around Boone and Asheville, the North Carolina portion of the Parkway is remarkably remote (especially south of Asheville), so check the gas gauge and brakes.
Along with hiking and biking around virtually every bend, the crafts shopping in North Carolinas mountains is outstanding. Northwest Trading Post (as in northwest North Carolina) at MP 259 and Moses H. Cone Memorial Park (MP 294) provide perfect shopping stops. The Cone stop also features more than 25 miles of hiking along what were once carriage trails. Though these trails scream mountain biking, two-wheelers of any type are strictly forbidden.
For city fixes, Boone (MP 291) and Asheville (MP 382, including Appalachian crafts at the Folk Art Center) easily oblige, with an outdoors-set feel to both and lots of outfitters and shops willing to help with adventures like whitewater rafting, kayaking, biking of all types, hiking, and more. Boone is a base for heading to nearby ski resorts like Sugar Mountain, where the fun doesnt stop when winter ends (read biking, hiking, and more). On the Parkway between the two, highlights include Grandfather Mountain and the mile-high swinging bridge, the Linville Viaduct, where youll feel like youre driving through mid-air, and lots of hiking and biking spots.
Though many will want to visit the incredible man-made Biltmore Estate in Asheville, the natural world to the south on the Parkway is just as awe-inspiring. Highlights include Mount Pisgahs miles of hiking and biking, lots of tunnels (including the longest, Pine Mountain, at 1,434 feet), and the end of the Parkway near Cherokee (lots of Native American culture). From here, youre just a few miles from more adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park about forty minutes from the Nantahala Outdoor Center near Bryson City (one of the nations premier adventure outfitters).
Drive Length: 469 miles
Drive Time: Two or three days, but with so much to see and do, why push it?
Try To Avoid: Driving the Parkway on any weekend during peak leaf-peeping periods each fall (typically late-September through mid-October).
Dont Miss: Rack that mountain bike and scope out one of dozens of fire roads running either parallel (read relatively level) or perpendicular (think steep) to the Parkway.
Get Out of Your Car: Look for AT signs at several pulloffs in southern Virginia and hike a portion of the famed Appalachian Trail.
Contact: Blue Ridge Parkway, (828) 298-0398, www.nps.gov/blri