Buckle up and get ready to experience “America’s Favorite Drive,” the Blue Ridge Parkway. Stretching from Virginia to North Carolina, the parkway enables you to experience history, breathtaking nature and a vibrant music scene. Some of the National Park Service’s best East Coast sights can be found along the way from Shenandoah National Park to the parkway itself to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Shenandoah National Park
Start your Blue Ridge experience in beautiful Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Just 75 miles from the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah feels a world away. With beautiful chestnut and red oak forests, abundant wildlife and panoramic views, this park exemplifies the best of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Take a scenic drive, hike to a waterfall, learn about the area’s history and more on your visit.
Don’t forget to make reservations at one of the park’s lodges or campgrounds. There are three lodging options along Skyline Drive: Skyland, Big Meadows Lodge and Lewis Mountain Cabins. Book early at www.goshenandoah.com
Milepost 85.9: Peaks of Otter
It’s time to get on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Get ready for jaw-dropping views and some of the prettiest landscapes the East Coast has to offer. Your first stop is Peaks of Otter at Milepost 85.9. You’ll want to make reservations at the historic Peaks of Otter Lodge in advance because once you get here, you won’t want to leave. Since the 1800s, tourists have been coming to this part of the country to get away from it all.
If you don’t plan to spend the night at the lodge or campground, be sure to stop in the lodge’s restaurant for a meal overlooking the lake. After you’ve fueled up, stretch those car-weary legs by heading out on a hike. Grab your fishing pole (with a valid fishing license) and stroll the mile loop around Abbott Lake. Or, take a walk back in time on the 1.1-mile, one-way trail to Johnson Farm. Built in the 1850s, you can see living history demonstrations there today to see what life was like during the 19th century in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Roanoke, Va., is an excellent place to base your exploration of the surrounding area out of. Start in downtown Roanoke where charming boutiques abound. Don’t miss breakfast at one of the city’s favorite classic Southern eateries, The Roanoker Restaurant. The made-from-scratch biscuits are a big deal.
Learn more about the area’s Black history with a visit to Historic Smithfield, a slave-owning plantation dating back to 1774. Then, head to the Booker T. Washington National Monument, home of the famous educator, author and orator.
In Floyd, Va., you can’t miss a stop at the Floyd Country Store. Floyd’s has everything you would expect to find at an old-fashioned country store from rolling pins to vintage toys. After perusing the wares, stop in the café for favorites like East Carolina-style pulled smoked pork barbecue. Leave room for dessert at the soda fountain. But perhaps the best experience at the Floyd Country Store is the chance to hear authentic Appalachian music. Check the schedule for live music and dance performances.
Next, head to the spectacular Natural Bridge State Park and adjacent Natural Bridge Historic Hotel & Conference Center. Thirty stories of naturally carved rock create a mind-boggling bridge to walk under on the Cedar Creek Nature Trail. Then, head to the Caverns at Natural Bridge to descend more than 34 stories into the Earth. Afterwards, stop for a meal in the historic hotel’s dining room.
Milepost 176: Mabry Mill
Mabry Mill is a can’t-miss stop for photography lovers and history buffs alike. Whether flanked by spring flowers, verdant green summer trees, golden autumn leaves or blanketed in freshly fallen snow, this historic mill makes for some breathtaking photographs. Built in the early 1900s, this grist and sawmill has been restored by the National Park Service so in addition to getting stunning photos, you can watch live milling demonstrations and learn about the mill’s history.
Sunday afternoons are the time to visit Mabry Mill. First, stop in the restaurant for all day Appalachian breakfast. Then, head outside for a taste of old-time music. This weekend concert tradition has been going on for decades.
Milepost 213: Blue Ridge Music Center
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably begun to guess that music is a vital part of Blue Ridge culture. The Blue Ridge Music Center celebrates this region’s vibrant musical heritage. From string bands to ballads to bluegrass, the sound of the fiddle, guitar and banjo will engulf you at the Blue Ridge Music Center. Start at the visitor center and museum where you’ll learn the history and diversity of America’s music. Don’t miss the daily outdoor concerts in the breezeway or, if you’re lucky enough to visit on the weekend, take a seat in the center’s 3,000-seat amphitheater for a one-of-a-kind performance.
Milepost 304.4: Linn Cove Viaduct
It’s time to stretch your legs at one of the Parkway’s most famous sights, the Linn Cove Viaduct. This stunning bridge is more than just beautiful. It was the last part of the Parkway to be built and an engineering marvel. Stopping on the bridge for pictures is dangerous, so park at the Visitor Center and head out to one of several overlooks for stunning views. Or, if you want to get some exercise and see more of the area, lace up your boots and hit the Tanawha Trail. There are many great viewpoints to see the Viaduct from here, as well as views of the surrounding wilderness. The trail is 13.5 miles, so hike as far as you like before continuing your drive.
Milepost 316: Linville Falls
Linville Gorge was called “the river of many cliffs” by Cherokee Indians and when you get to Linville Falls, you’ll see why. This stunning waterfall tumbles into the 2,000-foot gorge. This is a great area to stop for a picnic, or if you’re up for a hike head out on the trails for a better look at the waterfall. Erwins View Trail will provide four different overlooks on the 1.6-mile roundtrip hike. Although short, some sections of the hike are steep. If you’re not up for elevation gain, turnaround after the first overlook. For those looking for a strenuous hike, the Linville Gorge Trail will take you steeply down into the gorge. It’s a difficult 1.4-mile roundtrip trek.
This eclectic, artsy town is home to a thriving foodie scene and a bourgeoning craft beer presence. The stunning Biltmore Mansion (as in, Vanderbilt) could keep you occupied for several days itself, but ensure you have time to poke around the galleries and art studios of the River Arts District.
Milepost 364.5: Craggy Gardens
From the Visitor Center, two short and beautiful trails will give you an up-close and personal taste of the country you’re driving through. The Craggy Gardens Trail is a 0.8-mile loop through beautiful rhododendrons (which bloom April through June), hardwood forests and blueberry patches. The Craggy Pinnacle Trail is a 0.7-mile hike, located at a mile above sea level, that yields 360-degree breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Milepost 451.2: Waterrock Knob
You’ve reached the highest elevation visitor center on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water as you’re over a mile high in elevation. Hike the 1.2-mile roundtrip trail up Waterrock Knob to reach the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway at 6,273 feet – you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world. Don’t leave just yet. This visitor center is the perfect place to watch the sunset, so sit back, relax and get ready for a North Carolina treat.
For more information about this area of the Blue Ridge Parkway, visit visitncsmokies.com/blue-ridge-parkway/.
End: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most visited park for good reason: it’s huge, encompassing two states. If you have plenty of time, we suggest visiting all the areas of the park for the full experience, but if you just have a few days check out the Cataloochee and Oconaluftee areas of the park on the North Carolina side.
Cataloochee Valley is open seasonally and includes a preserved historic community to explore and lots of wildlife. Elk are prevalent in this area of the park.
The park’s main southern entrance is located at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Here, you can tour more pioneer era historic buildings at the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill.
Farther down Newfound Gap Road, find a trailhead to hike part of the famous Appalachian Trail and summit Charlies Bunion, an 8-mile round-trip climb with stunning views.
Purchase the detailed National Geographic Blue Ridge Parkway Destination Map at REI.com or Amazon.com. The map combines both the Blue Ridge Parkway with Skyline Drive inside Shenandoah National Park to cover almost 600 miles of scenic driving.
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