Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway is a unique experience; a slow and relaxed pace where an overwhelming view is revealed after every bend, the view over the mountains and the idyllic landscapes of the Appalachians is unique here. The Parkway meanders 755 kilometers through the mountains and driving this road offers the chance to experience everything that makes this region so special. The road connects the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina with the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Along the route there are countless opportunities for all ages to enjoy the surroundings. You can have a picnic along the road, there are easy and difficult hiking trails and you can go cycling or fishing, for example. An enormous natural beauty with one of the most diverse palettes of flora and fauna in the world. The Blue Ridge Parkway is not a National Park but a National Scenic Byway. With the help of the mileposts that indicate the miles (the mileage numbers increase as you drive from north to south), you can easily find the sights along the way. Entrance is free and no permit is required to enter the road. Most of the road is closed when there is snow, but you can still walk or cross-country ski through the winter wonderland.
The National Parks of the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Park were established in the 1930s and that is when the idea arose to connect these parks. Construction began in 1935 and the road ultimately took 52 years to complete, finishing in the mid-1980s with the construction of a section near the Linn Cove Viaduct in North Carolina. The fact that it took a long time is mainly due to three factors; part of the road runs through areas of the Cherokee Indians and they resisted the arrival of the road between 1935 and 1940, construction was interrupted during the Second World War and a lot of time and money was needed to purchase the many hectares of land belonging to its owners. It is the first road in America that was built specifically as a tourist route, the road had to become a destination in itself instead of a simple road from A to B. There are no traffic signs
or traffic lights along the road and signs with directions are a must. minimum limited. There are connections here and there on the road, but these are not noticeable or disruptive to the atmosphere of the area. There are many milestones along the side of the road, but they are small and painted in the colors of the area. You are not allowed to drive faster than 70 kilometers per hour, but you wouldn’t want that either, rather slower to fully absorb the surroundings while driving. The road meanders through different types of ecosystems, runs through valleys and over mountain peaks and through fields and forests. It runs over four major rivers, six mountain ranges and more than a hundred bridges. The elevation gain is approximately 6,000 feet with the lowest point at James River at 700 feet to Mount Pisgah at 7,000 feet.
Although the road does not pass through towns or commercial areas so as not to distract from the surroundings, there are many towns and other places along the road that are worth visiting. Nature is especially impressive to see in autumn, when trees turn red and yellow against a green background of conifers that always remain green. Spring is the period when wildflowers bloom; the azaleas and rhododendrons turn orange, white, pink and red in May and June, especially at higher altitudes.
It’s advisable to split your road route into two or three days for a no-rush experience. A number of highlights have been mentioned, but there are many more sights and parts of the route worth stopping or detouring for.
From Shenandoah National Park to Roanoke
- Mile 0 : Rockfish Gap. The southernmost point of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park marks the start of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
- Milepost 6.1 : Humpback Rocks. Here is a short but difficult walking trail of 45 minutes one way that leads to a restored farmhouse. There is also a visitor center and a 270 degree view of the mountains makes this walk very worthwhile.
- Milepost 34.4 : The Yankee Horse parking lot. Here is an exhibition of an old train track that has been partially restored and there is a short walking trail to Wigwam Falls.
- Milepost 63.6 : The James River Visitor Center. This center has an exhibition about the nature and animals in the area and from here there are walking trails along the James River and the Kanawha Canal. This is the last point of the road and here is a turnoff to US-501 which runs 12 miles west toward Natural Bridge.
- Milepost 76.5 : This is the highest point of the road in the state of Virginia, at 4,000 feet, with fantastic views of the valleys on both sides of the road.
- Milepost 84-87 : Peaks of Otter. The most popular and developed part of the road, there is a visitor center, gas station, restaurant and a very nice hotel open all year round. Three mountain peaks rise above a lake and here you can see the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets. There are many beautiful hiking trails, one of which is a 4 kilometer loop to Fallingwater Cascades. On the hiking trails you can escape the sometimes large crowds at this point along the road.
- Milepost 105 : This section ends near the city of Roanoke.
From Roanoke to North Carolina
This middle part of the route runs for the first 50 kilometers through a lower area along a more built-up landscape than the rugged mountain landscapes along the other parts of the road. Instead of spectacular views, you’ll see more houses and small farms, a few old barns, miles of wooden fences and a few picturesque cemeteries. Further south the view gets better and better.
- Milepost 122 : This section begins near the city of Roanoke.
- Milepost 154.5 : A 2.5-mile loop hike leads to a hut with a stunning view called the Smart View. In May you will see many flowering plants here.
- Mile post 165.2 : Tuggles Gap. Here is an exit to Highway 8 and right along the road is a motel, restaurant, gas station and a small old cemetery.
- Milepost 167-174 : Rocky Knob. This area has a campground, a visitor center near the Meadows of Dan, and a difficult but highly recommended 10-mile loop hike (starting at milepost 167.1) that passes the lower Rock Castle Gorge and over Rocky Knob peak.
- Milepost 176.1 : A short walking trail leads to Mabry Mill, a mill that operated from 1910 to 1935. In the summer there are demonstrations of how the mill works. There is a coffee shop that is only open in the summer and they also sell pancakes made from the flour from the mill and hamburgers.
- Milepost 216.9 : Here is the border between Virginia and North Carolina.
From North Carolina to the Smoky Mountains
The highest and most memorable part of the road is the 400 mountainous miles from North Carolina to the Smoky Mountains. It follows the southern Blue Ridge Mountains as they merge into the higher and larger Black Mountains and the road follows three other mountain ranges before ending in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee border. Spring flowers, autumn colors, singing birds, wild turkeys, countless waterfalls and birds of prey can be seen here and make this an unforgettable part of the trip, no matter what time of year you drive there. Take your time and drive carefully, although the view may make it difficult to keep your eyes on the road. There are also some places along the way here that are worth a detour, such as the mountains of Blowing Rock and the city of Asheville.
- Milepost 216.9 : This section starts on the border of Virginia and North Carolina.
- Milepost 217.5 : A very easy one-mile hiking trail leads to the top of Cumberland Knob. A visitors center marks the location where road workers began construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1935.
- Milepost 260.6 : An easy 1.5-mile trail that heads to the top of the Jumpinoff Rocks, where there is a wide viewpoint.
- Milepost 292-295 : Moses H. Cone Memorial Park. This is a former private estate with many hiking trails over the mountain tops. At mile 294, on the porch of the former Cone mansion in the summer, people demonstrate how tools and other utensils were made in the past.
- Milepost 304 : The Linn Cove Viaduct with its wonderful architecture carries the road around the rugged Grandfather Mountain. The viaduct was completed in 1987, it was the last part of the road. Impressive walls of rhododendron border the southern side of the viaduct. The viaduct is one of the most unique and distinctive points of the road itself.
- Milepost 305.1 : US-221. This road was used for the Blue Ridge Parkway before the Linn Cove Viaduct was built and it runs 1.2 miles south of the road to Grandfather Mountain, the highest point in the Blue Ridge area. There are several hiking trails, a zoo, and the famous Mile-High Swinging Bridge, a fun place to take beautiful photos.
- Milepost 308.2 : A half-mile hiking trail leads to the Flat Rock viewpoint, visit this point for a nice view of Grandfather Mountain.
- Milepost 316.3 : Linville Falls. The water flows through a rugged rock wall, and a short hiking trail leads to enchanting viewpoints.
- Milepost 331 : Here is the turnoff to Highway 226 and the Museum of North Carolina Minerals. Here you can see all kinds of gemstones in different colors and sizes, and you can see how they are polished.
- Milepost 355.4 : West of the road is Mount Mitchel State Park with an observation tower atop the mountaintop. You can drive all the way to the top, the highest point east of the Mississippi River.
- Milepost 364.6 : Graggy Gardens. This point is recommended at the end of May, when the rhododendrons are in full bloom. It is quiet and green here and you feel like you are in paradise.
- Milepost 382 : The Folk Art Center. Here there are demonstrations and exhibitions of the arts and handmade objects of the area’s past.
- Milepost 431 : The highest point on the road, near Mount Pisgah. Here is a nature walking trail that runs through ancient pine forests.
- Milepost 469 : The southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, it intersects US 441 and is an entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.