America's Most Famous Drives: Blue Ridge Parkway

Cowee Mountain Overlook, Blue Ridge Parkway
Cowee Mountain Overlook, Blue Ridge Parkway | © Mary Anne Baker/Flickr
Alexia Wulff

The Blue Ridge Parkway, built to connect the Shenandoah National Park with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is acclaimed for its captivating scenery, bordered by verdant forests, misty mountains, blooming meadows, and blue-tinged horizons. Running for 469 miles – mostly along the Blue Ridge in the Appalachian Mountains – from Waynesboro, Virginia to Cherokee, North Carolina, this All-American Road provides visitors access to panoramic pastoral landscapes while protecting the region’s abundant wildlife and natural surroundings. Looking to stop and explore what makes this part of the country so exceptional? For tips on how to best enjoy this slow-paced drive, read on.

Background

Dubbed ‘America’s Favorite Drive,’ The Blue Ridge Parkway is more than a road – this relaxing journey is a gateway to experiencing the region’s rich cultural heritage, from Cherokee traditions and art to music and agriculture. The Parkway, starting construction in 1935, took 52 years to complete; and although the paving of the roadway created jobs, many residents, particularly the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, were forced to leave the area. This rich cultural heritage is not only felt along the drive but also in the many facilities within the parks. The Parkway is open all hours of the day, but most facilities are closed November to April; be sure to check the National Park Service website before making the drive.

Blue Ridge Parkway

What To Do & See

Situated in the Appalachian Highlands, the Blue Ridge Parkway calls to outdoor enthusiasts – a hiker’s heaven, the Parkway offers over 350 miles of hiking trails along its route, with access to the famous Appalachian Trail and Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Both Virginia and North Carolina offer an array of trailheads, along with golfing, camping, ranger-led programs, kayaking and canoeing, picnicking, bicycling, fishing, and wildlife watching in the various parks along the drive.

For a true Virginia experience along the Parkway, be sure to catch a glimpse of mountain life during the age of the early settlers at the recreated mountain farm near Humpback Rocks; capture the spirit of the past at Mabry Mill, one of the most photographed mills in the US; or get in touch with Virginia’s musical heritage at the Blue Ridge Music Center. Other noteworthy stops include Peaks of Otter, Humpback Rocks, and the Shenandoah National Park – over 100 miles of scenic beauty.

Fall Colors, Mabry Mill, VA

In North Carolina, visitors shouldn’t miss the Linn Cove Viaduct, an engineering marvel, the Folk Art Center, or the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center for a peek into the historic communities and rich culture of the region. To best take advantage of the Parkway’s surrounding allure, head to Linville Falls for cascades and waterfalls; Mount Pisgah for thousands of acres of hiking trails; Julian Price Park to camp, picnic, canoe, and fish; the Craggy Gardens for colorful summits filled with flowers; Doughton Park for wildlife watching; and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for 800 square miles of picturesque forestlands. For the best sunset views, ascend 6,000 feet to Waterrock Knob Center, or opt for a stop into one of the state’s most eclectic and culturally thriving mountain towns, Asheville. Pro tip: the best time for visiting is during the fall foliage season.

City of Asheville, North Carolina

Where To Stay

There are many lodges and campgrounds situated along the Blue Ridge Parkway. For sleeping under the stars, choose from frontcountry camping or backcountry camping, or opt for a cozier stay with mountain views at the Pisgah Inn & Restaurant, Peaks of Otter Lodge, or Switzerland Inn & Chalet Restaurant – open early spring to late fall. Located within minutes of the Parkway, local towns – such as Asheville, Weaverville, and Chimney Rock (NC), and Roanoke, Copper Hill, and Lexington (VA) – also offer an array of lodging from cabins and bed & breakfasts to hotels and resorts.

Blue Ridge Parkway (Peaks of Otter Lodge)

Where To Eat

For eats along the route, visitors can stop at Sally Mae’s for lunch or a quick snack at the picnic tables, or head to Mabry Mill Restaurant for a country-style menu with dishes like pulled pork and blackberry cobbler. For authentic Appalachian cuisine, pop into Asheville’s vibrant downtown, filled with farmers markets, farm-to-table restaurants, galleries and museums, live music, and local breweries. Cúrate, Rhubarb, King James Public House, 12 Bones Smokehouse, All Souls Pizza, and Biscuit Head are all top-notch eateries, though don’t miss the East Coast brews at Wedge, Burial, or Fonta Flora.

Crawfish Boil for dinner as part of the Mardi Gras celebration at Burial Brewery, accompanied by a Blade & Sheath beer

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