The best of America's most famous scenic byway
by Roadtrippers - March 17th 2016
- 995 mi.
The Blue Ridge Parkway isn't technically a National Park, but it might as well be. It connects two National Parks (Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains) together and the parkway itself is the most visited unit controlled by the National Parks System. Each year, more people drive along its roads than visit the Grand Canyon. True fact. People flock to it with good reason, though...it's pretty gorgeous. Plus, there's tons to see and do along the way. Here's a few highlights to see along the way.
Whether you're starting or ending the trip in Shenandoah, the park's Skyline Drive is one of the most unforgettably epic parts of the trip.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is 469 miles of pure beauty. It all begins in Front Royal, Virginia, and runs all the way down to Cherokee, North Carolina.
75 miles outside Washington D.C., the pristine 200,000 miles of Shenandoah National Park wait to be explored! Shenandoah National Park offers 500 miles of trails within the park, plus dense forests, ancient caves, swooping mountains, misty waterfalls... need I go on?
Take your Blue Ridge Parkway adventure underground at Luray Caverns. You can rock out to their one-of-a-kind stalacpipe organ, and make sure to toss some money into their wishing well and make a wish. You'll get instant good vibes once you find out that all the change tossed into the well goes to charity!
Then you'll come to Sperryville, an historic river town along the Thornton River. It was founded in the early 19th century and is currently listed on the Virginia Landmarks Registry and National Registry of Historic Places. The town is located at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here, you'll find another access point for Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive.
If you're spending some time at Shenandoah National Park, Big Meadows Lodge is a fantastic place to spend the night. Located directly within the park, this historic lodge is close to the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center and is just over three miles to Dark Hollow Falls. The rooms are rustic and charming with wood paneling, and there are cabins available as well. Be warned: there aren't any TVs or phones in the cabins. But, there's an onsite restaurant and taproom, as well as free wifi in the lodge.
Next up is a short side-trip to Amherst Virginia, a scenic and bucolic town along the Blue Ridge Parkway. A few key attractions to check out include, Sweet Briar College (one of America's most beautiful colleges), several golf courses, the Moncan Indian Ancestral Museum and the historic James River.
Then, nestled in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, Cave Mountain Lake Family Camp is a rustic and relaxing camping getaway. Close to Natural Bridge and the parkway, this is a great spot for some R&R while driving down the Blue Ridge Parkway. The seven-acre campground was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
Further south in Virginia, and another short detour off the Blue Ridge Parkway, you can find the ginormous Natural Bridge. It's 20 stories of solid rock, carved out by nature and it has boggled the minds of everyone who's seen it, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Once you reach Banner Elk, NC, Grandfather Mountain State Park is definitely worth a stop. It's a hiker's paradise. There are challenging trails for more skilled hikers, and rocky cliffs that offer breathtaking scenic views. You can also get a permit and camp in the park.
Next, you'll arrive in Asheville, NC. This is a fantastic stop along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Here's you'll find plenty of historic and bed and breakfasts and cozy campsites where you can rest your head, and there's tons of good eating, from old-school diners to places serving up the next great food trend. Asheville is the perfect place to stop and do a little exploring (and eating and drinking). The town is full of unique characters, quirky galleries and boutiques, plus it's a beer-lover's dream, with dozens of microbreweries scattered around town...they don't call it the "Brew" Ridge Parkway for nothing, you know!
While in Asheville, visit The Inn on Biltmore Estate: it's the perfect place to unwind amongst 19th century luxury. It's probably the Blue Ridge Mountains' most opulent estate, and a stay here will make you feel like Gilded Age royalty. There's free wifi, 24/7 room service and an onsite fine-dining restaurant, spa and bar.
And get a taste of luxury by visiting the Biltmore Estate itself. The 250-room house sits on 8,000 acres, making it America's largest house.
Don't forget to pack a swimsuit for your trip down the Blue Ridge Parkway, because there's an awesome natural slip 'n' slide along the route. This awesome waterfall, known as Sliding Rock, is on Looking Glass Creek in Pisgah National Forest, just outside Asheville. It takes sliders down a 60-foot slope, and they are then dumped into a big ol' plunge pool of icy cold water. Eleven thousand gallons of water pour over the smooth slab of granite every minute, so expect a swift ride down the rock and into the splash pool. Between the wind in your hair and and the cool, refreshing water, it's the perfect way to spend a sticky, sweltering, Southern summer day.
The drive will then take you into the Volunteer State. Since you're in Tennessee, you might as well try some moonshine. Ole Smoky is the first legal moonshine in Tennessee (a state that loves moonshine so much, at least one of its state songs outright mentions it), so you know it’s the real deal. A tour of the distillery offers a chance to learn about moonshine legends and the opportunity to taste their many flavors (from their original to the classic staple apple pie flavor to other fun varieties).
There are lots of places to stay in Pigeon Forge, because it's a very popular tourist destination. One great hotel is the Music Road Resort, which is located half a mile from the Titanic Museum, and features an outdoor water park, and an indoor pool and hot tub that are open 24/7. There's also a free hot breakfast and you can ask to upgrade to a room with a whirlpool tub and fireplace.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the area is incredibly awe-inspiring. Fall is a super popular time to visit the Smokies, and with good reason: the changing colors are unlike anything anywhere else in the world. However, you can avoid the crowds and still get awesome views in the summer, and when everything is blooming in the spring, it's absolutely stunning!
There are actually quite a few waterfalls to see in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The waterfalls of The Sinks flow into a deep gorge with lots of little pools that make prime swimming holes, Mingo Falls are an impressive 120 feet tall (believe me, they're much more imposing in person), and you can walk right behind Grotto Falls.
The Smokies boast one of America's most diverse ecosystems, and has tons of species of wildflowers that range from white to pink to orange and every color in between. One of the secluded coves, like Cades Cove, is the best place to take it all in.
Head up to Clingman's Dome in the Smokies for 360 degree views of the park from Tennessee's highest point, then plan out your hikes through Cades Cove and to one of the waterfalls There's plenty of hikes to stretch your legs after your road trip, and there's lots of ways to relax in the park's peaceful, serene setting. But, seriously, watch out for black bears.
Honestly, you can't pick a bad time drive the Blue Ridge Parkway. In summer, the parks along the Blue Ridge Parkway are lush and green. In the fall, the entire drive is covered in fiery foliage (usually from early October to early November). In winter, the driving is a tad precarious, especially if it's a snowy winter. But, the Blue Ridge Mountains become blanketed in snow and it looks like a white wonderland. In spring, the flowers bloom across the route: the best to see them is between April and May.