Sometimes a vacation is as much about the journey as it is the destination. The Blue Ridge Parkway offers both aspects. Foremost, it’s a leisurely drive with occasional stops at scenic overlooks, the only sound being the wind harmonizing with the occasional gurgling stream. But it is also an access road to hiking, biking, climbing, camping, shopping, dining and music. Open year-round, except for rare winter closings, the parkway offers beautiful vistas in the spring and summer and spectacular fall foliage throughout October.
Celebrating its 75th anniversary next year as part of the National Parks System (NPS), the parkway begins near Waynesboro, Va., and continues 469 miles south to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. To get there, you can start 105 miles above the parkway’s northernmost point, in Shenandoah National Park, catching Skyline Drive in Front Royal, Va. This state extension of the parkway can be reached in a variety of ways, but rather than hitting the interstate to get there, go through two other National Historic Park sites: Gettysburg and Harper’s Ferry, W.V.
The key to traveling the Shenandoah and Appalachians is simple: Be flexible. There are meadows, ponds, streams and caverns along the drive, and even more side-road opportunities such as historic Appomattox and antique shopping. If you’re into more manufactured sites, Monticello is 30 miles off I-64 and Roanoke sits between the parkway and I-81, in case you need fast food or a real motel. Just keep an eye on the milepost markers (and your gas gauge) because that’s how all points of interest are referenced. Begin at home and customize your trip at www.nps.gov/blri.
Along Skyline Drive, stop at the highest point, along the drive at Skyland Lodge near milepost 42. Not only are there 177 lodge rooms and cabins, but also good food and a panoramic view of the mountains. It’s a great way to settle into your relaxing travel groove. Even if you don’t have a meal, it’s worth the stop for the homemade blackberry ice cream and blackberry ice cream pie.
After consuming the calories, take a hike. Literally. Within the Shenandoah boundaries, there are more than 500 miles of trails, over 100 of which are along the Appalachian Trail. The trail also parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway all the way to North Carolina, but along Skyline Drive, it’s closer to the road and occasionally crosses it.
Along the parkway, there are a variety of rock formations, trails and small park areas to visit, such as Humpback Rocks, Natural Bridge, Peaks of Otter and Rocky Knob, but the first must-see stop along the trip is Mabry Mill at milepost 176. The single-most photographed spot on the entire parkway, the mill — once a center for trade — is still open to explore. Try to get there in the morning as the stone-ground buckwheat pancakes are not to be missed. Spend some time shaking off the 20th and 21st centuries by checking out the mill in dappled sunlight as the waterwheel creaks and talk shop with the blacksmith and the weavers who love to educate and entertain visitors.
Just like New Orleans is known for jazz, the Blue Ridge is famous for its unique Appalachian bluegrass-style music of fiddles, banjos and dulcimers. The Blue Ridge Music Center at milepost 213 is a cooperative venture of the NPS and the National Council for the Performing Arts. Visitors can sit in a handcrafted rocker and hear local performers on afternoons in late spring through early autumn, or catch one of the many open-air lawn festivals during the year.
A great place to take a travel breather for a couple of days is at milepost 291, between Boone and Blowing Rock, N.C. Three-hundred miles may sound like an afternoon drive, but when you stop or slow down at scenic overlooks, streams, trails, campsites, visitor centers, museums, antique shops, restaurants and for weather and wildlife (in one day alone, I stopped/slowed for horses, a turtle, several wild turkeys, chipmunks, many deer, a stray dog and a cow), 300 miles can take two or three days.
Blowing Rock is a small shopping village tucked into a valley pocket 1 mile from the Blue Ridge Parkway. For the most part, the town is a collection of artisans, much like New Hope used to be. Here, you can still see artists working with leather, paint, silver, glass, food, candle wax and wood, crafting furniture or other functional items.
In the middle of town, across from the town park, is Kilwin’s, the town’s only fudge and ice cream shop. It’s the place for dessert after a leisurely lunch on the secluded patio at Village Café, or just go ahead and make the fudge and ice cream lunch itself. (It’s a vacation, after all.) Get some tender and tangy barbeque for dinner at Storie Street Grille and then head over to Bass Lake for a short stroll. In the summer, it’s daylight long enough for a short hike up into Moses Cone Park, which ends the day nicely.
Thirty minutes from Blowing Rock in Linville, N.C., is another must-see: Grandfather Mountain (www.grandfather.com). This locale boasts the highest swinging footbridge in the country and is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s possible to see 80 miles on clear days and less than 80 feet in low clouds or fog. The weather can quickly change at any time of the year, but there is plenty to do for a couple hours or the entire day with hiking trails, picnic areas, a wildlife habitat, an exhibit and a museum.
The Folk Art Center and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., are both easy day trips from Blowing Rock if you choose not to stay overnight further south. Chimney Rock is another 30 miles southeast of Asheville. And if you’re going all the way to the Great Smoky Mountains, consider stopping in the North Carolina Arboretum near milepost 393.
One of the great things about traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway is that you can easily get off and back on at the same place, or at a more southern point, by getting on a highway or interstate. Or change direction all together and go back the way you came, choosing to explore different side roads and see things you learned about on the way down the parkway.
The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but the more memorable journey includes the rise and fall of a winding two-lane road.