The Blue Ridge is Calling
Beat the summer heat with a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
As the sun hid behind the mountains, we were silent. For the half-hour before sunset, we’d arrived car by car at the Waterrock Knob overlook at Milepost 451 on the Blue Ridge Parkway and gathered in a fringe of grass on the western edge. Something in the shape of the clouds hinted at a sunset we should attend.
Summer was in full swing, but here on the crest of the mountains near where the Blue Ridge gives way to the Smokies, evening had a chill. Around us, the hillsides wore a dress of green, but as the sun’s crepuscular rays shone through gaps in the clouds, they rinsed the colors away, washing the landscape in gold.
The birds and crickets quieted. Fireflies rose from the grass and blinked to would-be mates. The valleys darkened. Ridges caught the last glint of color and shone like a blade. Mist began to rise from the hollows and coves and secret places in the mountains.
It was a moment that caught us and held us and disappeared. One minute the mountains round Cherokee were bathed in that perfect light, the next they were ink dark and the sun had disappeared.
Moments like this can make a person fall in love with a place. I know that I’ve fallen in love with our particular patch of North Carolina more times than I can count, thanks to a winter sunrise over the Atlantic, the new green of a springtime marsh, pelicans skimming wavetops with wings outstretched. But summer is long here and after weeks of humidity turn into months of humidity, I need a break. The best way I know to escape it, and to regain my appreciation for the place I call home, is to head to the mountains. And without fail, I end up on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
America’s Favorite Drive
The Blue Ridge Parkway follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Cherokee, North Carolina, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to Waynesboro, Virginia, where it meets Shenandoah National Park. For 469 miles it winds through the hills, taking its time and revealing postcard-perfect views at every overlook. Ride on it for 10 miles, and you’ll see why it’s earned the nickname America’s Favorite Drive. Ride on it for 20, and you’ll need to do 200 more.
If the views haven’t convinced you, consider this: More than 14.5 million people drive some part of the Parkway every year. Summer sees lowlanders like us trading the heat and humidity of home for cool mountain air. Fall brings leaf peepers by the tens of thousands. Spring sees hikers and wildflower enthusiasts. The picnic areas, hiking trails, waterfalls, overlooks and even the “secret” swimming holes along the way stay busy, and for many it’s their first real exposure to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
To dig in and explore the North Carolina section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, make Asheville your basecamp. With 160 miles of Parkway to the north and east, and 90 miles of Parkway leading south and west to Cherokee and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s ideally situated. Asheville’s bounty of food options, breweries and accommodations make it a prime choice.
Head to the Folk Art Center (Milepost 382) first. Here the Southern Highland Craft Guild displays traditional Appalachian handicrafts – quilts, wood carving, basketry, pottery and the like – and often artists are on site demonstrating their skills. Two miles south, at Milepost 384, is a Blue Ridge Parkway Visitors Center, where you should grab a couple of maps before striking out.
On the Parkway it seems there’s an overlook every half mile, so it can be overwhelming, but with a little planning, you can hit the highlights and discover the views, hikes and stops that fit your travel style to a T.
• Cold Mountain Overlook (Milepost 412) – Cold Mountain, made famous by Charles Frazier’s novel, cuts a fine figure here. Take in the view from the overlook or hike to the top of Mt. Pisgah (at Milepost 408) for an even better view.
• Looking Glass Rock (Milepost 417) – Looking Glass Rock, a huge bald stone face, stands out in the forested landscape, making a picturesque focal point. The half-mile trail to Skinny Dip Falls, is across the Parkway; be warned, the water’s cold.
• Devil’s Courthouse (Milepost 422) – A short, steep hike carries you to the top of a stone outcrop where the Cherokee say the giant Judaculla resides, affording you big views of the countryside.
• Richland Balsam (Milepost 431) – The highest point on the Parkway at 6,020 feet, Richland Balsam has exceptional views, especially in fall, especially if you take the 1.4-mile loop trail to the summit and back.
• Waterrock Knob (Milepost 451) – Looking west you’ll see Cherokee and the Smoky Mountains; sunsets here are, more often than not, exceptional.
• From Milepost 455 to 469 – Here you’re bordering the Qualla Boundary, the ancestral home of the Cherokee Indians, and as you drive the views open up for some absolutely awe-inspiring vistas. As you draw nearer to the end, many overlooks give you a glimpse into Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
• Milepost 469 – The end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Take a left and you’ll be in Cherokee in a few minutes. Turn right – and you should turn right – and you’ll be at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Oconaluftee Visitors Center and a field where you’re just about guaranteed to see some of the park’s famed elk herd.
• Mount Mitchell (Milepost 355) – Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the eastern United States at 6,684 feet, stands just off the Parkway. Take the road into this state park, then take the short, but relatively steep, paved path to the observation platform at the top. Views are phenomenal, and on clear days you can see Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to the southwest.
• Crabtree Falls (Milepost 339) – Great camping and a 2.5-mile loop hike to the 70-foot Crabtree Falls, a lovely payoff to a moderate hike.
• Linville Falls (Milepost 316) – One of the most photographed places in North Carolina, Linville Falls is a triple waterfall, and a 2-mile roundtrip hike will take you to a pair of observation platforms near the smaller falls and then to an overlook perched on the ridge above, giving you a view of the impressive 45-foot main fall and the depth of the gorge.
• Grandfather Mountain (Milepost 305) – A quintessential North Carolina attraction. You’ll have to pony up a little cash ($22/adults, $9/kids), but it’s worth the cost of admission. There’s a nature museum and wildlife habitats (deer, black bear, mountain lions, otters and more) as well as the famed Mile High Swinging Bridge (yes, it’s a mile above sea level), stupendous views and miles of hiking trails.
• Linn Cove Viaduct (Milepost 304) – This curving bit of elevated roadway is a thrill to drive across and makes for a gorgeous picture. You’ll want to drive it, turn around, drive it again and turn back around to head north, but you won’t be mad about crossing the viaduct, trust me.
• Moses Cone Memorial Park, (Milepost 294) – A gorgeous manor house that’s home to a second Southern Highland Craft Guild shop is one draw here; the other draw is the hiking. Miles of crushed-stone paths (many are old carriage trails) lead you around Bass Lake, through the woods, and to the summit of Flat Rock Mountain.
• Blowing Rock and Boone (Milepost 291) – Blowing Rock is just a couple of miles off the Parkway and this charming little town is packed with galleries, boutiques and shops. Boone, home to Appalachian State University, has college town energy and small-town charm. Both are worth exploring.
Want to extend your Blue Ridge Parkway getaway? The Parkway stretches from Cherokee, North Carolina, to Waynesboro, Virginia, and there’s plenty to do in the 469 miles between.
A Posh Getaway
Spend some time in the lap of luxury at Primland (primland.com), a 12,000-acre resort just a few miles off the Parkway at Milepost 177.7, where you’ll find chic accommodations (including luxury treehouses), activities galore (golf, ATVs, fly fishing, sporting clays), a spa and some of the best food in this part of the mountains.
Put on Your Dancing Shoes
Head to Floyd, Virginia, at Milepost 165.2 and take in some mountain music. The Floyd Country Store hosts their famous Friday Night Jamboree – a night of bluegrass and plenty of clogging and flatfooting – and the streets of this artsy little town are filled with impromptu jam sessions. Stay at the quaint Ambrosia Farm Bed and Breakfast (ambrosiafarm.net) and do some wine tasting at Chateau Morrissette (thedogs.com), one of Virginia’s oldest wineries.
In Roanoke, Virginia, at Milepost 121, you’ll find a busy little mountain city that’s the perfect blend of outdoor adventure and urban amenities. Stay at The Stone House (blackdogsalvage.com) or The Hotel Roanoke (hotelroanoke.com) and split your time between exploring the Appalachian Trail – the 7-mile hike to McAfee Knob and back has jaw-dropping views – and checking out the Taubman Museum of Art, shopping, fly fishing and more. Dinner at Stellina, Bloom or Lucky will have you ready to come back for another long weekend.