The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of America’s most scenic drives, and for a good reason. Around every turn, there is something new to see. Along the drive, you’ll see gorgeous views, be able to stop in unique and charming towns, and experience one of the most beautiful areas of the Southern USA. You’ll go from stunning mountain vistas through rhododendron-lined forests and then by acres of farmland. The main thing to remember when driving this road is to not get in a hurry and to enjoy the drive! If you see something that interests you, then stop. Take your time and experience all that this road has to offer.
The Blue Ridge Parkway connects Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, stretching 469 miles from Rockfish Gap, Virginia, to Cherokee, North Carolina. The majority of the parkway is a two-lane undivided highway. The standard speed limit is 45mph. So take your time and do not speed on the parkway. The area has many hikers, bikers, and pedestrians.
There are mile markers all along the parkway that you can use when planning your route. On maps of the parkway, you will find overlooks, visitor centers, and interchanges marked with the milepost number for easy navigation. Unfortunately, several areas along the drive have no cell service, so plan accordingly. Something else to keep in mind is that the parkway does not have many amenities. Every so often, you will need to hop off the parkway to get gas, explore one of the fantastic towns or cities, and grab a bite to eat. You will likely find decent cell service or WIFI in those areas to refresh your maps.
How many days you should take to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway depends on how many stops you want to make and what you want to see. You can easily spend a week driving the Blue Ridge Parkway. I spent four days driving the length of the parkway averaging 30-35 mph. I took a three-mile daily hike, stopped at numerous turnouts, and still had time to explore the towns along the route.
You can drive the Blue Ridge Parkway any time of the year. However, it is busiest during the summer and peak fall color week. Peak fall color season is usually the first few weeks of October, and you will find the parkway more active this week. Spring, summer, and fall are the more popular times of the year to travel the Blue Ridge Parkway. You can visit in winter, but the roads are generally not maintained. It can get icy, especially at elevation, and the parkway will rise to over 6,000 feet in some places.
My first stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway was at Milepost 6, Humpback Gap. The “Gap” was a popular stop for travelers from the late 1800s into the early 1900s. There are numerous trailheads and a collection of 19th-century farm buildings here. Most of the trails at the milepost are loop trails. They are moderately trafficked, and most are suitable for all skill levels. The path to the top of the “Gap” is strenuous as it climbs almost 1,000 vertical feet in less than a mile. The Appalachian Trail (AT) runs through the area here, too.
After enjoying a hike, head off the Blue Ridge Parkway to the town of Glasgow. Glasgow is home to a hidden gem, Layne’s Country Store. Open since 1954, Layne’s is a classic mountain country store that is fun to explore. It’s also a great place to grab a quick lunch as they offer made-to-order sandwiches and fresh produce. You can also browse their fresh pastries, jams and jellies, apple butter, and even old-fashioned hoop cheese. So enjoy your lunch and consider taking a snack for the road before heading back onto the parkway.
Once you’re back on the Blue Ridge Parkway, make your way to Roanoke. Along the way, you’ll pass plenty of beautiful overlooks. If you have the time, stop at the ones that look the most interesting to you. When you get near Roanoke, hop off the parkway and head into the city. While you’re there, explore the downtown area. There are many boutiques, artisan shops, and interesting antique shops to explore. Roanoke is the perfect stopping point for dinner, as many options exist. After you’ve stretched your legs, had a good meal, and maybe even found a souvenir or two, get back on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Consider planning your first night on the parkway in historic Floyd. Floyd is a small town in Virginia near the North Carolina border. It is home to quite a few boutiques and unique hotels and inns. If you have time, check out Floyd’s Country Store. On some nights, the store becomes a place for locals to hang out and dance.
In the morning, head to milepost 176, where you’ll find the Mabry Mill. Mabry Mill is a favorite stopping point on the parkway as it is a picturesque water-powered mill built in the early 1900s. There is a restored sawmill, a whiskey still, and even a working blacksmith shop on the property. In addition, the mill has a restaurant that serves breakfast all day, but an early morning at Mabry Mill is best!
Continue down the parkway and hop off when you get close to the town of Galax. Galax is often called the gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains and is your last town stop in Virginia. The community is full of things to do, including a vibrant art and music scene. Depending on when you visit, you may be able to enjoy one of the many music festivals or conventions that take place in the town. There is also a living history museum, a museum with Civil War and Native American artifacts, and plenty of unique shops to explore. When you are ready to leave Galax, hop back on the parkway towards your next destination.
The Blue Ridge Music Center is outside Galax on the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 213. The music center focuses on the history of Appalachian music heritage. While there, you’ll be able to experience the rich culture of folk music and dance from the Appalachian area. During the summer months, you may catch a live performance. Musicians perform daily in the center’s breezeway. There is also a 3,000-person outdoor auditorium that host local and national musicians.
From the Blue Ridge Music Center, head toward the town of Boone. Boone is one of the cutest small towns in North Carolina, and its main street offers several unique shops and restaurants. Boone is a college town home to the Appalachian State Mountaineers, and much of the campus is around the main road. While there, make sure you stop at the Mast General Store and their Candy Barrel. By the pound, you can buy large amounts of candy, some vintage, and hard-to-find candies too. They also have a great outdoor gear store if you need to stock up on anything for the rest of your trip. You’ll end day two in Boone, so take your time exploring the area. It is a great stopping point for your Blue Ridge Parkway drive because it has plenty of hotels for you to stay in and lots of restaurant options.
On your third day of driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, you’ll spend most of the day on the parkway itself. As you head towards Asheville from Boone on the parkway, your first stop will be at milepost 294. Moses Cone Manor is a large manor home on the side of the mountain with views down into the valley. The Manor gets pretty busy, pretty quick. During peak season, the entrance to the parkway near the Manor gets heavily backed up with traffic, so plan to arrive earlier in the morning during the peak travel season.
After exploring Moses Cone Manor, continue along the parkway towards Blowing Rock and milepost 294. There are a few exits on the parkway for Blowing Rock, but you’ll want to take the exit for US 221 N to get to the central part of town. There, you’ll find some cute boutiques, many art galleries, and plenty of options for breakfast if you didn’t eat before leaving Boone. Take some time to explore the shopping district and then go to Blowing Rock park. The name describes the way the Rock looks to viewers. You can take a walk-out bridge to get a better view and see the surrounding valley and mountains in the distance. After learning about the Blowing Rock, hop back on the parkway and continue heading towards Asheville.
The Linn Cove Viaduct at milepost 304 is easily the most recognizable landmark of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It adorns travel posters, signs along the parkway, and all Blue Ridge Parkway merchandise. In addition, you’ll see signs directing you to the parking areas as you approach the viaduct. They all offer a different view of the famous winding bridge that hugs the side of the mountain. There is a visitor’s center if you want to explore the area further. Several hiking trails take you under and around the viaduct.
As you admire the Linn Cove Viaduct, you’ll start to be able to see Grandfather and Grandmother Mountains at milepost 305. Grandfather Mountain is one of the centerpieces of the Appalachian Mountains. It is beautifully majestic and has been welcoming travelers for centuries. There are a few different ways you can explore Grandfather Mountain. However, it has some challenging hiking conditions, so it’s not a good option for beginner hikers. If you aren’t comfortable hiking it, several overlook points are nearby.
After exploring Grandfather Mountain, hop off the parkway and grab lunch in Linville. It’s a small town but a popular area for parkway tourists. You’ll find plenty of options for lunch and can relax a little before finishing your last stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway drive for the day. When you are back on the parkway, head to Linville Falls at Milepost 316. If you want to hike to see the falls, take the Linville Gorge Trail. This trail will give you views of the two waterfalls. A smaller fall is accessible by taking the left trail fork. It leads down the rocky cliffs to view the bottom of the falls, where the water cascades and pools. If you take the right fork, you’ll hike up to the Plunge Basin Overlook, which has a view of the falls and the chimney rocks. Both hikes are considered strenuous, but you’ll often see families with small kids on both trails.
There are numerous towns in the area to find a place for the evening. Asheville is the largest community in the area and offers numerous hotel and dining options. You could spend two to three days visiting all of the sites here. Since this blog is about the Blue Ridge Parkway, the next stop is Mount Pisgah at milepost 408. Mount Pisgah is a great place to get out and hike. If you don’t want to roam around Mount Pisgah, you can admire it at Mount Pisgah Overlook, where the trailhead is located.
At milepost 419, you’ll find a unique view of Graveyard Fields. The Graveyard Fields are large expanses of grasslands. The grasslands are a unique landscape feature amongst the Blue Ridge Mountains. There are a few theories as to why no trees are growing in the area, but no one is quite sure why the area remains treeless.
Not much farther down the parkway is the Richland Balsam Overlook at Milepost 431. The Richland Balsam Overlook is the parkway’s highest point at 6,053 feet. It is a beautiful overlook that gives sweeping views of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. It’s a great spot to take a photo of the sign indicating the elevation.
The southern entrance is in Cherokee at milepost 469. This is your very last stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway drive. Unfortunately, the town is a tourist trap, so unless you’re shopping for a cheap souvenir, continue and find another city to explore. I drove another 50 minutes to run the “Tail of the Dragon,” which is a “must do” event if you’re driving a sports car! Alternatively, consider driving into the Great Smoky Mountains, as Cherokee is the entranceway to this beautiful National Park. Recall that the purpose of the Blue Ridge Parkway is to connect Shenandoah National Park with the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee.
There is a reason every year people travel from all over the world to experience the Blue Ridge Parkway drive. It is a beautiful part of the country that is full of unique and exciting places to explore and enjoy. So if you decide to take a Blue Ridge Parkway road trip, no matter how long you have to explore, you won’t regret it. It is a place that will permanently enchant visitors who get to experience the natural beauty of the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains.
Mark Robert Richards is the retired Chairman and CEO of Appvion, Inc., headquartered in Appleton, WI.
Mark is now President of Meade Street Advisors, LLC, board governance, executive coaching, and strategic planning consulting business headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, FL.
Mark travels worldwide to unique places and likes to share what he finds with others.