Driving the Beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway this Fall
Although the Great Depression devastated much of the country, it was the catalyst for a world of change in the eastern United States. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park opened to fanfare, while the valleys and hamlets in between continued to struggle with poverty. In order to increase tourism as well as provide opportunities for work, the Blue Ridge Parkway was carved through the Appalachian Mountains, offering a slower and more scenic journey, and a road that would link the two parks. The parkway followed the crest of the mountains, from Virginia to North Carolina, and would be maintained by the National Park Service.
What began in 1936 and ended decades later in 1987, this construction marvel includes 26 tunnels, dozens of bridges, and multiple parking areas. The winding 469-miles includes no billboards and minimal residential buildings. Since its dedication in 1987, millions have taken the road less traveled that deposits them in the middle of the Appalachians.
No entrance fee is required to drive the parkway, and speed is limited to 45 miles per hour. From RVs to motorcycles to bikes, the parkway offers specific experiences for your desired journey. Mile markers run from north to south, from Afton, Virginia to Cherokee, North Carolina. The parkway can be driven in one day, but, really, who would want to do that? Take time to enjoy the natural beauty, charming communities and fabulous events that highlight the drive. Especially, in fall, when the leaves transform
Enjoy these scenic stops along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Before you begin your journey, check schedules for detours and closings (blueridgeparkway.org). Visit recreation.gov for campground reservations. Winter travel is subject to weather. Keep in mind that there are no gas stations along the parkway, but many can be found with a detour.
Cherokee, North Carolina (milepost 455.7): From Georgia, enter the parkway in Cherokee, its southernmost end. Enjoy the Great Smoky Mountains National Park including the visitor’s center at Sugarlands, Oconaluftee and Cades Cove. Communities include Bryson City, Franklin in North Carolina and Gatlinburg and Sevierville in Tennessee. Stay the night in downtown Brevard, North Carolina, at The Sunset Motel, a retro, 20-room hotel that will have you longing for yesteryear.
Craggy Gardens, Black Mountain, North Carolina (milepost 344): Head to Craggy in the summer months for an explosion of purple with rhododendrons in full bloom.
Mount Mitchell State Park, Burnsville, North Carolina (milepost 344):The highest peak in the eastern United States take you to an elevation of 6,684 feet. Only accessible via the parkway, the views, trails, camping areas, and picnic spots make this a popular stop.
Asheville, North Carolina (milepost 339.5): In the heart of the Pisgah Mountains, enjoy Asheville. Make a stop at the parkway’s headquarters. Tour homes of literary greats Carl Sandburg, Thomas Wolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well at Biltmore Estate. Designated as a National Heritage Area, there are many museums, breweries and outdoor adventures to make this a longer stop. A hiking option is Crabtree Falls, offering two moderate to strenuous routes, from 1.8 miles to 3 miles.
Blowing Rock, North Carolina (milepost 293): In the southern Highlands Region, the quaint town of Blowing Rock is located directly on the parkway and offers a slow day in downtown or an outdoor day exploring Grandfather Mountain (305.1). Take a walk on the mile-high suspension bridge for 360-degree views. Visit the Linville Falls Visitor Center for information on hikes. The most famous waterfall on the parkway, Linville Falls flows over Linville Gorge, known as the Grand Canyon of the Southern Appalachians. Don’t miss the Linn Cove Viaduct (294.6), the last portion of the parkway to be completed and considered an engineering marvel, and take in the breathtaking views where the road meets the sky. A trail from the Linn Cove Visitor Center provides access beneath the structure, yet no pedestrians are allowed on the parkway when it is open for driving.
Bristol, Virginia (milepost 280.8): A stop in Bristol is a must-do for country music lovers. Visit the birthplace of county music, made famous by the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Thirty minutes down the road from the Fancy Gap entrance is Wytheville, a small town with big attractions. And in nearby Abingdon, don’t miss a stellar performance at the world-famous Barter Theatre. Get out of the car and get on a bike to explore the Virginia Creeper Trail.
Mabry Mill, Meadows of Dan, Virginia (milepost 176.1): One of the most beautiful and iconic sites on the parkway is Mabry Mill. No matter the season, the grist mill speaks to an earlier time. During peak season, the National Park Service has demonstrations at the gristmill, sawmill and blacksmith shop. Enjoy a picnic or visit the Mabry Mill Restaurant nearby.
Peaks of Otter, Bedford, Virginia (milepost 85.9): Within the Jefferson National Forest, the Peaks of Otter has drawn people for more than 8,000 years. Bus rides to within 1,500 feet of the Sharp Top summit are available. Abbott Lake, located behind the Peaks of Otter Lodge, is stocked with smallmouth bass and other fish. From hiking to fishing, this is a favorite location for everyone.
Afton, Virginia (milepost 0): Located in the Shenandoah region, Afton is the northern gateway to the parkway. North of the parkway is Skyline Drive, a 105-mile drive connecting Shenandoah National Park (fee required) to the northern end of the parkway. Popular among visitors is Shenandoah Caverns.
Fall Travel Tips for the Blue Ridge Parkway
As you can imagine, fall is a busy time on the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway. Here are some tips to navigate the busy season.
- Drive a long distance along the Blue Ridge Parkway and be sure to change elevations and north-south orientation.
- Travel around mid to late October will ensure you catch at least some sections of the parkway in peak color.
- Keep in mind Leaves start turning at higher elevations first and on the northern mountain slopes. Adversely, the lower elevations and drier southern slopes begin their fall color change later.
- To avoid larger crowds, travel on weekdays and begin your daily adventures early in the morning.
Beauty is everywhere on the Blue Ridge Parkway, so consider lesser-known roadside stops like Wigwam Falls, Beacon Heights, Stony Bald Overlook and Raven Rocks.