The South's Best Scenic Drive 2022: The Blue Ridge Parkway
Travel the Blue Ridge Parkway in spring, when the tips of trees and shrubs show off a splendid mix of whites, yellows, and pinks (looking even brighter against a backdrop of dark green conifers), and it's immediately apparent why this scenic road is the most visited parkway in the entire national park system. Running through North Carolina and Virginia, the ribbon of asphalt cuts a path along the valleys and crests of the Appalachian Mountain range, connecting Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Shenandoah National Park.
Elevations along the Blue Ridge Parkway vary by more than 5,000 feet, with the first blush of color touching leaves and flowers on the warmer lower portions in Virginia first. While drivers can pop on and off this road for a quick trip, full-length explorers will see all stages of spring, from tight buds and a hint of chartreuse new growth to full open blooms. Hundreds of species of wildflowers and trees thrive in the Blue Ridge Mountains and have enough of a regular schedule that you can catch a floral show as the seasons change. Buttercups, wild strawberries, and redbud trees appear early. Breathtaking patches of rhododendron and mountain laurel open up along stretches of roadway a few weeks later.
All of these spectacular views began with—of all things—the Great Depression. Established as a public works project, the parkway was created to spur the economy and to provide local tourism opportunities. Inspired by the construction of Virginia's Skyline Drive project, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the building of a scenic motorway that ultimately took decades to complete.
Construction began in 1935, not on either end but almost in the middle, at Cumberland Knob, just inside the North Carolina border, where the parkway's first recreation area opened to the public in 1937. Following a halt to progress during World War II, somewhat steady construction cut new paths or linked local roads to continue the route. Easements and right-of-way passages were negotiated so drivers could avoid commercial development, maintaining the original mission of the project: to provide picturesque rural beauty.
After decades of delays caused by land-use conflicts, environmental concerns, and engineering challenges, the last miles were completed in the mid-1980s around Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina.
Work on the parkway now includes preservation and ecologically sensitive maintenance. Considerate forestry management ensures that modern travelers can enjoy the same views as Appalachian settlers did centuries ago.
Must Visit Stops Along the Blue Ridge Parkway
There are 910 designated vistas along the 469-mile road. Here are a few choice stops that give visitors a glimpse into the fascinating past and an appreciation for the beauty of the Blue Ridge.
0.0 - Rockfish Gap
The Northern Entrance to the parkway is also the southern endpoint of Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park. Stone posts note each mile and other distances along the scenic route, beginning here with 0.0.
0.0 - Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel
Most of your drive takes place on mountain crests, but this side trip is about 700 feet below Rockfish Gap. Built by hand in the 1850s, what was once the longest rail tunnel in North America is located at the convergence of Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Abandoned following the construction of a newer tunnel large enough for modern locomotives, the Crozet tunnel opened to the public in the fall of 2020 and is now the centerpiece of an easy, dog-friendly hiking trail. You should bring a flashlight since you'll be in almost total darkness just beyond the threshold.
5.8 - Humpback Rocks Visitor Center and Farm Museum
This is the first visitor center for travelers coming from the north. Late 19th-century buildings were moved here to re-create a homestead that depicts the lives of the Appalachian people of that time.
86 - Peaks of Otter Recreation Area
The Peaks of Otter encompass three mountains—Sharp Top, Harkening Hill, and Flat Top. Archaeologists believe the area was visited by Native Americans beginning at least 8,000 years ago. Early European settlers moved here starting in 1766, and subsequent generations added to the community. Visitors can tour the Johnson Farm, a remnant of the first homestead (restored to its 1930s appearance), and see Polly Wood's Ordinary, a small log cabin considered to be the area's first commercial lodging. You can stay at the Peaks of Otter Lodge, built in 1964. Each room has a view and is just steps away from man-made Abbott Lake, named for the parkway's first landscape architect, Stanley Abbott. The nearby Peaks of Otter Campground provides a respite for outdoorsy travelers.
115 - Roanoke
The largest city along the route is worthy of its own vacation agenda. Stop here for fuel, food, lodging, and plenty to see.
176 - Mabry Mill
Luck is in your favor if you get to Mabry Mill Restaurant & Gift Shop early in the day so you can wander around before crowds make it less likely that you'll get that picture sans strangers in the background. One look at the landscape and historic buildings tells you why this is one of the most photographed spots on the byway.
188.8 - Groundhog Mountain Lookout Tower
The state forest service built the tall, weathered tower in 1942 to help check the area for fires. Now it provides tourists with panoramic views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. Displays that were constructed in 1939 depict the different styles of historic log fencing seen along the parkway.
189.9 - Puckett Cabin
According to local history, Orelena Hawks Puckett began working as a midwife in 1890 and delivered more than 1,000 babies. Her original house is no longer standing. The existing one-room cabin was moved onto the property to house some of her husband's family and is preserved by the National Park Service.
199.5 - Fancy Gap
For great home-cooked food, have lunch or dinner at The Gap Deli at the Parkway.
213 - Blue Ridge Music Center
Fiddles, banjos, and soulful harmonies anchor the musical tradition of the southern Appalachians, and the town of Galax is prime territory for bluegrass and mountain tunes. It hosts the annual Old Fiddlers' Convention (running since 1935)and is home to the Blue Ridge Music Center, where you can learn about the history of area music and enjoy live performances from noon to 4 p.m. every day that the center is open.
217.9 - Cumberland Knob
The parkway's first recreation area opened to the public right here in 1937, and it's still well worth a stop.
238.5 - Brinegar Cabin
Built around 1880, this home and the accompanying outbuildings represent life on an Appalachian farm around the time that construction on the road was initiated.
241 - The Bluffs Restaurant
Originally opened in 1949, the first eatery on the parkway became famous for its country ham biscuits, fried chicken, and fresh berry cobblers. For more than 60 years, The Bluffs was a beloved part of Laurel Springs and the surrounding area. Faithful customers were brokenhearted when the venerated spot closed and fell into disrepair. But then restoration supported by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation enabled The Bluffs to open its doors again in August 2020.
264 - The Lump Overlook
The lovely vista gets better with a short hike to the top of a broad, grassy field. A sign recounts the legend of area resident Tom Dula (also known as Tom Dooley), immortalized in a folk song popularized by The Kingston Trio.
290 - Blowing Rock
The town of Blowing Rock is named for a huge cliff that hangs over Johns River Gorge. The geography causes a strong updraft, so in winter, snow appears to move upward on the wind. According to the legend of Blowing Rock, a Chickasaw chieftain hid his daughter away in the mountains. There, she met a rival Cherokee warrior, and they fell in love. Conflicted between devotion to her and commitment to his tribal duty, the warrior leaped from the rock. Despondent, the maiden prayed until the wind blew her sweetheart back into her arms.
291.8 - The Lodge at Chetola Resort
This is a peaceful place to stop after a long day of driving. The property had humble beginnings in 1846 when the only structures were a horse stable and way station. Subsequent owners created a luxurious private estate, which was later transformed into a resort that includes a spa, a conference center, a restaurant, and the Chetola Sporting Reserve.
294 - Cone Manor House
While most of the historic structures on the parkway are quite simple, this 1901 summer home (also called Flat Top Manor) reflects the great wealth of textile baron, conservationist, and philanthropist Moses H. Cone. The Colonial Revival-style mansion sits within a 3,500-acre estate that includes trails for carriage rides, horseback riding, and hiking. It also hosts a gallery as well as demonstrations and events by the Southern Highland Craft Guild.
302 - Rough Ridge Overlook and Tanawha Trail
A spectacular vista from the edge of a large rock outcropping awaits stouthearted hikers. Some stretches of the trail are strenuous, but the reward is one of the best views of the Carolina High Country. (If you prefer an easier option, go along the boardwalk.)
304 - Linn Cove Viaduct
This bridge hugs the eastern side of Grandfather Mountain and can make you feel as if you were floating. Drive it from north to south to see the view that's most often shown in photographs: the serpentine road supported by columns between boulders and rocky outcroppings. To fully appreciate this engineering marvel, turn around when you can and experience the bridge from a new perspective.
305 - Grandfather Mountain/Mile High Swinging Bridge
Grandfather Mountain offers more than a good vista. It's recognized as an International Biosphere Reserve, protecting ecological communities and dozens of endangered species. At the top of the famously winding road to the summit is the Mile High Swinging Bridge. Originally built in 1952 and later refurbished, the 228-foot suspension bridge is 1 mile above sea level (not from the ground) and offers magnificent views of Grandfather Mountain and neighboring ridgelines.
327.3 - North Cove Valley
Decades before construction of the nationally funded parkway, Joseph Hyde Pratt envisioned a 350-mile road along the mountain ridges from North Carolina into Georgia. Eight miles of the route surrounding this overlook were completed before World War I stopped the project.
331 - Museum of North Carolina Minerals
Rock hounds will have fun learning about geological treasures here. North Carolina is the nation's top producer of feldspar, which is used to make drinking glasses and ceramics and is a component of the state's renowned handcrafted pottery.
334 - Little Switzerland
Grab a picnic lunch at the Switzerland Cafe, a busy general store and restaurant known for its pulled pork barbecue, smoked trout, and pimiento cheese. Spend the night in a suite or a rustic cottage at the Switzerland Inn.
382 - Folk Art Center
Displays from the Southern Highland Craft Guild, demonstrations, and an inspiring gift store make this a must. Within the center is the Allanstand Craft Shop. Established in 1895, it is thought to be the oldest continuously operated crafts store in the United States.
388.8 - Asheville
Drive a few minutes from this exit to Abeja's House Cafe to order a delicious breakfast. Book a room at Bent Creek Lodge, and don't miss the s'mores basket, which includes all the fixings for a gooey dessert around a flickering campfire. Got a couple of extra days? Spend them in dynamic, walkable Asheville, and be sure to visit Biltmore, one of the most impressive estates in America.
408 - Pisgah Inn
At almost 5,000 feet in elevation, Pisgah Inn and its restaurant showcase the beauty of Pisgah National Forest. Although the original building is no longer standing, the inn has been in service since 1919. Relax and enjoy the view from one of the rocking chairs along the crest.
412 - The Cradle of Forestry in America/Discovery Center
Located a few miles off the parkway, the Cradle of Forestry in America heritage site was established in 1968. Modern forestry in the U.S. began here.
469 - Southern Entrance
The route ends in Cherokee, North Carolina. Visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, and the Oconaluftee Indian Village, where exhibits trace the history and culture of the Cherokee people.
Celebrate the end of your trek (or prime yourself to begin at the southern entrance) with a meal at Sassy Sunflowers Bakery & Café. Rest for a night or two at Andon-Reid Inn Bed & Breakfast in nearby Waynesville—and then you just might want to do it all over again.
Blue Ridge Tips
- The top speed on the 469-mile route is 45 mph, so give yourself several days to drive it.
- The parkway is open 24 hours a day, but visitor centers and historic areas typically close at 4 or 5 p.m.
- To avoid peak traffic, travel during midweek. (The only trade-off is that some smaller businesses close to rest and stock up after the busy weekend.) Crowds are also slim very early in the morning.
- Roads damaged by winter conditions may be closed for repair, so check the National Park Service website for detour notices.
- Plan your accommodations so you have ample time to see everything during daylight hours and won't have to double back the next day.
- To maximize time on the road, always pack snacks and consider assembling picnic meals ahead.