Prime Time On the Blue Ridge
Three days, two lanes, and one spectacular fall road trip along the South's most storied highway.
Jason Frye, accompanied by his wife, took the weekend road trip of our dreams, and mapped out the perfect route to follow from Roanoke, Virginia to Asheville, North Carolina. The Blue Ridge Parkway is the prime spot to enjoy fall color in the South, and what better than a road trip that perfectly maps out the must-see spots along the way. Autumn's patchwork-quilt landscape is part of the story in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but it's the people who make the place. Like family, they open their arms and their homes, welcoming visitors to share a drink, a meal, or a song. It's time to find assemble your road trip crew, and load up for a three-day journey along the beautiful, winding roads of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Weekend Road Trip
Let's bring back the Sunday drive and the weekend road trip. And let's kick off this revival on one of the South's most iconic stretches of asphalt: the Blue Ridge Parkway (blueridgeparkway.org). In fall, the hills of southern Virginia take on new light and life, and the evenings—ideal sweater weather—are best enjoyed with a glass of wine. In North Carolina, the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains are coated with many colors and brush the clouds while the Parkway urges us to slow down and take it all in. I grew up in the mountains, and every year I would wait for the first sign of fall—the way other kids waited for Christmas morning. Now that I live on the coast, I miss that moment. I cherish every chance for an October trip back home, where I can see hillsides the color of sunset.
Day 1: Roanoke to Woolwine
The Taubman Museum of Art (taubmanmuseum.org) rises up from Roanoke, Virginia's streets like a rocky outcrop. It's a fitting start for my wife and me as we begin our journey south. Contemporary and colorful, functional and folksy, the art here was inspired by the surroundings—in many cases, the landscape and people of the Blue Ridge Mountains right outside.
We leave the museum and drive into those mountains, guided by Roanoke's famous illuminated star, which has been beckoning to locals and visitors since 1949. Neighborhoods give way to Mill Mountain Park, where this giant man-made star overlooks the valley, but we don't linger, instead turning south on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Following this two-lane road for 37 beautiful miles, we make our first stop at the Smart View Overlook. The rolling hills of Virginia's Piedmont, loaded with fall color, remind me of the Taubman's galleries.
We continue south to Woolwine, 17 miles away and not far off the Parkway. Here we check into The Mountain Rose Inn (mountainrose-inn.com), a Victorian home dating back to 1901. It's long on charm, elegance, and hospitality, with an air of romance—a bonus on any weekend getaway. Once we freshen up, it's off to Chateau Morrisette (thedogs.com), one of Virginia's oldest wineries, where we've made reservations for a wine tasting (the Chamborucin is especially good) followed by a dinner of beef tartare, wild mushroom-and-arugula flatbread, and littleneck clams.
Happy and full, we decide it's time for dancing, and that means a visit to Floyd, Virginia, where the historic Floyd Country Store (floydcountrystore.com) gets converted into a dance hall for the regular Friday Nite Jamboree. We pay the $5 cover and step inside. A bluegrass band plays from a small stage in the back, and the dance floor is crowded with cloggers and flat-footers of all ages. That night, we drift off to sleep with visions of a country band and the syncopated tapping of a hundred feet dancing in our heads.
Day 2: Woolwine to Blowing Rock
In the morning, we relax at The Mountain Rose Inn. When the road calls, we head back to the Blue Ridge Parkway and point south. The day's first stop, Mabry Mill, is an easy drive along Virginia's gentle hills, just 19 miles from the inn.
To call this place picturesque is an understatement; Mabry Mill is a poem. The millhouse, built by Ed Mabry in 1905, sits on the edge of a small pond and is one of the most photographed stops along the Parkway. Today, with the play of color on the trees above and their reflections in the millpond below, it's a real showstopper. The wheel turns, rippling the trees' reflections and powering a gristmill and sawmill inside. Hearing a voice and the low rumble of the mill, we decide to investigate. "Some of what we mill, we'll sell," says a park volunteer who's bagging up milled corn spilling out of a century-old chute. "Some of it, like the grits and the buckwheat, goes to the restaurant," he says, gesturing across the parking lot to the small restaurant and gift shop at the other end. "The rest we feed to the ducks."
We've already had breakfast, so we turn to the almost 40 miles of road that stretch between us and the Blue Ridge Music Center (blueridgemusiccenter.org) near the North Carolina border. Stopping a couple of times to take pictures, we keep an eye on the clock to make sure we get there by noon. We want to enjoy a free Mid-Day Mountain Music concert and leave a little time to dig into some history and culture through the museum's audio, video, and antique-instrument displays.
Blowing Rock, North Carolina
The scenic drive to Blowing Rock, North Carolina is the longest yet, 73 miles. In North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Parkway is rougher, but more extreme curves in the road reward us with views of the country flattening out to the south and east and rising to the north and west. We stop to buy apples at The Orchard at Altapass (altapassorchard.org), but we're lured to Blowing Rock by the promise of shopping along Main Street and a cold beer at our bed-and-breakfast, Blowing Rock Brewing Company Ale House & Inn (blowingrockbrewing.com).
In no time, we make it to Blowing Rock, where Main Street is lined with antiques shops and galleries. Our room at Blowing Rock Brewing Company Ale House & Inn, modern and homey, overlooks the lawn. Picturing myself with a pint in my hand and my feet in the grass, I head downstairs for a plate of homemade hot pretzels and a pint of the Big Chocolate Porter.
We're careful to keep our snacking light and save room for dinner at Over Yonder (overyondernc.com), which is 10 miles—well—over yonder in Valle Crucis. The same husband-and-wife team from The Mast Farm Inn run Over Yonder, and the menu is pure Appalachian comfort food. As I step inside the house, hand built in 1861, the aroma of fried chicken tells me the rest of the menu is moot. Over Yonder's version is crispy and succulent—textbook.
Day 3: Blowing Rock to Asheville
We get an early start to take in the morning light on this stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Among the peaks towering overhead are Mount Mitchell, the highest point in the East, and iconic Grandfather Mountain (grandfather.com). The breathtaking Linn Cove Viaduct seems to float off the edge of Grandfather Mountain, over an ocean of hills resplendent with fall color and misted with morning fog. Around Milepost 304, we reach the viaduct. It's disorienting, with the mountain rising on one side and falling away on the other. All that empty space, filled by hilltops far below, makes us slow down to take it in.
Not quite a mile south of the viaduct, we leave the Parkway for a drive to the top of Grandfather Mountain. A storied tourist attraction, it's laced with trails both rugged and family friendly and even has a small zoo where you can see one of the state's most celebrated views. Oh, and there's the Mile High Swinging Bridge.
Actually, the bridge is a mile above sea level but only 80 feet or so off the ground, connecting two lower peaks of the mountain. My wife and I exchange "ready when you are" glances and cross. We take a photo of the warning signs on the rocky point at the other end and, staying back from the edge, absorb the expansive view.
Spruce Pine, North Carolina
Back on the Parkway, we have 11 miles to Linville Falls (fs.usda.gov), where a 1-mile hike ends in a picture-postcard view of this lauded waterfall. The first half of the hike—to Upper Falls overlook—is easy. Then we continue on to the steeper, slower stretch of the trail leading to Erwins View and catch our breath just in time for the dramatic, three-tiered cascade to take it away again.
Now for lunch at Knife & Fork (knifeandforknc.com) in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, 12 miles away. Here, chef Nathan Allen forages for such ingredients as mushrooms and forgotten mountain herbs to use in his restaurant. From the trout marrow spread to the burger, his locally sourced Appalachian fare is delicious.
We have only 50 miles of Parkway left to travel before reaching the Sourwood Inn (sourwoodinn.com), less than 30 minutes from Asheville. Along the way, we pass Mount Mitchell State Park (ncparks.gov), where a short, steep hike leads to a viewing platform atop the 6,684-foot summit, and Craggy Gardens (blueridgeparkway.org), a rocky mountaintop with thickets of rhododendron and mountain laurel.
Asheville, North Carolina
We almost pass the Sourwood Inn's hidden driveway but finally spot the one-car-wide paved lane and descend along a ridge until the trees open slightly, revealing a Craftsman-style inn that fits as naturally into this landscape as its namesake tree. Owner and innkeeper Nat Burkhardt gives us a tour. The dining room, sitting room, and library have views rivaling the rocker-lined porch, and Burkhardt promises our room has the same. He's not kidding.
In Asheville, we grab some cocktails at Sovereign Remedies (sovereignremedies.com), a lounge and small-plates restaurant with magnificent drinks—both boozy and not. Afterward, we have dinner at Gan Shan Station (ganshanstation.com), the 1950s gas station reclaimed by chef-owner Patrick O'Cain. Though there's a hint of chill in the air, we dine outside to savor the last day of our trip.
It's perfect—the fall air, the woodsy scent of autumn leaves mingling with the fragrance of Asian spices, the drive down the Parkway—all of it. The road has shown me how to slow down, take it in, and see a place I love in a whole new way.