Explore These Virginia Towns Along the Blue Ridge Parkway This Fall
As crisp autumn air starts settling in on late-September afternoons, leaf peepers begin hitting Virginia's stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Cloudless skies set an ethereal backdrop for clusters of crimson, burnt orange, and golden leaves lining the curvy two-lane highway, a bright runway for the smoky blue mountains peeking over the horizon. Carloads of tourists embark on the scenic drive every fall to take in Virginia's striking foliage. This year, escape the crowds, and pull off the parkway to explore a few mountain towns with their own front-row seats to the seasonal show: Hot Springs, with the historic Omni Homestead Resort surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains; Lexington, a charming college town in the Shenandoah Valley; and Roanoke, a buzzy city for both foodies and outdoor enthusiasts in the eponymous valley. These three destinations are easy drives (less than 65 miles apart) from each other too. Pick your own pace for a journey through the commonwealth—spending a long weekend in one spot or planning a road trip to make stops in all three places.
Hot Springs, Virginia
Make Hot Springs your destination for a relaxing long-weekend retreat. This tiny town, tucked away in the Allegheny Mountains, is home to the 255-year-old Omni Homestead Resort—the oldest in the country (it even predates the United States). It was founded in 1766, a decade before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Captain Thomas Bullitt opened what started as a rustic lodge to accommodate the travelers who had heard of the area's hot springs (the mineral waters were declared to have therapeutic powers). Twenty-three U.S. Presidents have stayed at the hotel since its opening (many of their portraits line the walls of the Lobby Bar). It is said that this region's remarkable autumn leaves impressed George Washington during his first visit here. Drive along the winding roads leading to The Homestead, and you will immediately understand why.
Mountains ablaze in orange and yellow surround this sprawling redbrick resort, which actress Elizabeth Taylor once called the "Versailles of America." This historic stay is steeped in Southern hospitality. Visit the lobby each day around 3 p.m. to enjoy the Southern Social Hour, when guests can snack on sweet breads and sip tea as a pianist plays ragtime tunes on a Steinway. History buffs will enjoy the daily tour with bellman John Tingler, who takes guests back in time to The Homestead's beginning, telling tales about the resort's historical evolution and leading groups through such preserved spaces as an opulent 1920s ballroom.
Spend the rest of your time outdoors admiring waterfalls throughout Bath County. Sign up for a spot on a Homestead-led hike on the Cascades Trail. A naturalist will guide you on a scenic walk that passes a series of waterfalls hidden in the Allegheny Mountains. Or set out on your own to explore the area. Head south on U.S. 220, and drive about 12 miles until you reach Falling Spring Falls. This 80-foot beauty is one of the most photographed sights in the state. Pack a picnic, and pick a spot at the overlook to take it all in.
Establish laid-back Lexington as your base for taking in all the natural wonders of the Shenandoah Valley. This town—which is home to both Washington & Lee University and Virginia Military Institute—is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with easy access to lesser-known but stunning drives through Rockbridge County. Veer off the Blue Ridge Parkway (and escape the seasonal crowds) to cruise through the picturesque Virginia countryside.
Starting in Lexington, head northeast on State 39, which is also known as the Appalachian Waters Scenic Byway, and meander the winding road that runs along the Maury River.
Drive about 14 miles to Goshen Pass, a 3.7-mile-long mountain gorge that was carved out by this biodiverse river. Stop at an overlook to view the pass from above, but park at one of the pull-over spots on the road to explore the riverbank on foot. During springtime, Goshen's white water is a popular tubing site for college students, but in the fall, it's a peaceful hangout for nature lovers. Pack a fly rod to cast a line for trout, or have a seat on a large river rock to admire fall color stretching up the steep walls on either side of the Maury. On your way back into town, plan to make a pit stop at Devils Backbone Brewing Company to try a Vienna Lager or maybe another one of their popular craft brews.
For your next adventure, go south on U.S. 11 from Lexington to see the other side of Rockbridge County. Running parallel to I-81, this drive moseys through the Blue Ridge, passing by quiet towns and expansive farmland. Cruise all the way to Natural Bridge State Park to check out one of the South's best geological marvels. Cedar Creek created this towering 215-foot-tall limestone gorge. Make it a day trip, and take the park's hiking trails for more incredible mountain vistas.
Don't leave here without walking through Lexington's downtown district, which is home to a vibrant arts-and-food scene.
As you pull into downtown Roanoke, look up to see the towering star atop Mill Mountain. The "Star City of the South" got its nickname from the 88-foot-tall steel structure with neon lights that glow over the valley at night. Roanoke is the largest city along the Appalachian Trail, making it a draw for hikers passing through on their way up the East Coast as well as outdoor enthusiasts who fell in love with the area and decided to stay. Let Roanoke be your hub for checking out the environs along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and stick around to discover local gems in the booming downtown.
You can soak up plenty of fall foliage as you hike to bucket list vistas on the Appalachian Trail. Roanoke is just a short drive away from the starting points of Virginia's Triple Crown, a trio of trails consisting of Dragon's Tooth, McAfee Knob, and Tinker Cliffs. Intrepid innkeeper Diane Haley actually conquered all three (around 32 miles) in one day. Book a room at her Roanoke Boutique Hotel, a relaxed bed-and-breakfast in a restored 1890s Italianate home just a few minutes from downtown. Her establishment is a treat for nature lovers. Ask Haley to lead you on a sunrise trek up McAfee Knob (about 9 miles round trip). She guides her guests, with headlamps strapped on, through the darkness, leaving at about 4:30 a.m. and chasing daybreak. At the final mile, when the view atop the steep hillside starts to clear and the sleepy sky peeks through the trees, keep climbing. Once at the summit, rest on the rocky landing with a cup of coffee, and watch as the sun rises above the peaks. Take in the panoramic Blue Ridge views that stretch out into the distance.
Mountain bikers will want to visit the famous Carvins Cove Natural Reserve, with more than 60 miles of trails. For a milder hiking option, climb the Star Trail to reach the Roanoke Star and Overlook. Stand beneath the impressive steel structure above the Roanoke Valley. Explore this town by taking the Roanoke River Greenway, which winds along the water. Then hop off to walk around the newly revitalized Wasena neighborhood, which features vibrantly painted storefronts. Hang out at indie roaster RND Coffee Lounge, founded by brothers Quincy and Steffon Randolph. Wander around downtown while the Historic Roanoke City Market is in full swing.
This place appeals as much to foodies as it does to nature-obsessed travelers. Kick back at staples like Deschutes Brewery and Big Lick Brewing Company. Stop by Lucky Restaurant for a farm-to-table dinner, and be sure to ask barkeep Kent Gugliuzza for a coveted list of his favorite local spots. Or grab a table at Fortunato for Neapolitan-style pizza.
Plan the Perfect Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip in Virginia
-The Omni Homestead Resort, omnihotels.com
Eat & Drink
-Jefferson's Restaurant & Bar at The Homestead, omnihotels.com
-Waterwheel Restaurant at The Inn at Gristmill Square, gristmillsquare.com
-The Georges, thegeorges.com
Eat & Drink
-Taps at The Georges, thegeorges.com
-Haywood's Piano Bar and Grill, thegeorges.com
-Blue Sky Bakery, blueskylex.com
-Devils Backbone Brewing Company, dbbrewingcompany.com
-Artists in Cahoots, artistsincahoots.com
-Cabell Gallery, cabellgallery.com
-Roanoke Boutique Hotel, roanokeboutiquehotel.com
Eat & Drink
-Lucky Restaurant, eatatlucky.com
-RND Coffee Lounge, roanokecoffee.com
-Big Lick Brewing Company, biglickbrewingco.com
-Deschutes Brewery, deschutesbrewery.com
-Black Dog Salvage, blackdogsalvage.com
-Walkabout Outfitter, walkaboutoutfitter.com