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. Escape the crowds, and pull off the parkway to explore a few mountain towns with front-row seats to the seasonal show.
Some of Virginia's best stops include 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 food and outdoor enthusiasts. These three destinations are easy drives (less than 65 miles apart) from each other. Set 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
Where to Stay
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)—founded in 1766, a decade before the Declaration of Independence was signed. The sweeping Omni Homestead Resort offers accommodations with two centuries' worth of stories. Mountains ablaze in orange and yellow surround this sprawling redbrick resort, which actress Elizabeth Taylor once called the "Versailles of America."
Be a Part of History
Captain Thomas Bullitt opened what started as a rustic lodge to accommodate the travelers who had heard of the area's hot springs, said to have therapeutic powers. Since its opening, many U.S. Presidents have stayed at this hotel. They have portraits that line the wall of the Homestead Lobby Bar. Drive along the winding roads, and you will immediately understand why this area is renowned as remarkable.
What to Do in Hot Springs
Enjoy a stay in this historic resort, 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 taking 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.
Learn About Lexington
Establish laid-back Lexington as your base for taking in all the natural wonders of the Shenandoah Valley. This town, home to 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, also known as the Appalachian Waters Scenic Byway, and meander the winding road along the Maury River. Drive about 14 miles to Goshen Pass. An almost four-mile-long mountain gorge carved out by this biodiverse river. You can view it from an overlook or park and explore the riverbank on foot.
During springtime, Goshen's white water is a popular tubing site for college students, but it's a peaceful hangout for nature lovers in the fall. 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. This drive, running parallel to I-81, moseys through the Blue Ridge, passing by quiet towns and expansive farmland. Cruise 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.
Enjoy the Town
Don't leave without walking through Lexington's downtown district, which is home to a vibrant arts-and-food scene.
As you enter downtown Roanoke, look 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 and outdoor enthusiasts who fell in love with the area and decided to stay. Let Roanoke be your hub for checking out the areas 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 from the starting points of Virginia's Triple Crown, a trio of trails consisting of Dragon's Tooth, McAfee Knob, and Tinker Cliffs.
Book a room at the Roanoke Boutique Hotel, a relaxed bed-and-breakfast in a restored 1890s Italianate home just a few minutes from downtown. The establishment is a treat for nature lovers. Book a sunrise trek up McAfee Knob for breakfast on the mountain. You'll be guided on the trip, leaving around 4:30 a.m. to chase daybreak. Once at the summit, rest on the rocky landing with a cup of coffee. 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.
What to Do
Hop off the trails 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 food enthusiasts 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 or grab a table at Fortunato for Neapolitan-style pizza.
Highlights from Every Town
-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:
-RND Coffee Lounge, roanokecoffee.com.
-Big Lick Brewing Company, biglickbrewingco.com.
-Deschutes Brewery, deschutesbrewery.com.
-Black Dog Salvage, blackdogsalvage.com.
-Walkabout Outfitter, walkaboutoutfitter.com.