The top 9 things to do on a Blue Ridge Parkway road trip

The Linn Cove Viaduct at sunset

Hug the high spine of the Appalachian Mountains, backbone of the eastern United States, on a road trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“America’s Favorite Drive,” as the tagline goes, is easily one of the prettiest ribbons of blacktop anywhere. A little background to get the trip-planning juices flowing: The Blue Ridge Parkway was initiated in the mid-1930s under FDR and basically completed by 1966, except for the short Linn Cove Viaduct piece not finished until the 1980s.

The Parkway traces the crest of the Blue Ridge, the highest chain in the Appalachians; you’ll be topping out at over 6,000 feet where the road crosses the Great Balsam Mountains in North Carolina. Managed by the National Park Service, the Parkway is on average the most-visited National Park Service unit in the country.

A map of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina

Our recommended route

While you can certainly slice off rewarding chunks of the Parkway if you’re limited by time, we recommend experiencing its full length if you’re able, giving a couple of nights (at least) to the jaunt so you’re not rushed. It’s about 470 miles between the north end of the Parkway at Rockfish Gap, Virginia—just south of Shenandoah National Park—and the southern terminus in North Carolina where the Cherokee Indian Reservation bumps up against Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

When to drive it

The Blue Ridge Parkway is typically fully open between spring and fall; winter can see some closures due to snow and ice. The drive’s ravishing any time of year, but you could make equal arguments it attains its show-stopping peak in early summer—when the ridgeline rhododendron gardens are blooming—or autumn, when the hardwood seas visible from Parkway overlooks catch fire with fall foliage.

Things to see & do

The view from the Humpback Rocks in Virginia

Humpback Rocks.

1. Humpback Rocks

(milepost 5.8)

Right off the bat, you’ve got a nice encapsulation of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s fused natural and historical landscapes. Check out vintage farm buildings from the late 19th century—transported here when the Parkway was constructed—and nab a killer view of the Shenandoah and Rockfish valleys from Humpback Rocks, just a mile from the trailhead.

A view of Sharp Top and Abbott Lake in the Peaks of Otter

Sharp Top and Abbott Lake.

2. Peaks of Otter

(milepost 85.6)

These Blue Ridge summits—Sharp Top, Flat Top, and Harkening Hill—max out at 4,000 feet or so, but they’re striking enough that Thomas Jefferson initially thought they might be the tallest mountains in the U.S. The vista of Sharp Top overlooking Abbot Lake, whose shores include the Peaks of Otter Lodge, is a classic Parkway photo op.

3. Blue Ridge Music Center

(milepost 213)

The Southern Appalachians have a rich and hugely influential musical heritage, which takes the spotlight at this wonderful interpretive site. Along with educational displays such as the Roots of American Music exhibit, the Blue Ridge Music Center serves up daily live music as well as larger-scale weekend concerts in its outdoor amphitheater during the summer and fall.

The Linn Cove Viaduct around Grandfather Mountain in autumn

The Linn Cove Viaduct winds around Grandfather Mountain.

4. Grandfather Mountain

(milepost 304)

The Linn Cove Viaduct edges the shoulders of Grandfather Mountain, at 5,946 feet the apex of the Blue Ridge Escarpment itself and one of the most imposing peaks in the Southern Appalachians. Part of the Grandfather massif is a privately owned attraction with a nature museum, live animal exhibits, and the famous Mile High Swinging Bridge—the highest suspension bridge in America—while the majority falls within Grandfather Mountain State Park, host to some of the best high-elevation hiking in the East.

A view of Linville Falls

Linville Falls.

5. Linville Falls & Gorge

(milepost 316)

The staggered 150-foot drop of Linville Falls marks the head of the Linville Gorge, a stunning forested chasm. Marvel at the mighty cataract from the Erwins View or Linville Gorge trails in the Linville Falls Recreation Area.

6. Folk Art Center

(milepost 382)

Learn about traditional crafts and folkways of the Southern Appalachians in the Folk Art Exhibition Hall, and watch live demos by craftspeople at work. Looking for a souvenir of your trip? The center also sells authentic hand-crafted goods from many of those same craftspeople.

An aerial view of downtown Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville, North Carolina.

7. Asheville, NC

(milepost 382.6)

One of the East’s prettiest and liveliest mountain towns, this small city offers great food, drink, and such attractions as the Biltmore Estate, a fine botanical garden, and the childhood home of author Thomas Wolfe.

8. Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center

(milepost 384)

An easy double-whammy with the Folk Art Center, this sustainably built, LEEDS-certified visitor center opened in 2008 and helps you contextualize your journey. Highlights include a 22-foot-long interactive digital map of the Parkway and an award-winning film on the byway’s natural and human history.

The view from Richland Balsam Overlook in North Carolina

The Richland Balsam Overlook is at the high point of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

9. Richland Balsam

(milepost 431)

Pull off at the high point of the Blue Ridge Parkway for a hike up to one of the tallest Appalachian peaks: 6,410-foot Richland Balsam, which crowns the Great Balsam Mountains.

Possible detours/add-on destinations

Carve out a week or 2 so you can add the 2 bookend national parks of the Blue Ridge Parkway to your itinerary. Shenandoah National Park serves up plenty of knockout views from overlooks along Skyline Drive—essentially a northern extension of the Parkway—and from summits such as Old Rag, Stony Man, and Hawksbill mountains. In the south, Great Smoky Mountains National Park includes some of the highest peaks in the East (Clingmans Dome, Mount Guyot, Mount LeConte), remarkable homesteader structures, spectacularly diverse temperate forests, and good viewing opportunities for white-tailed deer, black bears, coyotes, and reintroduced elk.

Another good detour off the Parkway is the short drive on N.C. 128 to Mount Mitchell: at 6,684 feet, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River.

Where to stay

Where to eat

  • The Regency Room (110 Shenandoah Ave., Roanoke, VA): This magnificent dining room in the Hotel Roanoke delivers throwback elegance and classic dishes, and earns a Four Diamond designation from AAA.
  • Highland Brewing Co. (12 Old Charlotte Hwy., Suite 200, Asheville, NC): This pioneer of the Southeast’s craft beer scene offers a regular roster of outdoor live music and is a great introduction to the sudsy side of Asheville, which lays claim to more craft breweries per capita than any other U.S. city.
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