Picture the Blue Ridge Parkway as a crooked spine running through the Appalachian Mountains. Government stewardship of public lands is splashed across the map in confusing variety — a national park at either end, national forests, historic sites, monuments and state parks along its 469 miles.
Most of us know it as the road that snakes through some of the most glorious fall color in North America and wraps around some of the highest mountains east of the Mississippi River. All those curves and dips offer up opportunities aplenty for hiking, fishing, picnicking, camping and viewing waterfalls.
Although it is administered by the National Park Service, the parkway is not really a park. Most of its manmade attractions are technically off the parkway in small communities within an easy drive. The attractions are diverse and many and range from wine-tasting to theater, bluegrass music to a train ride.
Here are my recommendations for attractions to see on or near the parkway. My list starts near the southern end, by Great Smoky Mountains National Park near the North Carolina-Tennessee state line, and runs north and east into Virginia and Shenandoah National Park.Ride a train:
Tips for driving the Blue Ridge Parkway
The elevation of the Blue Ridge Parkway varies from 650 feet to over 6,000 feet. The first leaves to change color are those at the highest elevation. If you’re there in early fall, head for the highest elevations. If you’re late, the best color will be at lower elevations. Usually peak season is mid to late October; call the Parkway Information Line (828-298-0398, press option 3) for an update.
Get a good map with mile markers before you go and use it to plan your stops. Most general road atlases don’t show mileage along the parkway. You can download a National Park Service map at www.nps.gov/blri; click on “plan your visit.” Mile markers start at zero at the north end of the parkway; mile marker 469 is near Cherokee, North Carolina. The Virginia-North Carolina state line is at Milepost 216.9.
Lodgings, restaurants and gas stations are scarce on the parkway. You’ll find these amenities in towns near the parkway. Bring snacks, water and maybe a picnic lunch. Keep an eye on your gas gauge.
The going can be slow during peak color season, especially on weekends and near cities. Expect getting from Point A to Point B to take much longer than usual. Parking can be hard to find at popular stops like Moses H. Cone Memorial Park as well as in nearby towns with lunch stops like Blowing Rock. Making last-minute hotel reservations can be difficult. Plan accordingly — and go on a weekday if you can.
Be aware that there may be long stretches of the parkway and nearby — especially at higher elevations — where your cell phone (and its GPS app) won’t get a signal.