The Blue Ridge Parkway is an All-American Road famous for its colorful views of mountain ridges, lush valleys, and the curvy road ahead, from Virginia to North Carolina. Did you know it’s also America’s longest linear park?
Overview: Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway stretches for 469 miles (755 km) from the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.
The road follows the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are part of the Appalachian Mountains. It reaches its highest point (6,053 feet) is south of Waynesville, near Mount Pisgah in North Carolina. The lowest point (649 feet) happens along the James River in Virginia. If by Rocky Mountains standard, the Blue Ridge Mountains don’t seem very high, one can still be impressed by the difference of elevation along the drive.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is not only a U.S. National Scenic Byway, but also one of only 31 All-American Roads, which are defined by being exceptionally unique and worthy destinations in and of themselves.
But it’s much more than just a road. It’s also a park – managed by the National Park Service, which owns the land directly adjacent to the road. Like the High Line in New York City, it’s considered a linear park since it is much longer than it is wide.
The project of building the scenic byway was started in 1935 – and completed in 1966, except for the Linn Cove Viaduct, which finally opened in 1987. Since the 1940s, the Blue Ridge Parkway has been the most visited “unit” of the National Park Service. Maybe not surprising, since its south-west end leads right into America’s most popular national park: Great Smoky Mountains NP.
Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor FAQs and Tips
You don’t have to pay a fee to drive on the parkway. And in theory, the parkway is open year-round. However, due to changing weather conditions from fall to spring, sections of the road may be closed. So check the real-time road open/close status for the Blue Ridge Parkway before you head out. The National Park Service for Blue Ridge Parkway also has a phone number: (828) 348-3400
Almost all of the visitor centers, campgrounds, concession facilities, and picnic areas are only open from April/May to November. The Asheville Visitor Center, at mile 385.5, is open daily from 9 to 5.
People flock to the Blue Ridge Parkway in autumn to see the leaves change and take in the stunning views of fall foliage and the Appalachian Mountains in their autumn colors.
However, if you’d like to avoid the crowds and still want to see a variety of colors and even weather, we recommend a trip down the Blue Ridge Parkway in springtime. Looking into a valley, you’ll be astonished to see signs of all seasons displayed along the different altitudes.
Access Points to the Blue Ridge Parkway
Besides accessing the scenic byway from its starting and end-points at the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks, you can join and leave via many major highways. Directions to the parkway can be found from interstates 26 and 40 in North Carolina and 64, 81, and 77 in Virginia – from the towns Asheville and Boone, North Carolina, and Roanoke, Virginia.
GPS is does not work well in all areas of the Blue Ridge Mountains. That’s why all points of interests and addresses along the parkway are listed by mile markers. Those mile markers can be found along the road – they’re charmingly old school posts close to the ground. Make sure you print out the official milepost-referenced NPS Blue Ridge Parkway map, or pick one up at one of the visitors centers. And here is a comprehensive list of places sorted by mileposts.
Things To Do And See Along The Blue Ridge Parkway
There’s more to do along the Blue Ridge Parkway than just drive… or ride a bike, if you’re so inclined. First of all, there are so many scenic stops with pull-outs and helpful signs letting you know what you’re looking at and “how high you are”. Stop. Look. Appreciate. Take a photo… or a video… or make a sketch… even if the view just disappeared into a cloud.
Next, there are hiking trails to be found at a lot of the stops along the highway. Some trails go up to a summit, e.g. Craggy Pinnacle Summit or Mount Pisgah. Other trails connect parking lots and picnic areas. You can even hike part of the North Carolina Mountains-To-Sea Trail, which leads from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean.
There are several notable mountain peaks worth visiting along the Blue Ridge. Mount Mitchell (6,684 feet / 2,037 m) is the highest U.S. mountain peak east of the Mississippi. Grandfather Mountain (5,946 feet / 1,812 m) is famous for its swinging bridge. Mount Pisgah (5,722 feet / 1,744 m) used to be home to George Vanderbilt’s hunting cabin and now features a restaurant.
Last but not least, you can go fishing in along the mountains. There are over a hundred miles of streams and thirteen artificial lakes full of native and stocked fish, like trout, bluegill and bass. Blue Ridge Outdoors recommends 10 Fly Fishing Holes.
Other Nearby Attractions
As mentioned above, at both ends of the Blue Ridge Parkway, you will find a U.S. National Park. At Mile 0, you can explore the Shenandoah National Park (Virginia), and Mile 469 is at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina).
The charming and always hip town of Asheville, North Carolina, is an excellent starting point or home base for Blue Ridge excursions. There’s so much to love about this cultural mecca in the mountains: the food (e.g., Laughing Seed, Tupelo Honey, French Broad Chocolate Lounge), the beer (e.g., New Belgium, Wicked Weed Brewing), the music (e.g., at Orange Peel or Asheville Music Hall), that book store (Malaprop’s) and all the friendly and interesting people from town or afar.
Around the Asheville area, but a little further from the actual parkway you will find more natural attractions, like the “Land of Waterfalls” in Transylvania County, the Dupont State Forest, and Chimney Rock with its picturesque views. We haven’t explored the Virginia side yet – so we don’t dare to make any recommendations up there… yet.
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All photos in this post were taken by Luci during spring 2019. By clicking on most images, you can see a larger version (and even purchase a photo). You can see more of our North Carolina photos on Luci’s photography website.
Let’s Inspire Each Other
Have you been on the Blue Ridge Parkway? Which was your favorite part – or nearby attraction? Which other scenic byways, roads, or linear parks would you recommend?
Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.