Trails I've Hiked: Awesome Hiking Along The Blue Ridge Parkway

MacRae Peak. Randy Johnson photo

It's a long way down from Grandfather Mountain's MacRae Peak. The ridge of the Black Mountains, including Mount Mitchell, beckons Parkway motorists across a sea of clouds. Photo by Randy Johnson

Editor's Note: With Spring not far off, at least along the East Coast, it's not too early to think about hiking in the national park system. Author Randy Johnson, whose guidebooks include "Hiking The Blue Ridge Parkway," shares some of his favorite hikes along the Parkway.

When President Roosevelt lent his support to creation of the Blue Ridge Parkway—75 years ago in 2010—he envisioned the half-a-thousand mile ridge-top route between Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains as the East’s premier national park experience.

There’s no better way to assess his success than to follow the entire Parkway on a week of wandering through the heart of America’s first frontier.

It’s a great way to immerse yourself in refreshing blue views and cool breezes far above the lowland summer heat. Indeed, for travelers who haven’t found their way into the middle of this vast rippled realm, it’s a shock to encounter nearly 7,000-foot summits clothed in whispering evergreens and topped by grassy, meadow-covered summits.

But there are more than views and sweater-weather evenings. It’s a memorable encounter with the traditional culture so movingly depicted in recent best-selling fiction such as Robert Morgan’s Gap Creek and Charles Frazier’s National Book Award-winning Cold Mountain (the Parkway actually passes the peak). And it’s a chance to hear the traditional music so eagerly embraced by the public in the recent Grammy-winning sound track to the film “Oh Brother Where Art Thou.” Just before you slip from Virginia to North Carolina, the Parkway’s Blue Ridge Music Center has a museum and a performance stage for stirring weekly concerts.

Best of all, the Parkway isn’t just a “through-the-windshield” experience. The Parkway has a remarkable “leg-stretcher” trail philosophy—many scenic overlooks have easy, short trails that tempt even the sedentary to spectacular views. And the ambitious have the East’s highest mountains as their playground. You’ll make the most of America’s high road to adventure if you get out of the car at the following memorable, but not necessarily well-known, Parkway area trails. From north to south, try—

Humpback Rocks

If you’re up for a stiff hike, here’s a high point of the Parkway just 6 miles from the road’s start at I-64 in Virginia. The craggy pyramid of Humpback Rocks juts above a rounded green ridge with stunning views in all directions—the patchwork of the Shenandoah Valley to the west, the piedmont to the east. The 1-mile, graveled trail has resting benches but expect to exert yourself. The view is worth the effort–take a drink and snack to celebrate.

If you want easy, don’t miss the half-mile Mountain Farm Trail with its cabin, rustic barn, springhouse and insights into pioneer life (Milepost 5.8). The Greenstone Overlook (Milepost 8.8) nicely follows up with stone “hog walls” visible below the overlook parking and on the trail. Here’s where mountaineers penned hogs after letting them wander for months becoming free-range delicacies. Best easy view nearby is the Catoctin Trail in the Humpback Rocks Picnic area (milepost 8.5).

Yankee Horse Overlook

This 0.2-mile stroll to cascading Wigwam Falls (Milepost 34.4) has more than nice scenery. It will change the way you look at trails wherever you hike in the Eastern United States. The path explores a reconstructed section of the narrow gauge railroads that climbed into the most impassable places and carried away Appalachia’s virgin timber in the early 20th century.

Pass the first turn to the falls and follow the actual grade of the Irish Creek Railway as the rails end, the ties stop, then the grade itself softens, and the woods encroach. Many trails use portions of grades like this. Most hikers assume they’re old farm or auto roads, but many are railroad grades, and now you may be better able to recognize them.

Otter Creek Trail

The Otter Creek Trail is a 3.4-mile path that can leave you far from your car, so hike the first half of it and return after looping scenic Otter Lake. Start at the visitor center (Milepost 63.6) where the mighty James breaches the Blue Ridge (a great view of this “water gap” is just past the center on the easy Trail of Trees). From the picnic tables by the river, head left along quiet Otter Creek, backed up into stillness by the lumbering flow of the adjacent James. Soon though, the stream gurgles to life as it rises away from the river with a dancing rush of incoming water.

The trail follows the scenic creek amid atmospheric evidence of early wagon roads, logging railroads, chimneys, and other ruins. The Kanawha Canal, just a half-mile back down Otter Creek on the James, was one of early America’s thriving commercial thoroughfares. At the stair-stepping cascade of Otter Lake dam, circle the lake to the right, past a cabin ruin. Back at the James River Visitor Center, it’s a 2.4-mile circuit.

Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Park

It’s not like looking down on Los Angeles from the Hollywood sign, but Virginia also has a great city view from a mountaintop urban landmark. Take the Mill Mountain Spur Road from Parkway Milepost 120.4, pass the Parkway’s Roanoke Mountain Campground, and go left in 2.5 miles up to Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Park. Pull into the Discovery Center nature museum and take the half-mile paved path to the peak and back for panoramic city views from Roanoke’s huge metal star. After dark, the star is illuminated, so you could just drive to the top and look down on the lights. Campers should consider Roanoke Mountain Campground. The Parkway’s most urban-accessible campsite is so close to town you can be at the historic downtown farmer’s market, or eating sushi in the international food court on Market Square, ten minutes from your tent.

Grandfather Mountain’s Rough Ridge

This final, spectacularly scenic segment of the Parkway was called the “missing link” before it opened in 1987. A computer-designed span, the Linn Cove Viaduct, leaps across the mountainside in the middle of an almost a vertical mile elevation change—the greatest in the Blue Ridge. No one motoring by should fail to hike to the top of Rough Ridge (Milepost 302.8). Just a ten-minute stroll up the trail, awesome views open up from boardwalks intended to protect the alpine scenery. The hike to the top of this ridge and back is a moderate 1.2 miles round trip.

Don’t miss Grandfather Mountain itself. A private road reaches a first-class nature museum, animal habitat exhibits, and the acrophobia-inducing Mile-High Swinging Bridge between two peaks. From there, the classic Grandfather Trail climbs ladders across the mountain’s rugged summit cliffs. Only the experienced should try this trail—but those who do will discover one of the South’s best hikes.

Mount Mitchell

Turn right from the Parkway at Milepost 355 and enter Mount Mitchell State Park, home to eastern America’s highest mountain (6,684 feet). The easy, 0.8-mile Balsam Nature Trail explores the peak (a side trail reaches the summit tower). To get a real feel for this lofty place, start at the other end of the parking lot and hike the Deep Gap Trail out to Mount Craig, 6,645 feet. It’s only a moderately strenuous 2-mile round trip—but from that distance, the Mount Mitchell summit complex shrinks and the mountain you climbed by car gains in stature.

Asheville’s Urban Trail

The 1.7-mile amble along Asheville’s Urban Trail is a surprising introduction to a mountain city that is second only to Miami Beach as the South’s greatest concentration of art deco architecture. With 30 sculptures and exhibits, this “museum without walls” is packed with rich historical insight. Highlights include the Grove Arcade, a classic neo-Gothic city market akin to Seattle’s Pike Place Market or Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal that reopened in 2002.

Urban Trail markers change by district—angels represent the neighborhood of Look Homeward, Angel-author Thomas Wolfe. The book’s setting—his mother’s real life boardinghouse—is here and the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Visitor Center wonderfully interprets the man who literally couldn’t go home again after parodying his hometown’s provinciality. Urban Trail brochures are available all over town. Factor in the great restaurants, craft, and fine art shops along the way, and an afternoon (or longer) on Asheville’s Urban Trail is a highlight of any Parkway trip.

Art Loeb Trail

Just beyond, and far above Asheville, the Parkway soars to its highest elevations on the way to the Great Smokies. The open horizons of the Shining Rock Wilderness will command your attention. At Milepost 420.2, turn right on Forest Service Road 816 and park on the right in 0.8 mile where the Art Loeb Trail climbs to meadow-covered summits reminiscent of Scotland. Take the 0.4-mile stroll to the waving grasses atop Black Balsam Knob (6,214 feet) and back. From the peak, look west. The conical cap is Cold Mountain. If you peer far down on the peak’s right flank, you can see a tiny farm that just might have inspired author Charles Frazier’s plans for his protagonist to escape the Civil War on the side of this remote mountain. It’s a long, lonely hike to the newly literary landmark. There is no loop hike available. It’s a dead end trail to Cold Mountain—for everyone except author Charles Frazier.

Read that book, or Frazier’s new Thirteen Moons: A Novel, on your Parkway journey, hit the scenic and historic high spots, and you’ll come home with a greater appreciation for how deep America’s cultural roots grow in the verdant, spectacular green mountains of the South.

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Randy Johnson’s books Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway, Best Easy Day Hikes Blue Ridge Parkway, and the new 2nd edition of Hiking North Carolina, all best-selling titles in the FalconGuide series by Globe Pequot Press, feature trails along the Parkway. Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway, which covers all the Parkway trails and paths in other parks all along the route, was called “the definitive guide for Parkway hikers,” by Parkway historian Harley Jolley. You can find details of the books at the author's website.

If You Go—

The Blue Ridge Parkway
199 Hemphill Knob Road
Asheville, NC 28803-8686
(828) 271-4779
(828) 298-0398 (recorded information and mailing requests)

Visit Roanoke
Explore Asheville