The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of America’s natural treasures. Winding 469 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia, the parkway annually welcomes more visitors than any of the other 390 units managed by the National Park Service.
This popularity surprises many people who are often more familiar with heavily-visited and renowned units of the National Park Service such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Canyon national parks. The parkway welcomed over 18 million visitors during 2008, approximately twice the number who visited its better-known neighbor, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which serves as the parkway’s southern terminus. The northern terminus of the parkway is at the southern entrance to Shenandoah National Park.
Travel along the paved and mostly winding two-lane parkway is leisurely and free of commercial vehicles as it wanders through a largely undeveloped stretch of the southern Appalachians. Along the way are frequent visitor centers, a water-powered grist mill, a folk art center, a trading post, pioneer exhibits, and many scenic waysides. The parkway is navigated via mile markers in the form of easily observed short cement posts along the roadside. Mile marker zero is at Rockfish Gap near Waynesboro at the north end of the parkway. Brochures that include a map with mile markers are available at National Park Service visitor centers and commercial establishments along the parkway.
Although numerous towns including Asheville and Boone in North Carolina, and Roanoke and Bedford in Virginia, are a short distance off the parkway, many travelers prefer to spend nights in at least one of the four lodging facilities within the parkway boundaries. Fortunately, the lodges are nicely spaced along the parkway, making them convenient stops for individuals who desire a leisurely drive with plenty of time to enjoy the beautiful scenery and interesting historical exhibits. Of the four lodges, only Peaks of Otter Lodge is open year round. The other three are open from spring through the fall foliage season.
We often find that walk-ins are able to obtain rooms in these four lodges, but availability depends in large part on the season and day of the week. Weekends often bring a full house and October foliage is nearly always a sellout. Try to make reservations early in the spring if you want to book a room during October.
Beginning at the northern end of the parkway and working south, the four lodging units within the park boundaries are:
Peaks of Otter Lodge (mile marker 86)
Eighty-six miles south of the north entrance, Peaks of Otter Lodge offers sixty-three rooms in four attractive wood-and-cement buildings constructed in the mid-1960s. The two-story buildings sit on the grassy bank of picturesque Abbott Lake, and each guest room enjoys a balcony or patio that offers an excellent view of this small scenic lake. A one-mile paved walking trail circles the lake and daily bus trips (fee charged) to the top of Sharp Top Mountain leave hourly from a nearby camp store. The country-style dining room has a vaulted, beamed ceiling and large windows that overlook the lake. A Friday night seafood buffet and Sunday country buffet draw locals from nearby towns including Bedford and Roanoke. Rates: Approximately $115; higher on weekends and in October. Phone 800-542-5927 or 540-586-1081.
Rocky Knob Cabins (mile marker 174)
Smallest of all the nearly 100 national park lodging facilities, Rocky Knob Cabins offers a total of seven cabins in five rustic wooden buildings. Two of the five buildings are constructed as duplex units, only one of which (the handicap unit) has a private bathroom. Guests in the other cabins must use a nearby central bathhouse. Rocky Knob Cabins is in a remote heavily wooded setting that allows guests quiet, privacy, and the atmosphere of the Appalachians. Each cabin includes a kitchen with a table and four chairs, a full-size refrigerator, a two-burner stove top, and a sink with cold water only. Pots, pans, dishes, a coffeemaker, and utensils are provided. Although no restaurant or other food service is at the cabins, famous Mabry Mill offers meals including buckwheat pancakes, country ham, and Virginia barbecue two miles south on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Rates: Approximately $65 to $69 with a discount for stays of two or more nights. Phone 540-593-3503.
Bluffs Lodge (mile marker 241)
A small and quiet facility that opened in 1949, Bluffs Lodge is comprised of two connected buildings, each with twelve rooms. The buildings sit on a grassy hillside overlooking a meadow and surrounding hills. A rock patio between the buildings has a large outdoor stone fireplace and serves as an inviting place for afternoon and evening chats with other guests. The rooms are clean and comfortable although not particularly spacious. One of the great pleasures of staying at Bluffs Lodge is the nearby coffee shop that is seemly unchanged since its 1949 opening. Our waitress had worked in the coffee shop fifty-seven years. Rates: $85 to $105. Phone 336-372-4499.
Pisgah Inn (mile marker 408)
Pisgah Inn offers fifty-one rooms in three wood and masonry two-story buildings constructed in the mid-1960s. Each room has a private balcony or patio, and, at 5,000 feet, excellent mountain views and cool temperatures. The restaurant, with vaulted ceiling and ceiling-high windows on three walls, offers diners great views and serves the best food on the parkway. One evening we enjoyed a delicious meal of walnut crusted trout with raspberry sauce. National Park Service rangers present evening programs at a campground across the road. Rates: $93 to $113. Phone 828-235-8228.
David and Kay Scott live in Valdosta, Georgia, and are the authors of The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Globe Pequot). For additional information about national park lodges, visit their website.