Blue Ridge Parkway
Moses Cone Park, Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Photo by Randy Johnson
Randy Johnson is Travel Editor for the Traveler and the author and photographer for this guide to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Randy has motored the road countless times and hiked many miles carrying his camera on Parkway paths and roadsides. He lives a mile from the Parkway near Boone, NC.
He's the author of bestselling Parkway trail guides Hiking the the Blue Ridge Parkway and Best Easy Day Hikes Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a globally recognized icon of the American landscape.
Stretches of road elsewhere in the United States may indeed be spectacular, but nothing matches this manicured, uniquely uncommercialized, half a thousand mile thoroughfare through the lofty heart of America’s first frontier.
A Parkway vacation—tackling the entire route along the spine of the Southern Appalachians, from the southern end of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina—is the quintessential experience of the Eastern mountains.
The winding, reduced-speed limit road is a relaxed motor trail among the airy ridges and mountaintops of Eastern America’s highest mountains. It’s an Appalachian Trail for cars, a singular experience, a dazzling juncture of earth and sky. The Parkway is a rarity—a road almost continually at the crest—a truly skyline traverse.
You’ll dip down through mist-shrouded trees to suddenly open views unseen only moments before. When everything bursts into shades of green and pink in the spring, one of the world’s most diverse natural environments explodes into bloom. That’s the perfect time to slip Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring symphony into the car stereo system. Summer days at the heights are cool for hiking, picnicking, and camping. And fall brings electric color and awe-inspiring distant views.
There are campgrounds a day’s drive apart, wonderful, wallet-sparing National Park Service lodges—and trails—miles and miles of trails. But don’t let that deter the less active visitor. These trails are special. There are long hikes, but the vast majority are “leg-stretcher” trails designed to lead motorists, even families with children and older travelers, quickly and easily to awesome views.
The road itself took 52 years to complete. As the Parkway reached its 75th anniversary in 2010, the recent completion of major interpretive facilities is capping off the project as a one-of-a-kind route into the rich history of America’s most storied region, a place known for the nation’s most traditional music and wonderful handcrafted works of art.
Add the awe-inspiring scenery of the East’s highest mountains, and no wonder travel writers often call the Blue Ridge Parkway “America’s most scenic road.”
Traveler's Choice for: Hiking, photography, history, motoring
Between Shenandoah National Park, the northern terminus of the Parkway, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the southern terminus, there are dozens of towns and resort regions along the way. Try this north-to-south selection of Parkway-adjacent adventures, destinations, lodging and dining and the high road becomes a portal to the entire Southern Applachians.
This is the land of the “leg-stretcher trail”—paths specifically designed to entice non-hikers off into the woods during a break in their drive. Easy trails tempt families and even the elderly to nearby views that showoff the spectacle of the Southern Appalachians. If you’re more serious than that, you’ll also find some of the East’s toughest trails.
On average, the Parkway’s nine campgrounds offer a chance to set up a tent or park your RV every 43 miles. The 712 tent sites and 337 RV sites range from “lowish” elevations (800 feet at Otter Creek in Virginia), to cool and lofty (five are between 3000 and 4000 feet), to downright way up there (at 5000 feet, Mount Pisgah is just shy of a mile high).
The earliest parkways—among them New York’s Westchester Parkway and the George Washington Memorial Parkway from Washington, DC to Mount Vernon—were built to merge scenery with speed in an early ideal of motoring as both travel and recreation. The Blue Ridge Parkway is the epitome of that idea.
The Blue Ridge Mountains, that first, hazy blue ripple of Appalachian summits encountered when motorists head west from more coastal areas, run from North Carolina to Pennsylvania. The Blue Ridge Parkway straddles that range for almost 500 miles. It also straddles a remarkable slice of human and natural history. Best of all, a batch of Blue Ridge Parkway visitor sites bring that story to life.
There are a wealth of places to stay and eat in countless mountain communities just off the Parkway—but, the Parkway boasts its own distinctive lodging and dining spots. Staying on the high road for accommodations and meals truly enhances that "away from it all" experience.
At almost half a thousand miles in length, from northern Virginia to southwestern North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Parkway is as decentralized a park as can be imagined. Its access points and amenities are similarly distributed over a broad area; so shorter trips are eminently doable and easily targeted to your interests. This is a park experience predicated on driving. Here is a quintessential American motorway that gives cultural meaning to the term “road trip.”