Accessing the Blue Ridge Parkway
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.”
Unlike the Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway is free throughout its length. In fact, E.B. Jeffress Park on the North Carolina section of the Parkway honors the NC highway official that lobbied against making it a toll road. Access to visitor centers, picnicking, and other such activities is also free.
A) Getting to the Park
The global appeal of this park is nicely reflected in easy access from major city airports along its length. From north to south, you can fly in, rent a car, drive a ways and return to your arrival airport. A total trip would require arriving and leaving from airports far apart, but that’s possible, and the Parkway is very doable in sections.
Richmond/Charlottesville—Both airports are an easy drive (an hour and a half and 30 minutes, respectively) from the northern Parkway terminus at Interstate 64 and Skyline Drive.
Roanoke—A best kept-secret starting point. This is an easily reached Virginia mountain city with quick access north to the Parkway’s start (via US 29/Interstate 81) and return from Parkway midpoints in Virginia and North Carolina, and even from the Great Smoky Mountains (again via Interstate 81 from the Tennessee side) and I-40/ I-77/ I-81 from the Cherokee area.
Greensboro/ Charlotte/ Asheville—Any of these three airports easily access a multi-day circuit on the southernmost part of the Parkway—and the easy-to-use Piedmont Triad Airport in Greensboro is serviceable for a central Parkway focus as well as for the entire trip (the latter via I-40/ I-77 north to US 29, to reach the northern start/ and from Cherokee, US 441, then US 23/74, to I-40 and on to Greensboro).
Washington, DC: If you start your Parkway experience with Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive (the 469-mile trip becomes almost 600 miles), use either of Washington, DC’s airports. Washington Dulles is closest, or Reagan International (nearer to DC), offer quick connections to Shenandoah at Front Royal via Interstate 66 (and a very long but single-day interstate drive return from NC).
By Bus and by Train:
Let’s be blunt. This all-American park requires owning or renting a car to appreciate the experience. This ain’t Europe—it’s a road trip in the land of the automobile. But, bus service does reach Parkway adjacent towns where vehicles can be rented. Those include Charlottesville, and Roanoke, VA, Boone and Asheville, NC. Amtrak train stations are located in Greenville/Spartanburg, SC, south of Asheville and Cherokee, and in Charlottesville, VA. Amtrak also reaches Richmond, Greensboro, and Charlotte.
High-speed highways flank the Parkway region to the east and west, north and south. It is remarkably easy for people in many parts of the eastern United States to drive quickly to either the north or south terminus of the Parkway, drive the road’s entire length, then get back on the Interstate and quickly head home. See above directions from airports along the length of the road, or see park entrances, below.
B) Park Entrances:
Hundreds of side roads cross the Parkway, so there are almost countless entrances. But there are also major roads that cross the Parkway, some at larger cities or with easy access from nearby interstate highways. These qualify as major entrances because they break up the road into multi-day sections.
From north to south, these are—
From Interstate 64, west of Richmond, or east from I-81 and the towns of Staunton/Waynesboro, VA, take exit 99 atop Rockfish Gap for the northern starting point of the Blue Ridge Parkway. A turn south starts the Parkway; go north to enter Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park. (A start at the northern entrance to Shenandoah, from I-66 near Front Royal, VA, adds 100 miles to the Parkway journey.)
From Roanoke, VA:
From Interstate 81, at exit 143, take I-581/US 220 south to the Parkway at milepost 121.4 (about 5 miles from Roanoke). From the south, it’s about 21 miles on US 220 from Rocky Mount, VA.
From Interstate 77 at Fancy Gap:
Take exit 8 onto US 52 and follow signs to the Blue Ridge Parkway entrance at milepost 199.4. On US 52, Fancy Gap is about 5 miles south of Hillsville, VA and 21 miles north of Mount Airy, NC.
From US 421 at Deep Gap, NC (Boone/Blowing Rock area):
The Parkway’s Deep Gap entrance, at milepost 276.4, is about 42 miles west of Interstate 77 (26 miles from Wilkesboro), and about 10 miles east of Boone. On the Parkway, this entrance is 15.4 miles north of Blowing Rock and the US 321/221 exit at Blowing Rock.
From Interstate 40 at Marion, NC:
Leave I-40 at exit 83 and take US 221 around Marion to Linville Falls, at milepost 317.5, in about 24 miles. Or go left from US 221 onto NC 226 to the area of Little Switzerland at milepost 330.9.
From Asheville, NC:
From Interstate 26 (take exit 6) or from Interstate 40 (take exit 50), reach US 25 and follow signs to the Parkway at Milepost 388.8.
Southern Terminus (Cherokee/ Maggie Valley area):
It’s easy to reach the southernmost part of the Parkway from the Asheville area and points east and south (via I-85 to I-26). Leave I-40 west of Asheville heading south on US 23/74 toward Waynesville area. To join the Parkway via Maggie Valley, take US 19 at exit 106. Four miles beyond Maggie Valley, reach the Parkway at milepost 455.7 (Soco Gap), or stay on US 19 another 12 miles to Cherokee. For Cherokee via the higher speed four-lane, continue on US 23/74 past the Maggie Valley exit, (cross the Parkway, at milepost 443.1), then at exit 81, take US 74 and 441. At exit 74, take US 441 north to Cherokee. From Cherokee, go 2 miles to the Parkway access at milepost 469.1.