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Hiking on the Blue Ridge Parkway
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.
Here’s a mix of nationally significant Blue Ridge Parkway hikes (from north to south). For more extensive trail coverage, pick up Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway or Best Easy Day Hikes Blue Ridge Parkway by Randy Johnson.
Mountain Farm (Milepost 5.8)
The neatest pioneer farmstead on the Parkway is a great introduction to the subsistence farming of the 1800s on the ridges of the Southern Appalachians. The high point of this amble down an atmospheric lane is the wonderfully convoluted log barn and a gear loft where the family kept their “plunder”—or personal gear.
Humpback Rocks (Milepost 6.0)
A short steep hike from the Blue Ridge Parkway reaches superb panoramic views at Humpback Rocks, a tooth-like crag that surveys the patchwork Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge to the north and south. A longer hike leads to nearby vistas atop Humpback Mountain.
Yankee Horse (Milepost 34.4)
The trail from Yankee Horse Overlook ambles a short distance from the Parkway to two attractions, an old logging railroad grade and Wigwam Falls. Despite the forests that envelope the Parkway, wilderness declined a century ago during massive timber harvesting often accomplished by railroad. Stroll the rails here and when the tracks end and give way to woods, you’ll learn how to recognize when a trail follows an old railroad line.
Trail of Trees (Milepost 63.6)
The moderate .5-mile trail wanders the banks of the mighty James River as it forces its way through the Blue Ridge in a distinctive “water gap” formation. You’ll learn all about the trail’s trees.
Sharp Top (Milepost 85.9)
From the Peaks of Otter camp store, you can take the concession bus to the mountain’s boulder-capped summit—or hike. The strenuous, 1.5-mile trail (3-miles roundtrip) passes the Buzzard’s Roost rock formation and offers eye-popping views from the spectacularly conical peak. This is a great family adventure.
Lake Abbott (Milepost 85.6)
From Peaks of Otter Lodge, wander the 1-mile shore of spectacular Abbott Lake, named after the chief landscape architect who designed the Parkway. There are awesome views of Sharp Top and a side trail reaches Polly Wood’s Ordinary, an early inn on the route across the Blue Ridge between Bedford and Buchanan, Virginia.
Rocky Knob (Milepost 168)
From Saddle Overlook, take the short walk to the summit of Rocky Knob or make the easy 1.1-mile mile loop over the peak. Views peer impressively into Rock Castle Gorge, a once thriving farm community now growing up in forest. Pause at the rustic old trail shelter: one of the first built on the Appalachian Trail. Yes, this was once the AT until Parkway construction destroyed the trail. The road forced the path’s relocation farther west and left the shelter here.
Mountain Industry Trail at Mabry Mill (Milepost 176.2)
This highly developed and popular paved path (with wheelchair access) explores a virtual mountain community. Mabry Mill, probably the Parkway’s single most photographed site, is surrounded by historic structures and informative exhibits about the early Appalachian economy. On this easy half-mile trail, notice the elaborate Rube Goldberg aqueducts that supplement the mill’s meager main stream.
Fodder Stack (Milepost 241.1)
Start just past Bluffs Lodge on the broad bluff that juts out into the void of Basin Cove. Peer over at Caudill Cabin, then hike the 1-mile trail out to Fodder Stack for a great view.
Caudill Cabin (Milepost 248)
Martin’s Caudill’s 100-plus-year-old cabin is Doughton Park’s most isolated spot It’s a great but lengthy day hike and an easy backpacking trip. Exit the Parkway at milepost 248 and go east down hill on NC 18. About six miles from the Parkway, turn left on NC 1728. At four miles, turn left again onto NC 1730, the gravel Longbottom Road. Three miles from that turn, park on the right at a bridge across Basin Creek. The Grassy Gap Fire Road begins on the left. Hike 1.7 miles up the trail and turn right at the backcountry campsite (great base camp/permit required). Follow the Basin Creek Trail 3.3 miles to the cabin. It’s 5 miles in and 10 miles roundtrip as a day hike.
Cascades (Milepost 271.9)
Take this 1-mile interpretive loop to study local plants, then watch as Falls Creek leaps off the edge of the Blue Ridge. Extend the hike by starting at Tompkins Knob Overlook, Milepost 272.5. Take the trail from there to stroll by Jesse Brown Cabin and Cool Springs Baptist Church, then reach the Cascades parking area at .7 mile. Continue on to the Cascades and back to your car for a 2.4-mile hike.
Trout Lake/ Bass Lake, Moses Cone Park (Milepost 294.6)
To circle two great ponds, exit the Parkway at US 221. For Trout Lake, turn right on Shull’s Mill Road a short distance to park and hike around tiny, hemlock forested Trout Lake. Or go left on US 221, and in 1 mile turn left into the Bass Lake Trail, a wonderfully scenic, 1-mile lake loop with views up to Cone Manor House
Price Lake Trail (Milepost 297.2)
This great lakeside loop borders the Parkway’s largest body of water. The 2.5-mile moderate hike leaves the Boone Fork Overlook past the canoe rental and wanders the lakeshore. Parents of toddlers (and the wheelchair-bound) take note—the first half-mile is easy with bridges and boardwalks and great stream- and lakeside fishing spots.
Grandfather Mountain's Rough Ridge (Milepost 302.8)
This area of alpine-like vegetation offers a stupendous view of 5,000 vertical feet from Grandfather Mountain’s peaks towering above to flatland North Carolina far below. Boardwalk views are a mere .3 mile from the parking area, and the alpine-like summit is a 1.2 mile round-trip. If the peaks farther above tempt you, be sure to visit Grandfather Mountain State Park and the adjacent non-profit attraction where a road leads to the famous Mile-High Swinging Bridge. Also see the Side Trip section.
Linville Falls (Milepost 316.4)
Easy rambles here range from various views of the falls to a more strenuous dip to the base of the cataract at the head of the Linville Gorge.
Crabtree Falls (Milepost 339.5)
Perfect spring day hike after rain—the cataract is a classic, dancing, fan of foam. A Parkway snack bar and campground are near the trailhead. The 2.5-mile loop is moderately strenuous.
Mount Mitchell (Milepost 355.3)
The Balsam Nature Trail is an easy summit stroll that passes the highest spring in Eastern America. For a majestic hike that avoids the development on top of the mountain, take the Black Mountain Crest Trail from the picnic shelters at the end of the parking lot and hike the 1 rugged mile to Mount Craig, 6,645 feet. The roundtrip is just 2 miles and the high mountain atmosphere is inspiring.
Craggy Gardens (Milepost 364.5)
A rhododendron tunnel of a trail leads from the visitor center to Craggy Gardens Picnic Area .8- mile away, (where you can also start by turning off the Parkway at Milepost 367.6 at Bee Tree Gap). Midway on the trail are great views from the grassy summit of Craggy Gardens with its CCC-built picnic shelter.
Mount Pisgah (Milepost 407.6)
This heart-pumping climb is a peak experience from the conical summit of one of Western North Carolina’s landmark mountains. The 2.6-mile roundtrip offers a fine vista of Cold Mountain, the summit made famous in Charles Frazier’s National Book Award winning 1997 book (a great read before a Parkway tour).
Waterrock Knob (Milepost 451.2)
In a 1.2 mile roundtrip, the Waterrock Knob Trail climbs from a small visitor center on a steep paved path to developed viewpoint, then continues on a rockier tread to the wilder summit of Waterrock Knob, 6,292 feet.
Richland Balsam (Milepost 431)
Numbered posts on this 1.4-mile, moderate path are keyed to an interpretive brochure that describes the changing composition of a lofty spruce/fir forest at 6,410 feet—the highest elevation reached by a Parkway trail.
Backpack camping is only available in three locations on the Parkway and all require a permit. All are easy to reach and make great family backpack trips. Keep in mind that the Applachian Trail also parallels the northern part of the Parkway in Virginia where backpack camping is permitted at sites just off Parkway property.
Rocky Knob (Milepost 165.3)
This is a perfect family backpacking trip. The site of Rocky Knob’s old Civilian Conservation Corps camp is now a backcountry campground just .3 mile from the trailhead on the Rock Castle Gorge Trail. There’s a privy, plentiful campsites, all with grills, and many with benches. Just 1.2 miles past the campsite is the Austin house, an abandoned 1916 home, one of many that once formed a backwoods community in this isolated valley. Get a free camping permit at the Rocky Knob contact station (Milepost 169) and visit the Parkway’s brochure page for a Rocky Knob hiking map. 540-745-9661
Doughton Park (Milepost 248)
Doughton Park’s backcountry enclave includes an easy backpacking opportunity with great surrounding day hikes. The Grassy Gap Fire Road is an easy walk of 1.7 miles to the backcountry campsite (great base camp/permit required/see “Caudill Cabin” above for detailed directions). There are 8 widely spaced sites with grills and a vault toilet. From the site, it’s 3.3 miles to Caudill Cabin, one of the park’s least visited spots. Visit the Parkway’s brochure page for a Doughton Park hiking map. 336-372-8568
Julian Price Park (Milepost 296.1)
There’s a single hike-in site at Julian Price Park; 828-963-5911. Visit the Parkway’s brochure page for a Price Park hiking map.