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COVID-19 has changed the world. The tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit areas of the global pandemic. Local restaurants, museums, state and national parks have all changed hours of operation, procedures, and some have gone out of business altogether.
Please verify current operations of any places you want to visit mentioned in these articles, and contact me if a business has permanently closed so I can update the article. Thank you and stay safe out there!
The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the most beautiful drives in America. It also happens to be my favorite drive in the country. But with hundreds of scenic overlooks, miles of hiking trails, and dozens of attractions, what should you be sure to see? These are the 15 places you must visit on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s a good start.
1. Humpback Rocks Visitor Center at Milepost 5.8
Just a few miles from the Northern Entrance to the Parkway in Waynesboro, the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center is a great start to your journey. The small visitor center has a nice gift shop and information desk where you can collect your National Park Passport Stamp, pick up a map to the Parkway, and get some information.
The Outdoor Farm Museum is beside the visitor center along a short, paved trail. The exhibit includes a very nice log home to tour and a few examples of farm life in the Appalachian Mountains.
At the Humpback Gap Overlook at Milepost 6 you can access the Humpback Rocks Trail. The 7.8-mile roundtrip hike includes Humpback Rocks, Humpback Mountain, and the Humpback Rocks Picnic Area. A popular day hike is the 2-mile roundtrip hike to Humpback Rock that includes a strenuous 700’ climb to a breathtaking view.
2. James River Visitor Center at Milepost 63.7
The next visitor center on the Parkway also happens to be another cool place to visit and stretch your legs. At just 650 feet above sea level the bridge crossing the James River is the lowest point on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway. The small visitor center has restrooms and information desk open during normal business hours.
There are three trails to hike at the James River Visitor Center. The Trail of Trees Trail is an easy 0.4-mile loop trail from the visitor center. The 0.4-mile Canal Lock Trail includes a rather cool walk along a pedestrian path beneath the highway bridge over the James River. On the other side of the river the trail leads to the restored Battery Creek Lock.
The final hiking trail is more strenuous but also more exciting. The 7-mile roundtrip Otter Creek Trail ascends from the visitor center to Otter Lake and then along Otter Creek to the campground. The best hiking option is just a 1.5-mile roundtrip hike from the visitor center to the end of Otter Lake where you’ll find a nice waterfall at the dam.
3. Apple Orchard Mountain at Milepost 76.5
At 3,950 feet above sea level the Apple Orchard Mountain Overlook is the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. This is ironic considering that just lowest point on the Parkway is just 13 miles north at the James River Visitor Center.
Admittedly there isn’t much to do at the Apple Orchard Mountain Overlook other than read the info on a large board and admire the view across the landscape. The summit of Apple Orchard Mountain is the property of a US Navy radar station, although it is possible to hike there via the Appalachian Trail. You can park at the Sunset Field Overlook at Milepost 78.4 to access the Appalachian Trail for the hike.
4. Peaks of Otter at Milepost 86
There is so much to do at the Peaks of Otter it’s no wonder it is one of the most popular Blue Ridge Parkway destinations in Virginia.
The Peaks of Otter Lodge is a wonderful place to spend a night or two. The lodge is located on the edge of Abbott Lake and features a grand view of Sharp Top Mountain. The lodge includes 63 rooms all with a view of the lake.
The Lake View Restaurant is a popular dining destination for locals and guests alike. The full service restaurant features delicious meals throughout the day with stunning views of the lake and mountain.
The Peaks of Otter Campground is located on the opposite side of the lake from the lodge. The campground has 141 sites with 53 of them designed for RVs and campers. A large picnic area nearby also gives you place to enjoy a quick meal.
There are several trails to enjoy at the Peaks of Otter. The easiest is the 1-mile Abbott Lake Loop Trail that provides amazing views around the lake. The 1.8-mile Johnson Farm Loop Trail takes visitors to the historic Johnson Farm to see what life on a farm was like in the late 1800’s. The 3.3-mile Harkening Hill Trail is a moderately strenuous hike across a ridge to a beautiful viewing area at Balance Rock. The 1.5-mile Sharp Top Trail is a strenuous route that challenges even the best of hikers as it ascends the side of Sharp Top Mountain to a stunning 360-degree overlook at the summit. Adventurous hikers can also tackle the 4.4-mile Flat Top Trail as it winds through a beautiful area back to the Fallingwater Cascades Parking Area.
Just a quarter mile down the Parkway from the lodge is the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center. This small building has lots of information about destinations on the Parkway and restrooms for those needing a quick pit stop. The gift shop sells books, clothing, and souvenirs.
5. Virginia’s Explore Park at Milepost 115
Although not owned or operated by the National Park Service, I have found Virginia’s Explore Park in Roanoke to be an amazing destination to visit on any trip down the Parkway.
At the heart of Explore Park is an official Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center. This visitor center has a 3D map of the Parkway that I always spend a few minutes admiring like a school kid. The visitor center also has a very nice gift shop and information desk for both the Parkway and surrounding area of Roanoke.
Explore Park offers a growing list of outdoor recreation options like horseback riding, mountain biking, kayaking, and camping. One of my favorite things to do is some hiking. The 0.17-mile Journeys End Trail leads to a hidden frontier settlement with over a dozen log homes, buildings, and a grist mill.
One of the coolest additions to the park in the last couple of years has been the pod cabins, yurts, and glamping tents. Along with primitive tent sites and RV sites there are plenty of ways to spend a night at Explore Park.
6. Mabry Mill at Milepost 176.1
The Mabry Mill is perhaps the most iconic destination on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway. Within site of the parkway as you drive past it is a popular place on weekends during the peak of fall colors. The large parking area is often full but fortunately there is an overflow just behind the restaurant.
Mabry Mill is so much more than just the mill and pond, though. A short trail leads up a set of stairs and across the aqueduct that feeds water to the wheel. It then winds through and around several smaller buildings, an old wagon, and past a still in the forest. Sometimes on autumn weekends the mill will be open so you can peak inside.
The gift shop at the main parking lot has just about anything you could want that features the iconic mill: postcards, photos, clothing, mugs, calendars, and so much more.
The Mabry Mill Restaurant is open Monday-Thursday 7:30a.m.-5p.m. and Friday-Sunday 7:30a.m.-6p.m. Stop in for some wonderful country cooking in a comfortable atmosphere. The wait can get a little long during the peak foliage but it’s worth the wait.
7. Blue Ridge Music Center at Milepost 213
Located near Galax, Virginia, the Blue Ridge Music Center is a part of the music heritage-oriented Crooked Road. The visitor center includes a very nice museum exploring that heritage of the surrounding area.
The biggest attraction to the Blue Ridge Music Center is the outdoor concert venue. Throughout much of the year (excluding the winter months) Saturday evenings are filled with music from bands playing all night long.
8. Moses H. Cone Memorial Park at Milepost 294
This park has so much more to offer than you would know at first glance. The biggest attraction is the Parkway Craft Center located at Milepost 294. The craft center is located inside the historic Flat Top Manor, also known as The Cone Manor after the builder. On weekends a guided tour is often given of the upper floor by park rangers. The gift shop features the artwork of local artisans.
From the front porch of the manor you can see across the property to Bass Lake. Trails wind across the property, around the lake, and summit Rich Mountain behind the manor house. A lot of these trails also allow horseback riding with stables nearby.
The 5.2-mile roundtrip hike to Rich Mountain is a strenuous adventure with a pretty nice view from the top. The longer 6.8-mile roundtrip hike to Flat Top Tower is a bit more strenuous but is one of the most popular hikes in the area.
An easy hike is the 0.8-mile Bass Lake Loop Trail. Visitors can walk down a connecting 2.5-mile trail from the Parkway Craft Center or drive down to a parking area beside the lake.
9. Linn Cove Viaduct at Milepost 304
The curving bridge hanging off the side of a mountain is one of the most iconic views of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The viaduct is more than just a unique, curvy bridge, though. The visitor center has a nice gift shop and small museum with a video and scale model showing the construction of the bridge. There are restrooms as well.
But one of the neatest things about this stop is the Tanawha Trail. At the far end of the parking lot a trail leads underneath viaduct before zigzagging to an elevation above the bridge. The trail connects Julian Price Memorial Park with the Stack Rock Overlook for an exciting hike, but the portion under the viaduct is only about two miles roundtrip.
10. Linville Falls at Milepost 316
Linville Falls is one of my favorite places to visit on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This spectacular waterfall has several ways to enjoy a day hike and there is even a hidden waterfall most don’t know about.
The small visitor center has an equally small gift shop. There are restrooms available at the trailhead before you head out. Visitors can hike the 4-mile roundtrip Linville Falls Trail to three different overlooks for views of the waterfall. For a little more adventure the strenuous 2.4-mile roundtrip Plunge Basin Trail leads to the bottom of the waterfall.
At the far end of the parking lot at the visitor center is a short 0.2-mile trail leading to the hidden Dugger’s Creek Falls, a small waterfall wedged in a narrow rocky ravine about 6’ tall.
If one day is just not enough to hike all the trails there is the Linville Falls Campground. It’s the smallest campground on the Parkway but still offers 50 tent sites and 20 RV sites. The campground is located along the river above the waterfall.
11. Mt. Mitchell State Park at Milepost 355.4
At 6,684 feet above sea level Mt. Mitchell is the highest point east of the Mississippi River. It’s part of a chain of mountains called the Southern Sixers, peaks above 6,000’ elevation in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
Mt. Mitchell State Park is built around the summit of the mountain. It is the only state park exclusively accessible via the Blue Ridge Parkway. The end of the road at the top includes a visitor center, gift shop, museum, restrooms, and a concession stand.
The view from the parking lot is pretty awesome but if you want to reach the summit you’ll have to take a little hike. The 0.3-mile roundtrip trail to the summit is a little steep but it’s paved all the way. At the top is a large round observation deck with uninterrupted views in all directions.
The state park also includes a restaurant with a view of the mountain summit through large picture windows. The food is pretty good, but I have to admit I’ve only tried it once. The meat loaf and fried apples were amazing.
There is a small campground with just 9 tent sites, but no room for RVs. There are also plenty of backcountry campsites on the surrounding trails. One of those trails is the Black Mountain Crest Trail. This trail follows the crest of the mountain range so it’s a pretty easy hike.
12. Craggy Gardens at Milepost 364.4
Craggy Gardens is one of the most popular destinations from Asheville and is a beautiful place for a hike almost year-round. Come in the late spring or early summer to catch the rhododendron in full bloom across the mountain peaks of the gardens.
Park at Craggy Pinnacle and enjoy a moderate hike to the summit for a breathtaking views in all directions. If you’re not up for the hike you can always park at the visitor center for a pretty good view into a valley. The visitor center has a small gift shop and restrooms beneath (these restrooms are not handicap accessible).
A final way to enjoy Craggy Gardens is to take the easy hike up to Craggy Knob. It only takes about 15-20 minutes to reach the bald mountain top where you can look back and see Craggy Pinnacle and Craggy Dome in the distance.
13. Mount Pisgah at Milepost 408.6
Mount Pisgah is one of the most beautiful and active areas of the Blue Ridge Parkway to explore. The lodge, campground, restaurant, and scenic overlooks combine for a chance to see and do it all with a few nights’ stay. The high elevation of around 5,000′ means the fall colors will arrive early here so be prepared.
The Pisgah Inn was built in 1964 but the building has withstood the test of time, and elements, and remains a gorgeous place to spend some time. The lack of air conditioning in the rooms is a testament to the fact it rarely gets hot at this elevation even in the middle of summer. All of the rooms include a private porch or balcony with a secluded view of the gorgeous mountain landscapes.
The inn includes a dining room that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day of the week during the open season. Open to guests and visitors alike the dining room offers a stunning view to go along with a great meal.
Located right beside the Parkway is the Gift Shop and Country Store. This store has staples like food, snacks, drinks, and ice as well as locally made arts & crafts.
The campground is across the Parkway from the inn and includes 70 tent sites and 67 RV sites. It’s the highest campground on the entire Parkway and offers some of the most breathtaking views and seclusion. Parts of the campground can be reserved online but most of it is first come, first served.
A nearby picnic area gives you a place to spread out a blanket on those warm autumn days and enjoy a meal outside. Almost across the Parkway at Milepost 407.6 is the entrance to the Mount Pisgah Overlook and Buck Springs Lodge Overlook. The Mount Pisgah Overlook is atop a tunnel on the Parkway and includes a trail leading to the summit of the mountain. The Buck Springs Lodge overlook faces the opposite direction and includes a short half-mile trail to the former site of a hunting retreat for Vanderbilt.
14. Richland Balsam Overlook at Milepost 431.4
At 6,053′ above sea level the Richland Balsam Overlook is the highest point on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway. A lone sign in a large parking area marks the significance and offers a chance for a selfie. But the view here won’t be the best during the fall colors for one simple reason: there aren’t many deciduous trees at this elevation. Most of the trees are evergreens so at least you’ll have that nice vibrant green contrasting the starkness of autumn.
The parking area has a fairly nice view, but it’s limited by the growth of trees at the edge of the overlook. Nearby Cowee Mountain Overlook actually has a much better view (and it’s my favorite overlook on the Parkway).
Adventurous hikers can take the 1.5-mile loop trail to the summit of Richland Balsam. The very top of the mountain stands at 6,410′ so it’s a steep climb, but then you get to say you’ve been higher than almost everyone else on the Parkway.
15. Waterrock Knob at Milepost 451.2
Waterrock Knob has beautiful views in all directions along with a short hiking trail and a visitor center. It’s definitely a great place to visit while the fall colors are peaking and works any time of day. Come early for a stunning sunrise or stay late for a sunset, either way you’ll be amazed.
The visitor center will have someone to answer questions and a small gift shop with souvenirs and clothing. The restroom facilities are pretty nice considering how remote this overlook is on the Parkway.
The parking area has great views in all directions. It’s a wide parking area with a grassy area in the middle and picnic tables around the edge. During the peak of fall colors the parking area will fill up early with locals who come up just to see the stunning colors fade across the sky.
The Waterrock Knob Trail is a 1.2-mile roundtrip hike to the summit of the mountain. It’s a steep climb of just over 400′ in elevation but the views are worth the effort. The first 1/4-mile of the trail is paved leading to a small overlook just above the parking area. The very top has a stunning view of the local landscape, but it’s not an uninterrupted view.