Road Trip #10

Road Trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway: Blowing Rock to Asheville, NC

The most active section of the Blue Ridge Parkway includes the iconic Linn Cove Viaduct, Linville Falls, Mt. Mitchell, and Craggy Gardens.

Written by

Jason Barnette


April 19, 2019

Grandfather Mountain, Linville Falls, Craggy Gardens, this section of the Blue Ridge Parkway is the most active and that is exactly why it is my favorite. This road trip on the almost 100 mile route between Blowing Rock and Asheville features the highest point in the east, beautiful waterfalls, rigorous hiking trails, and beautiful scenery.

This is Section 5 of the Road Trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile drive from Waynesboro, Virginia to Cherokee, North Carolina. Follow the link to learn more about the other sections.

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Section 5: Blowing Rock, NC to Asheville, NC

96.7 miles

1. Highway 321/221 at Milepost 292.1

From this interchange onto Highway 321/221 it is 7 miles to Boone and 4 miles to Blowing Rock.

2. Moses H. Cone Memorial Park at Milepost 294

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The biggest attraction at Moses H. Cone Memorial Park is the Parkway Craft Center. The craft center is located inside the historic Cone Manor, also called Flat Top Manor. Inside you’ll find a visitor center, lots of arts and crafts from local artisans, and they have just started doing guided tours of the upper floor again. From the covered front porch of the Parkway Craft Center you can see Bass Lake far below. Trails wind across the property, both for hiking and horseback riding. It’s a great place to spend some time hiking on cool summer days. The 5.2-mile roundtrip hike to Rich Mountain is a strenuous adventure but with a gorgeous view from the top. The longer 6.8-mile roundtrip hike to Flat Top Tower is more strenuous but still one of the more popular hikes in the area. An easier hike it the 0.8-mile Bass Lake Loop Trail. From the Parkway Craft Center get back onto the Parkway and turn south (left). Exit the Parkway at the next interchange and then turn left onto Highway 221 (Blowing Rock Highway). This could take you back into Blowing Rock, but you won’t go that far; instead, turn left onto a short road leading to a parking area beside Bass Lake.

3. Julian Price Lake Overlook at Milepost 296.7

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This overlook beside Julian Price Lake is one of my favorite places to spend a summer evening on the Blue Ridge Parkway. From the parking lot you get a pretty good view of the lake, but the best view is just a bit down a trail. Walk across the bridge over the dam to a spot in the corner of the lake beside a dense rhododendron forest for a stunning view of Grandfather Mountain across the lake. The 2.7-mile Price Lake Loop Trail is an easy hike and takes about 30-40 minutes to finish. If you don’t want to hike it all I would suggest doing the section between the dam and Laurel Creek opposite of the recreation area parking.

4. Julian Price Campground at Milepost 296.9

With 119 tent sites, 78 RV sites, and showers, the Julian Price Campground is the largest and best on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The showers are the real treat; the only other campground on the Parkway with showers is located at Mount Pisgah. The six shower stalls each have their own entrance for privacy. The campground is divided into six loops. Loop A is located between Price Lake and the Parkway and has a few waterfront sites. Loops E and F are exclusively for RVs, although none of the sites on those loops are pull-through. Each loop includes restrooms and potable water supply. There is a dump station and trash disposal near the entrance station.

5. Julian Price Memorial Park at Milepost 297

Julian Price Memorial Park offers the only chance to get out onto water on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is a large parking area alongside the lake near the boat house where visitors can rent kayaks and canoes. These rent for about $10-$15 per hour from April through October. The 2.7-mile Price Lake Loop Trail circles the entire lake and leads back to the Price Lake Overlook. The 13.5-mile Tanawha Trail begins near the campground, climbs the edge of Grandfather Mountain, and passes beneath the Linn Cove Viaduct to Beacon Heights.

6. Rough Ridge Parking Area at Milepost 302.8

I think anyone who enjoys hiking has that one trail they wish they could hike. For me, that is the Rough Ridge Trail. From the parking lot beside the Parkway a short spur trail connects with the Tanawha Trail and leads to a stunning overlook above the Parkway. The 2.5-mile roundtrip hike is about as strenuous as it gets. The first half mile of the trail ascends 400 feet in elevation. It’s that one trail I just haven’t brought myself to try yet. Maybe you’ll beat me to it?

7. Yonahlossee Overlook at Milepost 303.9

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Have you ever seen that iconic photo of the Linn Cove Viaduct from a slightly elevated position looking across the famous S-curve of the bridge? It’s actually rather easy to get to that spot, but you have to know how to get there. I’m about to spill the beans. The Yonahlossee Overlook doesn’t really provide a great view itself, but it is the closest safe place to park to access this viewpoint. There is a primitive path that has been beaten into the grass on the opposite side of the wooden guardrail along the Parkway. Follow this trail to the edge of the viaduct. Don’t cross the bridge on foot because A) it’s dangerous and, B) pedestrians are not allowed on the Linn Cove Viaduct. Instead, cross the Parkway to the other side. There is a short spur trail that connects to the Tanawha Trail. It’s a steep but short climb on the trail to a series of large boulders on the left. Climb up one of those boulders and there’s the view.

8. Linn Cove Viaduct at Milepost 304

The last section of the Blue Ridge Parkway to be completed was the 8-mile stretch around Grandfather Mountain. It had taken so long to finish this last section it had become known as the “missing link”. In 1952 Huge Morton inherited 4,000 acres on Grandfather Mountain from his father, Hugh MacRae. Morton immediately extended an old dirt road to the top of one of the peaks of the mountain and build the infamous Mile High Swinging Bridge. As the same time the National Park Service had surveyed a potential route for the Blue Ridge Parkway that would have cut across the mountain and bored a tunnel beneath the highest peak. But Hugh Morton wouldn’t allow it. For 12 years he fought those plans, insisting the NPS go around Grandfather Mountain instead. Morton eventually won the argument. The NPS agreed to reroute the Parkway around the steep sides of Grandfather Mountain. Figg and Muller Engineers, Inc, were brought in to develop the bridge and construction method. With this final link completed the Blue Ridge Parkway held a grand opening ceremony in 1987.

Did you know? The Linn Cove Viaduct is a marvel of bridge engineering. At 1,243’ long the bridge was designed and built to have a minimal impact on Grandfather Mountain. The bridge was built in sections with the construction equipment moving along the previously assembled section rather than across the landscape below.

9. Linn Cove Viaduct Visitor Center at Milepost 304.4

At the south end of the bridge is the Linn Cove Viaduct. The small one-room visitor center includes a diorama depicting the construction of the bridge. There is also a small gift shop and restrooms in a connecting building. The Tanawha Trail passes near the visitor center. Visitors can access the trail at the far end of the parking lot. The trail passes beneath a section of the viaduct for a really neat perspective before climbing the side of Grandfather Mountain to a point above the viaduct.

10. Highway 221 at Milepost 305.2

This interchange leads to the entrance to Grandfather Mountain in about 1 mile, and the small town of Linville in about 3 miles.

Grandfather Mountain

After building the Mile High Swinging Bridge, Hugh Morton didn’t stop. Eventually a zoo, nature museum, hiking trails, and restaurant were also added to the mountain top attraction on Grandfather Mountain. Today it’s one of the most exciting off-Parkway destinations in North Carolina. The paved road to the top is long and winding. Pay careful attention about halfway up for a real treat: one of the filming locations for the feature film Forest Gump (you’ll recognize it instantly when you visit). At the very top is a visitor center and exhibit space. When I visited one year they had an exhibit of photography Hugh Morton had captured over his career. The Mile High Swinging Bridge is actually not much of a swinging bridge anymore. That thing is secured tightly with over a dozen high-tension cables tethered to the mountain side. But it’s still absolutely thrilling to walk across the rigid galvanized steel bridge to the rocky outcropping on the other side.

Did you know? In 2007 Suttles Survey was brought in to verify the height of the Mile High Swinging Bridge and three peaks of Grandfather Mountain. While the peaks of the mountain were found to be shorter than originally thought, the middle of the swinging bridge was confirmed at exactly 5,280 feet above sea level.

The Nature Museum has several exhibit spaces with information about local wildlife and geology in North Carolina. Mildred’s Grill is part of the same building with a menu consisting of burgers, sandwiches, soups, and salads. Next door along a paved path is The Fudge Shop (I dare you to smell the fudge in the air and at least not pop inside for a moment). The Wildlife Habitat was one of the first attractions built after the bridge. This was originally an area for housing Mildred the Bear, although now there are deer, otter, cougars, and several other animals native to this region of North Carolina. The habitat is accessible via a paved path and is handicap accessible, although there are some inclines on the path. There are 11 hiking trails accessible from the Grandfather Mountain attraction. The most interesting is the 2.4-mile Grandfather Trail that summits all three peaks of Grandfather Mountain between the Mile High Swinging Bridge and Calloway Peak. This strenuous trail is so steep at times it involves climbing ladders at two different spots. An easier and more popular trail is the 1-mile Black Rock Trail. This leads to a scenic overlook with a view of nearby Grandmother Mountain.

11. Beacon Heights Parking Area at Milepost 305.2

The 0.6-mile Beach Heights Trail is a moderate hike to a beautiful overlook at Beacon Heights. With a gentle 150’ ascent it’s not a bad trail for stretching your legs and seeing some beautiful views from the top of the rocky hill.

12. Grandfather Mountain Overlook at Milepost 306.6

Just in case you hadn’t seen enough of Grandfather Mountain just yet, there is one final scenic overlook. From here looking back at the mountain you can see all three peaks of the mountain, but unfortunately you can’t see the Mile High Swinging Bridge from here.

13. Linville Falls Campground at Milepost 316

Located on a spur road off the Parkway, the Linville Falls Campground is the smallest on the Parkway. The campground features just 50 tent sites and 20 RV sites around two loops. Loop A includes a few campsites at the edge of the river leading to Linville Falls. There are two restroom facilities, potable water in a few locations, but no dump station.

14. Linville Falls Visitor Center 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.

15. Chestoa View Overlook at Milepost 320.7

Chestoa View Overlook is another of those hidden overlooks at the end of a very short walk. It’s located down a flight of steps to a stone overlook. The view is really quite amazing. It was years before I realized I was looking across Highway 221 and the Linville Gorge, although the waterfall is too far away to see from this vantage point.

16. Highway 226 at Milepost 331

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From this interchange it is an easy 5-mile drive into nearby Spruce Pine. You will also need to exit here if you want to visit the Museum of North Carolina Minerals.

17. Museum of North Carolina Minerals at Milepost 331

The Museum of North Carolina Minerals is a fascinating exploration of the geology of this area of North Carolina. It takes about 15-20 minutes to walk through the small museum so I definitely recommend it. The museum also serves as an official visitor center on the Parkway. There is a small gift shop and restrooms located inside.

Spruce Pine, NC

Spruce Pine is a small mountain town, but definitely worth a stop. The downtown area is beautiful but quaint. It’s literally one block thick straddled by Oak Avenue and Locust Street. Locally these two streets are called Upper Street and Lower Street because one is higher than the other. For a small town they have a lot of really amazing galleries filled with local arts and crafts. The Toe River Arts Council Gallery completely caught me by surprise. And speaking of surprise I was thrilled to find the Spruce Pine Foot Bridge! This steel frame bridge spans the North Toe River from one end of downtown to Riverside Park. It’s definitely worth a hike across at least once (well twice if you walk back). The thing I remember most about my first drive through Spruce Pine was a sign noting it was the “Mineral City”. There used to be a lot of gem mines in the small town and today the ones that are left are pretty neat tourist traps. Emerald Village is a nice one to visit just outside of town, but you can also check out Gem Mountain and Rio Doce Gem Mine along the road leading back to the Parkway.

Little Switzerland, NC

Little Switzerland is a very little town but definitely worth a stop. You’ll never forget the iconic architecture of the Little Switzerland Inn once you’ve seen it for the first time (it’s visible from the Parkway). Take the exit from the Parkway and turn right heading down the hill around a curve to visit the Switzerland Café and General Store. The Little Switzerland Books & Beans shop next door is a great place to browse of your next reading adventure. The Switzerland Inn would be a fantastic place to spend a night or two (maybe even more). They have several different types of rooms spread across the property, some of them located in separate buildings. Each room is immaculate and comfortable, most of them offering a stunning view. Along with a restaurant, pub, and swimming pool, it’s definitely a relaxing place to visit.

18. Crabtree Falls at Milepost 339.5

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So I have a little story to share about my first and only visit to Crabtree Falls. I pulled into the parking lot about two hours before sunset, grabbed my camera bag, and hit the trail excited to visit this beautiful waterfall. The 2.6-mile roundtrip hike was pretty strenuous. It’s all downhill to the waterfall, but it’s a very long 600’ climb back up to the parking lot. I could hear the waterfall in the silent forest long before I could see it. And then there it was. Absolutely gorgeous. I pulled out my camera, set it up on a tripod, and clicked the shutter button. Nothing happened. I checked the battery but the camera was fine. That’s when I realized I had left my memory card plugged into the computer in the van. I reached into my bag for the memory card wallet to pull out another card…only to realize I had also left that in the van beside the computer. As a last ditch option I decided to capture a photo with my phone so I would at least have something. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I realized I had left it plugged into the charger in the van. It was a long, arduous climb back to the van.

19. Crabtree Falls Campground at Milepost 339.5

The Crabtree Falls Campground features 70 tent sites and 22 RV sites scattered around three small loops. Each loop has restrooms, but no showers, and potable water access. There is a dump station and trash disposals.

20. 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 this summit with a campground, restaurant, observation deck at the summit, and hiking trails. It’s the only state park exclusively accessible from 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. You’ll also find the tomb of Elisha Mitchell, the geology professor at the University of North Carolina who first verified the height of this mountain. The very small campground is located just down from the top of the mountain. There are only 9 tent sites available and no room for RVs. There are also plenty of backcountry campsites on the many trails surrounding the park. The restaurant has a commanding view of the summit through large picture windows. The food is fairly decent and I thoroughly enjoyed the meat loaf and fried apples the day I visited. Additional Southern Sixers Mt. Mitchell is part of the Black Mountains range that includes several other peaks above 6,000’. The Black Mountain Crest Trail begins just below the parking lot at the very top. The trail follows the crest of the mountain range so it’s a pretty easy hike, although you’ll have to hike several miles to reach all the peaks. These peaks include Mount Craig, Balsam Cone, Winter Star Mountain, Gibbs Mountain, and Celo Knob. Mount Craig, the first of the peaks reached from Mt. Mitchell State Park on the Black Mountain Crest Trail, ranks at #2 on the Southern Sixers List. At 6,647 feet above seal level the mountain peak is 37′ shorter than Mount Mitchell and 4′ taller than Clingman’s Dome.

21. Craggy Gardens at Milepost 364.5

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Craggy Gardens is one of the most popular destinations near 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 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.

22. Folk Art Center at Milepost 382

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Although the Folk Art Center is technically a visitor center, the primary purpose is to showcase the amazing arts and crafts from local artisans. The two-story center has a large gift shop, exhibit spaces, and a small information desk with a gift shop for NPS merchandise.

23. Highway 70 at Milepost 382.6

This is the first of three interchanges leading into Asheville. Each interchange leads to different areas of the city. Highway 70 is the most direct route downtown if you want to find something to eat, drink, or lodging.

24. Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center at Milepost 384

Located just outside Asheville this is the visitor center for the Blue Ridge Parkway. The headquarters for the Parkway is located next door. This visitor center is the largest on the Parkway. They have several exhibits about the wildlife, construction of the Parkway, and a giant, wall-sized map. The gift shop has clothing, bags, books, and souvenir items to collect. The restrooms are also located inside.

25. Highway 74 at Milepost 384.7

Highway 74 is the quickest and easiest way to get on the interstate. After exiting the Parkway onto Highway 74 you can stay straight onto I-240 to reach downtown or north I-26, or you can enter I-40 east or west bound.

26. Highway 25 at Milepost 388.8

This is the last interchange on the Parkway that leads directly into Asheville. Turn north on Highway 25 to reach the Biltmore and Biltmore Village. Downtown Asheville is about 6 miles from this interchange.

Asheville, NC

Surrounded by the mountains, headquarters of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and with a vibrant downtown, Asheville is one of the most popular destinations in the country. It’s a great place to spend a night or two along this road trip to the Southern Sixers. Go all out and splurge for a stay at the historic Biltmore. At the very least you might want to take a tour. I always stay at the Sweat Peas Hostel because it is conveniently located downtown and within walking distance of everything. Speaking of walking distance to everything, Asheville has more craft breweries per capita than any other city in the country. They have a booming culinary scene, live music literally on every street corner, and lots of quirky things to do like the Asheville Pinball Museum.

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