Ironically the lowest point on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway at the James River is closely followed by the highest point in Virginia at Apple Orchard Mountain. This road trip section includes stunning overlooks, a few trails to hike, a hidden outdoor mecca, and the iconic Peaks of Otter.
- Brief History of the Blue Ridge Parkway
- What is a Milepost?
- Parking on the Blue Ridge Parkway
- Lexington, VA
- 1. Highway 60 at Milepost 45.6
- 2. Otter Creek Campground at Milepost 60.8
- 3. Otter Lake Overlook at Milepost 63.1
- 4. James River Visitor Center at Milepost 63.7
- 5. Thunder Ridge Overlook at Milepost 74.7
- 6. Apple Orchard Mountain Overlook at Milepost 76.5
- 7. Peaks of Otter at Milepost 86
- 8. Roanoke River Parking Area at Milepost 114.9
- 9. Virginia’s Explore Park at Milepost 115
- 10. Roanoke Mountain Road at Milepost 120.3
- 11. Mill Mountain Parkway at Milepost 120.4
- 12. Highway 220 at Milepost 120.5
- Roanoke, VA
Brief History of the Blue Ridge Parkway
In 1935 construction began on a scenic road to connect the two most popular national parks on the east coast: Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most of the Parkway was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps throughout the 30s. When construction was finally finished in 1987, just 52 years after it was started, the Parkway stretched 469 miles between Waynesboro, Virginia and Cherokee, North Carolina.
What is a Milepost?
Overlooks, attractions, and interchanges are all marked by mileposts on the Blue Ridge Parkway. These are literally posts with miles marked on them. Milepost 0 is located in Waynesboro, VA and increases to Milepost 469 in Cherokee, NC.
The mileposts are located on the side of the Parkway every full mile. If you see tenths of a mile for a particular destination this is an estimate.
Parking on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Over the years I’ve chatted with a few park rangers and learned some things about parking on the Blue Ridge Parkway that was both surprising and helpful.
- Parking is allowed anywhere on the Parkway that is NPS property and does not damage or destroy anything
- Parking is allowed in the fields, on the shoulders of the Parkway, and on non-paved area just so long as all four tires of the vehicle are off the paved Parkway
- Overnight parking is allowed if you’re hiking into the backcountry, but it is advised to call the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center and let them know
- Sleeping overnight in cars or RVs is only allowed in designated campgrounds
The best way to spend an evening getting to know Lexington is with a horse drawn carriage tour with Lexington Carriage Company. They’ll tell you all about the history of this town and point out some great places to visit like the Stonewall Jackson House. Talk a stroll through downtown Lexington to browse locally-made arts and crafts in various galleries and shops.
Where to Stay in Lexington
Located on Main Street and walking distance to everything, The Robert E. Lee Hotel is my top recommendation for place to stay in Lexington. The hotel features free on-site parking, breakfast included with the room, and rooms with king and queen beds and a King Suite with sleeper sofa.
The Hampton Inn is also located in the downtown historic district. The cozy hotel features a nice outdoor swimming pool with hot tub, free on site parking, and and rooms including one or two king or queen beds.
The Country Inn & Suites is located at Exit 55 off Interstate 64. It’s a fantastic place to stay with an indoor swimming pool, good breakfast included with the room, and king and queen bedrooms.
The Best Western Plus is located at the same interstate exit about ten minutes from downtown Lexington. The hotel features an indoor and outdoor swimming pool, breakfast included with the room, and a Queen Room with two queen beds and sleeper sofa, making this perfect for families.
1. Highway 60 at Milepost 45.6
From this intersection it is just 5 miles along a curvy road into the town of Buena Vista, VA and then an additional five miles into Lexington. You can also access I-81 just before reaching Lexington.
2. Otter Creek Campground at Milepost 60.8
The Otter Creek Campground is one of the smaller campgrounds with only 45 tent sites and 24 RV sites. The campground is built around two loops. Each loop has a restroom facility and potable water access. None of the sites have hookups and there are no showers.
3. Otter Lake Overlook at Milepost 63.1
Otter Lake is a small lake fed by the equally small Otter Creek that winds down the mountain from near the campground. It’s a man-made lake with a stone dam at the southern end.
Park near the southern end of the lake. There is a staircase leading down to the bottom of the dam. Even on dry days there is usually water spilling over the top of the dam, creating a nice rippled waterfall. After heavy rains the waterfall will be roaring. A trail leading down from the dam will cross the creek on round step stones, leading to the 3.5-mile Otter Creek Trail between the campground and the James River Visitor Center.
4. James River Visitor Center at Milepost 63.7
At just 650 feet above sea level the bridge crossing the James River is the lowest point on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway. The James River Visitor Center is a great place to get some information, use the restrooms, or go for a short hike.
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.
5. Thunder Ridge Overlook at Milepost 74.7
The Thunder Ridge Overlook is one of those hidden overlooks I tend to love on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The entrance to the overlook can sneak up on you so be on the lookout. Once parked you’ll have to walk along a primitive path for a few minutes to reach the overlook.
It’s a breathtaking view overlooking the valley below. It’s secluded and feels like a world away from everything else. And if you happen to hear voices don’t worry; you’re probably just hearing people on the Appalachian Trail just below the overlook.
6. Apple Orchard Mountain Overlook 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.
7. 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. This would be a great place to spend the night but you will most likely to make reservations in advance because of the popularity.
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.
8. Roanoke River Parking Area at Milepost 114.9
The funny thing about the Roanoke River “Overlook” is that you can’t actually see much from the designated “Pedestrian Overlook”. It’s a moderate 30-minute roundtrip hike along the 0.5-mile trail along the edge of the river that leads to a lackluster view.
The better view is actually from the bridge crossing the Roanoke River. There is a pedestrian path on either side of the bridge although I will admit it’s narrow and a little bit frightening if a large 30’ RV passes you while walking across (this comes from personal, harrowing experience). But if you want the best view of the river walk along the east side of the bridge (across the Parkway from the parking lot) to see a pretty good view.
9. Virginia’s Explore Park at Milepost 115
Although not owned or operated by the National Park Service, Virginia’s Explore Park is a pretty amazing destination I visit every time I’m on this section of the Parkway. Operated by the county parks department the park has been growing in recent years.
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.
10. Roanoke Mountain Road at Milepost 120.3
The 3.7-mile Roanoke Mountain Road is one of my favorite hidden destinations on the Blue Ridge Parkway with two stunning scenic overlooks. But before you plan to visit I will caution you: travel trailers and RVs are not allowed because of the narrow, winding one-way road. You might also want to check your brakes before hitting the road.
The first place to stop on this road is the Mill Mountain Overlook. With a view toward Mill Mountain you can’t see the city of Roanoke, and that’s part of the beauty. It’s a great place to watch sunset almost year-round.
The second place to stop is the very top at the Roanoke Mountain Overlook. The parking lot loops around so you can drive through twice if you want. The lower parking area has a great view from the top of the mountain. If you want to reach the actual summit there is a short 15-minute trail to hike, but there is no view or observation deck at the summit.
11. Mill Mountain Parkway at Milepost 120.4
The 2.4-mile Mill Mountain Parkway is a spur road off the Blue Ridge Parkway that leads directly into downtown Roanoke. Along the way it passes the entrance to Mill Mountain and a few exciting things to do.
Drive to the end of Mill Mountain Spur Road to a small parking lot. These spots might be taken considering you are about to visit one of the most popular attractions in Roanoke. Walk along the paved path to a scenic overlook with a breathtaking view of the city and valley below. Turn around to see the iconic Mill Mountain Star.
Also called the Roanoke Star, the Mill Mountain Star was built in 1949 as a season Christmas decoration on the mountain top. But the locals loved it so much the star has remained lit ever since. Today the pattern of a blue star inside a white star inside a red star is one of the most recognizable icons of the region.
Another fun way to spend some time is to visit the Mill Mountain Zoo. You can stay parked at the top or drive down a little to the Discovery Center. Either way you’ll end up walking along a concrete path to reach the zoo entrance. It’s a small zoo, but still exciting to explore.
12. Highway 220 at Milepost 120.5
This interchange is the easiest for accessing food, gas, and lodging off the Parkway. The road will lead back into Roanoke if you want to visit or spend the night there.
Roanoke tourism bills itself as “Virginia’s Blue Ridge” and that’s a pretty good description. The city is located in a beautiful region of Southwest Virginia and is a hub for all kinds of opportunities.
One of the most best museums to visit in Roanoke is located at the visitor center: the O. Winston Link Museum. This museum offers a fascinating exploration through the lens of photographer Link who spent a career photographing anything to do with railroads. The Market Street Walkway takes visitors across the railroad tracks into the heart of downtown. A few blocks down is the Virginia Museum of Transportation with a vast collection of cars and trains associated with Virginia history.
Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge 101 Shenandoah Avenue NE, Roanoke, VA | 540-342-6025 | https://www.visitroanokeva.com/
Where to Stay in Roanoke
The premiere hotel in this mountain city is the historic Hotel Roanoke. The Tudor style architecture makes it rather iconic, built in 1882 when the city was developing as a rail road hub. The hotel features a day spa, on-site restaurant, free on-site parking, and over three rooms.
The Hampton Inn & Suites is another fantastic downtown hotel within walking distance of many restaurants, shops, and museums. The hotel features a fantastic free breakfast, and I would recommend getting the King Suite with a sleeper sofa and private balcony overlooking the city.
The Hilton Garden Inn is located about ten minutes from downtown and closer to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The hotel features an awesome indoor swimming pool, free on-site parking, rooms with king and queen beds, and King Meeting Suite with sleeper sofa.