Illustration by Emily Blevins, animation by Claudia Cardia
Courtesy of Jon Bilous/Shutterstock
The Blue Ridge Mountains run from the southern edge of Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains.
Two lanes, five days, nine tunnels, and endless diversions.
The lilting accents, the stiff drinks, the lingering meals—nearly everything about the American South asks us to slow down. The key to enjoying the region is not to rush. That goes for the Blue Ridge Parkway, too. With a speed limit that rarely exceeds 45 mph, the meandering, artfully laid-out, two-lane highway politely demands to be savored.
Though it would only take nine or so hours to drive the road straight through from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Asheville, North Carolina, give yourself five days to mosey the 384 miles between these two cities, the most popular segment of the 469-mile-long Parkway. The drive’s scenery justifies its reputation as one of the great roads, following the rocky ridges, green plateaus, and soft hilly meadows of the Appalachian Mountains all the way from Shenandoah National Park down the Blue Ridge chain to the Great Smoky Mountains. But the road has more appeal than just the dramatic vistas—the excuses to pause are as plentiful as the panoramas.
Along this storied highway, you will see wild birds, sparkling mountain streams, and mist-bound hilltops that remind you how the Blue Ridge Mountains got their name—you may even see some black bears picking their way through roadside woods. You’ll hear birdsong as well as lots of banjos, fiddles, and guitars; you’ll hear the awesome roar of waterfalls, and hopefully you’ll find a little silence, too. You’ll experience the sudden dark coolness of tunnels after brilliant sunlight, and the particular thrill of driving around a curve to an open view that extends to the horizon.
It’s a drive, yes, but five days should give you plenty of time get out of the car, order some barbecue, listen to the music, and head up into those hills.
Charlottesville’s amenities and proximity to the Parkway’s northern entrance make it an excellent place to start your trip. If you’re flying in to make the drive, the Albemarle-Charlottesville airport is also a natural spot to make a one-way car rental.
Start the journey with a good night’s sleep at Oakhurst Inn, a companionable cluster of buildings from the 1920s. (Two were formerly boardinghouses; one, a professor’s home; and one, a fraternity house.) The 35-room inn has a lobby cocktail bar that’s open every evening until 9. In the morning, if you want to linger a bit before your drive, visit Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, or stroll through the grounds of the University of Virginia.
The very beginning of the Blue Ridge Parkway also marks the very end of Skyline Drive. Skyline Drive is a similarly beautiful highway that winds 105 miles north through Shenandoah National Park’s 200,000 acres of protected land. While that direction is deeply tempting, turn south instead.
If you’re a hiker, you will already want to pull over at Milepost 6 to set foot on the Appalachian Trail, a two-mile uphill hike from the road. Anglers, on the other hand, may want to stop instead at the Tye River access point at Milepost 28.9, where the bites abound for summertime fly-casters.
Layne’s Country Store and a country ham sandwich. Fill up your cooler with local jams, pickles, and hand-cut bacon. From Glasgow, it’s just a 10-minute drive to Natural Bridge, an impressively tall limestone arch. (If you skipped the ham and stayed on the Parkway, look to exit at Milepost 63.7.) This geological spectacle, dubbed “Nature’s Cathedral,” was once surveyed by a young George Washington, and was bundled into a land purchase Thomas Jefferson made from King George III. Take in the natural wonder, but spare yourself its many related tourist traps.
After you get back on the Parkway, drive another hour or so, stopping to spend the afternoon in Roanoke. The Taubman Museum of Art showcases regional, folk, and contemporary artworks, and has a unique permanent collection of twinkling minaudières (a kind of whimsical evening bag) from designer Judith Leiber.
The River and Rail Restaurant offers a genuine taste of the region: hardy, wild-caught proteins, local preserves, and seasonal produce. In this part of the country, farm-to-table is not a trend born of Netflix documentaries, but a matter of course for many generations of mountain folk.
To sample more of the local scene, especially if it’s a Friday night, after dinner drive an hour farther south to the Floyd Country Store, to witness a dry-goods shop transform into a kickin’, stompin’, live bluegrass hive, complete with cloggers on the dance floor. A $5 cover will put you right into the Friday night mix. (Even if it’s not Friday, check the store’s website to see what events it’s hosting during your visit. Chances are strong you’ll hear good music.)
The best options for overnighting near Floyd can be found via Airbnb. Your choices include a cottage right by the Floyd Country Store, a geodesic dome, a yurt, a tiny house, and, best of all, a lovingly renovated mill above a clear running creek.
Long before the advent of Instagram, the idyllic Mabry Mill has been one of the Parkway’s most recognizable sights. The restored 1905 millhouse rests, shake-roofed and endearingly lopsided, streamside at Milepost 176. Get your photo, and then enjoy a pancake breakfast at the on-site restaurant, with buckwheat flour produced at the gristmill. (A bag of the flour makes a great—and useful—souvenir.)
With plenty of time left to enjoy the day, grab an early check-in at Primland, a luxury mountain resort sprawled across 12,000 acres near the Blue Ridge Parkway (exit at Milepost 177.7). The resort’s unusual menu of activities includes tree-climbing, sporting clays, archery, and stargazing at an observatory in the main lodge.
Even with all the diversions, you’ll want to turn in early to linger longer in one of the property’s unique tree-house cottages, featuring all the modern amenities of lavish hotel rooms, but built high up in the canopy of beautiful old trees. Take in the sunset and sweeping views of the Kibler Valley from your private deck in the trees.
After your treetop slumber, get back on the Blue Ridge Parkway and make your way to Milepost 213, near Galax (pronounced GAY-lax), to see what’s going on at the Blue Ridge Music Center, a casual museum dedicated to mountain music where midday pickup shows with local string bands are an everyday occurence. Galax is the lodestar for bluegrass musicians and their fans precisely because of this museum, and for the Old Fiddlers’ Convention held the second week of August every year. The music you hear will be top-notch, down-home gold.
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Fire up your favorite music or tune in to a good podcast, because you’ve got the next 75 miles to listen and enjoy the scenery until the next stop in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Along this segment of the Parkway, the road is softened by elegant curves and long, expansive views. You’ll cross the North Carolina border along the road’s inaugural section. Construction began here at Cumberland Knob in 1935, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the entire length of the highway was finally completed in 1987.
Moses Cone Manor (Milepost 294.1), also called Flat Top Manor, a grand 1901 Colonial Revival mansion built by a local textile magnate. The house and grounds are quite beautiful (and two of Cone’s sisters were notably prolific collectors of modern art in the early 20th century), but the main draw here is the Parkway Craft Center, which operates from early April through late November. The center sells distinctive mountain-made goods in the craft shop, with more displayed accompanied by explanatory labels in a gallery area. The Southern Highland Craft Guild sponsors craft demonstrations by artisans on the front porch of the mansion, teaching arts such as wood-turning, broom-making, and felting.
Blowing Rock’s Main Street is a blend of good antique shops, gift stores, fudge stores, clothing boutiques, and corny souvenir joints. Browse away before retiring to The Blowing Rock Brewing Company Ale House & Inn for a cold beer and a comfortable bed at day’s end.
Forgo your usual morning workout and instead hike Grandfather Mountain, not far from Blowing Rock. A couple of trailheads can be found right along the Parkway between Mileposts 304 and 308, but for a greater variety of options, exit at Milepost 305.1 for Grandfather Mountain State Park. Its 11 different trails range in difficulty from easy nature paths to routes that trace knife-sharp ridge lines and traverse sheer rock faces via ladders or steel cables.
If you can, opt for the somewhat strenuous trek along the Bridge Trail and cross the Mile High Swinging Bridge, which—though solidly engineered from galvanized steel—looks a bit scary spanning an 80-foot chasm. The view from the bridge is ample reward for the hike to get there, though an elevator has been added to make the span accessible for everyone.
Old Hampton Store & Barbeque in Linville. Sit down to no-nonsense pulled pork sandwiches and a side of hot greens with potlikker (the tasty liquid left from cooking greens). The store and tavern combo has perfected its barbecue technique after nearly a century in business.
On the road again (you can either backtrack the four miles to the point where you left it or head south on 221 five miles to the next access point), keep an eye out for Milepost 316.4, Linville Falls. Follow the trails to catch sight of the twin waterfalls tumbling 2,000 feet with great fanfare into rugged Linville Gorge, the deepest chasm east of the Grand Canyon.
Use this time in the car to relax, because there’s more great hiking ahead. At Milepost 364, in the area called Craggy Gardens, you’ll find trailheads that lead to one of the Parkway’s most remarkable vistas. Follow the Craggy Pinnacle Trail, which passes through a tunnel of rhododendrons and climbs past trees with impossibly gnarled roots. (In early summer, Instagram is saturated with images of the rhododendrons in full bloom, arching over the pathways.) The trail ends at a summit with mind-blowing 360-degree views of mountains and valleys bounding all the way to the horizon.
Exploring Biltmore Estate could consume a day (or two) if you’re not completely ready to head home. The sprawling estate, built for George Washington Vanderbilt, is still the largest in the United States, with the historic manor house, extensive gardens, and a “village” with shops, a farm, and three hotels—as well as an award-winning winery.
Downtown, pick up some souvenirs at Mast General Store such as toffee, pottery, and cookbooks, and while you’re here, consider buying a zip-up fleece to blend in with the outdoorsy locals. Then, by all means, have a drink. In addition to being a hub for active travelers, Asheville is known for its beer culture and its breweries: 48 companies, large and small, including New Belgium, Wicked Weed, and Sierra Nevada, make beer here.
Rhubarb sidesteps farm-to-table clichés to provide creative community-driven cuisine. The adjacent café-bakery-pantry, The Rhu, serves sit-down or take-out breakfast and lunch and sells pantry and picnic provisions. At Fleer’s newest venture, Benne on Eagle—in Asheville’s historic district, the Block— chef Ashleigh Shanti pays homage to the neighborhood’s African American culinary traditions.
Stay upstairs from Benne at the Foundry Hotel, which opened in November 2018, transforming an old unused factory into stylish, loftlike accommodations. Or check in for a turn-down at Grand Bohemian Asheville. Don’t be deceived by the hotel’s all-business exterior; its splashy interiors are a delightful surprise.
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