The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the most iconic scenic drives in the US. Running for 469 miles through Virginia and North Carolina, the route connects Shenandoah National Park in the north with Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the south. As it winds its way along the spine of the Blue Ridge – one of the thirteen chains that make up the Appalachian Mountains – it offers opportunities to appreciate the region’s stunning landscape in a variety of ways.
In addition to its renowned beauty and biodiversity, the route has many superlatives to offer. From the highest peak in the eastern United States (Mount Mitchell) to the deepest gorge east of the Grand Canyon (Linville), there’s no shortage of impressive sights to take in.
Last fall, Dan and I drove from Hamilton, New York to Asheville, North Carolina. Always in favor of taking the scenic route, we worked part of the Blue Ridge Parkway into our plans. We were on a bit of a time crunch, so we didn’t drive the whole thing. Instead, we drove a section of the Parkway in Virginia and another section in North Carolina.
Keep scrolling for history, planning tips, and plenty of photo inspo!
Our route looked something like this: we got on the Parkway at its northernmost point in Waynesboro, Virginia. We then drove just over 80 miles to our campsite at Peaks of Otter in Bedford, VA.
The next morning, we left the Parkway to go slightly west to visit Natural Bridge State Park in Natural Bridge, VA. We then continued on I-81 until we reached Blowing Rock, NC, where we re-entered the Parkway and drove the remaining ~90 miles to Asheville.
While that might not sound like much distance-wise, it’s important to work in extra time while planning your itinerary. The Parkway’s speed limit is just 45 mph. In addition, the meandering roads and numerous hiking opportunities mean that even just 60 miles of driving can quickly turn into a half day or more.
And did I mention the viewpoints? So. Many. Viewpoints!
Basically, this isn’t a drive you’ll want to rush.
Find our route’s highlights below.
Almost as soon as we got onto the Parkway, we pulled over at the Humpback Gap parking area. While we had only just begun our drive and weren’t really sure what to expect, we decided to go for it and hike the one mile climb to Humpback Rocks.
One mile sounded easy enough, but we definitely weren’t prepared for how steep the climb turned out to be. Embarrassing sweatiness aside, we were rewarded at the top with beautiful views over the Rockfish and Shenandoah Valleys. It was fun to perch on top of the huge rocks, too, but be careful – there are no fences or guard rails in sight, and the rocks can be slippery.
Peaks of Otter Campground
Given our long drive from New York and our many pit stops along the BRP, we arrived at our campsite at Peaks of Otter just before dark. After quickly setting up our tent, we walked to the nearby Lodge to have dinner.
There’s a lot happening at Peaks of Otter, with several hiking trails, a lake for fishing, a visitor center, a gift shop, picnic areas, and a camp store – all in addition to the Lodge and campground. Our stay was short but sweet, and I would definitely recommend this spot for camping along your drive.
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The only downside was our attempt at getting coffee in the morning. We headed to the camp store just as it opened. After waiting more than 20 minutes for the one employee to get the store ready and prepare the coffee, he broke the news that all he had was decaf. Womp womp.
Everything was alright in the end, though. We headed to the Lodge and ended up getting free coffee from the team there. (As I’m writing now, I’m realizing how ridiculous it sounds for me to claim this non-event as an actual downside of our stay. It’s safe to say my judgement is a little skewed pre-coffee.)
Natural Bridge State Park
While not technically part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, I’m still including the Natural Bridge here as we loved our visit to this unique park, and it’s close enough to the Parkway that you can easily work it into your itinerary.
The park is comprised of land once owned by Thomas Jefferson. Its focal point is the 215-foot tall limestone gorge that has been slowly carved into its arched shape by Cedar Creek. For an easy but beautiful loop, follow the Cedar Creek Trail. It leads you under the bridge and culminates at Lace Falls after passing by the Monican Indian Living History Village.
Julian Price Memorial Park
After re-entering the parkway at Blowing Rock, we came upon the Julian Price Memorial Park and decided to have our lunch there. Located at the foot of Grandfather Mountain, the park is adjacent to the Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, and the two together make up the Parkway’s largest recreational area.
The park offers campsites, an amphitheater, canoe rentals, hiking trails, and picnic sites. The land’s origin has a great story, too: Julian Price was an insurance executive who purchased the land in the 1930s to provide a retreat for his employees, and the company later donated the lands to the Parkway.
Mount Mitchell State Park
Guys, I’m super excited to share that I climbed the highest peak east of the Mississippi, coming in at a cool 6,684 feet.
Okay, okay. I’ll be honest. We did climb to the top of Mount Mitchell, but we did so…in our car. Not as exciting for bragging purposes, sure. But how great is it that not only avid hikers get to see the summit?
We weren’t aware before our trip that we’d be able to drive all the way up, so it was a pleasant surprise in the moment. And to be fair, to truly get to the top, we did have to take a very short walk from our car to the observation deck. We get some credit for that, right?
Asheville was our final destination before heading east to see Dan’s family. To our delight, this nature-loving, street art-boasting, craft beer-brewing city did not disappoint – and our expectations were pretty high. Despite its immense popularity in recent years, don’t worry: it’s still possible to visit on a budget.
Our first trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway was a great intro to this stunning drive, but we barely scratched the surface of the various hikes, waterfalls, lakes, gorges, and more that it has to offer.
Next time we head south, I’d love to drive more of the Parkway, as well as the equally renowned Skyline Drive, just north of the BRP in Shenandoah National Park.
Planning your own trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway? Find everything you need here, from suggested itineraries to accessibility, road conditions, points of interest and more!
What’s the most memorable road trip you’ve been on lately?
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