Blue Ridge Parkway Guide

This Blue Ridge Parkway Guide is a concise mile-by-mile timeline for experiencing the best of the 469-mile Parkway for motorists, hikers, and bikers.

I have driven many of the world’s scenic roads including the Fjords of Norway, the Great Ocean Road in Australia, the Swiss and Italian Alps, the Garden Route in South Africa, the narrow mountain roads of the Andes in Argentina, the coastal roads of Cornwall in the UK and the Beartooth Highway in Montana.  These are all spectacular drives and wonderful places to visit. 

But for me, the Blue Ridge Parkway experience is special because it offers a unique combination of distance, attractions, scenery, history, seasonal changes, adventure, hiking, seclusion, and year-round fun – all within an easy 4-hour drive from Washington, the Capitol of the United States!

From a tourism point of view, the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) is a well-known and sentimental destination for US travelers, especially its east coast residents. Buoyed by the most visited National Park in the USA – The Great Smoky Mountains National Park – statistics show about 15 million visitors drove sections of the Parkway in 2016! The BRP in North Carolina receives about twice as many visitors as Virginia; the Pisgah area near Asheville is the most popular.

October (foliage month) is the busiest on the Parkway while January (winter) is understandably rather quiet!

Surprisingly, the Blue Ridge Parkway is not promoted as a highlight by international tour operators and it is not represented as an entity at travel shows and events. In travel books, the Parkway is often relegated to a brief secondary sightseeing option when visiting the Great Smoky Mountains or the popular city of Asheville where the Biltmore Estate is (justifiably) billed as its main attraction. Therefore it should come as no surprise that the Blue Ridge Parkway is one of America’s best-kept secrets as far as international visitors are concerned. In terms of popularity, it ranks far below internationally known East Coast destinations such as New England, Philadelphia, Williamsburg, New York, and Washington DC.

I aim to change that!

Despite the marketing challenges the Blue Ridge Parkway remains a national treasure and it is a highly recommended destination for anyone yearning to hit the open road and explore America’s most historic 469-mile landscaped garden. Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway is a remarkably authentic opportunity to travel at a slow pace through the historic land that was once used by Native American Indians as their fall hunting grounds.

It is very unlikely to encounter convoys of tour buses on the Parkway and there are no unsightly t-shirt and souvenir shops along the entry/exit roads. Even fast-food chains such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s are noticeably absent for most of the way. Parkway rangers and NPS volunteers are some of the friendliest folk you will ever meet and, despite being understaffed, will enthusiastically take their time to share their knowledge and answer questions. 

Unfortunately, as I alluded to earlier, the Blue Ridge Parkway is not marketed as a complete destination entity. Instead, all its surrounding counties, cities, and towns have their own tourism budgets and their isolated publicity efforts are creating tourism islands, often with the Parkway as a mere afterthought. Understandably these places are competing for tourism dollars in tough economic times and they all want to be the main focus for extended stays. Visitors are often advised and enticed to stay in one city for a week or more while exploring the Parkway and nearby attractions, instead of driving along the Parkway for a week while exploring different cities and attractions along the way.

This online guide (not affiliated with the NPS) is aimed at a new generation of travelers who are internet savvy and very capable of using search engines and review sites to plan their vacations. 

But still, to research a viable itinerary when planning to drive all 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway, you literally have to contact every tourism office or website from Charlottesville in the north to Cherokee in the south with everything in-between!  The end result is an overwhelming stack of brochures, maps, and recommendations with no easy way to compile it all in a single, sensible touring plan.   This guide takes care of the planning headaches!

Map of the whole parkway!

About the Guide

In this guide, the Blue Ridge Parkway is the centerpiece for traveling between Virginia’s Charlottesville and Staunton in the north, and North Carolina’s Cherokee and Smoky Mountains in the south, or vice versa.  

Starting from either mile 0 or 469, it guides the reader to the most awe-inspiring vista overlooks, the coolest waterfalls, the most exciting hikes, the most historic downtowns, the highest-rated restaurants, and favorite lodging options – from campgrounds to 5-star hotels.

Based on an average speed of 35 mph it will take about 15 hours to drive the whole 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I’ve been there, done that, and wondered why!

To enjoy and truly experience the magnificent Blue Ridge Parkway takes much longer.

Eight fabulous itineraries are presented for a 14-day, 7-day, 5-day, and 3-day driving tour of the Blue Ridge Parkway – starting at either mile marker 0 in Virginia or 469 in North Carolina. There is also a section about the four most interesting sections of the Parkway – perfect for those who want to experience the best of the parkway in the shortest time.

Directions are provided using the Parkway mile markers whenever possible which are easy to locate and read. A GPS is recommended when exploring areas away from the parkway.

If you have a choice, I suggest you start in Virginia at mile marker 0 and travel south to the Great Smoky Mountains. The Blue Ridge Parkway is more dramatic in North Carolina and it is a bit more fun to leave some of the highlights for last.

You need at least 2 weeks to drive the length of the Parkway, stop at the most scenic overlooks, explore the nearby cities and towns, and hike its most interesting trails. If you live in the Mid-Atlantic area within reach of the Parkway and do not have the time for a two-week trip, you can easily split the drive into multi-day excursions until you have completed the whole drive.

If you have no interest in hiking, the 7-day itinerary is a good starting point. But keep in mind there are many easy walks along the Parkway that should not be missed. Just take your time and your efforts will be rewarded with stunning waterfalls, scenic overlooks and interesting sights. Challenging trails are clearly marked in this book and are easy to avoid.

Getting the Most from this Guide

Do consider this approach:

  1. Northbound or Southbound? Either way, just find the corresponding chapter with north-bound or southbound itineraries.
  2. How many days do you have available? Select the appropriate itinerary for your travel window. You can easily adapt each itinerary to suit your needs.
  3. Book your lodging well in advance for peak travel dates especially in October and during holidays or weekends. Be careful of special events such as NASCAR at Bristol or Floydfest (Virginia) weekends.
  4. Plan your activities such as hiking or sightseeing tours. Use my photos, maps, and GPS tracks to guide you.
  5. Once on the road, follow my itinerary timelines to ensure you manage each day effectively. Avoid a slow start and a rushed ending!
  6. When you stop at overlooks use the descriptions and photos in the Overlooks & Sights chapters to orient yourself and for more information. 

Scattered throughout the guide you will find references to Sweet Spots! While not necessarily a part of my suggested itineraries, these are interesting places to visit or experience if you have time.

Important – the timings presented in the itineraries are just guidelines and your trip may work out differently!

About the Author

Eben Schoeman drove every mile of the itinerary presented in the guide; hiked every trail, dined in every recommended restaurant and parked at every overlook numerous times to get the best photos. While he does not claim to have slept in every bed of the overnight suggestions, he visited all the properties and read every available online review!

The Blue Ridge Parkway in 6 sections

To help with the planning of your drive, this guide divides the Blue Ridge Parkway into 6 sections:

  1. 64 to James River, 
  2. James River to Roanoke, 
  3. Roanoke to VA/NC state line, 
  4. VA/NC state line to Linville, 
  5. Linville to Asheville,
  6. Asheville to Cherokee. 

  In each of the 6 sections you will:

  • See photos of every overlook, viewpoint, and interesting attraction along the Parkway
  • Study the hiking trails recommended in the book by looking at the trail photos
  • Find popular lodging, restaurants, and attractions
  • Plan your daily mileage and overnight stays
  • Read about Parkway updates, closures, etc

How to use this guide

a) Simply click on each section below then study the maps to see the main roads, side roads, lodgings, campgrounds, services such as fuel, viewpoints, day hikes, and other points of interest. 

b) The itinerary sections describe the best ways to see the Blue Ridge Parkway if you have 14 days, 7 days, or 3 days!

  1. 64 to James River
  2. James River to Roanoke 
  3. Roanoke to VA/NC state line 
  4. VA/NC state line to Linville
  5. Linville to Asheville
  6. Asheville to Cherokee

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