The Best Road Trips in America: The Blue Ridge Parkway

  • The Best Road Trips in America: The Blue Ridge Parkway

    Moseying through the southern Appalachians, this classic parkway, with a speed limit of 45 mph tops, forces you to slow down.

    Dave Allen Photography/Shutterstock

  • Road Trip Itinerary: The Blue Ridge Parkway

    All the better to take in the majestic beauty of wild forests, splashing waterfalls, and misty mountains, with plenty of hiking, camping, and picnicking along the way. Started in 1935 for the express purpose of showcasing the mountains, the parkway winds 465 miles between Shenandoah National Park at Rockfish Gap, Virginia, in the north and Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Cherokee, North Carolina, in the south. Safe from development, it’s a bucolic respite where black bear, deer, and other animals roam, lavish flora changes with the season—from spring’s flowering trees to summer’s wildflowers to autumn’s multihued leaves—and outdoorsy opportunities abound. There are some facilities along the way, including three lodges, six restaurants, visitor centers, and picnic areas. Note that the parkway is not maintained in winter and may close late fall through early spring.

    While the parkway has provided decades of family-fun, road-trip memories, we should remember that its creation displaced many residents, including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who fought to give up the right-of-way through their lands at Qualla Boundary, the parkway’s final 15 miles near Cherokee. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee delves into their culture and history, including a full-scale reproduction of an Oconaluftee Indian Village.

    At a Glance:

    Starting Location: Charlotte, North Carolina

    Ending Location: Charlotte, North Carolina

    Miles Traveled: 929

    Suggested Duration: 6 nights

    States Visited: North Carolina, Virginia

    Jesse Wong

  • Stop 1: Charlotte to Bryson City, North Carolina (Great Smoky Mountain National Park)

    Stop Locations: Charlotte, NC to Bryson City, NC

    Total Travel Time: 3 hours 30 minutes

    Total Miles: 180 miles

    Recommended Route: Via I-85, US 321, I-40, US 74.

    Along the Way:

    Eat & Drink: Fire and smoke burgers with smoked gouda and tobacco onions, cauliflower fritters, and pulled pork nachos are the sort of yummy dishes you’ll find at Olde Hickory Station, occupying an old train station in the heart of Hickory, where US 321 and US 40 meet.

    Town: Take Exit 119 off I-40 at Hildebran and follow Henry River Road south to Henry River Mill Village, an old mill village that The Hunger Games fans will recognize. You can tour abandoned villages, including the buildings used as the Everdeen’s house and Mellark’s Bakery, and learn about the state’s textile history. Future plans for the village include a restaurant, museum, and restored homes as vacation rentals.

    Town: Just off I-40 at Exit 103, Morganton ’s historic downtown, centered on a classic revival courthouse, buzzes with funky shops, galleries, restaurants, cafés, and the popular Adventure Bound Books. It’s also the site of “Sacred Dance and the Muses,” one of the Ben Long Frescoes (more about that later), on the ceiling of the City of Morganton Municipal Auditorium, which anyone is invited to pop in to see.

    Upon Arrival:

    Do: This walkable, outdoorsy town on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a relaxing vibe along the Tuckasegee River. Check out the petite downtown, and/or fish, kayak, or paddleboard. The national park is within a hiking boot’s distance, with plenty of trails to head out and explore, including the 4-mile Deep Creek Loop, which takes in two pretty waterfalls.

    Eat & Drink: The Bistro at the Everett Hotel is hands-down the nicest place in town. It’s small but packs a lot of punch with a fresh, eclectic menu and daily specials: for example, bacon-draped meatloaf, pan-seared Carolina mountain trout with a cornmeal crust, and chicken breast sandwich with goat cheese, fig chutney, and prosciutto—and handcrafted cocktails (the mint for the mint juleps is grown locally). A more casual choice is Jimmy Mac’s , an all-American grill on Main Street featuring hand-cut steaks, fresh seafood, pasta, and sports on a cavalcade of TVs.

    Stay: Good choices include the McKinley Edwards Inn, an upscale retreat in a landmark building; the Folkestone Inn, originally a 1920s mountain farmhouse; and Lakeview at Fontana, a spa retreat with basic rooms tucked into a gorgeous mountainscape.

    Breakfast: Grab a coffee, bagels with signature spreads, and light fare at La Dolce Vita.

    James Poston/Dreamstime

  • Stop 2: Bryson City to Asheville, North Carolina

    Stop Locations: Bryson City, NC to Asheville, NC

    Total Travel Time: 3 hours 20 minutes

    Total Miles: 97 miles

    Recommended Route: Via US 19, US 441S in Cherokee, and Blue Ridge Parkway.

    Along the Way:

    Nature: Drag yourself out of bed early to arrive just after sunrise at the Oconauftee Visitor Center in Cherokee, near the Blue Ridge Parkway’s southern terminus, where elk calmly graze in the meadows. Here, too, the Mountain Farm Museum is an authentic Smokies log homestead.

    Photo Op: Be sure to spend some time in Great Smoky Mountains National Park before striking out on the parkway. If nothing else, drive to the top of Clingmans Dome, the park’s loftiest peak at 6,643 feet. Here, hike half a mile to the observation tower and gulp in the refreshing mountain air as you take in the 360-degree views of blue-hued peaks marching off into the distance.

    Town: Drop off the parkway at Balsam Gap (milepost 443.1), where US 23/74 leads to the town of Sylva . The all-American main street has one-of-a-kind eats, outfitters, multiple bookstores, and four breweries (to stock up for later, of course). You could stay for an hour, enjoying coffee and homemade pie at the Coffee Shop —or remain all day, enjoying its outdoorsy offerings. Flyfish, for example, on the WNC Fly Fishing Trail, with local outfitters available to take you out to the best fishing holes, or hike on the rugged 7-mile Pinnacle Park Trail, offering supreme mountain panoramas.

    Town: Not only is Brevard —about 15 miles south of Wagon Road Gap (milepost 402) via US 276—a cutie, with retail favorites including D. D. Bullwinkel’s Outdoors, O.P. Taylor’s, and the White Squirrel Shoppe (and 16 animal sculptures), it’s at the heart of North Carolina’s “land of waterfalls.” There are 250-plus cascades nearby, some small, some large, some famous (a couple starred in The Hunger Games and Last of the Mohicans ), some not so much.

    Eat & Drink: The Pisgah Inn, at milepost 408, sits 5,000 feet above the surrounding rugged terrain, providing spectacular mountain views to accompany your rainbow trout, fried chicken, and baked chicken pot pie.

    Upon Arrival:

    D o: Poke into art galleries, Appalachian craft shops, indie coffee shops, bookstores, and breweries (there are over 60 of them) in this funky, laidback, music-and-beer-filled mountain town. The most famous site is the Biltmore House and Estate, the 250-room Gilded-Age mansion of George Vanderbilt, which remains the nation’s largest private house and is open with a variety of tours.

    Eat & Drink : It’s hard to pick out just one or two places in this hub of foodie creativity; stroll the downtown streets and you’ll find something to your liking, guaranteed. Smoky Park Supper Club offers wood-fired pork chops, trout, NY strip, and more along the French Broad River; and The Montford has small bites and craft cocktails—and spectacular mountain sunsets from its rooftop perch. With 50 breweries and counting, don’t be shy to beer taste in this epicenter of brew; among the voluminous offerings are Turgua Brewing Co., a small farmhouse brewery on a 5-acre farm in Fairview; and Whistle Hop , with its train-caboose taprooms.

    Stay: The classic parkway experience demands something retro. Try JuneBug Retro Resort, a 50-acre property sprinkled with restored 1950s campers; or Log Cabin Motor Court, where rustic revival-style cabins celebrate the golden age of the American road trip.

    Breakfast: Early Girl Eatery is the place to go for southern comfort food created from fresh local ingredients, with downtown, North Asheville, and West Asheville locations.

    Derek Olson Photography/Shutterstock

  • Stop 3: Asheville to Blowing Rock, North Carolina

    Stop Locations: Asheville, NC to Blowing Rock, NC

    Total Travel Time: 3 hours

    Total Miles: 89 miles

    Recommended Route: Via the Blue Ridge Parkway.

    Along the Way:

    Eat & Drink: The homey Switzerland Café in Little Switzerland (milepost 331) is a favorite stop on the North Carolina Barbecue Society’s Historic Barbecue Trail—though there are plenty of fresh, homemade non-BBQ options as well. The tomato basil soup is a specialty.

    Nature: The 1.75-mile (round-trip) Linville Falls Plunge Basin Trail at milepost 316, starting at the Linville Falls Visitor Center, is a gorgeous waterfall trek along Linville Gorge.

    Town: At 3,739 feet above sea level, Banner Elk is a historic alpine burg near Grandfather Mountain, about 15 minutes off the parkway via NC 105 and NC 184. Visit the Banner House Museum, showcasing 19th -century Blue Ridge life; wine-taste at Banner Elk Winery (or taste local brews at the spectacularly situated Beech Mountain Brewing Co.); or simply stretch your legs and poke into shops and galleries in the sweet downtown.

    Upon Arrival:

    Do: A couple of streets in this cute, nature-loving town harbor upscale shops, galleries, cafés, and the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum , perfect for hanging out after a day of driving—and/or hiking, fishing, and communing with nature in the surrounding wildlands.

    Eat & Drink: The Speckled Trout on Main offers a fresh take on Appalachian standards, with innovatively prepared North Carolina trout options and more. The Devilish Eggs, with house-smoked trout and roasted red pepper sauce, are, well, devilishly good. The adjacent bottle shop has a breathtaking selection of local brews.

    Stay: The Green Park Inn is a Victorian dream, with live music in the lobby on Friday and Saturday nights and a made-to-order breakfast every morning. Another option, right on Main Street, is Montainaire Inn and Log Cabins, with standard but clean rooms—splurge for a cabin.

    Breakfast:  The Village Café on Greenway Court offers waffles, crepes, omelets, and other delectable breakfast goods in a historic house.

    Deebrowning/Dreamstime

  • Stop 4: Blowing Rock to Roanoke, Virginia

    Stop Locations: Blowing Rock, NC to Roanoke, VA

    Total Travel Time: 4 hours

    Total Miles: 173 miles

    Recommended Route: Via the Blue Ridge Parkway.

    Along the Way:

    Nature: An easy, half-mile interpretive loop trail from milepost 272.5 leads to the magnificent Cascade Falls in E.B. Jeffress Park.

    Detour: Jump off the parkway at milepost 260 to take a twisty, 30-mile loop via NC 163, US 221, and NC 16 to West Jefferson and Glendale Springs —enjoying some spectacular natural beauty along the way. In both hamlets, you’ll find tiny chapels adorned with Italian-style frescoes, the 20th -century masterpieces of Ben Long, who studied in Florence.

    Eat & Drink : Since opening day in 1949, the Bluffs Restaurant at milepost 241 has been legendary for its southern menu, notably its ham biscuits, fried chicken, and berry cobbler. After being shuttered for a decade, this parkway favorite is opening up again, once again the place to savor sweet potato pancakes in a booth overlooking the parkway.

    Photo Op: If you know of a more picturesque mill than Mabry Mill, with its reflective pond and surrounding forest that’s downright stunning in autumnal display, you’ll have to let us know. You’ll find this one at milepost 176.

    Upon Arrival:

    Do: The largest city along the parkway has the culture, fine eats, and lodging variety that go with urban living—though the mountains always loom in the distance. Check out the neon Roanoke Star atop Mill Mountain (and hike the Star Trail); find treasures at Black Dog Salvage, home of the hit TV show Salvage Dawgs ; and browse the historic Roanoke City Market, operating since 1862. Center in the Square is home to the city’s art, science, and history museums, along with live theater, dance, and opera. Explore Park, right off the parkway, is another must-stop, with a museum, zip lines, hiking and biking trails, and more.

    Eat & Drink: Caribbica Soul, in the city market, has fragrant, smoky jerk chicken, while Martin’s Downtown Bar & Grill’s extensive menu features ribs, tacos, salads, wraps, and more—Monday night is half-price hamburger night.

    Stay: The luxe Hotel Roanoke, dating from 1882, has hosted presidents, rock stars, and celebrities, while Roanoke Boutique Hotel occupies an 1890 Italianate home in Roanoke’s historic district, with nature-loving hosts who can point you to the best of the outdoors.

    Breakfast: Downshift Bikes and Beer has yummy breakfast bowls and one-of-a-kind peanut butter coffee; it’s a cool bike-shop-and-restaurant combo. If that’s a little too far out for you, try the Roanoker Restaurant, famed for its biscuits.

    Jon Marc Lyttle/Shutterstock

  • Stop 5: Roanoke to Staunton, Virginia

    Stop Locations: Roanoke, VA to Staunton, VA

    Total Travel Time: 3 hours 30 minutes

    Total Miles: 120 miles

    Recommended Route: Via the Blue Ridge Parkway.

    Along the Way:

    Town : Bedford, 10 miles east of the parkway at milepost 86, is a cute little town in its own right, but here, too, you’ll find the National D-Day Memorial. The town lost 19 boys on that fateful day in 1944. The 470-acre Claytor Nature Study Center is a bird-filled, trail-laced oasis, and if you’re hungry, try the fresh Mexican at Azul.

    Eat & Drink: Jump off the parkway at Indian Gap, at milepost 47, for a 5-mile detour to JJ’s Meat Shak in Buena Vista, a family-owned BBQ joint that started in a 20-foot trailer.

    Nature: The spectacular Peaks of Otter area, with its tree-covered peaks towering above bucolic Abbott Lake, is worth a stop for several hours—or even overnight. Several hikes lead up the peaks and to a waterfall, and the Peaks of Otter Lodge has a restaurant famed for its fried chicken.

    Upon Arrival:

    Do: In this quintessential small Shenandoah Valley town, take an architectural walking tour of one of six historic districts filled with a panoply of buildings by esteemed architect T. J. Collins (Beverley Street is a good place to start), visit the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace and Library, attend a Shakespeare play at the Blackfriars Playhouse , the world’s only creation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater, or go wine or beer tasting.

    Eat & Drink: In this foodie town, try the hard-to-score-a-seat Shack or southern-inspired Zynodoa. Chicano Boy and Table 44 are delicious options too. 

    Stay: The Stonewall Jackson Hotel opened its gracious doors in 1924 and remains the iconic historic retreat. Other interesting options include Gibson’s Warehouse, a beautifully renovated 1905 warehouse-turned-apartment-rental designed by T. J. Collins; Blackburn Inn, occupying a former mental hospital dating from 1828, with 49 comfortable, sleek rooms; and Berkeley House B&B, in a sumptuous Victorian.

    Breakfast: Cranberry’s Grocery & Eatery serves breakfast all day at the back of the natural grocery, with dishes created using local ingredients: malt yeast waffle with fruit and whipped cream is a favorite. For a quick grab-and-go, try the By&By, a cozy café with gourmet espresso drinks, bagels, pastries, fruit smoothies, and grilled sandwiches.

    Jon Marc Lyttle/Shutterstock

  • Stop 6: Staunton to Charlotte, North Carolina

    Stop Locations: Staunton, VA to Charlotte, NC

    Total Travel Time: 4 hours 15 minutes

    Total Miles: 270 miles

    Recommended Route: Via I-81 and I-77.

    Along the Way:

    Town:  Lexington is a college town with southern roots, its vibe young and energetic. Stroll Main Street’s shops and cafes, visit the nationally renowned Virginia Horse Center, and stroll the historic grounds of Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University. If you’re hungry, grab lunch at the Red Hen, the city’s first farm-to-table restaurant, with everything Shenandoah fresh. Whatever you do, ice cream at Sweet Things is a must.

    Detour: At White Sulphur Springs, about an hour west of Lexington via I-64, the majestic Greenbrier has wowed guests since 1858 with its bold Dorothy Draper décor (since post-World War II, anyway), exquisite restaurants, and lush, golf-course-graced grounds. Here, too, you can take a bunker tour—who would have guessed throughout the Cold War this esteemed hotel was hiding a top-secret fallout shelter for Congress? It’s fascinating.

    Roadside Attraction: Thomas Jefferson once owned the Natural Bridge, a rock arch carved by Cedar Creek, located at Exit 180 off I-81. Today a wooded pathway leads to the bridge, with caverns, a wax museum, a toy museum, and an 18th-century village built by the Monacan Indian Nation also on the grounds.

    Eat & Drink: Lake View Restaurant in Fancy Gap has been serving classic, homecooked meals for decades. Sit in a booth and enjoy home-cooked “meat and two,” and see if you can resist the freshly baked pie.

    Upon Arrival:

    Jon Bilous/Shutterstock

See more at Fodor's Travel