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Shenandoah NP and Blue Ridge Parkway

I'm considering a trip to Virginia in mid-October with plans to visit Shenandoah National Park and then drive the Blue Ridge Parkway to Asheville, NC, and then head to Charlotte to fly back. I'm trying to gauge how long the drive will take, especially if there are good fall colors. We don't necessarily need to drive the entire length of the Parkway. Looking at the map, it seems that the section from Roanoke down into North Carolina could be skipped on the Interstate (connecting back into the Parkway to drive through the Pisgah National Forest), but would we be missing something spectacular in that stretch? Usually we're avid hikers, but on this trip we need to take things a bit slower, so we won't be doing a lot of hiking. Any recommendations for places to eat, stay, and scenery that shouldn't be missed? Any easy (shorter trails, little elevation change) hikes to suggest along the way?

Thanks in advance.

Posted by
103 posts

Mike,

This web site is geared toward European travel. You may get some replies, but just so you know the main focus is on places that Rick Steves writes about.

Posted by
725 posts

We used to go to Shenandoah NP fairly often to hike when we lived in Washington, DC. Driving will be slow. The NP speed limit is low and the road is curvy. If the color is good and the weather is nice, don't try this drive on a weekend. It will be really, really busy. I remember trying to get into the park and being in a huge traffics jam on a pretty fall Sunday.

As far as hikes go, if you don't mind just going out and back, you can stop almost anywhere and get on the Appalachian trail. There are a number of circuits you could do. Circuits usually mean you'll go down one creek (called a "run"), back up another run and then along the Appalachian trail to get back to your car. I would check the Shenandoah website for hikes. One nice one was down White Oak canyon...not sure if I have the name right. There was also a hike to Hoover Camp (I think!) that wasn't too far and didn't have a huge elevation change. Avoid Old Rag hike. Very popular.

As far as places to stay, you could stay at the park's Big Meadows. If you don't stay at a park facility, you'll need to get down to the valley for lodging, there are many places in Shenandoah valley and some on the eastern side too.

It's a pretty place, but not a knock-your-socks off kind of pretty. It's more subtle.

Cumberland Gap NP is also nice at the corner of VA, TN, and KY. Well worth a stop and you can take a short hike up to where the 3 states meet along the old road.

Posted by
4637 posts

@Linda: Actually this website says Beyond Europe that means anything else than Europe. People are getting plenty of replies. For example just recently Seattle and Victoria B.C.

Posted by
6872 posts

I've been on the Blue Ridge Parkway from Roanoke all the way to Asheville - it was lovely, but did add quite a bit of time to the trip, especially due to rain/fog (it was early October last year). In retrospect, driving from Alexandria to Asheville and back on a 5-day road trip was at least 1-2 days too short. I wouldn't skip seeing Roanoke because it's really a neat place...probably 2-3 hours of sightseeing would be enough (then go up to see an overview from the lookout point over the city). I stayed overnight and it was great. As to what not to miss on the Blue Ridge Parkway, check out the below excellent website and decide - there are so many places to stop, whether for hiking, waterfalls, etc. I liked the Folk Art Center by Asheville and the mill (don't recall the name right now).

I think once you've already driven around/to Shenandoah, you may be "parkway-ed out", so to speak. Stop in Lexington, Roanoke, and Charlottesville, if you can, while in VA.

http://www.blueridgeparkway.org/

Posted by
334 posts

I think once you've already driven around/to Shenandoah, you may be "parkway-ed out"

That was one of my fears that it would get to be monotonous rather than enjoyable due to the traffic. I am somewhat familiar with the other side of the Appalachians because of having lived in Kentucky for a number of years and visiting West Virginia and the Smokies. I just never made it across the mountains to Virginia, which has been on my state bucket list for a while.

Posted by
334 posts

This web site is geared toward European travel. You may get some replies, but just so you know the main focus is on places that Rick Steves writes about.

It is true that this site is Euro-centric, but many of those who travel to Europe also travel to other destinations. And a lot of commenters on this site live in the US. It could be that other travel sites yield more responses, but I ask questions here because by and large, the Rick Steves travel crowd usually offers good and sound travel advice.

Posted by
2941 posts

Mike,
Will you fly into one of the airports around Washington D.C. or Northern Virginia (Dulles International) and head for Front Royal, which is the northern point of the Blue Ridge Parkway? From Front Royal to Roanoke, Virginia is, I would estimate, four hours of driving. That is not counting time you take to pull off the road at an overlook and gaze at scenery or stop for a meal. There are many overlooks where you will want to park and rest a minute and enjoy the view.

Are you aware that the top speed limit on the Blue ridge Parkway is 45 MPH? In some places, it goes down from there to 30 or 35 MPH. This speed limit is strictly enforced. The speed limit is low because there are so many visitors going slowly to look at the scenery. Also because of hairpin curves that are in the road, snake-like across the top of mountain ridges. If you are hoping to make good time driving, you won't. But the views are amazing!

Between Front Royal and Roanoke, you will pass very near Charlottesville, Virginia. This is your chance to get off and see Thomas Jefferson's Home, Monticello. Charlottesville is also a wonderful college town to explore, with many good restaurants and old Colonial-era buildings. The University Of Virginia has many buildings designed by Jefferson, and they offer a walking tour of those.

South of Charlottesville is the town of Lynchburg, where Jefferson had his country retreat, Poplar Grove. This is a far less "fancy" home than Monticello. Poplar Grove is open for visitors.

Getting back onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, you will travel south towards Roanoke. You will come to the Peaks Of Otter about an hour before Roanoke. This is aplace which has several good restaurants, camp grounds and motels. A good place to spend the night if you don't plan to get off the parkway at Roanoke and go into the city. The next day is an easy drive to the state line of North Carolina.

Posted by
2941 posts

Once in North Carolina, set your sights on a place called Blowing Rock, right on the Blue Ridge Parkway, exit onto highway 321 and it's right there. Cutest little town. Great restaurants all over the very small town. Cute inns and B&B's.
http://www.blowingrock.com/services/hotels-inns-lodges/
http://www.blowingrock.com/services/bed-breakfasts/
http://www.blowingrock.com/services/restaurants/

If you don't spend the night at Blowing Rock, continue on south down the Blue Ridge Parkway to Little Switzerland, where you should definitely check into the Switzerland Inn for the night! Panoramic views and front door access to BRP. Mile Post 334 on the map. It has its own restaurant with great food, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. www.switzerlandinn.com. Right before you get to Little Switzerland, there's the North Carolina Museum of Minerals, if you are into that kind of thing. Just south of Little Switzerland on the Parkway is Mount Mitchell State Park, good for hiking.

South of Little Switzerland about one hour is The Folk Art Center, a major exhibit of mountain crafts and art, including some Indian crafts and artifacts. Has a coffee shop/cafe. Mile post 382. www.southernhighlandguild.org. Now you are just on the northern edge of Asheville, N.C.

Here I will mention that the driving time between Roanoke and Asheville is 4 hours on a road where you can go 55 to 60 MPH. On the Parkway, I would say at least 6 hours because of the reduced speed.

Asheville is a wonderful town. A great stop for restaurants and an overnight stop. You may want to see the Biltmore House, mountain home of the Vanderbilts.

If you want a fantastic hike, try Chimney Rock Park, about 25 miles southeast of Asheville. It's where the movie "Last Of The Mohicans" with Daniel Day Lewis was filmed. The hiking trail is the same one the filmmakers used, and you will recognize certain waterfalls, cliffs from the movie. www.chimneyrockpark.com.

Going south on BRP, you will come to Mt. Pisgah and the Pisgah National Forest. One of the most beautiful places in the mountains. At Mt. Pisgah you will have a cafe, camping area and small motel.

South of Mt. Pisgah, you will be between the Cherokee National Forest and the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. This is where the Blue Ridge Parkway ends. The Smokey Mountains have a lot to offer in the way of hiking trails. The best is Clingman's Dome, a short walk that takes you to a mountain top where there is a "sky view" concrete tower platform, reached by a walkway that winds upward around it.

If I sound very familiar with this area, it is because I am. I have a ton of relatives in Virginia in the area of Charlottesville. I also spent my youth hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Smoky Mountains, and around Asheville with my cousins. If you like to go camping or whitewater kayaking, I've done that too in these areas. Lots of fun.

As far as your flight home. Asheville has an airport and Knoxville TN has an airport. But Charlotte has more flights with more airlines.
If you go as far as the Smoky Mountains, you could hit I40 to Nashville Airport, a drive of only three hours. Would be a short flight for you back home from Nashville, should be pretty inexpensive, too.

Happy travels!

Posted by
334 posts

Yes, my initial plan was to fly into Washington Dulles and then drive to Front Royal and drive south at least as far as Roanoke. After that, I am open to suggestions!

Thanks to everyone for their input so far.

Posted by
6876 posts

Mike: I used to travel this area extensively for work. The Parkway is beautiful, but I'd only be good for 75-100 miles of it. I would suggest you carry a good road atlas so you can easily find an exit that takes you to an interstate or scenic highway that goes the direction you like. If you've never been in the Charlottesville area, I recommend it. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison's homes are close by. We especially like the Boone, NC-Blowing Rock area about 85 miles north of Asheville. We also like the Maggie Valley west of Asheville (east of Cherokee) in The Smokies.

Posted by
6872 posts

There was negligible traffic during the week from Roanoke to NC, which is when I went (first week of Oct last year). So if you don't set out on a weekend, it should be fine. It does get monotonous if you're tight on time and you want to reach somewhere. If you're not in a hurry, it should be a joy, but I thought the stretch from Roanoke to Asheville on the parkway was long enough for me (the rest of the drive was on I-81 from Front Royal). Like I said, I would have done that Alexandria to Asheville trip in 7 days, not 5 (Alexandria is about 45 min from Dulles Airport, FYI, and 5 miles from National Airport). I stopped overnight in Roanoke because it was almost exactly halfway to Asheville (that part on I-81 was super easy and didn't take as long as I thought even though it's about 250 miles).

Posted by
1 posts

Hi Mike,
I have a couple of suggestions for your October trip through Virginia on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

A very scenic hike just off the parkway is known as Crabtree Falls. Here’s the info:

“Crabtree Falls, the highest vertical-drop cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River, is a popular attraction located in Nelson County, Virginia, just six miles off the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway near milepost 27. Physical address is 11581 Crabtree Falls Highway Montebello). N 37∞ 51.112″ W 79∞ 04.663″
Crabtree Falls features a series of five major cascades and a number of smaller ones that fall a total distance of 1,200 feet. The first overlook is just a few hundred feet from the upper parking lot along a gentle, paved trail making it an excellent stopover for travelers of all ages and abilities.
The more adventuresome hiker may continue along the 2 and 1/2 mile Crabtree Falls Trail to four other overlooks offering spectacular views of the Crabtree Creek Falls and lovely vistas of the Tye River Valley. From the upper falls, the trail follows the creek another 1.2 miles to the Crabtree Meadows parking lot.”

Since you’re from San Antonio, you won’t want to miss Sam Houston’s birthplace in Rockbridge County, VA. Exit the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 45.6 onto Rt. 60. Head west on Rt. 60 through the little city of Buena Vista and beyond until you reach I-81. Go north on I-81 and follow these directions to the wayside:

“Sam Houston was born on March 2, 1793, in a cabin in Rockbridge County, Virginia. The monument at the Sam Houston Wayside is a 38,000 pound piece of Texas pink granite commemorating the birthplace of the Texas hero. Directions: From I-81 - Take exit #195. Follow Rt. 11 north for 100 yards. The wayside is on the right.”

After visiting Sam Houston’s birthplace (the home on the birthplace site is being renovated right now) head south on Rt. 11 for about 6 miles to the charming little town of Lexington. This would be a good place to eat or stay the night. Some great little restaurants on Main St. with a new beer garden called Brew Ridge Taps. Try the Southern Inn for dinner or lunch.

Enjoy the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia!

Mary Lynn

Posted by
914 posts

Mike,
Haven't read all the replies in detail so apologies for any repeats. SNP will be busy during fall foliage and speed limit is already low, so your plan of jumping off and on at various points could be ideal, especially as there are some interesting places off the ridge. If you get a chance and like history, I highly recommend seeing if you can get a reservation to the NPS Camp Rapidian tour (Pres. Hoover's camp). Not sure if tours run year-round but more info at http://www.nps.gov/shen/learn/historyculture/rapidancamp.htm

Other towns/areas worth researching: Luray, Staunton (cute town plus interesting Woodrow Wilson museum and house); historic Stonewall Jackson hotel, American Shakespeare Center); Lexington, VA (another cute town with great campuses for VMI and Washington & Lee and one my faves; try the Southern Inn for some good food). It's been a long time since I've been on the North Carolina end, but I recall Mt. Pisgah as being beautiful.

Have done a number of the hikes over the years (e.g, White Oak Canyon, Old Rag, Mary's Rock) but sounds like that isn't your focus this go-round. Enjoy!

Posted by
2941 posts

Mike,
As you pick up your rental car and leave Dulles International Airport, you will go south on one of the secondary roads to link up with Interstate 66. You will then go west on 66 through the town of Manassas. On the west side of town is the Manassas National Battlefield Park, which is a big Civil War site with a great museum. Do you have any interest in this site? It is quite interesting. Then you would get back on Interstate 66, which you will take to Front Royal.

My concern is that you will get tired of the Blue Ridge Parkway after several days of going 45 MPH or less. The Blue Ridge Parkway is 469 miles long. But if you are not in a hurry, it should be a great trip.

Posted by
1694 posts

Luray was mentioned above - the Luray Caverns are absolutely gorgeous, in case you're interested in caving. There are other good caves to be visited in the area as well. In Staunton, there's a living history museum that shows what English, German, and Irish farms were like in that area in the 18th century, and a 19th century farm that combines characteristics of all three. Very interesting, and a good walk.
UPDATE: It's called the Frontier Culture Museum, and they've added West Africa.

Posted by
436 posts

The Shenandoah Valley is beautiful, drop into the valley to see caverns, small towns and farmland.

Skyline Drive is the best stretch of highway along the ridge in Shenandoah NP and has many overlooks into the misty valley and across to West Virginia. The fall colors are amazing. Traffic can be heavy and very slow especially on fall weekends with folks from DC and the Piedmont taking day and weekend trips.

Along Skyline Drive, stop at Big Meadows for easy flat hikes. Dropping down off the Appalachian and back up the next drainage gives great but strenuous hikes with a lot of elevation lost which must be regained since you start at the top. A stroll out and back along the Appalachian can be done in many places in the park and the crowds dissappear.

Posted by
914 posts

One other thing I wanted to add! Use Route 11 if you want or need to--it moves and in some stretches is 4-lane. You may already know this, but I-81 has a notorious reputation for truck traffic. I find it stressful. I drive this part of VA to visit relatives, and I've hopped into Route 11 many a time to simply be able to relax a bit but still go 55mph.
Also, the German restaurant off of 81 north of Staunton gets good reviews from friends who've eaten there.

Posted by
1694 posts

Speaking of alternative routes, I wanted to mention a shortcut from Luray to Charlottesville - 211E, short bit on 522S, then 231S to 29S into Charlottesville. That stretch of 29 is blah, but the rest of the route is really pretty. 231 goes close to Old Rag Mountain (popular with hikers) at one point.

Posted by
2941 posts

Have a safe trip! And let us know if any of what we are saying here sounds helpful to you. We hope you are still checking this thread, and that you have a great trip.

Posted by
334 posts

Yes, Rebecca, I am still checking this thread and it has proved very useful. Based on the comments about traffic on the weekends, we're now considering doing the reverse trip (fly into Charlotte or nearby airport , and drive north) as that would put us in Shenandoah during the week rather than on the weekend. We're researching the various stops people have mentioned and seeing what works best for us.

Posted by
1694 posts

I'd like (respectfully) to speak up for the Luray-Charlottesville route I suggested - it's really not extreme, and I've done it many times. A topographic map of the area would help in spotting the really scary routes. Also wanted to mention that the Skyline Drive/Blue Ridge Parkway gets officially shut down if there's much fog, so it's good to know about alternatives.

Posted by
2941 posts

Inbsig is right. That route is not one of the mountain roads with the sharp drop-off. Very scenic and easy shortcut.

Posted by
914 posts

If you can go during the week, all the better. Saves you some congestion.

A correction on one thing I mentioned: the Edelweiss Restaurant is south of Staunton--not north.

Another place to add to your Luray research (not that Luray is that big--blink and you'll miss it) is the Mimslyn Inn, which has Historic Hotels of America designation by the National Trust for HP.

A lot to pick from to see and do! Have fun!

Posted by
334 posts

I hate to drag an old topic up, but I wanted to thank everyone who helped us plan our trip.

Our final trip wound up starting in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and driving north. We drove along the Blue Ridge Park at both ends (skipped a section via I-81) and then drove through Shenandoah. We stopped in Roanoke, Peaks of Otter, etc along the way. While many of the trees had changed, we were just ahead of peak colors, so the Parkway wasn't crowded and we made good time. It was a relaxing drive overall. We couldn't take in all of your recommendations of course, but that gives us new things to do the next time we find ourselves in that part of the country.

Posted by
6872 posts

Hi Mike,
So what were the highlights of your trip? What were your favorite stops and why?

Posted by
334 posts

I'll give you our top three favorites:

Newfound Gap Road which travels between Gatlinburg, TN and Cherokee, NC through Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The road is very scenic with numerous pull-offs. You can turn off from this road and go up to Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the park. As these were the highest elevations in the park, most of the trees had already changed. We also liked spending time in Cherokee, NC itself. There happened to be a local festival going on at the time we were there.

Peaks of Otter along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We stopped for lunch here along the drive. Not only was it convenient to the Parkway, but it's in a very beautiful setting with the lodge overlooking Abbott Lake. On this trip, we couldn't make the strenuous hikes up to Sharp Top or Flat Top, but it's definitely something that'll be considered on a future trip. The mountains in this location are more sparse than in other areas of the Appalachians, so you could see pretty far out at most of the pull-outs. However, at the Peaks of Otter lodge, it felt like we were tucked into the mountains and much further away from civilization.

The central section of Shenandoah National Park. While we enjoyed all of Shenandoah, the middle of the park has the Big Meadows area, Skyland area, and the Byrd Visitor's Center. The lodge in Big Meadows is a good place for lunch and for enjoying the scenery. There are some good hikes from this location, although, again, our hikes will be saved for a future trip. The Byrd Visitor Center is worth a stop even if you stopped at one of the other visitor centers on your way into the park. It was also a good location for seeing wildlife, provided that you got there early enough in the day.

Posted by
1694 posts

Hi Mike, I'm glad you reported back, and that you had a good time. You mentioned some things that many of us may not have seen, and would like to, so thanks for that!

Posted by
1 posts

Next time you are able to travel on the Blue Ridge Parkway be sure and spend some time in Mount Airy, NC. It was the childhood home of Andy Griffith and inspired the town of Mayberry on the Andy Griffith Show.

We spent time there recently and stayed at Andy Griffiths house, interviewed Betty Lynn the actress who played Thelma Lou and visited 92 year-old Russell Hiat who owns Floyd's Barbershop.

Great winereies and restaurants along with all the Mayberry related businesses.

See you on the parkway,

Bruce and Valerie Cadle