The beauty of the Blue Ridge Parkway will inspire your backseat passengers to sing “Country Roads, Take Me Home” as you cruise between the Shenandoah and the Smoky Mountain National Parks on this classic family roadtrip.
Connecting the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains along the North Carolina/Tennessee border, the Blue Ridge Parkway winds along 469 miles of mountain meadows, with over 200 breathtaking overlooks. The nation’s first rural parkway, construction of the road began during the Great Depression in the 1930s as a WPA Project, and took over 52 years to complete.
You won’t find any direct interchanges with major interstates along the parkway, allowing drivers to get the full scenic experience without having to deal with cross traffic. Flowers line the winding road during the spring and summer months, while autumn in the Blue Ridge Mountains sees some of the best foliage in the United States. In addition to the endless amounts of hiking and biking trails that you can pick up off the parkway, there are great restaurants to try, small towns to explore and all sorts of quirky roadside attractions to visit, making for the perfect family road trip.
Our suggested 8-day itinerary follows:
Day 1: Front Royal to Luray, Virginia
Day 2: Luray to Charlottesville
Day 3: Charlotesville to Roanoke
Day 4: Roanoke to Blowing Rock, North Carolina
Day 5: Blowing Rock to Asheville
Day 6: Asheville to Pigeon Forge or Sevierville, Tennessee
Day 1: Front Royal to Luray, VA – 50 miles
Coming from I-66, begin your journey by picking up the famous Skyline Drive, a long and narrow road running 105 miles through Shenandoah National Park. Shenandoah protects 300 square-miles of hardwood forest throughout the northern region of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and offers over 500 miles of trails, 100 of which belong to the Appalachian Trail. While the park is open year-round, many of the facilities along Skyline Drive are closed from November to March, making spring, summer and early fall the best times to plan a visit.
If your family isn’t up for spending their first night in the mountains on a campground, book a stay at one of the cozy lodges within the park, such as the Skyland Resort or the Big Meadows Lodge. Guided hikes, horseback rides, and bird watches are available through the lodges as well, there’s even a “Junior Rangers Program” giving kids ages 7-12 a hands-on outdoor experience, led by a local park ranger!
Day 2: Luray to Charlottesville – 63 miles
With 75 overlooks and a speed limit of 35 mph, Skyline Drive is a true opportunity to take in the beauty of Shenandoah and a trip to the Luray Caverns is well worth a visit. Ten minutes from the central entrance to Skyline, Luray Caverns, discovered in 1878, is one of the largest and most popular caves in the U.S, where your family will explore the massive sites that lie beneath the Shenandoah Valley. The entrance fee also includes access to an antique car museum as well as a giant garden maze, both on site.
After exploring the caves, head back onto Skyline Drive towards Waynesboro, Virginia and pick up Rt. 107 heading east to Charlottesville. Here you can tour the University of Virginia, designed by native son Thomas Jefferson, as well as his plantation, Monticello. In this architectural masterpiece surrounded by amazing gardens, visitors can explore Jefferson’s great contributions to his nation, as well as the paradox of his public life as a founding father, learned intellectual, and his role as a slave-owner.
Additional presidential sites in Charlottesville include Ash Lawn-Highland, President James Monroe’s more modest home. Almost 20 miles away in Orange is Montpelier, James Madison’s home. Oenophiles will be happy to learn that there are several good wineries in the area.
If you are looking for some fine southern hospitality (and a splurge), check out the luxuriou small inns of Keswick Hall, Clifton Inn or The Boars Head Inn. Costumed servers, dressed in Colonial garb serve dishes of the period at Michie Tavern.
Day 3: Charlottesville to Roanoke – 120 miles
From Charlottesville, double back along Rt. 107 and enter the Blue Ridge Parkway near Waynesborough, which you will travel through the Appalachian, Blue Ridge and Black Mountains until you reach the Smoky Mountains on the North Carolina/Tennessee border. Free of any fees or tolls, the parkway is a grand portrayal of Appalachian mountain history, covering some of the oldest settlements in pre-historic and pioneer life — a large part of the parkway experience is exploring the towns and cities throughout the region, rich with a local culture that natives of the area are extremely proud of, and eager to share with visitors like you.
Just 43 miles southwest of Charlottesville, your family may want to spend a few days at Wintergreen Resort, a conference center between here and Roanoke that has recreation facilities for every season. With the Devils Knob and Stoney Creek golf courses, a large tennis academy, full-service spa, 30 miles of hiking trails maintained by their Wilderness Foundation, horseback riding stables, and the 20-acre Lake Monocan for a myriad of watersports, there’s plenty to keep everyone active. Kids can participate in supervised daycamps that focus on the local environment and stress outdoor skills. In summer, the Wilderness Foundation runs week-long outdoor leadership programs. Teens will like the bungee trampoline, climbing tower, zip line, mechanical bull and plunge tubing.
The main family attraction in Roanoke itself is the Virginia Museum of Transportation where kids can admire the more than 50 pieces of rolling stock from the Norfolk & Western Railway, including steam locomotives, railcars and carriages. There’s even a themed playground. Photography and/or railroad buffs won’t want to miss the O. Winston Link Museum, housed in the former passenger station of the N&W Railway. It displays the clear, crisp, black and white photography lit with hundreds of flash bulbs, and sound recordings of the final days of steam trains on the N&W from the late 1950s.
A slight detour, about 45 minutes from Roanoke is the Blue Ridge Institute. BRI is on the campus of Ferrum College in Ferrum, and celebrates the region’s history, folk arts, music and farming communities. Every weekend from mid-May to mid-August, families can experience early rural life at the BRI’s Blue Ridge Farm Museum, a re-created Virginia-German farmstead with costumed re-enactors. The BRI’s best known event is the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival each October.
Southwest of Roanoke is Christiansburg, Virginia, site of the region’s first primary and secondary school for freed slaves, and now a historic landmark.
For a break from the car, another possible detour in the Blue Ridge Highlands region is the 34-mile-long Virginia Creeper Trail around Abingdon that follows the route of the old Virginia-Carolina Railroad. This very scenic and flat hiking and biking trail extends to Banner Elk, North Carolina.
Back along the Parkway, music lovers should take a stop at the Blue Ridge Music Center at near Galax. Open May to November, it is comprised of both an indoor and outdoor venue where you can enjoy some country bluegrass performed by musicians from the surrounding areas.
Day 4: Roanoke, VA to Blowing Rock, NC – 195 miles
At milepost 216.9 of the Blue Ridge Parkway you’ll reach the Virginia – North Carolina state line. Continue your journey towards Blowing Rock, North Carolina, one of the regions most charming towns. This is an essential stop along your drive, offering stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, as well as many reasons to get out of the car, such as art galleries, museums, Sunday night concerts in the park at the town’s center, and delicious restaurants (try the Speckled Trout Cafe).
Depending on what time you reach Blowing Rock, you may want to visit some of the surrounding attractions in the area such as the Tweetsie Railroad, a railroad theme park with an authentic steam train. Or, four miles from Blowing Rock, you’ll find Mystery Hill, located in an area with a stronger than average gravitational pull to the north, sure to amaze your kids as they are thrown off balance in a slanted room, watch a ball roll uphill and see water flow in the opposite direction.
Day 5: Blowing Rock to Asheville, NC – 93 miles
As you continue along the parkway, you’ll pass the famous Glassmine Falls at milepost 361.2. An 800-foot waterfall visible from an overlook on the side of the parkway, Glassmine is one of the tallest waterfalls east of the Mississippi River. Heading towards Asheville, the region’s only city at milepost 384, you’ll pass the Blue Ridge Folk Art Center, housing a large display of local arts and crafts at the Southern Highland Guild.
By the 20th century the Blue Ridge region was viewed as a desirable vacation spot for the wealthy, which explains why Asheville is home to the world’s largest vacation house, the Biltmore Estate belonging to the Vanderbilt family. Today, Asheville is a young and hip city to explore, with funky stores, plenty of galleries, live music and great cuisine, so you may want to spend more than just a night here.
If you’re in the area during the summer don’t miss Shindig on the Green, live music of southern Appalachia in Asheville’s central park played every Saturday night. In early May local athletes compete in mountain sports in Asheville’s Mountain Sports Festival, making for a fun day of outdoor activity. For a true taste of southern Appalachia, head to the Tupelo Honey Cafe in downtown Asheville, where the chef himself farms his produce on the nearby Sunshot Farm. If the family is up for a fright be sure to take a ride on the Asheville Ghost Trolley, departing Saturday evenings throughout the summer and early fall.
Day 6: Asheville to Pigeon Forge or Sevierville, Tennessee – 95 miles
As you reach the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, be sure to stop at the Richland Balsam Overlook at milepost 431.4, the highest point on the parkway at 6,053 feet above sea level. For some family fun pick up US HWY 19 from the Blue Ridge Parkway and head towards Maggie Valley’s popular Ghost Town in the Sky, at the foot of the Smoky Mountains. A wild west theme park, Ghost Town in the Sky offers rides, staged gunfights, live bluegrass music and all sorts of crafts projects. In 20 minutes the “Ghost Town Chairlift” takes you 3,300 feet in the air to the top of Buck Mountain, located at 4,600 feet above sea level, while the “Cliff Hanger Coaster” twists and turns between the mountains.
At milepost 469.1, the Blue Ridge Parkway ends near Cherokee, North Carolina becoming US HWY 441, which will take you directly into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With 814 square-miles of protected land, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited in the United States.
Most families choose to spend several days here, usually around Pigeon Forge or Sevierville, Tennessee, both tourist towns with lots of fun attractions. Once settled, you can take advantage of the 800 miles of hiking trails and 700 miles of fishing streams, in addition to bike tours, nature walks and waterfall excursions. Entrance to the park is free, and the NPS offers both front-country and backcountry camping for a modest fee.
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