Story and photos by Tim Barnwell
The Blue Ridge Parkway extends 469 miles from Waynesboro, VA, to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee, NC. Built mostly along the ridgeline of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it offers stunning views from roadside overlooks along its route. Spring and summer are popular times to drive the Parkway as visitors can find a variety of wildflowers, rhododendron and roaring waterfalls along its route.
One of my favorite drives is to head north on state roads from Asheville to Blowing Rock, near Boone, and drive back along the Parkway. This saves driving time and allows me to spend most of my day on the Parkway. I recommend you take I-40E to Marion and exit onto Highway 221. Follow that north to Blowing Rock where you get on the Parkway, then head south a short distance to Moses H. Cone Memorial Park (access from Milepost 294). The main attraction here is Flat Top Manor, a 23-room white structure that was originally the home of industrialist Moses H. Cone. Today the National Park Service operates this idyllic estate that includes The Southern Highland Craft Guild’s gift shop, offering all types of arts and crafts.
Get back on the Parkway and continue south toward Asheville. Soon you’ll cross the Linn Cove Viaduct, a remarkable engineering feat where road builders constructed an elevated section of the Parkway alongside Grandfather Mountain. It is one of the most photographed sections of the Parkway, and a nearby Visitor Center (Milepost 304) features extensive information about its construction.
About 12 miles farther, you’ll reach Linville Falls (Milepost 316). Be sure to walk the trail along the ridge from the Visitor Center. It offers several viewpoints for the spectacular falls and the rugged Linville Gorge. Allow at least an hour to walk the trails to view the falls. This is also a great place for a bag lunch as there is a beautiful picnic area across the road from the main entrance.
After leaving Linville Falls continue south to the entrance of Mount Mitchell State Park. At 6,684 feet, Mt. Mitchell is the highest point in eastern America. On a clear day, with binoculars, you can see the skyline of Charlotte, a distance of 88 miles. The weather is dynamic here and clouds can sweep in quickly. It can be cold any month of the year, so pack a jacket. To get there, exit off the Parkway and follow Hwy. 128 to the parking lot at the top of the mountain (snack bar, gift shop and restrooms here). From there it is a short paved walk to the observation ramp.
This was one of my favorite places to visit while compiling my book Blue Ridge Parkway Vistas, as it offers a 360-degree panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, including Roan Mountain to the north, Grandfather Mountain to the northeast and Mt. Pisgah to the southwest.
Return to the Parkway and continue south. If you are a rock hound or have an interest in geology or mining, stop at the Museum of North Carolina Minerals just off the Parkway (Milepost 331) on Hwy. 226 to see its great exhibits. Then get back on the Parkway and head south to Craggy Gardens Visitor Center to shop, get information and enjoy the views. To the east you look over the Asheville Watershed, to the west toward Tennessee, and to the southeast are the Swannanoa Mountains. Be sure to backtrack through the tunnel to the upper parking lot and take the short hike to the crest of Craggy Dome. In mid-June, it is covered by blooming Catawba rhododendron, making this one of the most spectacularly beautiful spots along your drive. When done, continue south toward Asheville and exit the Parkway.
This outing will provide a glimpse of some of the many attractions along the Parkway. Hopefully you can return to explore areas in more detail over the summer and fall seasons, and make your own list of favorite spots.
Tim Barnwell is author of seven photography-based books, including Blue Ridge Parkway Vistas: A Comprehensive Identification Guide to What You See from the Many Overlooks. To learn more, visit BarnwellPhoto.com.