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America’s favorite highway is one guaranteed to soothe your soul, excite your senses, and serve as a gateway to adventure.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a two-lane, limited access, artist-designed road which stretches 469 miles from Cherokee, North Carolina to Rock Gap at the border of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, where the road becomes Skyline Drive and continues for another 105 miles to the town of Front Royal.
Work on the parkway began during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt – it was originally called the Appalachian Scenic Highway. Much of the work was carried out by Works Progress Administration crews, though from the beginning the Blue Ridge Parkway was much more than just a road. Architects and artisans had a say in much of the look and design of the road, meaning that simple things like guardrails are true works of art, and every curve in the road is maximized to result in great views.
Access to the road varies – it is not uncommon go to 15 miles or more between entrances, although in many places towns have built up around the parkway and in some cases highways run close to it. The parkway, however, is part of the National Park System, and a buffer on either side of the road ensures native forest remains – even if suburbia is just a stone’s throw away.
Most of the parkway’s historic and cultural sites, and its grandest views, are in the North Carolina section. Drivers are greeted with astounding views and traipses through magnificent forest. Along the way are pullouts, side roads, trails, museums, and even occasional stores where drivers can stock up for the road ahead or pick up a memento to cart home.
Flowering shrubs and wildflowers line the road during the spring and early summer. Look for the white blooms of dogwoods and the pink flowers of rhododendrons, as well as daisies and asters. During the height of summer, the forest evolves into a verdant tapestry of dozens of shades of green. The fall brings extravagant colorful foliage, with the changes starting up high on the mountaintops and gradually working into the lower elevations. Come winter, much of the parkway is closed due to snow and ice, though those who do experience the parkway during this time of year are treated to long-distance views across the countryside and epic amounts of solitude.
Although the asphalt is smooth, and grades are gentle, speed limits on the parkway are lower than on most roads – the maximum speed is 45 miles per hour, meaning this is a great time to sit back and enjoy the drive. The lower speed limits also mean others using the road – bikers – can enjoy a safer environment.
The entire parkway can be driven in as little as two days, though you’ll want to take much longer to enjoy the scenery and stop to take hikes and photos. Don’t have tons of time and wondering which are the best segments to visit? Here are some highlights:
There are plenty of attractions just off the parkway, too. Picturesque Waynesville has a vibrant Main Street and tons of galleries, unique stores, breweries, and chef-driven restaurants. Sliding Rock is a great place to spend a hot day cooling off, while the North Carolina Arboretum has inspiring gardens. Asheville is famous for its arts scene and breweries, and don’t miss the spectacular Biltmore Estate. Further north, you can divert from the parkway to make the easy climb of Mount Mitchell – the highest point east of the Mississippi River – and the Museum of North Carolina Minerals near Spruce Pine draws in fans of emeralds, rubies, and other gem stones. Closer to Blowing Rock, the parkway slices through Julian Price Memorial Park and Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, both of which have camping, boating, and picnicking. Yet other attractions include the Blue Ridge Music Center near Galax, Stone Mountain State Park near Sparta, and the Northwest Trading Post near Glendale Springs.
No matter the season, your mode of transportation (in addition to biking it, some people have walked the entire parkway), or your passion, the Blue Ridge Parkway lives up to its reputation as America’s favorite scenic drive.