Moseying through the southern Appalachians, this classic parkway, with a speed limit of 45 mph tops, forces you to slow down. 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.
DAYS 1 AND 2: CHARLOTTE TO GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
Fly or drive into Charlotte to kick off your Blue Ridge Parkway tour. Drive three hours to Bryson City, a walkable, outdoorsy town on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park that 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. The Bistro at the Everett Hotel is hands down the nicest place to eat in town. Stay at the McKinley Edwards Inn, an upscale retreat in a landmark building, or the Folkestone Inn, originally a 1920s mountain farmhouse.
On Day 2, 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.
DAYS 3 AND 4: ASHEVILLE, NC
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. Drive three hours to Asheville. Poke into art galleries, Appalachian craft shops, indie coffee shops, bookstores, and breweries (there are over 60 of them) in this funky, laid-back, 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.
Spend your second day tubing down the French Broad River. You’ll lazily drift past the muraled warehouses of Asheville’s River Arts District, and pull off at outdoor bars along the last stretch. Smoky Park Supper Club offers wood-fired pork chops, trout, New York strip, and more along the river. Stay at JuneBug Retro Resort.
DAY 5: BLOWING ROCK, NC
In the morning, hit the parkway for three hours, taking in the scenery on the way to Blowing Rock. Stretch your legs along the way at the 1.75-mile (round-trip) Linville Falls Plunge Basin Trail at milepost 316, starting at the Linville Falls Visitor Center, a gorgeous waterfall trek along Linville Gorge.
Or poke into the cute mountain town of Banner Elk, a historic alpine burg near Grandfather Mountain, about 15 minutes off the parkway via NC 105 and NC 184. Wine-taste at Banner Elk Winery or simply browse shops and galleries in the sweet downtown.
When you arrive at Blowing Rock, explore the nature-loving town’s 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. Spend the night at Green Park Inn.
DAY 6: ROANOKE, VA
Four hours away is the largest city along the parkway. It 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, ziplines, hiking and biking trails, and more. Stay at the luxe Hotel Roanoke, dating from 1882.
DAY 7: STAUNTON AND SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK
In the morning, make the 3½-hour drive to Shenandoah National Park. In Staunton, a 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. In this foodie town, try the hard-to-score-a-seat Shack or Southern-inspired Zynodoa.
DAY 8: CHARLOTTE
Take your final drive (this one is four hours) among endless blue hills of the parkway on your way back to Charlotte to end the tour. On the way back, if you have time, stop at Natural Bridge, a rock arch carved by Cedar Creek, located at Exit 180 off Interstate 81.