Picture the Blue Ridge Parkway as a crooked spine running through the Appalachian Mountains. Government stewardship of public lands is splashed across the map in confusing variety – a national park at either end, national forests, historic sites, monuments and state parks along its 469 miles.
The road snakes through some of the most glorious fall color in North America and wraps around some of the highest mountains east of the Mississippi River. All those curves and dips offer up opportunities aplenty for hiking, fishing, picnicking, camping and viewing waterfalls.
Though administered by the National Park Service, the parkway is not really a park. Many of its attractions are technically off the parkway in small communities within an easy drive. The attractions are diverse and many and range from mountaintops to museums, mills to mansions.
Here are my recommendations for attractions to see on or near the BRP.
Learn about Native American culture: Cherokee, 2 miles from the southern end of the BRP, is the home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation ( www.visitcherokeenc.com). The Museum of the Cherokee Indian tells the story of the Cherokee people and has an extensive collection of artifacts. Open daily year-round. Details: www.cherokeemuseum.org. The tribe also operates Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort. Details: www.harrahscherokee.com.
Ride a train: The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad boards passengers in Bryson City, 13 miles from the southern entrance to the BRP. Excursions, usually three to four hours, run along the Nantahala or Tuckasegee rivers. It’s a particularly fun way to see fall color, and there’s a railroad museum at the depot with model layouts. Details: www.gsmr.com.
Tour a palace: George W. Vanderbilt’s Biltmore House is the largest privately owned mansion in America. It’s also 3 miles from the BRP exit at Milepost 388.8. Tour the palatial house as well as much of the 8,000-acre estate, which includes wine-tasting, botanical gardens, even a horseback ride in the backwoods of the estate. During Christmas season, the estate is elaborately decorated. Details: www.biltmore.com.
Climb the highest mountain: Just off the BRP at Milepost 355.4 is Mount Mitchell State Park, named for the 6,684-foot peak that is the highest point east of the Mississippi. You can drive almost to the top, then walk a short trail to a deck on the summit where on a clear day, the view is said to extend for 85 miles. At the top is an interpretive center and hiking trails. Details: www.ncparks.gov.
Visit history – and a lake: When Moses and Bertha Cone built their country estate in Blowing Rock, they pulled out all the stops. Along with their 13,000-square-foot grand Colonial Revival-style mansion, they put in 25 miles of trails, ponds stocked with trout and bass, an apple orchard, white pine forest, carriage house and apple barn. Today the mansion – one of the few manmade attractions on the parkway – has handmade crafts by members of the Southern Highland Craft Guild for sale, and craft demonstrations by local artists. You can still walk the trails or take a horseback ride through Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, which is at Milepost 294.
Adjacent to this park? Julian Price Memorial Park. It holds 7-acre Price Lake, which is surrounded by a loop trail. Details: www.blueridgeheritage.com.
Listen to the music: The Blue Ridge Music Center at Milepost 213 near Galax, Va., has live traditional music every day in season from noon to 4 p.m., and concerts most Saturdays. The “Roots of American Music” exhibit traces the region’s musical heritage to the African banjo and the European fiddle. The center is open daily through Oct. 27. Two hiking trails start here. Details: www.blueridgemusiccenter.org.
See history come alive: At Milepost 176.2, Mabry Mill – an historic water-powered mill – operated first as a sawmill and later as a community gristmill that ground corn into grits. Both have been restored. A trail around the mill connects historical exhibits about life in rural Virginia. There’s also a working blacksmith shop, picnic areas, a hiking trail and a restaurant. On some days there are demonstrations by historical interpreters. The Rocky Knob Recreation Area, with campsites and hiking trails, is nearby (Milepost 161.1). Details: www.visitblueridgeparkway.com/mabry_mill.php.
Do a little more wine tasting: Five wineries plus Blacksnake Meadery (where mead is made with fermented local honey) and Foggy Ridge Cider (sparkling cider, apple port) are west of Roanoke, Va. Most are open only on weekends, then close for the season or cut back their hours in November or December. The closest wineries to the BRP are near Mileposts 171.5 and 174. Details: www.mountainroadwineexperience.com.
Listen to more bluegrass: The Floyd Country Store offers traditional Appalachian music every weekend, year-round. It’s one of the most famed stops on the Crooked Road – Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail – offering music and dancing Friday nights, Americana music Saturday afternoons, an old-time dance or concert on many Saturday evenings, and a traditional mountain music jam every Sunday. The store, in Floyd, Va., is 6 miles off the parkway at Milepost 165.2. It has a cafe and ice cream counter and sells local crafts and music DVDs. Details: www.floydcountrystore.com. For other music venues along the Crooked Road: www.myswva.org/swva/see-and-do/music.
Explore Roanoke’s railroad roots: Before the Shenandoah Valley Railroad (forerunner of the Norfolk and Western Railway) came to the Roanoke Valley in the second half of 19th century, Roanoke – 10 minutes from BRP Milepost 115 – was a small community called Big Lick for its salt marshes, or licks. Rail-related commerce boosted it to a city. The Virginia Museum of Transportation’s collection includes more than 50 rail cars and one of the largest collection of diesel locomotives in the South, as well as displays on other transportation. Details: www.vmt.org.