Ask around for favorite places to stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway and you’ll be met with at least 469 answers – one for every mile of this scenic route. Mount Mitchell, Grandfather Mountain and Devil’s Courthouse are top stops, but too many motorists drive by the best spots without a second look. Here are 10 places you can’t miss on your next Blue Ridge Parkway road trip.
1. Balsam Mountain, Milepost 458
A 14-mile backcountry gravel road circles Balsam Mountain and takes you into a seldom-seen corner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park before returning to Cherokee. It’s a one-way drive of about 90 minutes and it’s a riot of wildflower blooms and fall color in their respective seasons.
2. Waterrock Knob, Milepost 451
For sunset views, Waterrock Knob is a must. The view is good from the parking lot, but even better after a short hike. A steep trail (1.2 miles, roundtrip) carries you through blackberry, blueberry and huckleberry brambles to the top where the silhouettes of Clingmans Dome, Mount LeConte and Mount Guyot cut a fine figure in the sunset.
3. Skinny Dip Falls, Milepost 417
Fittingly, you’ll find the Skinny Dip Falls trailhead across the Parkway from the Looking Glass Rock Overlook. A short hike (less than a mile, roundtrip) takes you to the triple-tiered falls where, if you’re there at the right time, you can strip, dip and drip dry before anyone finds you, making sure the waterfall keeps its name.
4. Little Switzerland, Milepost 331
The mountains here are rich with precious and semi-precious minerals like emeralds, mica, aquamarine and garnet, something celebrated at the Museum of North Carolina Minerals (at www.nps.gov/blri, type “Minerals” in the search window) and at Emerald Village. In Emerald Village, explore a mine and pan for gold or gems (www.emeraldvillage.com; admission charged).
5. Linville Falls, Milepost 316
Most visitors admire the falls from the two closest overlooks but for a great look at Linville Falls, hike to Erwin’s View. The trail is easy, but give yourself a little over an hour to hike in, catch your breath, have it stolen by that picture-postcard view and hike back out.
6. Beacon Heights, Milepost 305
A rocky trail only a tenth of a mile long leads to the stony bluff of Beacon Heights. Panoramic views to the south and east draw photographers around the golden hours, but you’ll find a great shot in the parking lot where you can capture the parkway curving around the flank of Grandfather Mountain.
7. The Orchard at Altapass, Milepost 328
Some 120,000 bushels of apples come from the orchards here and in late summer it’s a great “you-pick-‘em” spot. From May to October, it offers events and classes on Appalachian culture, folkways and even cooking (www.altapassorchard.org).
8. Blue Ridge Music Center, Milepost 213
Just over the Virginia line is a museum (www.blueridgemusiccenter.org) dedicated to bluegrass and old-time music genres, which were born in the hills around here. Displays of antique instruments and stories of the birth of this American genre are punctuated by free concerts held at noon. The facility opens for the 2016 season May 7. Most Saturday nights, Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, the outdoor amphitheater (capacity 2,500) holds bluegrass/old-time concerts, with amphitheater admission ordinarily just $10-$20.
9. Chateau Morrisette, Milepost 171
One of Virginia’s oldest wineries, Chateau Morrisette is a bit of a secret outside the region. But the wine’s good and the bistro and live music series (www.thedogs.com) make a stop even more worthwhile.
10. Floyd, Va., Milepost 165
Every Friday evening the Floyd Country Store (www.floydcountrystore.com) is transformed into a mini-concert hall as they clear a space for a dance floor and welcome in regional and national bluegrass and old-time bands. Inside, cloggers and flat footers take the floor, but outside the streets are filled with musicians, singers and dancers caught up in the vibe.
Nearby: Boone & Blowing Rock
In Boone, grab a pint at Appalachian Mountain Brewery (www.appalachianmountainbrewery.com) or Lost Province Brewing Company (www.lostprovince.com), where you’ll need to get a gourmet pizza while you’re at it. Free concerts on the lawn and porch of The Jones House in downtown Boone run every Friday in summer, and Thursday night jam sessions go on year-round (www.joneshouse.org). In 2016, “Horn in the West” (www.horninthewest.com), the seasonal outdoor drama set in N.C. wilderness during the Revolutionary War, turns 65.
In Blowing Rock, dinner and drinks at Bistro Roca (www.bistroroca.com) is a must, as is a shop and stroll of Main Street where galleries, boutiques and antique shops are the rule.