When you’re visiting the Great Smoky Mountains – whether for a weekend or a week, a great day trip is a ride through the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Parkway – celebrating its 85th birthday this year – connects Shenandoah National Park, near Waynesboro, VA (Milepost 0) with Great Smoky Mountains National Park, near Cherokee, NC (Milepost 469). From scenic stops to hikes and small-town visits, there is much to see.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is designed for slow-paced travel, 45 mph or less–a travel experience free from the commercial traffic and congestion of high-speed highways. Plan your visit to “America’s Favorite Drive”.
There are entrances and exits at all major federal and state highways. Asheville and Boone, NC, and Roanoke, VA, are the largest cities along the way. In Virginia, Interstates 64, 81, and 77 all have directions for accessing the Parkway. The same is true for Interstates 40 and 26 in North Carolina. You can view maps or pick one up at visitor centers along the Parkway.
Besides the pretty drive, where should you go?
Looking Glass Rock (overlook at milepost 417)
Hike the trail here and/or stop at the scenic overlooks to check out the view and then make a stop at Pisgah Inn Restaurant (84 miles from Gatlinburg). You’ll need a reservation for the dining room. The restaurant, which offers lunch and dinner, is always busy, with a possible hour wait at the peak of the fall season. Pisgah Inn offers fine dining and its chefs prepare daily specials that will tempt your taste buds. Lunch is open to the general public, while guests of the Inn are welcome at dinnertime. Windows surround the main dining room and overlook a panoramic view.
The challenging hike (6.4 miles round trip) takes you to the top of a Pisgah National Forest icon: the huge granitic pluton known as Looking Glass Rock. Visible from many locations along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the summit of the rock makes for a spectacular vista of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
To get to the trailhead, you’ll take Highway 276. Approximately halfway between the Blue Ridge Parkway and Brevard, you’ll see signs for the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education (on your right coming from the Parkway; on your left coming from Brevard) and the State Fish Hatchery. Go 4/10 of a mile and look for the parking area on the right for Looking Glass Rock Trail Head.
Also in the Pisgah region, drive from Mount Mitchell (Milepost 355.3) to Craggy Gardens (Milepost 364.3) and Devil’s Courthouse (Milepost 422.2), “you’ll see sites and facilities that highlight the story of biological diversity as a product of the area’s varied geology and topography.”
In the Asheville corridor, the Folk Art Center (Milepost 382) and Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center (Milepost 384) emphasize the craft heritage and the natural, cultural, and recreational resources of the Blue Ridge region.
You could also spend the entire day at the Biltmore Estate, just 84 miles southeast of Gatlinburg. America’s largest private home is well worth a day trip to visit during your stay. Or consider a stopover to the French-style chateau when driving to or from the Smokies.
Biltmore Estate was George and Edith Vanderbilt’s 8,000-acre country showplace. The estate includes the 250-room Biltmore House, 75 acres of famously landscaped gardens and an award-winning winery. Biltmore House itself is 175,000 square feet – that is the square footage of four football fields. Consider that when you are watching your favorite team on Sunday. See our blog post for more on the Biltmore.
Waynesville, NC (62 miles from Gatlinburg)
“From waterfall hiking and cycling to fishing and more, Waynesville is a true outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. Two of the most popular attractions in Waynesville are Cataloochee Valley and the Blue Ridge Parkway, which offers breathtaking views of the Great Smoky Mountains.
At the heart of Appalachian culture, Waynesville also hosts a wide range of events and festivals celebrating its unique heritage. Popular events include the Church Street Art & Craft Show, Apple Harvest Festival, Mountain Street Dances and A Night Before Christmas.”
BALSAM GAP TO MT. PISGAH is a 35-mile scenic drive that starts just west of Waynesville at the Balsam Gap entrance (milepost 443.1). There are several beautiful overlooks this section including the Richland Balsam Overlook (milepost 431.4) – the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway (6,047 ft.).
Another stop for a hike is Devil’s Courthouse, which is a strenuous half-mile hike to the “Courthouse” but worth the 360-view. (milepost 422.4).
Graveyard Fields Overlook has a very popular loop trail of moderate difficulty, 2.3 miles to Yellowstone Falls.
CHEROKEE TO BALSAM GAP is another beautiful drive. The route is 26 miles from Cherokee to the Balsam Gap exit at milepost 443, just west of Waynesville, on US 74. (return to Bryson City on US 74).
Along the way, you’ll pass the Big Witch Overlook with a view of Cherokee Valley; and Waterrock Knob (milepost 451) where there is a visitor information center, comfort station and a spectacular view. Take the half-mile trail to the summit for an even better view. “The nearly-360-degree vantage point is uniquely suited for viewing – and photographing – sunrises and sunsets.”
For more drives – consider 441 thru the Park then starting the Blue Ridge Parkway in Cherokee at the southern end the Parkway.
Option 2 is to remain on the Parkway until Asheville then take I40 West to the Foothills Parkway per above.
Crabtree Falls is a scenic waterfall, located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s a 60-foot plunge down a wide and even rock face. At Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 339.5, turn into Crabtree Meadows Recreation Area. The waterfall is accessible year-round. If the campground is closed, the hike to the falls is another 0.3 miles on a moderate trail.
Only over an hour away from Gatlinburg, Cherokee offers rich history an opportunity to learn about the Cherokee Nation’s presence in West North Carolina. Visit the Oconaluftee Indian Village, a replica of the 18th century eastern Cherokee village that once existed there. Managed by the Cherokee Historical Association, this is a living village and visitors are welcome. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian hosts permanent and traveling exhibits on Cherokee history and culture.
Nearby, Mingo Falls provides lovely views 40 minutes away from Gatlinburg with a stunning 120-foot waterfall on the Cherokee Indian Reservation.
All About the Blue Ridge Parkway
The history of the Blue Ridge Parkway is rich. On Sept. 11, 1935, construction began at Cumberland Knob, on the border between Virginia and North Carolina, which became the first recreation area in the new national park unit. The monumental task of building the Parkway started as a New Deal-era project under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Fifty-two years later, in 1987, travelers were finally able to drive the entire route with the opening of the final section, the Linn Cove Viaduct. That’s right – 52 years!
The original budget for the road was $16 million. Stanley Abbott, a New York landscape architect, was hired to oversee the project that would connect a chain of parks.
According to the National Parks Service, most of the construction was done by private contractors with a variety of New Deal public works programs also employed, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Emergency Relief Administration (ERA), and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
Today, 26 tunnels carry the parkway through mountain spurs and ridges.
There are 168 bridges and grade separation structures that allow the parkway to cross streams or pass safely over or under other roads. Many of these have a rustic stone appearance that blends well with the mountain landscape; others are sleek modern steel and reinforced concrete structures. “Bureau of Public Roads engineers and National Park Service landscape architects collaborated on the design of the parkway bridges. Many of the grade separation structures appear to be old-style stone arch bridges but are actually reinforced concrete structures. They were constructed by erecting stone arch rings, abutments and spandrel walls, then pouring concrete on a network of steel reinforcing rods. The stonework is not merely decorative but serves as the form for the concrete frame. All but one of the overpasses, or grade separation structures carrying roadways over the parkway, are stone-faced arch structures.”
When planning your trip, download the Blueridge Parkway Travel Planner on your phone. Download links are available at The Blue Ridge Parkway Association website.
Ready to book your cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains?
After a fun day exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway, wind down in your amazing cabin rental. Whether you want to stay near Gatlinburg and the fun at the bottom of the mountain or in Pigeon Forge near all the attraction action, American Patriot Getaways has the perfect cabin for relaxing. All of our cabins have a fully equipped kitchen, and some even have grills.
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