On our way to and from Canada, we abandoned I-81 to drive much of the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the adjoining Skyline Drive. It added several days to an already long trip, but it was worth it. These two drives are destinations themselves.
Two scenic drives span over 500 miles of the Appalachian Mountains. The Blue Ridge Parkway (shown in black on the map) runs 469 miles from the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. It connects to the 109 mile long Skyline Drive which runs along ridge lines in Shenandoah National Park. We drove about 2/3 of the length of the Blue Ridge on our way up to Canada from Georgia. We got on in Asheville, NC, and got off south of Roanoke. On the way back, we drove most of Skyline Drive, and also drove the southernmost 50 miles of the Blue Ridge. When we weren’t on the scenic drives we were barreling along I-81 with the rest of the cars and trucks.
We have driven north many, many times through the years to visit B.’s family in New York. We were always limited on time, and often drove straight through on the interstates. We had three weeks to do our Quebec trip, and we thought we had enough time to leisurely make our way up there. We drastically underestimated the time it would take us to get there on these scenic roads. We knew that we would be going an average of 35-40 mph, but we weren’t aware of all the interesting stops we would want to make along the way.
Both of the drives would make wonderful destinations on their own. If your time is limited and you only have time to travel parts on one, which one should you choose?
Blue Ridge Parkway
Of course, the Blue Ridge Parkway is the longest (469 miles). It starts near the boundary of the Great Smokey National Park in North Carolina, but it runs through National Forest Land. It contains nine campgrounds that are administered by the Forest Service. National Forest campgrounds are more basic that Park Service campgrounds and are also cheaper and less crowded. The normal cost for a tent site is $16 (we paid $8 with our senior pass.)
Before the area was made into a National Forest, many people owned farms and businesses here. Several of these have been restored and are free to visit. They make great rest stops.
After we toured Mabry Mill, it started raining so we took a break in the attached restaurant, which served hearty diner food. Since the Parkway runs along the ridges, many trails are short but have great views.
During our third day of driving, we realized we were spending way to long on the Parkway, but when you come upon something as cute as the Brinegar Farm, how can you not stop and check it out?
If you are driving the Blue Ridge Parkway for your vacation, I would set aside 5-7 days to see everything and enjoy the drive at a leisurely pace. Plenty of camping spaces were available even at the height of summer (last part of July). There was a “heat bubble” covering almost the whole country, but we slept cool at an altitude of 3000 feet in the campgrounds. There are not many services along the actual Parkway, but small local roads will take you down off the mountain so you can buy gas, eat in small cafes, or stay in motels and lodges. It is easy to do sections of the Parkway. When you’ve had enough or run out of time, drop down and get on the Interstate.
There were plenty of people driving the Parkway but it never felt crowded. Campgrounds were less than half full. Many campers were people our age that were pulling small camping rigs with their motorcycles.
Pros of the Blue Ridge Parkway–high elevation, many interesting stops, uncrowded feel, varied scenery, many services close by
Cons of the Blue Ridge Parkway–so big you need many days to do it justice. That’s all!
We drove part of Skyline Drive on our way back from Quebec. We got off of I-81 to access the drive from its northern terminus near Front Royal. The access point in only 72 miles from Washington DC, and as you might expect this drive had many more visitors per mile that the Blue Ridge Parkway. In general the elevation is lower than the Blue Ridge, and the views from the many lookouts are more majestic than dramatic. There are more pull-outs for viewing, but many of the viewpoints have similar views.
The highest point in the park is on Hawksbill Mountain at 4050 feet. You can reach this “summit” from 30-minute trail that leaves from a scenic overlook. The summit had the strangest forest of stunted balsam firs that looked like a scene from Middle Earth.
There are only three campgrounds in the Park, and we chose to stay in the largest at Big Meadows. Camping was $22 for a tent site (we paid the senior rate of $11 with our park passes), and the campground was absolutely full. I must say that if I can hear people snoring in other tents, then it is too crowded! I also should point out that since you are in a National Park, you pay an entrance fee. It was $10 per person, but that is good for one week (we had free entrance with our park passes.)
The Skyline is perfect for people who want to see views without getting out of their cars. The most spectacular scenery can be enjoyed from the many overlook pullouts along the road. There is not much else in the park however. We saw no historical buildings or farms.
The Skyline would make a good weekend destination. You can see a good bit of what it offers even if you only drive a small section, because while it is beautiful there is not much variety.
Pros of Skyline Drive–short, great views from your car, many scenic pullouts.
Cons of Skyline Drive–relatively crowded, lower elevation, beautiful but not much variety, entrance fee to enter a National Park.
We feel like we have “done” Skyline Drive, but I’m sure we’ll return to drive more of the Blue Ridge Parkway.