5. Blue Ridge Parkway
Known as ‘America’s Favorite Drive,” The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the most beautiful scenic byways in the United States. Spanning 469 miles and 29 counties through the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia, the route snakes through national forests, small mountain communities and some of the oldest land in North America.

Blue Ridge Parkway through Droughton Park (Photo: M. Paulson via Flickr)
The Blue Ridge Parkway was built to connect Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Its southern border is the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina, traveling north to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, where it connects to Skyline Drive (another majestic scenic byway). Land on either side of the parkway is owned and maintained by the National Park Service— and much of that land is bordered by United States Forest Service property—making for spectacular, unspoiled views as far as the eye can see. The parkway has more than 300 miles of adjacent trails, camping and plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities.

During spring and summer, the peaks and valleys along the route are alive with wildflower gardens and lush greenery. But for many visitors, the most awe-inspiring time to visit is in the fall—usually in early October—when the hillsides are on fire with brilliant shades of red, orange, yellow and brown. Some sections are impassable (and therefore closed) in winter. Here are some of the highlights of the North Carolina section.


Cherokee, NC (Photo: D. Focht via Flickr)
The southern terminus of the parkway ends (or begins) in Cherokee. This Native American community nestled in the mountains of western North Carolina near Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a outdoor adventurer’s haven. Fishing, camping and hiking are popular activities, and the town itself has a Cherokee history museum, an Indian Village, an outdoor drama, and a plethora of shops where visitors can buy everything from affordable souvenirs to fine art.

Traveling north, the much-lauded town of Asheville if not technically on the parkway, though it is definitely one of North Carolina’s most popular tourist towns and worth a detour. It is home to the Biltmore Estate, the largest private residence (also a winery) in the country. Along the section of the parkway that skirts Asheville is the Southern Highland Folk Art Center (exit 382), a must-see for art lovers. It showcases the best of traditional and contemporary Southern Appalachia artists, has three galleries, live demonstrations and one-of-a-kind wares available for purchase. Linville is another popular stop along the route. With its nearby three-tiered waterfall of the same moniker, it is the quintessential mountain oasis. Nearby Grandfather Mountain attracts its share of visitors as well. The area hosts the annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, an ode to the Scottish who settled the area, and a famous “Mile High Swinging Bridge,” which visitors can walk across if they dare. The impressive Linn Cove Viaduct—a feat of modern engineering—skirts the mountain.

Blue Ridge Parkway Cabin Rentals has two lovely cabins in the area. The two identical cabins are side-by-side in the heart of Pisgah National Forest, and feature cozy fireplaces, knotty pine interiors, cathedral ceilings, hot tubs, fire pits and gorgeous view of Humpback Mountain. The cabins are far enough apart for you to experience a private mountain vacation, but close enough for large gatherings of up to 12 people. Each cabin sleeps six people comfortably.

Little Switzerland

Photo Switzerland Cafe
This charming town of Little Switzerland is a seasonal colony high in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The elevations here, ranging from 3200 feet in the village to 4000 feet at the top of Grassy Mountain, offer incredible views of Mt. Mitchell to the west, Table Rock, Hawksbill and Grandfather Mountain to the east, and the valleys of the South Toe, Turkey Cove and the bustling Catawba Valley.

Little Switzerland was named because of its sweeping panoramas of deep valleys and distant ranges resembling those of the foothills of the Swiss Alps. It has a few shops, a gallery, and a handful of hotels and restaurants. If you’re looking for a place to relax, plan a picnic, hike or just rest, Little Switzerland is the perfect pit stop. The Switzerland Cafe is the best lunch spot in town, with plenty of Southern items and flavors on the menu. Don’t miss the barbecue, applewood smoked trout, pimiento cheese and bacon panini, and the smoked salmon BLT. (The on-site smoker smells heavenly.)

The peaceful, scenic town of Valle Crucis is a relatively untouched treasure of a community along the parkway. Three streams converge in the shape of an archbishop’s cross here, giving the town its name, which means “valley of the cross” in Latin. The perfect way to experience this rural country is on horseback. Dutch Creek Trails offers rides on their family-owned, 132-acre farm that offers views of Hanging Rock, Grandfather Mountain, and lush mountain peaks and valleys. After your ride, check out Mast General Store, the oldest continuously operating general store in the United States—worth checking out for quality outdoor gear, supplies and snacks.

Past Valle Crucis heading north are Wilkesboro, Boone, or Blowing Rock—all quaint, artsy towns along the parkway that have plenty of summer and fall festivals and celebrations. Blue Ridge For Rent can help you find the perfect cabin to rest up before you continue your journey to Virginia. They have more than 100 vacation cabins to choose from, many close to the state’s handful of ski areas and in close proximity to world-class hiking along the parkway.

by Davina van Buren
Route Details
Cherokee, NC
Rockfish Gap, VA
469 miles
2-3 days
Recommended Stopovers
  • 1. Cherokee
  • 2. Asheville
  • 3. Little Switzerland
  • 4. Valle Crucis
  • 5. Wilkesboro
  • 6. Boone
  • 7. Blowing Rock