Blue Ridge Parkway serves up the best of the mountains
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a National Parkway and All-American Road that winds for 469 miles from the southern end of Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive in Virginia to U.S. 441 at Oconaluftee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee.
It’s hard to get lost on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It only goes in two directions — north or south. Short, wooden posts along the edge of the road mark off each mile — the entire 469-mile length of the Parkway — making it easy to know exactly where you are. The milemarker is listed for the recommended stops on the Parkway below, and should be easy to find by watching the mileposts. Hint: the numbers get bigger as you go south, so the end of the Parkway in Cherokee is mile 469.
The Parkway boasts more than 200 overlooks and more than 100 trails. The local section of the Parkway runs from the southern end in Oconaluftee to the Pisgah Inn on the Haywood/Transylvania County line. Along this stretch of scenic road you’ll find highlights such as the Parkway’s highest elevation overlook at Richland Balsam (6,053 feet), views of Cold Mountain made famous by author Charles Frazier, Waterrock Knob and Oconaluftee Visitors Centers, and Devil’s Courthouse Trail.
The Parkway is made for exploring. Here are few suggested highlights in our region, but feel free to ignore them. It’s all about the journey, not the destination.
Waterrock Knob Visitors Center, milemarker 451
A must for Parkway travelers. Stop here to get recommendations from park rangers on things to do and see, plus pick up a free Parkway map and browse the bookstore. Views are fabulous if you are looking for a picnic spot. Also, there is a one-mile hike to the summit of Waterrock Knob. Interesting fact: the visitor center is powered by solar panels.
Richland Balsam, milemarker 432
The views are great all along the Parkway, but there’s even a milestone achievement available for those don’t want to hike but prefer just getting out of their car to take a picture, enjoy the view, or have a picnic. Just about halfway between the Balsam Gap (U.S. 23-74) and N.C. 215 entrance to the Parkway, near milepost 432, is the Parkway’s highest point (6,053 feet), which is marked with a large sign and a great overlook. Just a mile away at milepost 431 is the Richland-Balsam Self-Guiding Trail, which is just 1-mile long and meanders through a spruce-fir forest. You’ll top out at an elevation of 6,410 feet, the 10th highest peak in the Eastern U.S.
Devil’s Courthouse, milemarker 422
This 1-mile round-trip trail leads to the top of stunning rock formation, a giant pedestal that seems to rise up magically from the mountains around it and makes you feel like you’re on top of the world looking out. Despite the sheer drop off all around you, rock walls provide a sense of safety — just don’t hop over them or let kids climb on the edge. Ecologically, visitors should stay off the cliff face, which is home to peregrine falcons and endangered rock-clinging lichens and plant life. The trail is steep but paved, making it accessible to anyone if you take it slow and steady.
Sam’s Knob, milemarker 420
Stellar hiking trails lead into the Shining Rock Wilderness, passing over grassy balds, rock outcrops, high elevation streams and fir forests. The area is riddled with trails, some of which extend for miles into the Shining Rock Wilderness, so if you don’t have a map, watch the way you came carefully.
To reach the parking area, turn down a gravel forest service road.
Upper Falls at Graveyard Fields, milemarker 419
A high-elevation bowl home to two waterfalls, a swimming hole and crystal clear rocky stream. Unlike the dense forests that engulf most hiking trails in the Smokies, this area is defined by open meadows.
Mt. Pisgah (5,749 feet)
Located near milepost 408, this mountain with the Biblical name used to be part of the George Vanderbilt Estate (who created the Biltmore Estate). A parking area is well marked, and the hike is only about a mile but it is relatively strenuous to the platform atop the mountain. Once there, however, the 360-degree views are fabulous. Nearby campground and one of the only restaurants on the Parkway at the Pisgah Inn.